Spaghetti with tomatoes from Vesuvius at Machiavelli restaurant, Pompeii

 

First came the American travelers In their private jets, then frequent travelers to Italy who have done Tuscany, Venice, Rome and Florence. Apulia (or Puglia in Modern Italian) is getting discovered, but has still escaped the crowds and high prices, and maintains its authenticity and sense of place, and it’s a gem. It was here we recently traveled after Ethiopia (Ethiopian Airways has nonstop service from Addis Ababa to Rome). As with my earlier travel Fabulous Friday, rather than a travel article, I’m going to tell you about fascinating facts about the region relating to Italian history and customs, and show you culinary eye candy. Sit back, relax, and enjoy:

 

In the boot of Italy, the southeastern part, Puglia was always a bridge to the Holy Land. The coastal city of Brindisi on the Adriatic Sea was the main port, through which passed the  Crusaders. Before they departed on their rough trip, they had what was probably their last drinks.And so, the legend is that the word for toast in Italian became “brindisi” (in Spanish, “brindis”).

 

Pirates preyed on the region, their preferred booty, olive oil.At the time, the precious oil was exclusively used for lighting in oil lamps. It was only later, with the advent of other materials for lighting, that olive oil came to be used in cooking.

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Making mozzarella all by hand at Itria Bonta

 

The region is the home of Mozzarella and burrata. Giorgio Spalluto of Itria Bonta, an artisanal producer of cheese in Alberobello, told me the key to the best mozzarella and burrata. They should taste like milk and have a soft texture. The real thing can only last three days as it has no preservatives.

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2000 year old olive tree dating from the Roman times that still bears fruit, seen at Masseria Brancati, Ostuni

 

Here you can find 2000 year old olive trees, the same ones planted by the Romans. Their gnarled, twisted trunks are like works of art. It’s next to impossible to kill an olive tree because its roots are so deep. There are 6 million olive trees dating from the Romans in Puglia.

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Harvesting olives from 2000 year old trees planted in Roman times at Masseria Brancati, Ostuni

 

Cave like dwellings abound, where people live to this day, and five star hotels have been carved out of rock. Best example of this is spectacular Matera where you can see cave living from the Stone Age, through medieval times, up to the present.

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Cave city of Matera, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

 

According to Pietro, Sous Chef, and Gian Luca, Restaurant Manager of five star Relais et Chateaux hotel La Sommita in Ostuni, traditional Pugliese foods include the famed pasta orrechiette (usually small shells ) and cavatelli (pasta that looks like miniature hot dog buns), crunchy circle shaped biscuits flavored with tomato, fava beans served with whatever produce is seasonal, chicory as a favored green, olives, mozzarella and burrata cheese and a Pecorino Pugliese. Today, most restaurants utilize these ingredients in contemporary ways, teaming them up with meats, fresh seafood, and tomatoes — healthy and delicious. Here’s a photo gallery of some of our favorite dishes from the towns of Lecce, Ostuni, Polignano a Mare and Matera.

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Zucchini spaghetti with sundried tomatoes and Pecorino from Puglia

 

 

 

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Zucchini blossoms stuffed with mozzarella and fried

 

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Steamed cod with greens, tomatoes and mango

 

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Strascianati, a variation on orrechiette, with straciatella cheese, bacon and fresh tomatoes

 

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Swimmingly fresh raw Sea Bream served with olive oil, lemon and local capers

 

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Flan of cod

 

 

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Baked rack of lamb with salted roasted potatoes

 

Who would ever think of serving smoked salmon with ricotta cheese? So much better than cream cheese as it has a delicate flavor and creamy texture that is a perfect foil for the salmon.

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Smoked salmon with riccotta from the five star Masseria Torre Maizza

 

In the finer restaurants these delicious dishes are served on artistic ceramics from the town of Grottalgia. You can visit these workshops and shops (I was told there are more than 50). At the top ones, the ceramics are so sophisticated and handsome that you think you’re walking through the home decor shops of Barney’s or Bergdorf Goodman in New York. And of course, everything is a fraction of the cost.

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Ceramics from Enza Fasano in Grottalgia

 

Though Naples isn’t in the region of Puglia, it’s a logical gateway and historically once governed all of the South. So I’m making an exception and featuring pizza from Naples, the place where it was invented. Here, quatro stagione — four seasons. After eating this pizza, any other will pale by comparison. It’s not just the thin, crisp yet chewy dough, but also, hands down the tastiest crust ever. Another exception is the spaghetti dish from Pompeii made with local Vesuvian tomatoes in the top photo.

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Quatro staggione pizza in Naples

If you’re interested in a private tour of Puglia, I highly recommend Southern Visions who is based in Puglia, and crafted a wonderful trip for us.

Photography by William Oberheiser

 



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