Famous for its authenticity, cozy and rustic atmosphere, and homey service, the Cucina Casareccia restaurant, located in Lecce, Italy, is the beating heart of Pugliese cuisine. A taste of Puglia’s cuisine can be likened to a taste of the region’s hearty past.
Puglia, one of the poorest regions in the European Union, has had its cuisine shaped by poverty (cucina povera means cooking for the poor), and the result has contributed to the creation of dishes that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, not even in Italy. Most are vegetable focused, providing a hay-day for vegetarians, though meatballs, fresh seafood, and horse-meat are also common.
Casareccia has been noted by gourmets around the world, notably Frank Bruni of the New York Times, and the restaurant proudly hangs a photo of Francis Ford Coppola dining at the restaurant. This is no ordinary restaurant. Only recently has it added a sign to its front door. Before, its fame traveled only by word of mouth. And to this day, you must call the restaurant in advance to secure a table. When you arrive, you must ring the front doorbell to gain admittance into the friendly and warm dining room. There are no written menus, and the waiters and waitresses, who are often your cooks as well, recite the day’s dishes at the your table.
Before I dined at Casareccia, I was worried that it was both too expensive and too austere. My fears, however, were unwarranted. The restaurant is just like home. The kitchen that the cooks work out of is located in the kitchen of the old house in which the restaurant is now located, and the dining rooms were clearly once a living room and a foyer. The staff are much more like family or hosts. They are professional while remaining down to earth, and they are polite with non-Italian speakers, making sure they know what they are ordering. As for price, the price of a dinner for two with house wine is usually around $70.
After sitting down, we were asked in Italian if we would like wine and antipasti. We said yes to both and were soon given a liter of red wine followed by several plates of vegetarian appetizers, including: fried dough with olives, tomatoes, and capers; boiled potatoes and carrots drenched in olive oil with fresh arugula and herbs; eggplant baked in tomato sauce; and incredible yellow and red peppers cooked to a creamy texture. Each dish was stunningly unique and perfectly seasoned.
Next, our waitress offered us a list of seven Primi. While almost every dish stands out, my favorites are the Ciceri e Tria (a traditional Pugliese dish of noodles that are both boiled and fried and served with chick peas and broth), soup with sausage and grain, and Patate e Carciofi Al Forno, a mixture of potatoes and artichokes that are baked together.
For Secondo, our waitress asked if we ate horse meat (cavallo in Italian), and then listed five or six dishes of seafood and meats. Willing to try anything once, I decided, after three years of experience traveling through southern Italy, that I would try horse. The meat was submerged in tomato sauce and cooked in something like a clay-pot long enough to become very tender. While there was an element of taboo, I liked the dish. The flavor was good and the texture outstanding.
Dessert at the restaurant is certainly good, but I jumped to the house-made digestivi, or after-dinner drinks. Four options are offered—cinnamon, laurel, mixed herbs, and lemoncello cream—and they are served in antique bottles that make them look ancient. My favorite, hands down, is the laurel. When I asked our waitress how old it was, I think that she said that it was over 24 years old. Perhaps they blend years and she only said that it contained some percentage of 24-year-old spirit. Or perhaps it really was 24 years old! Either way, it is one of the strongest and most unique digestivi I’ve tasted.
After dinner, patrons who speak fluent Italian chat with the chefs about recipes, while those with no Italian gesture with delight and give compliments in the form of empty plates. When I left the restaurant, I felt as though I had just partaken in local tradition.
If you want to taste truly traditional Pugliese cuisine, I believe that there are few ways better than dining at Casareccia.
Via Colonnello Costadura, 19
Lecce, Apulia, 73100