Even though Italy has one of the highest obesity rates in Europe, the Mediterranean diet is alive and well in the southern Italian region of Puglia. Here traditional foods include fresh seafood, eggless pasta, and plenty of hearty, often foraged vegetables, such as chicory and wild artichokes.
For the first time in all my trip, the air had the hard edge of fall. My girlfriend and I met up with a couple ex-Brits—friends who now call Puglia home—and went to the town of Ceglie Messapica to check out a food festival dedicated to wine and chestnuts. The whitewashed town was eerily quiet and dark, and I was surprised by how difficult it was to find the festival. Then the soft breeze of an accordion whirled through the alleyways, calling us to a small piazza full of people celebrating traditional seasonal foods.
For me, Puglia and these small festivals, known as sagra, are inseparable. Historically impoverished, Puglia developed luxuries in edible form, and it’s amazing how sweet a chestnut or bell pepper can taste when grown in Puglia’s soil. Ceglie Messapica is one of Puglia’s leading gastronomic cities thanks to Al Fornello da Ricci, the only restaurant in Puglia to receive a Michelin star. However, it is very difficult to get a bad meal in Puglia, and good traditional restaurants abound.
I had my first Pugliese meal at Nonna Tetti restaurant in the city of Lecce. Lecce is one of Puglia’s most beautiful cities thanks to imaginative, Baroque architecture and a handful of impressive Roman ruins. It is also a great place to eat, and Nonna Tetti provided us with excellent traditional fare for nearly dirt-cheap prices. We began with an antipasto della casa. One of Puglia’s specialities, antipasto are usually comprised of five or six small plates. We were served broccoli rabe sautéed in olive oil, cauliflower casserole, eggplant stewed in tomato sauce, beans cooked in a pancetta broth, and a barley salad—the hearty, flavorful food of Puglia. We followed the antipasto with orecchiette pasta with tomato sauce and cavatelli pasta with seafood broth and mussels.
The table wine was rich, dark, and juicy. Puglia’s table wine is excellent because the region gets so much sun each year, resulting in huge grape yields, which produces large amounts of fresh bulk wine are produced. A liter carafe of house wine can cost as little as five euros. Puglia predominantly creates red wines with the negroamaro, primitivo, nero di troia, and aglianico grapes.
After Lecce, I wanted to hit the Adriatic coast, so we visited the town of Polignano a Mare, where the houses are built right into the walls of the cliffs. Arriving around lunch, we found a café that advertised a glass of novello, or new, wine with a panzerotti for 3.50 euros. A panzerotti is one of Puglia’s best street foods. Fresh dough is wrapped around mozzarella cheese with a little sauce then deep-fried. Sometimes called calzone fritte, or deep fried calzones, panzerotti are a must when visiting Puglia.
On the third day in Puglia, I visited Valle Dell’Asso winery, which is located just south of Lecce. Puglia is a great place for wine tasting because most of the tastings are free and the wines, at least in my mind, are very amicable, with juicy, dark fruit flavors and a silky mouthfeel. If you’re a DIY wine taster, check out my article on how to plan a wine tasting trip in Puglia.
Valle Dell’Asso winery specializes in negroamaro and primitivo wines, but I really love their Galatina Bianco, made of 100% chardonnay. Winemaker Elio Minoia explained that good wine begins with good grapes, and he uses biodynamic practices to keep his grapevines healthy. The result is vibrant wines made with perfectly mature fruit, and I got a lot of tropical fruit scents and flavors from the 2010 Galatina Bianco.
As the end of my trip approached, the many dishes and bottles of wine that I’d had seemed to haunt me. I wasn’t dying, but all of my meals flashed before my eyes. Each was unique and unrepeatable, and none of these dishes would taste the same recreated abroad. It’s like Dolores Racic said, all the way back in Dubrovnik. “It’s better to drink our wine here in Croatia, that way you can have all of the components that made the wine what it is—the sun, the wind, the sea—around you.” I thought this trip might take the edge off, but seems to have just whetted my appetite.
Lecce Restaurant Recommendation
Nonna Tetti – $$
This restaurant always surprises me with new antipasti, and the pastas are as authentic as they come. The prices are very reasonable: a five-plate antipasto costs 10€ and most pastas are 6-8 €. The atmosphere matches the food, and the ceilings are the typical vaulted ceilings made of Leccese stone that one would find in local homes.
Piazzetta Regina Maria, 17
Wine Tasting Recommendation near Lecce
This winery makes budget friendly white, rosé, red, and dessert wines, many of which are surprisingly elegant for the price. My favorites included the Galatina Bianco, Galatina Rosato, “Terra S. Giovanni” Primitivo, and the “Piromafo” Negroamaro. Tasting Fee: Complimentary; 5€ with traditional snacks
Via Guidano, 18, Galatina
Written by Mattie Bamman for EuropeUpClose.com
Editor’s Note: This concludes the ‘Eating the Adriatic’ series of thirteen articles written by the intrepid Mattie Bamman. If you, our readers, have not had the opportunity to read all of Mattie’s articles, we invite you to do a website search for “Eating the Adriatic”.