I’ve been to Italy dozens of times. My family (my entire family) is completely obsessed with the place and we all dart off there at any given opportunity. Being quarter Italian, my siblings and I have always felt a really strong affinity to the place. The food we ate at home had a strong Italian influence (my mum’s lasagne is still everyone’s favourite meal), which has carried through to my own cooking (as you may have noticed). As a child a holiday to Italy would have had far more sway than a trip to Disneyland or the beach. Some of my fondest memories are set against a backdrop of the rolling valleys and tumbling towns of various parts of Italy. And the connection always felt all the more real to us because of our much beloved grandma, who had a strong Italian accent until her dying day. We loved to be told off by her (lots of “mamma mia” and “manage”) in Italian and to hear stories of her childhood and look at beautiful pictures of her in the old country. My grandma grew up in Sorrento on the picturesque Amalfi coast and, although we’ve been there a few times, it is now so full of American and European tourists that it’s impossible to imagine life there in the 40s and 50s before the hoards descended. We can try to replace the throngs with the black and white photos in our minds, but somehow the loud and rude tourists break through and shatter the image. Puglia on the other hand is so wonderfully bereft of tourists that I finally felt like I had experienced something of the real Southern Italy.
As with all undiscovered places, those in the know are caught between a rock and a hard place. Duty bound to tell you how wonderful it is but knowing that as soon as word gets out all the things that give that place its particular charm will be living on borrowed time. The charms of Puglia are founded in its lack of tourists. You feel, as I’ve said, that you are truly in the real Italy and as soon as tourists discover Puglia it will just be a less spectacular and hotter version of Tuscany. Sad face.
For now however, in terms of eating out the lack of tourism means that almost no one speaks English and pretty much none of the menus are in English. You may find this challenging, but if you embrace it then you will be rewarded with some of the best food and some of the friendliest and most generous service that I have received in Italy. Despite our pathetic lack of the lingo, locals patiently and eagerly interpreted my pigeon Italian and instead of feeling embarrassed at being so crap, I felt that people appreciated my effort to at least give it a go. A few useful and must-have phrases and the international language of pointing and hand signals were enough to see us through just fine. As for the menu, I knew many of the words so we could pretty much get the gist of the menus, but where that failed we punted for random selections (or asked for the waiter for whatever was good) and we were rarely disappointed.
All the restaurants I’m going to tell you about are in Ostuni as this was our local and (by a fortuitous coincidence) favourite town. Called the “white city”, Ostuni (as I mentioned in my last post) sits atop a hill looking down to the sea a few kilometres away. The old town winds around the hill, rewarding the puffed-out wanderer with amazing views around practically every corner.
We stumbled across San Pietro after failing to find a restaurant along the coast that had been recommended to us. Starving hungry after a 45 minute search and beginning to fear that we would be too late to eat anywhere, we ducked into San Pietro because it had appeared in the Michelin Guide for the past few years and it’s glass door was littered with accolades and recommendations. It looked promising. We went in to find only one other couple finishing up their meal. In England sitting down at this point would have earned you rolling eyes and barely veiled conceit from the waiting staff for the rest of the meal. The waiter at San Pietro’s in stark contrast served us enthusiastically and leisurely for our two courses before giving us a free dessert and then free limoncello at the end of our meal. We couldn’t stay long enough for him!
Anyway, the real highlight of this place was the primi piatti of seafood pasta. Every now and again you have something that is so good that you know is going to ruin your enjoyment of its pretenders for ever after. This pasta was that good. Ordinary pasta will forever be compared to – and is destined to fall short of – the pasta at this little restaurant. Sven had black linguine with mussels, cuttle fish and scampi and it was seriously and tears-rolling-down-my-face-because-I-didn’t-order-it good. But the gratuitous amounts of squid ink did make it a very messy dish to eat. Talk about red wine lips? Sven had squid ink lips, teeth and face after eating this.
I opted for the slightly more dainty cavatelli with crustaceans and courgettes in a creamy tomato sauce. When I say that this was one of the best pasta dishes I have ever had I am really not exaggerating. I gulped it down as if someone was about to snatch it away from me, but I really wish I had of savoured it a bit more. The cavatelli was obviously home made (as was all the pasta we ate in Puglia) and the fresh pasta went beautifully with the crustacea infused tomato sauce and the soft courgettes. The dish was as near perfect as a pasta dish can be.
The main dishes were fine, but after the stupendous starters there is only so much a slab of meat can do. Sven had fillet of beef with puff pastry and aubergine. Very well cooked, but for me a bit too heavy for a summer’s evening.
I had steak with pears and parmesan, which was good but I was still pining after the starters. I would have rather eaten them all over again.
The afore-mentioned free dessert came in the form of the best ever panna cotta that I have ever had. Panna cotta is all about the consistency and this one was just barely set and had a great amount of ‘wobble’ to it. Sven and I had a spoon duel over the last bite.
Osteria del Tempo Perso
We went to Osteria del Tempo Perso for my birthday after it was recommended by practically every source we came across (the owners of both villas, the guide-book, recent articles on Puglia, etc). I know it’s therefore not much of a revelation, but it really is worth a mention for its amazing antipasti. It’s quite common in Puglia for antipasti to be a lavish affair of 10 to 15 plates and Osteria del Tempo Perso is famous for theirs. The restaurant itself is split over two rooms; one that is an old bakery and one that is basically a cave in the old walls of the city. We sat in the cave and it was wonderfully atmospheric. The waiter actually spoke a little English (he had obviously learnt the words for all the things in the menu) and was really friendly (really, this is one of the things that was so fab about Puglia – the people were so warm and welcoming).
We were welcomed by a glass of a fresh and lively prosecco that was so delightful (you know how I feel about prosecco) we decided to order a bottle. Throughout the meal we were presented with pre-appertisers and pre- and post-desserts despite the fact that this was not really an expensive restaurant. I love all that crap! The post-desserts were teeny tiny little balls of what looked like boiled sweets and when you bit into them, little jets of flavoured liquid squirted out (aniseed, lemon, vanilla, etc). They were amazing.
Our selection of antipasti included the famous burratta cheese (basically mozzarella on steroids, when you cut into it luscious, buttery cream floods out) with prosciutto and pomegranate.
Some kind of Italian omelette (my memory is failing me – we were drinking fairly steadily through this meal)!
Baked aubergine with cheese (kind of like a melanzane alla parmigiana).
As well as a number of other yummy things (the stuffed courgette flower was particularly yummy).
We all went for seafood for our mains…
…except for our friend Nick who chose donkey meatballs. Brilliant!
The desserts were nothing to write home about, so I won’t.
Spessite bills itself as a “Restaurante Tipico” (serving typical Apulian cuisine) and we were sent along there by the owners of our first villa (who were farmers). When we first looked in we were unsure. It looked a bit like a working mans club from the outside. A pin board had a photocopied menu and an aged map of the town, along with random other scraps of paper advertising local businesses. I hesitated before pushing through the door, but we had 40 minutes before the England game kicked off and Sven’s little face looked pleadingly at me. We entered hesitantly. And thank God we did. Here we sampled the regions most famous local speciality, orrechiette, and it was the bomdiggy. Literally translated as “little ears” their little cup-like shape holds pasta sauce remarkably well.
One of the best things we got here was the bread that was served before the meal. Puglia is renowned for its bread, but this is the only place we saw these little fried beauties. They were almost like chapattis, but obviously made with olive oil and they were completely gorgeous.
We both had orrichiette for our primi piatti. Pugliese cooking is born out of poverty – pasta made without eggs accompanied by few and simple ingredients, like for example wild greens scavenged from the countryside. The pasta at this restaurant really reflected this tradition. Sven’s basic tomato sauce was a real showcase for the quality of the local produce and the homemade pasta.
I went for mine “con rape”, which was not a culinary journey into sadomasochism but orrechiette with turnip tops… go figure – I was as disappointed as you no doubt are 😉 The buttery sauce with these strong flavoured greens was so good and again the homemade pasta was to die for. These simple and cheap ingredients really exemplify the cooking of the region. Nothing fancy, just amazing quality vegetables, seafood, fish and meat cooked honestly and packing a punch-full of flavour.
We obviously ate lots of other amazing meals… pizzas, more pasta, more pizza, even more seafood (including the best ever lobster pasta), but I couldn’t include everything and for some reason I kept forgetting to take photos (perhaps I was too busy stuffing my face). In summary, I really found the food in Puglia to be some of the best pasta and seafood I have had in Italy (which is quite an accolade in my opinion). The meat was good too, but due to the history of poverty in this area, meat was a rare treat in days gone by, meaning that the fish and pasta is where the local kitchen really shines. I’d genuinely urge you to get there before everyone else finds out about this undiscovered gem. But please keep it under your hat.
In volume 3 I’ll give you a taster of what we cooked at home whilst we were in Puglia. Stayed tuned.