Vegetables, seafood, and fish are Puglian food staples. I was a little worried going into this trip because I’m not a seafood eater and not really a fish eater either but everything was just fine. What I learned about the food in Puglia is that it is vegan and vegetarian friendly.
Pasta may be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Italy but Puglia is just not that into pasta. The most popular pasta dish in the region is Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa which is orecchiette pasta with broccoli rabe. For me, this dish was very light in flavor and if given a choice between orecchiette with broccoli rabe or with tomato sauce, I’d put on a bib and choose the latter.
Orecchiette is a durum wheat pasta and is oftentimes referred to as “little ears” because the shape of the pasta resembles and ear. In addition to normal orecchiette, there is also “burnt grain” (Italian: “grano arso”) orecchiette which is dark brown or black in color.
There are two popular stories of the origin of grano arso.
The first claims that farmers allowed peasants to harvest their burnt wheat after the farmers burnt the wheat to allow new crops to grow. The second claims that peasants recovered burnt flour from the area in front of ovens where loaves of bread had been baked.
Today, grano arso is made by roasting the wheat. Roasting the wheat changes the color, taste (nuttier), and composition (higher protein and lower gluten).
For a quick bite, Puccia (pronounced: “poo-cha”) is the go-to food. It’s a thin bread sandwich that you can stuff with whatever the hell you want.
Below is a not-so-great photo of a vegetable Puccia I ordered in Otranto. It was stuffed with grilled aubergine/eggplant, grilled courgette/zucchini, sundried tomatoes, and Caciocavallo cheese.
Another option for a quick bite is Panzerotto (plural: Panzerotti). This is a small calzone/empanada-like sandwich that is made with a dough similar to filo pastry and is deep-fried.
Similar to Puccia, it can be stuffed with whatever the hell you want and the one I ate was stuffed with braciola, parmesan cheese, and mild chili peppers. It was a deliciously unhealthy snack. The type of unhealthy snack where the grease from the meat and cheese bursts out of the “shell” and runs down your hand and forearm.
Let’s talk about cheese for a moment. The region’s cheese is Burrata. Burrata comes in a ball form, similar to fresh mozzarella but Burrata has a gooey center. The shell is mozzarella and the gooey center is comprised of strands of mozzarella – known as stracciatella – and cream.
Personally, I’m firmly planted in Camp Fresh Mozzarella because I do not like the curd-like stracciatella and cream center of Burrata but if we are talking about gelato, then I’m all in for stracciatella. Life is complicated sometimes.
Other popular regional cheeses are ricotta and Caciocavallo. Caciocavallo’s literal translation is “horse cheese” and it’s believed that its unusual name is based on the way the cheese is made and aged.
First, the cheese is formed into teardrop shapes. Next, one end of a short rope is tied around the top of one teardrop and the other end is tied around the top of another teardrop. Finally, the rope is slung over a piece of wood, allowing the cheese teardrops to hang whilst they age. Visually, it is similar to the legs of a human hanging over the sides of a horse, hence, horse cheese.
Caciocavallo looks and tastes similar to provolone cheese and I am big fan.
Now, let’s talk about snacks. The most popular regional snack is Tralli. Tralli are two-bite circular nibblers that have a taste and texture similar to a breadstick or pretzel. They come in different flavors and may or may not be “dressed” with a topping (i.e. salt, sesame seeds) and can be made of regular or burnt durum wheat.
Tralli are tasty and addicting. Watch out!
The last regional food I want to touch on is Fave e Cicoria. This Antipasti dish is pureed fava beans with chicory. Surprisingly, it took us several days before we found this dish on a menu.
In our experience, Fave e Cicoria was served with the fava beans in one bowl and the soupy chicory in another bowl (perhaps this way of serving is typical, I’m not sure). This allowed us to “dress” our fava beans with as much or as little chicory as we wanted.
The bean puree had the texture of smooth mashed potatoes which surprised me a little bit because I was expecting a texture more in line with hummus. I do not know how else to describe the taste other than it tasting like diet mashed potatoes. Adding chicory gave the puree a slightly bitter taste but didn’t alter the overall flavor by much. Peter and I both enjoyed this dish.
Italian meal structure
The Italian meal structure contains several courses but you should never feel obligated to order a dish for every course. In fact, ordering a dish for every course will be a big mistake because it will be too much food.
First, bread is served with every meal so that sets the tone right there.
1) Apertivo. This is a pre-dinner drink that is sometimes served with light bites.
Examples: Vermouth, Sherry wine, taralli, olives.
We did not partake in any official apertivo course but we always ordered a bottle of wine (yes, with every meal, it was a lot of wine per day) and it was always accompanied by a freebee two-bite nibbler, usually something vegetable-based.
2) Antipasti. This is a starter/appetizer and should be shared by the table.
Examples: Charcuterie and cheese (and more bread), Fave e Cicoria.
3) Primi. This is the first course. It is a hot course and typically heavier than Antipasti fare.
Examples: Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa, soup, lasagne.
4) Secondi. This is the second course. The options are typically meat or seafood with little or no carbs (see above, bread). Secondi fare will be lighter than Primi fare, and in my experience, the portions were smaller than Primi fare.
Examples: Lamb, mussels.
There were meals where I ordered a Primi and Secondi and it was challenging to get through all of the food, even without grazing on bread. I always felt that there was so much food on the table.
5) Dolce. Quite simply, dessert.
Puglia region examples: Almond biscotti, almond tart, gelato.
6) Caffe. A shot of espresso.
Protip: Ordering an espresso drink containing milk (e.g. cappuccino, latte) is only culturally acceptable BEFORE noon (some would say 11am). After noon, stick to shots of espresso (or a macchiato) so as to not embarrass yourself.
To clarify, a macchiato is a shot of espresso with a splash of milk. It is not a multiple-ounce drink that you find at popular coffee chains in the USA and UK.
We averaged two bottles of wine per day between us. We always drank wine with lunch and we always ordered a bottle of wine at dinner, sometimes two bottles of wine. We tried hard to live our best lives in Puglia and that included a lot of wine.
You don’t have to spend an arm and leg to get good wine in Puglia. We generally stuck to the 15-25€ per bottle range and felt it was fantastic value for money. And to clarify, these prices were restaurant and poolside prices, not retail prices.
The most popular regional grapes are Negroamaro, Primitivo (aka Zinfandel), and Verdeca. Negroamaro and Primitivo are available as reds and rosés and Verdeca is available as a white wine only.
We ran the gamut of wines during our holiday. The all-around winner was Negroamaro both as reds and rosés. Admittedly, I’m still dreaming of the 15€ bottles of Negroamaro rosé from our first masseria. If you can get your hands on a Negroamaro rosé from Puglia (“Apulia”), jump on that opportunity.
|Locorotondo||Chill||Mandragora||A wine bar with a limited selection of Puccia that are made-to-order (delicious).|
|Locorotondo||Slow||U’Curdunn||A sit-down restaurant in a cave-like setting.|
Note: The Primi portions are very large!
|Otranto||Fast||Postofisso||A fast-food restaurant serving wine, beer, and Puccia.|
|Ostuni||Chill||Cicinedda Fruit Bistrot||A smoothie and cocktail bar where you can add alcohol to any smoothie or order one of their deliciously crafted cocktails.|
Note: Try the bloody mary made with freshly squeezed tomato juice.
|Ostuni||Chill||Enoteca Divino||A wine bar in a typical narrow alley in the Centro Storico (“old town”).|
|Ostuni||Fast||Cremeria alla Scala||A gelato shop with a range of gelatos and sorbets.|
Note: Order first and then pay (typically this is the other way around).
|Polignano a Mare||Fast||La Rotellina||A fast-food restaurant serving wine, beer, and Panzerotti.|
Coming up next, the written and unwritten rules of driving in Italy.