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 teenage 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 mixed 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 the entire 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 if she was derived from milk.
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, a sense of place and tradition all come together in an elegant melody at Il Poety Contadino.
A slightly less traditional twist on classic Pugliese seaside cooking. Expect a lot of crudo, excellent cavatelli with clams, all of the best of the Adriatic simply grilled or baked and served with local oil, lemon and fresh hot chilis.
Perhaps the most famous spot in 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.