Mention Puglia to any Italian, and you’ll likely be greeted with an expression of sheer bewilderment — until, that is, they realize that what you’re actually trying to say (but butchering in exceptional fashion) is poo-lee-a.
But once it’s clear that you’re referencing the sun-drenched heel of Italy, you’ll be hard-pressed to get anyone to stop praising this relatively undiscovered region in the south.
Whitewashed, cliffside villages teem with history and tangible Greek influence, while offering sweeping, crystalline views of the Ionian and Adriatic seas. Rolling hills and expansive olive groves dot the countryside, as do vineyards and farms shaping the country’s budding agriturismo industry.
While hoards of tourists flock to Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast every year, Puglia has managed to retain a quintessential Italian flair — not to mention a cuisine boldly celebrating the freshest flavors of the Mediterranean.
Puglia is responsible for 40% of the olive oil production in Italy and 12% globally, with the primarily varietals being Coratina, Provenzale, and Ogliarola. At its best, you’ll notice unmistakable peppery undertones and a gratifying sting in the back of the throat, which explains why most chefs native to the region eschew ground pepper while cooking.
Given the low smoke point of high-quality extra virgin olive oil (evoo), it’s almost always added at the tail-end — or after — cooking. And if you’re a fan of spice, ask for olive oil infused with peperoncino, but be judicious when drizzling since it’s most definitely not for the faint of heart.
The Awaiting Table — a cooking school based out Lecce — produces an incredible, high-quality product (and they ship internationally, too).
Given the region’s proximity to the sea, it’s no surprise that fish makes an appearance on almost every menu. And for the most part, it’s the heart-healthy, oily kinds — from anchovies and sardines to tuna, swordfish, and mackerel. Simplicity is the modus operandi when it comes to technique, but with fish this fresh, a few minutes on the grill, a shower of herbs, a squeeze of lemon juice, and the requisite drizzle of evoo is all you really need.
Octopus, or polpo in Italian, is also common and often found in salads with wisps of flat-leaf parsley and ribs of crunchy celery doused in a tangy lemon dressing.
Fava Beans & Chicory
Although the wholesome pairing of creamy fava beans and bitter chicory was once considered peasant fare, it is now an indisputable, elevated staple of the region’s cuisine. The presentation varies — you may find it akin to soup à la Escarole and Beans, or more solid with a fava bean mash serving as the base for the chicory. And in some cases, the two are served separately, with the fava mixture on one side of the plate and chicory on the other.
The greens are meant to be enjoyed spaghetti-style by twirling your fork (and bringing some fava along for the ride). But dense, crusty bread will never be too far away, so feel free to go that route to enjoy the simplest, most humble expression of gastronomic harmony.
Vegetables (Zucchini, Eggplant, Tomatoes)
Given the vegetable-forward nature of the Mediterranean diet, seasonal produce is rife throughout the Pugliese region. So keep a close eye out for the inconspicuous bottom corner of the menu listing out side dishes and do yourself a favor by ordering the grilled vegetables every single time.
You won’t be disappointed by the impossibly thin strips of grilled eggplant and zucchini, with nothing but evoo and flaky sea salt to jazz things up. Cherry tomatoes may just make an appearance too, for a pop of warm, juicy flavor with every bite.
No post about Italy is complete without mentioning pasta, which almost always serves as the first course (or il primo) of a proper meal. This time-honored, carbs-before-meat sequence harkens back to the days when animal protein was simply too expensive, so filling up on pasta and risotto dishes became increasingly common.
Throughout Puglia and the neighboring Basilicata, concave orecchiette (or “small ears”) is the pasta of choice made with a 70/30 ratio of hard durum wheat flour to nutty barley flour — plus water and salt. Eggs, once considered a luxury, are nowhere to be found in the rustic recipe.
Some dishes err on the side of minimalism with just-heated-through tomatoes, evoo, and arugula or basil, while others boast bolder flavors with salty capers and anchovies, bitter greens (beet, turnip, or broccoli rabe), and toasted breadcrumbs.
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
- Have you ever been to Puglia? If so, what are your most vivid taste memories?
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