Not what most people expect when they close their eyes and imagine Italy, Puglia’s landscape has as much in common with North Africa across the sea as with the rest of Continental Europe. It’s flat, arid and empty, in a starkly impressive way, its buildings shimmering white or the locally distinctive pointy stone towers. It is also very, very green, blanketed in olive groves and vineyards. If Italy is a boot, Puglia is its heel, a rugged coastal region with plenty of Mediterranean exposure in the southwestern part of the country.
Olive Oil – The Real Deal
But for foodies it is no low point: Puglia has wonderful cuisine, and is especially famous for its olive oil. No region in Italy produces more of the glorious green/gold elixir, and in Italy, where custom requires all citizens to be proudest of their homegrown products, most folks across the country will agree that after their home town, Puglia’s oils are best. You cannot turn your head without spotting olive trees, and nearly half of Italy’s total output comes from this one small area, smothered in more than half a million olive trees. Extra virgin olive oil is best enjoyed very fresh, and since the Pugliese cover just about every dish in the stuff, the best time to revel in the culinary splendors of the region are the fall, during and after harvest and pressing season.
In North America, Tuscan olive oils are the best known, but because Florence is the northernmost major olive growing region, with temperamental growing conditions, its oils are usually delicate blends, the Burgundy of oil. In contrast, Puglia is big California Cabernet, bold and powerful and more often than not single varietal oils made entirely from one kind of olive (there are hundreds in Italy alone). The most famous local variety is the Coratina olive. Locals use different varieties with different dishes, like wine pairing, so in restaurants its best to go with the flow and let the experts choose. Because much oil labelled extra virgin in North America is old or subpar, a surprising number of visitors realize they have never tasted great olive oil before reaching Italy, and Puglia in particular, where it is unmistakably rich.
Great olive oil has been described as “Drinking the sun, the very taste of ripeness.” Prepare to be moved. Almost everyone will want to bring some back, and it’s best to buy from a local producer whose oil you have tasted (but use it quickly when you go home, within a year of purchase and three months of opening). Puglia has several different PDOs, Protected Designation of Original for its extra virgin olive oils, geographic designations of superior regions. Look for the PDO seal on any oils you buy, the most famous being Terra di Bari DOP from around Puglia’s capital of Bari.
There’s a lot more in the region than oil. Thanks to a confluence of cultural influences, the Pugliese love chickpeas and lamb, more associated with the Arabic cooking of nearby North Africa or their other close neighbor Greece. Other local favorites include fava beans, strong greens like arugula and dandelions, and all manner of seafood, goat, and pork. If you’ve been to Italy you’ve probably seen the distinctive round crackers shaped like a ring, an inch or two across, a cross between a breadstick and a pretzel, which are sold in bags everywhere. These are taralli, a Pugliese specialty (pictured right). In fact, many foods common in Italy originate here. The region’s most famous pasta, on menus all over the area, is orecchiette, meaning ‘little ear’ that is known worldwide. As in the rest of the world, you’ll often see it on menus here cooked with broccoli rabe.
All across North America, street fairs, especially in Italian neighborhoods, inevitably feature zeppoli, light fried balls of dough sprinkled with powdered sugar and served warm. A sort of primitive doughnut, zeppoli are an emblematic Italian festive sweet, and these too are a Pugliese specialty. But here they come in myriad varieties, including versions that are baked, not fried, and others stuffed with cream or chocolate.
In the food-centric movie The Big Night, the Italian chef bases his feast around an elaborate timbale, a drum-shaped stuffed pasta dish, a sort of very elaborate take on lasagna. In this vein, one specialty not to be missed in Puglia is maccheroni al forno, pasta mixed with meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, veggies and spices and whatever else the particular family recipe calls for, all put into a pasta crust “pie” and baked. It’s not for low-carb dieters, but it is a rich local tradition you won’t find in many other places.
Lamb is more common as a protein here than in other parts of the country, and this is also reflected in the cheese making tradition, with lots of sheep’s milk cheeses like sharp pecorino (pictured right). One very notable exception to the sheep’s milk trend is burrata, a water buffalo cheese that is to mozzarella what Kobe is to steak: a rich, creamy, decadent style that has become trendy the world over, but it calls Puglia home – and it tastes better here. The cheese is made in balls, the thin skin containing a creamy soft, almost liquid version of mozzarella, which oozes out slightly when the ball is split, like the inside of a molten chocolate cake. This being Puglia, the whole thing is then doused with fresh, delicious extra virgin olive oil, and spread on pieces of bread. While burrata has become a hit worldwide, its stylistic sibling burrino has not, so be on the lookout for this fresh provolone ball with a buttery center on your trip.
Puglia has a lot of coastline, and the foods of the sea are very important here, especially some lesser known fish you won’t typically see many other places, such as red mullet, sea bass, bream, and cuttlefish. Baby octopus is also quite popular, and like the aforementioned fish, it is typically grilled and doused with, you guessed it, extra virgin olive oil. Mussels are the most popular shellfish, and anchovies are widely eaten in every possible way.
Wines from Puglia
You’ll need some wine to wash this all down, and fortunately Puglia is one of the top wine producing regions in Italy, at least in volume. Stylistically its wines are quite similar to Sicily, which shares the hotter southern climate and coastal influences, and they also share an important grape variety, primitivo, used to make full bodied fruity reds that can be consumed young. Scientists now believe Primitivo to be the same grape as California’s Zinfandel and if not, it is very close. Most of the wine here is red, with whites accounting for less than a fifth of production, mostly Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and a handful of lesser known local grapes.
While Primitivo is the most popular red grape, the best known wine of Puglia is Salice Salentino, made from the obscure Negroamaro, a variety cultivated almost no place else. Negroamaro is used in many of Puglia’s finest wines and is worth seeking out. Salice Salentino is a small DOC (designated high quality wine zone) on the Salento peninsula and home to several producers of the wine, of which Taurino is the best known internationally. These wines are very inexpensive so splurge when buying and look for “riserva” on the label, which mandates 2 years of aging. Salice Salentino is a drinkable fruity wine, similar to Pinot Noir but a bit weightier and less complex. Mangia!
Where to stay in Puglia