My Epic Foodie Trip Around Puglia

My Epic Foodie Experience Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

All photos are credited to @buona.forchetta  unless otherwise stated.

Ah Puglia…this region had been on my mind yet somehow “missed” on countless visits to Italy. I had skirted around Puglia by going to Calabria, Sicily and Campania in my discovery of southern Italy, somehow “saving” this region for a future trip.

My “appetite” for Puglia literally grew as I witnessed a spate of Apulian restaurant openings in London, including my favourite Li Veli discovered via an Italian Talks post and now one of my favourite restaurants with its comforting “orecchiette al ragu” and own-label Primitivo wine.

I was teased by friends from Puglia in London whom I met via Friends of Puglia as they debated the virtues of Bari versus Lecce, Polignano a Mare or Otranto, the merits of ‘panzerotto’ against ‘rustico’ and other important controversies.

So a trip to Puglia was like a secret diamond polished over time by taking notes about destinations, dishes and local culture  – even picking up a few steps of the famous ‘Taranto’ dance at a party in honour of the annual San Martino festival.

 

Photo credit Pixabay

Photo credit Pixabay

But when my Australian friend Adrian suggested a trip last August (literally for that same month!) I told him he was crazy…that’s when half of Italy heads to Puglia, it would be impossible to find a bed let alone plan an entire odyssey!

We persisted with our crazy idea and even more irrationally, made minimal advance bookings (just a one-way flight from London to Bari and the first night in a city centre hotel!).

Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of scheduling months in advance and my laid-back Aussie buddy took it all in his stride, convinced that “something would turn up” when needed.

And I had faith in my network of Italian friends and contacts (though many of them also said we were mad!).

Our idea was an “organic” trip without too many specific destinations in mind – simply to make stops as and when we saw fit, exploring places that caught our eye or attracted our stomachs.

Puglia food Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

The whole plan was to be driven by local recommendations – and wherever we could find accommodation. And we were determined to find good-value Italian family-run B&Bs or small boutique hotels and apartments.

So after some research on places and routes after updating my phone with contacts provided by friends, colleagues and random Italians met around London – we landed in Bari at the height of Italian tourist season in August.

An Italian-speaking British guy and my Australian friend who doesn’t speak the lingo but has strong Italian family roots and an Italian passport. The perfect team, we immersed ourselves in Puglia: first stop Bari!

Bari

Bari developed as a port during Roman times and we were impressed by its grid-like structure as we meandered towards the harbour and old town. It was a hot August afternoon and felt deserted, like a southern Spanish city during siesta time.

The historic centre of Bari near the port had a very different layout: a maze of intricate alleyways where you can get wonderfully lost in no time at all.

Espresso Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

We started with an espresso and immediately started pestering local people around us: “dove si mangia bene?” “dove troviamo il gelato migliore di Bari” , “dove possiamo assaggiare il streetfood tipico barese?”.

We were nearly always met with a volley of competing responses from friends who passionately disagreed with each other. So we ended up at times more confused than before we’d asked – a not uncommon situation in Italy!

In the end we stumbled on a lovely little trattoria in the historic centre where we decided to stop for a healthy lunch of verdure grigliate (grilled vegetables) –  a totally different taste to elsewhere (the only possible comparison may be “verduras a la plancha” in Murcia, Spain – an area known as Spain’s vegetable garden).

Grilled vegetables Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

Vibrant local flavours were brought to life by a simple drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar…a promising start to our foodie adventure!

As we strolled through Bari we fell in love with the narrow streets around the port, where residents would place a chair or two outside their home to while away the hours. And we loved how people began to gradually descend onto the piazze of the old town as the sun went down.

Bari-(Pixabay photo)Photo credit Pixabay

I was distracted by regular phone calls from an Italian “Del Boy” character (non-British readers can Google “Only Fools and Horses” at this point), a friend of a friend of mine, who was going to be our “host” on the coastline for the next few days.

And while he couldn’t tell us where he’d put us up, he reassured us that he had the keys to around 60 apartments. They were all full at the moment but hey no worries, we should come to Monopoli and he would sort us out! Hardly reassuring, but we had no other bookings at that point and our adventurous spirit gave us confidence.

Our final afternoon in Bari was spent ruminating over where to enjoy our last dinner and I continued my strategy of interviewing locals to find the most authentic restaurant.

I’ve always found this approach more fruitful than online searches because the kind of people who suggest the best places are often types who won’t be spending hours online – the old gent sitting outside on the street, the local police officer about town, the barman with a glint in his eye or the busy mum who works part time at the gelateria: people who live there all year round.

Da Onofrio menu Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

As often happens with these straw-polls, they all pretty much suggested the same place for dinner: “Al Pescatore da Onofrio” near the harbour.

As soon as we arrived and saw the day’s catch proudly on display outside (the tradition is to point at what you fancy!), we knew we were in good hands.

And as is the norm in such places, you let them guide you. We requested whatever they had caught fresh that day and to bring us a variety. So we had an amazing seafood feast in two courses: an Antipasto Misto Crudo followed by a Frittura Mista di Pesce. It was finger lickin’ good!

 

Da Onofrio entrance – fresh fish Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

And everything was washed down smoothly with a glass of their excellent house white wine.

Polignano a Mare

The next morning we got up with slightly sore heads (a few mojitos had followed our meal and we were still a bit stunned by the change in temperature between London and Bari) and boarded a local train for Monopoli to start our exploration of the northern Puglia coastline.

“Del Boy” met us at the station! He didn’t have the sheepskin coat but substitute Northern Puglia for South London and he had a similar patter!

He reassured us that he had an apartment for us but of course “there was a slight problem”.

The owner of our potential apartment in Monopoli had gone to the countryside for the day without leaving him the key so he couldn’t let us in. Apparently she was an elderly nonna with no mobile phone, so there was no way to reach her.

As we chatted in Italian I tried to hide my concern from my friend at the back of the car who was blissfully unaware that we had nowhere to stay that night!

Pointlessly, our host took us to see the original apartment from outside to prove how perfect it would have been if only he had the keys. He described in great detail everything we’d narrowly miss out on enjoying. At this point I seriously thought he was going to break us in and had a premonition of my first night on the Apulian coast in a local prison!

But “Del” was convinced something would turn up “in the next few hours” and said he’d look after us until it did. I should have been concerned but there was something about  him which was intrinsically well-meaning – I liked the guy!

He took us on a tour of the coast while “negotiating” on the phone with his network of apartment owners to see who had something, often stopping off in bars where he insisted on treating us. He seemed to know everyone at each stop! We quickly become familiar with the stunning beaches around Monopoli along this beautiful stretch of coastline.

Finally we struck gold! Our host had found a beautiful apartment by the sea in Polignano a Mare, in a gorgeous location by the beach and near the centre. So our first night would be there not Monopoli, a little surprise on a tour designed to leave room for the unexpected.

Polignano a Mare seafront Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

Polignano a Mare is jaw-dropping – one of the most gorgeous seaside towns in Italy, let alone Puglia. Perched on cliffs it exudes a captivating old-world charm, with a historic centre that nestles you in its bosom and light, colour and amazing views all around.

And of course, like everywhere in Puglia: food glorious food.

Here we didn’t need to ask around because there was a place I’d come across on a food documentary featuring an Irish and Italian food blogger called Pescaria – a street food joint founded on the principle of showcasing the rich local seafood in a modern setting.

Sure enough when we arrived the queues were more like Soho in central London than a small seaside town in southern Italy…and the place had a decidedly young and modern vibe!

Pescaria interior Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

Pescaria is a place where you queue, order and (hopefully) find a place to sit while a chaotic, lottery-style system eventually results in you receiving your order!

The sight of the waiters carrying delectable plates of seafood through a crowded space shouting out lucky numbers was thrilling as you got to ogle at the tremendous variety of local seafood offered here at accessible prices.

They put together imaginative seafood sandwiches using their own homemade tortoiseshell bread, designed to absorb maximum flavour from impeccable locally-sourced products.

Pescaria menu Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

I was lucky enough to chat with one of the co-owners of Pescaria during our meal.

Pugliese by birth, he explained how he came up with the Pescaria idea through his time in Milan and other cities, where time-poor workers wanted to eat well and fast but didn’t fancy fast food. He married this observation with a desire to take his father’s fishmonger business into the modern era.

And now that their social media savvy, eye for design and passion for quality seafood has been piloted successfully in Polignano, they’ve brought a branch of Pescaria to Milan too!

He modestly said he just wanted to open a healthy fast-food restaurant to keep the younger generation away from burger bars, but this hugely understates its quality.

You could tell that each element of every dish had been studiously created by perfecting divine combinations of flavour, texture and aroma.

Frisella Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

My friselle with seafood and local greens were an amazing appetiser.

The frisella is a piece of crunchy baked bread usually doused in olive oil and can be eaten with a variety of toppings. It is a staple of Apulian cuisine and has never tasted as good as it did here.

The main difficulty was in choosing our “main course” sandwich. I opted for a classic tuna tartare variety which arrived in their special bread with a top-secret blend of special sauces and herbs designed to enhance its flavours.

Pescaria sandwich Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

The menu was extensive and mouth-watering, the atmosphere buzzy.

We left reluctantly into the night and discovered a popular little mojito bar in the old town. All they served was mojitos!

What is it with the Apulian people and mojitos?

Mojito Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

Monopoli

The third stop on our magical mystery tour of Puglia was Monopoli, a few miles along the coast from Polignano.

As we pulled into the station, our unpredictable apartment host (“Del Boy”) again greeted us with a glint in his eye and asked if we wanted to hear the good news or the bad news.

The bad news was that he hadn’t been able to find us a free apartment in Monopoli that night, an announcement conveyed with an apologetic but barely-concealed grin. My Aussie friend understood that part but failed to see why he looked so happy.

So onto the good news: he was going to give us the keys to his very own apartment for the next few nights – and it was bang in the centre of the old town, exactly where we wanted to be! And he lent us his personal WiFi dongle to boot.

This fantastically spontaneous Apulian hospitality was to be a recurring theme on our trip.

It was indeed in a great location and had everything we needed, including a fully-functioning kitchen, as we were keen to prepare something ourselves from the abundant local produce we were getting used to seeing on every corner.

Onion from southern Italy Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

People in Puglia love their fresh produce, which you see being sold everywhere.

But the real value-added was the network of relationships which our apartment host had in his hometown and which we now had access to, simply by saying we knew him! So we had a list of restaurants and bars where he gave us his personal guarantee that we’d access the best local dishes without paying over the odds.

For lunch, as “amici di Claudio”, we were spoilt for choice in the historic centre, primarily homely family-run places.

Authentic Apulian cuisine was the only option, usually recited to us by a waitress who provided a vivid description of the ingredients and with her own recommendation to boot. I was usually a bit scared to go against her advice!

Orecchiette al pomodoro https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

Osteria Perrucci proved to be a fine suggestion and I cleaned up my plate of orecchiette al promodoro within minutes, “leccandomi i baffi” (“licking your lips”) as the Italians like to say.

The local vegetables in Puglia have a unique depth and texture to them. For example, the deceptively simple “Entrecote con insalata di giardino pugliese” was a treat packed with locally-foraged greens including some of the finest fennel I’ve ever tasted in my life. And the ideal accompaniment to a really good steak.

Entrecote con insalata di giardino pugliese

So if you find yourself hungry in the centre of Monopoli, the family-run Osteria Perricci  is a great place to start. And as in many top restaurants in Puglia spoken English is limited: so brush up on your vocabulary or decipher the hand-signs of your waitress, and you’ll be well-rewarded!

The next day we went for a morning swim on the beach right by the old town. This felt like the film set of an old Italian movie with families perched on the rocky beach unpacking picnics and children running excitedly to and fro from the sea. Vivid Italian hand gestures all around!

This little gem of a beach offered clear waters and stunning panoramic views across the coast, just a short hop from the historic centre. We absolutely adored it and a morning dip became part of our daily routine in Monopoli.

Beach in Monopoli Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

After our swim, we worked up quite an appetite and went to another locally-renowned restaurant called Zio Ottavio.

This had an ambience which was more “restaurant” than “trattoria” but was equally friendly with our waiter soon regaling us with local stories and recommendations for our ongoing travels through Puglia.

Zio Ottavio restaurant Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

Here I found my perfect opportunity to sample “Fave e Cicoria” – a local Apulian speciality of fava beans and chicory that sounds simple but tastes divine. I’d first tried it at Li Veli in London.

The creamy fava beans were blended into a puree and complemented those bitter local greens beautifully. The perfect starter – and like many dishes we discovered in Apulia, proudly vegetarian. No wonder the locals are always bursting with energy and life.

Fava e cicoria Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

The choice of main course was again an exercise in decision-making and I eventually opted for the day’s special: Trofie Limone con Tartare di Tonno – a wonderfully citrus-y refreshing pasta dish with generous chunks of raw tuna.

We found the sushi theme repeated throughout Apulia because their seafood is so fresh, it just makes sense to eat it raw or almost raw. And their locally-fished tuna is superbly moist and tasty.

The menu at Zio Ottavio in common with so many places in this region is not fixed, but constantly changes depending on the seasons or even based on the weekly produce available in the market. This approach is a way of life in places like Puglia where their passion for quality ingredients runs deep.

Trofie limone Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

Lunch in Puglia is taken slowly and doesn’t generally come to a neat finish.

After the main course, we were generously offered some desserts “on the house” by our friendly waiter but our tummies were already full to bursting so we resisted.

But this didn’t stop him bringing a locally-produced dessert liqueur to our table which I discovered to my delight was from the abovementioned Li Veli winery located nearby – the one that owns my favourite Apulian restaurant in London!

Our waiter then shared how he had visited Li Veli in Puglia and proceeded to show us their other wines on display at the restaurant.

Aleatico Passito Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

That special Aleatico Passito he served us had an aroma of apricot and figs with a hint of coffee: http://www.liveli.it/en/vini/Aleatico%20Passito

And as a dessert liqueur it went down smoothly with some homemade almond biscotti! It was the ideal prelude to the obligatory espresso at the end of the meal.

So my trip was coming full circle and I was rediscovering the flavours of Puglia I had fallen in love with in London, at their true source.

Regular Italian Talks readers probably know about the art of aperitivo – a tradition of taking an Italian cocktail, typically a spritz or negroni, with some appetising snacks (or in some cases a meal – apericena) in preparation for the evening ahead.

Monopoli aperitivo Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

During our stay in Monopoli we also discovered the seaside version of aperitivo when some friends invited us to a beachside bar in a place called Li Santi where they were running a fresh barbecue as the sun went down.

We were captivated by the experience and I loved my first true seafood aperitivo – accompanied of course by the mojito that seemed to be everywhere in Puglia!

Monopoli aperitivo Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

The fresh cozze (mussels) with breadcrumbs and peppers were delicious to suck dry. As always in Puglia, it was easy to make new friends and pick up further travel suggestions and had a great time at this lively little beach bar!

Monopoli aperitivo  Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

It was interesting to see how aperitivo is interpreted differently throughout Italy – from the classic spritz with fancy snacks in Milan to the Valpolicella or Prosecco plus cichetti combination typical of the Veneto region and now the local seafood version here in Puglia. One thing is clear: in Italy, everybody loves aperitivo!

We enjoyed our stay in northern Puglia and the contrasting attractions of Bari, Polignano and Monopoli, each appealing in different ways. But it was time to hit the road again to explore other parts of Puglia.

Pozzo Faceto

While in Monopoli we were made aware in no uncertain terms of the beauty of the Apulian countryside and immediately thought: this has to be worth a detour.

That’s another advantage of an open-minded itinerary since it gives you the flexibility to pivot and change your plans at a moment’s notice.

Plus I had a top secret tip-off from my friend in Milan who is from Puglia, about his sister’s boutique B&B (just 4 rooms) in the countryside near Cisternino, not far from Monopoli.

Il Pero Suite, Le Miniature (photo credit Le Miniature)Photo credit Le Miniature

So I called the owner of this B&B known as “Le Miniature”, a wonderfully warm and well-travelled lady called Cinzia Capozza, who booked us in on a weekday night and personally came to pick us up from the local train station.

Meno male” as they say in Italy since there were minimal signs at Cisternino station which felt in the middle of nowhere. She drove us to her impressive home (she lives in the B&B too) which stands on the grounds of a villa she has painstakingly restored over several years.

As soon as we entered we were greeted by her friendly dog and observed that Le Miniature is a true labour of love in every detail.

Pear Tree at Le Miniature

The original structure had been a typical Apulian farmhouse, previously grand but neglected for many years.

Cinzia set about recovering original objects and structures with care and attention, restoring the fruit garden to its former glory and using only local materials.

She recrafted the house into a beautiful and peaceful refuge that pays homage to the past whilst providing all the conveniences required by 21st century guests, including free WiFi.

She has designed 4 amazing guest suites – each with its own special theme that you can read about on her website: http://www.bbminiature.com, each one delightfully unique.

Espresso machine photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

The suites are all subtly marked by her personal passions, including souvenirs from her worldwide travels, as well as a studious respect for the surroundings.

I was in “Il Pero” which pays tribute to the ancient pear tree (200 years old) right outside the suite, said to be the oldest in the village.

Each detail expressed a certain understated charm – beautiful draped curtains which let in reams of natural light, an old-fashioned ceiling fan, a vintage Espresso machine and relaxing stone white décor throughout. I felt absolutely cocooned and transported back to another era.

La Miniatura Photo credit Le MiniaturaPhoto credit Le Miniature

My friend’s “La Miniatura” suite was entirely different but just as thoughtfully integrated with its surroundings, with a unique external washroom to cool off outside. As well as a huge ensuite bathroom encased in Apulian red earth and stone. It was truly stunning!

Once we had freshened up, we felt in the mood for a walk to explore the local Apulian countryside, which is basically all around you.

Sunset behind fruit trees Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

Cinzia helpfully guided us towards a country lane nearby where we were immediately intoxicated by the aromas of local vines, figs and fruit trees.

Watching the sun set over the distance we foraged some fresh fruit that we found growing wildly under the Apulian sunshine. There was not a soul in sight.

It was so much fun to find grapes, figs, pomegranate, cactus fruit and other delights growing in abundance around us.

Foraging for fresh fruit Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

In this slightly hidden-away region of Puglia you’ll find sweet refuge at all times of the year.

Grapes photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

Later that evening Cinzia took us to a local restaurant run by her friends called “Giardino d’Oro” to sample some of the fresh countryside meat and vegetables they are famous for in the Apulian interior, to give us a break from the wonderful seafood we’d already tasted on the coast.

Local vegetable and salad starter https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

It was an unforgettable meal, with plate after plate of local delights. In the expert hands of our wonderful host we tasted just about every variety of product from the local land.

Homemade focaccia Photo by  https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

The antipasti here in the Apulian countryside were like no other. We started with local vegetables, focaccia with local olives and some mouthwatering “polpette di pane” (Apulian bread balls) – all accompanied by great wine of course, something you begin to take for granted in Puglia (it’s relatively cheap too!).

Polpette di pane Photo by  https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

My main pasta dish of ear-shaped “orecchiette alle cime di rape” is a classic Apulian dish famous throughout Italy and it was great to taste it here at source – absolutely delicious!

Orecchiette alle cime di rape Photo by  https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

Apulian food is not particularly stylish or gourmet in its presentation but the tastes and textures as well as the freshness are second to none.

The next morning back at Le Miniature, we enjoyed breakfast in the gorgeous garden outside. A neighbour of Cinzia provides a basket of fresh cakes and breads that she has baked herself – and we loved the selection of homemade jams, yogurt and spreads provided to accompany them, as we sat in the Apulian sun- together with a sharp espresso of course!

Breakfast at Le Miniature Photo by  https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

It is worth mentioning that Cinzia’s small “team” at the B&B includes her wonderful dog. Such a friendly and special creature who greets each guest personally as you arrive and in a noble way “looks after” you discreetly by taking a nap nearby whenever Cinzia pops out to the shops.

A delightful hotel receptionist who even came to woof farewell when we (sadly) had to leave!

Bottle of wine at Le Miniature Photo by  https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

The owner of Le Miniature is really proud of her home and a stay there gives you the opportunity to experience true Apulian hospitality. She even presented us with a bottle of her private label wine as we left!

It was right up there as one of the best B&B experiences of my life and I’lll definitely be going back. But because Le Miniature is so bijou and perfectly-formed, it does get booked up in advance, so you are advised to get your reservation in early.

Cinzia loves to choose the right suite for each guest since each is so personal –call her at Le Miniature and see what she has in mind for you and your loved ones!

Lecce

After reluctantly leaving Le Miniature, our plan was to head towards the famous Salento coast, but before doing so we had been advised by our pugliesi friends to stop in Lecce – hyped as the Florence of the South and noted for both its Baroque architecture and relaxed lifestyle.

Lecce - Photo by 1000zen https://www.flickr.com/photos/1000zen/Photo credit Flickr 1000zen https://www.flickr.com/photos/1000zen/

When we arrived there was a local midsummer celebration in progress, which meant the streets were packed with people from the surrounding area, with stalls selling delicious food and local wares, as well as a vibrant evening atmosphere.

Quite a different vibe to other Italian cities in August, maybe because Lecce is an easy gateway to some stunning beach resorts in the southern Salento coast like Otranto (which we had to sadly leave out of our itinerary).

Lecce  is thought to have been founded by conquerors from ancient Crete and the Greek affinity is still strong, with a local dialect similar to Greek spoken in the surrounding “Grecia Salentina” to this very day. The city later became an important outpost of the Roman empire.

We were immediately struck by the hospitality of the smiling locals, who seemed even more chilled-out than people we’d met in northern Puglia.

Our host Ettore from the small B&B Matteo da Lecce came to pick us up personally from the station (he didn’t have to but insisted, a common theme during our Puglia travels) and helped us find our bearings as we settled into our apartment in the heart of the vibrant old town.

The beautiful pedestrianised historic centre is ideal for going out to discover the multitude of restaurants and bars in the area.

And we didn’t have to go far for our first sumptuous Lecce meal, at a fantastic wine bistro and street food joint we stumbled on packed with local people called Il Banco, where we chose to graze on some typical Apulian cold cuts.

Apulian cold cuts at Il Banco photo by  https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

After sharing several other sharing plates and abundant wine, we couldn’t believe the value for money when we got the bill!

Everyone eats outside in the summer in Lecce and the street vibe that evening was tremendous due to that local festival (a few people tried to explain what they were celebrating but it was never entirely clear!).

And our chatty waitress suggested an area of town where we could enjoy a drink afterwards – another pedestrianised area of Lecce full of pavement cafes and bars, with hardly a tourist in sight. We couldn’t help but feel that visitors are overlooking this amazing corner of Italy with its historic charm and vibrant atmosphere.

Sitting with a drink in central Lecce Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

We settled in for a drink at a lively bar called Shui Wine among the celebrating locals who seemed in no rush to shut down for the evening. Some of the baroque facades of the churches were lit up making for an even more special atmosphere.

The next morning the wife of our kind B&B host brought us some delicious “pasticciotti” from a local bakery – these are a typical breakfast pastry found only in Lecce normally taken with your morning cappuccino. They come with a sweet filling and provide a nice energy boost to get your day off to a flying start!

pasticciotto with cappuccino for breakfast Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

Lecce is also known as “the city of 100 churches”, and during a walking tour we came across several stunning examples (and saw that in central Lecce you see a church at pretty much every turn!).

 church in the centre of Lecce Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

While the stunning Duomo draws the crowds with its two decorated facades and imposing interiors, my favourite was the ornate Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista completed in 1728.

The consistency of the Baroque architecture throughout the city centre is striking.

We also stopped by the Jewish museum which tells the fascinating story of the city’s Medieval Jews on the site of an old synagogue and where they kindly offered us a taste of their fresh baked bread with local olive oil. You’re never far from your next mouthful in Puglia!

The previous night some new friends from Lecce had suggested a typical local restaurant to us for lunch called Nonna Tetti. They promised that we’d find dishes there that you’ll only find in Lecce. So with mouths watering in anticipation, we arrived at this busy neighbourhood restaurant to grab the last available table.

My “Ciceri e Tria” dish is a Salento classic. It came from the Arabs who once ruled Puglia and consists of earthy chickpeas and pasta in a kind of spiced broth. Some of the pasta is fried, giving a more-ish variety of textures and flavours. A distinctive and satisfying dish.

Ciceri e Tria at Nonna Tetti Photo by  https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

Nonna Tetti was again completely full of Lecce residents enjoying a slow leisurely lunch, as is the way all over Puglia, but we found this slow eating tradition particularly prevalent in Lecce. Maybe that’s another remnant of the Greek influence?

The next morning we were again embraced by warm Apulian hospitality when our hosts noted from the previous day that we were craving a savoury breakfast for a change (a challenge anywhere in Italy!) and so brought us a typical “rustico” filled with mozzarella and tomato.

This delicious pasty was quickly wolfed down with a bunch of sweet and juicy tomatoes from the local market, for an energising and typical “Leccese” start to the day!

Rustico photo by  https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

A rustico is usually enjoyed as streetfood during the day or evening rather than breakfast but we enjoyed doing it our way.

Sadly it was time to leave Lecce! My friend and I actually daydreamed about moving here one day, it had such an attractive feel as a city.

But we were also excited about heading for the Salento coast towards Gallipoli, especially as we’d already picked up umpteen suggestions from people we’d met about things to see and do there.

Gallipoli

While Gallipoli is seen as a bit of a party town, we were keen to explore its stunning coastline and row upon row of abundant sandy beaches. It has an evocative old town perched on a cliff which is mostly pedestrianised and comes alive at night. Even the name “Gallipolli” in Greek literally means “beautiful city” and one could immediately see why.

The contrast between the old town and the new area’s residential blocks and beachside developments is marked, but it felt “just right” and did not seem overdeveloped.

Once again we found a great little B&B called I Due Mari run by a hospitable lady called Elisabetta, who personally looks after her guests while somehow also dashing back home for her kids, since she is a busy mum too!

She took us up to the roof terrace to take in the stunning sea views and show us round our spacious apartment. Again we paid reasonable prices by negotiating directly with hotel/B&B owners. In Italy it often pays to book your accommodation direct and not bother with online booking sites. That also helps you develop a rapport with the owners and get access to their knowledge before, during and after your stay.

Martinucci Gelateria Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

Our Gallipoli experience started with a visit to a local gelateria (it was part of a group called Martinucci that we had also seen in Bari and other parts of Puglia) which always seemed crammed with local people.

Their range of flavours was a constant temptation in the summer heat and we couldn’t resist stopping by there frequently. Martinucci became our favourite pitstop throughout Puglia.

One thing I love about gelato in Italy is that you almost always find an extra-dark chocolate variety, my favourite flavour.

 Ice Cream Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

Charcoal dark, almost bitter in taste and extra-velvety in texture, it prepares the palate well for a strong espresso!

Martinucci gelato counter Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

After a stroll along the coastline to find our bearings we decided to return to the old town for dinner in the evening.

But to get there you need to cross a bridge that leads you through a little fish market set up with tables and vendors who prepare the fresh fish for you as a snack or meal in the open air, right in front of you! It was like a show, so theatrical were they in displaying their wares.

Seafood in Gallipoli port Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

We were sorely tempted to join them but had a booking in a restaurant in the old town recommended by Elisabetta so decided to move on. But the passion of the local people for presenting their seafood already had our mouths watering!

As we ventured into the old town it seemed that everyone was out for an evening passeggiata. In a uniquely Italian tradition, you will often see the whole family out together (sometimes several generations) before the youngsters peel off to their discos and parties while their parents linger for a quiet drink or a gelato.

Our restaurant was crowded but we again had no problem getting some recommendations from our waiter. And it was obvious that fish was the way to go.

My salmon encrusted with pistachio was influenced by Sicily and went down a treat garnished with balsamic vinegar and a refreshing slice of lemon.

Salmon with pistachio Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

My friend cleverly chose the “Tris di carpacci marinati” – a kind of sushi combo of swordfish, tuna and salmon –  another beautifully simple, delicious and healthy dish that drew envious glances from our neighbours.

Tables are almost always close together in Puglia so it’s easy to make friends!

Tris di carpacci marinati Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

Our waiter suggested a bar for us afterwards called “Blanc” where we were later able to sit outside in a beautiful hidden garden drinking exquisite cocktails. It felt like a slice of Ibiza in southern Italy.

Mojito at Blanc photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

My mojito was refreshing and hit the spot! The mojito fetish of the people of Puglia seemed to extend to the Salento region as well as northern Puglia. It prompted us to do a quick online search to see if there had ever been a Cuban conquest of Gallipolli (obviously not)!

The next day we found that the Gallipoli equivalent of Uber is a kind of shared taxi service where you hop into a minivan (‘navetta’) that will take you to a beach of your choice, usually with a bunch of other people you’ve picked up along the way.

Coordination and booking is done in a typical unstructured southern Italian style, using a combination of mobile messaging and hand gestures to move things along.

One big advantage is that the drivers have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the best places to eat, dance, relax, etc. and you generally pay a low flat rate, so it’s a great way to get around.

Gallipoli on the Ionian Sea Photo by Margie MiklasPhoto credit Margie Miklas

So we ended up exploring a few different beaches until we found one that suited our style – laid-back but also with a buzz and offering great snacks and drinks. It was great to see that even on the beach, Italians don’t really do unhealthy fast food – you get seafood, salads, pasta and high-quality sandwiches pretty much everywhere.

On one of our shared taxi rides we met someone whose friend was a chef in a nearby restaurant that she told us did a spectacular apericena – the extended version of aperitivo where you sit down in more comfortable surroundings and eat a varied menu (usually with a few options to choose from but without the stress of ordering a la carte) for a fixed price.

So we let her book us in blindly based solely on her recommendation and the fact it was reasonably priced. And we certainly didn’t know what to expect at Amame Gallipolli, which in fact turned out to be a nightclub where the apericena was designed to draw in an early crowd.

Despite the glamorous and stylish set-up when we arrived, I didn’t have high expectations for the dinner. But what followed ended up being one of our most memorable meals in Puglia!

Antipasto at Amame Gallipolli Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

For example the antipasto consisted of no less than 9 small plates! I’ve listed them here because each one was beautiful in its own way:

  • Prawn and rocket salad
  • Vegetable flan
  • Beef carpaccio
  • Woodland-inspired barley soup
  • Crispy anchovies
  • Seafood salad
  • Primo sale (an Italian sheep’s milk cheese)
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Capocollo (a traditional cut of pork)

These were followed by a steady flow of dishes course by course, topped off with a sumptuous dessert. My favourite was the fish main course which was a fillet of sea bass encased in a courgette crust – absolutely divine.

Sea bass at Amame Gallipolli Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

As you can see this plate made me smile.

Naturally, we stayed for the Gallipolli clubbing experience afterwards and weren’t surprised that many Italians see this town as their version of Ibiza!

And like in Ibiza, sunset watching is another ritual here.

The next day was spent on a relatively quiet beach but we then decided to do aperitivo at one of the most famous places for watching the sunset – Samsara Beach. They have a DJ and lively atmosphere which reaches a climax as the sun comes down and the excitement is infectious. Truly memorable!

Sunset at Samsara Beach Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

That evening, since it was going to be our last in Gallipolli, we again headed into the old town where we had discovered so many good places to eat.

Through another recommendation, we sat down at Le Garibaldine – a humble trattoria run by two sisters with a passion for local produce, particularly the vegetables in the countryside which they forage personally.

One of the owners kindly talked us through the menu and we were struck by her passion for local produce. She told us how as a child she used to forage for ingredients and learn recipes from her grandmother as they prepared fresh family meals every day.

So her idea was to create a simple restaurant that paid tribute to those recipes passed down through her family, using the best products in season from their local surroundings.

After this back-story we simply could not resist following her suggestion of starting with a plate called “Misto di campagna pugliese” which literally offered us a taste of the Apulian countryside!

Misto di campagna pugliese photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

This dish was absolutely exquisite. It’s hard to describe how a simple plate of vegetables (consisting of their incredibly flavoursome local onions, courgettes, peppers and aubergines with a hint of gratin and olive oil)  can make you want to sing, but the amazing local Apulian flavours blended together in perfect harmony.

This was followed by an equally divine “pomodori schiattarisciati” (try pronouncing that after a glass of wine!)– a dish you only find in the Salento consisting of spicy local tomatoes with a rustic onion and chilli sauce, scrubbed up with appropriately sponge-y local bread. So delicious because it brought out the rich, spicy earthiness of the local tomatoes and you just felt like immediately ordering another one.

Pomodori schiattarisciati Photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

This was one of the healthiest and also one of the most delicious meals we enjoyed in Puglia!

Our hostess rounded off proceedings by offering us a local dessert wine which she said was kept for special occasions since she had overheard that this was our final night in Puglia, together with some special homemade sweets.

Dolcetti e digestivi tipici photo by https://www.instagram.com/buona.forchetta/

A memorable conclusion to our stay in Gallipoli!

So we came to the end of our Puglia adventure but that’s not the end of the story: we decided to continue on to Naples after meeting plenty of persuasive napoletani in Puglia – however, that’s for another blog post!

Puglia is such a diverse territory it almost feels like a country of itself. There are many places missed out of the above itinerary that I’ve saved for my next trip: the stunning white sands of Otranto, the famous trulli rooftops of Alberobello and the atmospheric grottos of Matera (not strictly in Puglia but on its border) to name just a few.

But the thing we enjoyed most apart from the food was the wonderful warmth of the people. Visiting Puglia is a very social experience – and it can be done on a reasonable budget even during the height of summer!

Rajul Chande is a lifelong Italy lover based in London and founder of digital marketing agency Positive Partnerships. Check out his photos of food from Italy and elsewhere on Instagram @buona.forchetta .

Concierge Tip: Want to experience fine Italian cuisine showcasing the best Italian ingredients while in London? Recently-renovated Brunello Bar & Restaurant at Baglioni Hotel London offers a high-class Milan-style aperitivo, afternoon tea with an Italian twist or a gourmet Italian dinner in a stunning location right opposite Kensington Gardens.

 

 

 

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