Stretching out eastward towards Greece and Byzantium, Puglia, the heel of the boot that is Italy, looks more like wind-swept northern Africa or sun toasted Greece than any part of the rest of Italy. Nearly 500 miles of coastland wrap around a geological treasure trove of variation, from the craggy and hilly Gargano peninsula to the Murge, the high grassy plain that dominates the center of this region of wheat and olive farming, then south to the flat half moon of the gulf of Taranto. The landscape of the Murge is dotted with mysterious looking conical shelters called I Trulli, built by an ancient race and still used for agricultural storage and teen make-out sessions
I must admit I am very high on Puglia. In my opinion this is the next "Tuscany" for the American traveler; it is exotic, yet accessible, its people are poets and thinkers and workers, and when all mixes together it works and is user friendly.
The food is a sum of local ingredients, dominated by olives and their oil, dried legumes such as favas and ceci beans, wild foraged greens, onions and lily bulbs, peppers and wheat. The bread of Puglia is renowned throughout all of Italy and is used fresh, dried and stale in hundreds of dishes. The local pasta is made of durum wheat and water and is formed in to chewy disks called orecchiette (little ears) or twisted pappardelle cognates called sagne, but commercially made dried strand pasta, often referred to as vermicelli in classic recipes, is used in many dishes. Meat, as in all of the poor south, is used for special occasions, or in small quantities in pastas or soups, but rarely in the American style as a massive main course. Cheese takes on a certain spirituality in the form of burrata, a frame of mind god would dream of is she was derived from milk
My favorite restaurants are almost all with in 2 hours drive from Bari, so it is an excellent starting point for a gastro tour. In Bari proper my fave is Alberosole (corso Vittorio Emanuele,13, tel 0805235446) because it is only 50 seats and is run by a hip young couple as interested in wine as they are food and also because it is not a fish only place. A meal started with the antipasto of grilled mozzarella with an anchovy drizzle, followed by handmade fusilli with shelled mussels and fresh chilis, followed by the same mozzarella again as a main course, just because it was so good, then finished with a prickly pear gelato that knocked me into next week. Just down the block at corso Vittorio Emanuele, 111 is a different end of the same prism at Lo Sprofundo (tel 080 5213697) where there is a slightly less traditional twist on classic pugliese seaside cooking. A lot of crudo (the raw seafood appetizers that the board of health warns you about, but that I love), excellent cavatelli with clams, mussels and calamari and all of the best of the Adriatic, simply grilled or baked and served with local oil, lemon and fresh hot chilis.
Just north of Bari, 15 minutes by car, is a tiny town called Molfetta, home of one of the modern greats, Bufi
via V Emanuele,15…tel 0803971597) replete with elegant table top, great wine list and serious and comfortable service. Unusual yet well thought dishes such as a warm souffle of mussels and clams, warm ricotta crostini with raw anchovies and scallions followed by paccheri stuffed with mackerel and baked in the sweetest tangy tomato sauce and then grilled scampi with just lemon and no oil, left a tingly perfection on the back of my palette. South of Bari, in Mola di Bari is an unlikely named spot in a tiny classic borgo called Niccolo van Westerhout (via de amicis, 3, tel 0804744253) where the meals start with the southern Italian tradition of a series of 5 or 6 (or 8 or 9) small assagi of antipasti, including a tiny burrata of the most memorable sharpness and involtini of tiny white eggplant around chopped olives and divine ricotta. Simple spaghetti stained with squid ink and sweetened with torn basil is all you need here, followed by a grilled fish, a taste of lemon granita and a bite of almond cake and the whole egg of pugliese dining comes into focus with the clarity of a falling dream.
Heading down the coast, take a right at Monopoli and head inward to the town of Alberobello where a giant trullo has been converted into a spot where poetry, sense of place and tradition all come together in an elegant melody at Il Poet Contadino (via indipenza, 21…tel 0804321917) The wine list alone is an epic tome, replete with all of Italy's greatest labels, as well as French and even American classics. The menu is a blend of modern and classic pugliese cooking, served in a quiet elegance that does not suffocate an excellent time.
Another 60 miles down the road and there is the best restaurant in Puglia. Fornello da Ricci is in Ceglie Messapica (calle da Montevicoli, just up passed the campground, tel 0831 377104) and is the most famous of all Puglia, loved by critics and locals alike. Aside from it's magnificent setting in a country home in a park like forest, the greeting and general level of comforting yet correct service and hospitality are extraordinary. The food starts with a mind blowing series of antipasti, each one radical yet simple in its perfection. This is the place to eat the definitive ricotta stuffed squash flower, or a simple plate of fava bean puree with the most delicate and yet bitter cicoria, or a dish of spaghettoni with ricotta forte or tiny meatballs with just a squeeze of lemon, leathery orecchiette in peppery pork ragu, mixed grill of the innards of lamb or pork, an unreal selection of local cheeses served with several kinds of honey and mosto cotto from local wine grapes. I could go on and on! The place is perfect! f you are within 200 miles of this place and choose not to eat here, you are mistaken.