Buongiorno from Italy’s deep south! Oh yes, that’s where I am, traveling with a friend in Basilicata and Puglia.
In my last post I led you on along the Via Emilia, which is a must if you’re looking for Italy’s best food and wine.
Follow me to discover different flavors, dramatic landscapes, Puglia’s restaurants and trulli!
Unspoiled and sun-bleached, intense and authentic. Puglia and Basilicata are to me the quintessence of southern Italy, the kingdom of its proverbial warmth. This is what we call il Sud, Italy’s extreme south. I love everything here: the melodious countryside, the unhurried rhythm of life in whitewashed villages where time seems to have stopped, the alluring coastline with its fishermen villages and legends of pirate, the elaborate Cathedrals and the impenetrable forests.
We’re in Puglia right now, staying in a Masseria near Alberobello, one of the picturesque ancient farmhouses you find scattered in the countryside and along the seashore. What I see from the breezy outdoor veranda where I’m sitting is an unending sweep of gigantic centuries-old olive trees, and beyond them, in the distance, the sea. What I smell is a bouquet of seductive, ravishing aromas.
So, before I lose myself in (yet another) ambrosial meal I have promised myself to put pen to paper. I need to share what my taste buds have experienced over the last few days… if nothing else to feel less guilty about my (repeated and around-the-clock) culinary indulgences.
I could spend hours gazing at the boundless extent of mammoth size olive tree groves. I’m entranced by their height and the size of their weather-worn knotted trunks: they’re so huge that the first time I flew into Brindisi I, a Tuscan, couldn’t guess what they were until I got close!! And, I adore the people, proud, sincerely hospitable and big-hearted.
Largely unexplored and often stereotyped as poverty-stricken these two neighboring regions seem to melt together, creating a vividly kaleidoscopic land and where ancient traditions are alive and honored. The diversity is dazzling. From Lecce, with its trendy scene and gorgeous Baroque, to white sandy beaches and the pristine Caribbean-blue sea, to Basilicata’s awe-inspiring untracked granite mountains. Just set off and explore! You’ll see vestiges of a myriad of civilizations (Romans, Greeks, Byzantines, Normans and… half a dozen more), spend the night in a fairytale-like trullo, and travel back in time walking through the breathtaking maze of Matera’s stone streets. And all the while you’ll be having a spellbinding flavorsome epicurean feast in Basilicata’s quaint osterie and Puglia’s divine restaurants.
Not as renowned, and less over-trodden, than destinations like Tuscany or the Amalfi Coast, Basilicata and Puglia are havens of some of Italy’s most scrumptious Italian food.
Follow me, we’re going to gourmet heaven!
Blessed by an extensive and fruitful countryside and coastline wet by the sparkling unsoiled waters of a total of three seas (Tyrrhenian, Ionian and Adriatic), these two regions are famous throughout Italy for amazing selection of extraordinary local products and wholesome traditional dishes. Grains, olives, almonds and all types of fruits, pulses and vegetables, are grown here, the seafood is bountiful and varied, and shepherds produce mouth-watering dairy specialties and cured meats and the sun-kissed vineyards yield juicy grapes. As elsewhere along the Italian “boot” bread and pasta are dietary staples, and here they’re all hand-made according to tradition and seasoned with soul-pleasing sauces.
It’s a rustic, simple, home-made cuisine. The flavors and aromas are unsophisticated, distinctive, vivid, gratifying. And, added value: it’s all extremely healthy (often almost paleo!)
Make sure you don’t miss: The cheese
Hi, I’m Betty, I’m a cheese-aholic. Whatever happens in my life you can be sure I’ll always have a piece of (good!) cheese in my fridge. So, I clearly know my way around my country cheese-wise. And I can state for a fact that there are few places in the world which boast such an exceptional selection of superb cheeses like Puglia and Basilicata.
For a long time sheep and goats were the only animals raised here, so the majority of Basilicata and Puglia’s cheeses are made with sheep and/or goat’s milk, though there are some cow milk cheeses too of course.
My favorites among the many signature local cheeses are:
Canestrato (and Canestrato di Moliterno IGP)
Flavorsome, somewhat spicy and ivory-colored it’s made by hand-pressing the curd through willow baskets (canestri in Italian, hence the name). Canestrato is IGP* only when seasoned in the ancient fondaci, the cellar-like caves located below the historical palaces of Moliterno, the only place that guarantees an ideal micro-climate.
Enjoy it fresh and seasoned, accompanied by fresh raw veggies, fruit or preserves and on your pasta.
Pear-shaped, or I might say oblong, a shiny rind and a cream-colored paste that yellows with aging. It’s simply sublime. Made with the milk of the big local podolica cow it’s sapid, chewy and exquisite any way you eat it, whether alone or on pasta. You won’t find it anywhere in Northern Italy so indulge while you can!
Burrata di Andria
Every time I have some I ask myself if it’s a dream come true. Imagine a creamier version of mozzarella, with a soft, rich, buttery heart of cream.
Produced from cold unpasteurized cow’s milk obtained from one or two daily milking sessions, it’s actually a soft little sack made of mozzarella filled with heavenly semi-liquid mozzarella cream! The way it’s made is inspiring: the whey is added to the milk, the concoction is then warmed and, once the curd is cooked, divided into pieces. The cheesemaker then immerses them in very hot water and, by hand, makes the pieces into little pouches. The cream is then poured inside and the little “bags” are closed by pinching the top together. Delicate and milky it’s unforgettable alone, and yummy on pasta!
Sip tip: order a bottle of Palama Metiusco Rosato to have with your burrata, I promise you’ll never forget it! The cheese’s crisp flavor and silky texture combine magically with this deliciously smooth local rosé which smells like springtime and tastes like strawberries, raspberries and flowers. (Plus, its low alcoholic so… well, we usually get another one!)
Make sure you don’t miss: The Pasta
We drove through the countryside down to beautiful Altamura, yesterday, and were astonished when we got there. The medieval streets and airy squares were so quiet and empty, not a soul in sight… and we realized, happily, it was lunch time!
Believe me all Puglia’s restaurants are really something: whether chic (mostly in Lecce, Ostuni and Otranto) or homey and rustic (like in downtown Bari, Alberobello and the smaller villages) all offer a heartfelt welcome and lovingly prepared fresh hand-crafted dishes.
So we walked into this little unassuming trattoria, just a few tables, very rustic. Welcomed by an enormous smile we ordered orecchiette with their flagship turnip top sauce, probably Puglia’s most famous dish. And, as we plunged into our (outrageously big) bowls of succulent pasta we were in for a surprise: the owner, practically a comedian, put on a real show!
Insider’s tip: for a memorable tasty bite, friendly atmosphere and hearty laugh make sure to stop by Pein Assutt in Altamura (Corso Umberto I)
Namely “small ears” because of their shape, small round and concave, orecchiette are one of Italy’s most ancient pasta shapes. and… I love them! Hand-made according to tradition, using only local re-milled durum wheat semolina, water and salt, they’re smooth on the inside and rough on the outside, which makes them perfect to “hold” sauces wonderfully.
Sneak peek: watch a local mamma make orecchiette in her home in Bari!
Traditional of Basilicata, though you find it in all of southern Italy, this recipe is a typical example of how tasty and fragrant a rustic, apparently “poor”, pasta dish can be. The sauce’s ingredients are simple: fried chopped onions, extra virgin olive oil, a little red wine, tomatoes. Crumbled mollica (the soft inside of the bread), savory cacioricotta cheese and hot pepper-flavored olive oil are added at the end and cooked on high heat.
Sip tip: make sure you enjoy it with a glass of vigorous red Nardo’ Roccamora DOC, a wonderful local wine made with 100% indigenous Negroamaro grapes. This tantalizing wine’s aromas – spice tobacco and fruit – and velvety structure bring out the pasta’s sapid and peppery flavor.
Deliciously genuine! Lagane (from laganum, the ancient Roman ancestor of today’s lasagna) are a type of fresh hand-made pasta. At a first glance they look sort of like thicker and shorter tagliatelle. Egg-free, made with only water, durum-wheat flour and salt they’re served capped with a richly seasoned nourishing sauce: chickpeas, garlic, rosemary, sage, onion, celery and hot-pepper.
Make sure you don’t miss: The bread, pane di Matera and pane di Altamura DOP
Considered sacred, made following precise techniques and according to customary rituals, bread was for centuries the main staple of the Italians’ diet. Puglia and Basilicata are the birthplaces of two remarkable one-of-a-kind types of bread: Altamura DOP* and Pane di Matera. Both made with durum wheat semolina, water, salt and natural sourdough starters they are different in shape, texture and flavor.
Matera bread is made with 100% local ancient grain semolina and baked in a characteristic horseshoe shape. Wonderfully crusty it brings out all its flavor eaten dipped in olive oil, salt and oregano or in typical dishes like “cialledda”. “Cialledda calda” (hot) is thick slices of bread topped with an egg, olives, bay leaves and garlic; “cialledda fredda” (cold) is made with dampened slices of bread rubbed with tomatoes and garlic.
Called “the best bread in the world” by the Latin poet Horace (in 37 BC!) Altamura bread is, like Alberobello’s trulli, one of Puglia’s landmarks! Anciently it was kneaded by each family at home and then baked in public ovens, where the baker marked the loaves with the initials of the head of the family. The crust is dark and crisp, the inside yellow, soft and fluffy.
Insider’s tip: Try Pane cotto, a hearty soup-like concoction made with boiled Altamura bread boiled with seasonal vegetables and bay leaves and topped with luscious Murgia pecorino.
Make sure you don’t miss: The sausages
The least “precious” cuts of local pork, lamb and veal, carefully minced by hand and seasoned with garlic, fennel pollen and massive amounts of chili pepper. Aged between 3 months to a full year, this scrumptious Basilicata sausage is used in pasta sauces or served as an appetizer or second course grilled, or boiled with vegetables, and served on slices of toasted bread.
Whatever you do in Puglia spend at least two days in Lecce. Its elaborately decorated 17th century Baroque architecture is so unique that it has originated an artistic genre, barocco leccese! It’s an attractive, relaxed and vital town with trendy restaurants, clubs and pretty shops to browse. Take a break from culture (or nightlife!) and enjoy the mouth-watering local salsiccia: knife-cut pork and veal seasoned with lemon peel, cinnamon and cloves.
Make sure you don’t miss: The veggies
Fresh vegetables and legumes are, with cheese, the superstars of Basilicata and Puglia’s cuisine, and the variety is astonishing. I adore the tiny lampascioni onions and the sweet local red peppers “peperoni cruschi” (from the dialectal crusco, crispy) which are dried, quickly oven-baked, and then fried in olive oil. But there’s plenty more to choose from: dishes made with all kinds of beans, chickpeas (spectacular in ciceri e tria pasta) and Basilicata’s signature red eggplant, melanzana rossa di Rotonda DOP*, which has nothing in common with an eggplant!
It looks like a tomato, smells like a flower-filled meadow, has a slightly spicy flavor and a meaty pulp. You’ll find it fried, pickled and used as a spicy note in pasta sauces … unforgettable!
Sip tip: the local vegetables’ flavors, crisp and vivid, are at their best with a glass of full-bodied white wine, especially if it’s the local signature Chardonnay, Tormaresca IGT. Straw yellow and fruity in taste it has a flowery aroma which reminds me of jasmine, peach and pineapple… unbelievably exquisite with a plate of oily grilled red-peppers or a bowlful of pasta with eggplant!
Make sure you don’t miss: The fish
Especially in Puglia, which boasts the longest coastline in Italy and superb restaurants, the regional cuisine is obviously rich in fish and seafood. Grilled, made into soups, sauces and a variety of tantalizing stews it’s always freshly-caught, splendidly presented and delectable. Taranto is famous for its oysters, but there are many more tempting delicacies around, like Bari’s pulpe rizze, i.e. curly octopus, and the savory cured tuna belly called tarantella.
Insider’s tip: Puglia’s restaurants are divine, but make sure you join the locals, when you see crowds in front of the stalls on warm summer evenings, for a lush street-food treat. They’re having panino con il polpo: octopus grilled on the spot, served piping hot in a bun!
*DOP: acronym of Denominazione di Origine Protetta, meaning “Protected Designation of Origin”. This certification ensures that this food or wine is made following a strict set of rules throughout all production phases: it is locally grown (in case of meats the animals are of a specific kind and locally bred), made by local farmers and artisans using traditional methods and locally packaged as well.
*IGP: acronym of Indicazione Geografica Protetta, meaning “Protected Geographical Indication”. Less strict this certification means that this food or wine is grown, and/or made, and/or prepared and/or produced in a specific area.
Need advice about Hotels in Puglia and Basilicata, or about traveling in Southern Italy? Just write me and I’ll be glad to help!
I have spent my whole life working on high end events and travelling both for job reasons and for real passion; now, it is time to share notes with you! My passion for travel started when I was a child and now it is not just a passion, it is part of my business as I work in the field of luxury travels and events. In private life, luxury is the joy I find also in details and in small things.