Stepping off the tarmac for three nights in Puglia, the jolt of dry heat of Southern Italian spring mixed with salty breezes off the Adriatic sea awakened us after a quick and very early flight from Milan. My food journalist friend and I had planned to see Trani, Gargano and Ostuni in just a few days – on a mission to experience the food that is rooted in the thousand-year old twisted and gnarly olive trees. We longed to bathe our pallets in the birthplace of this liquid gold. After picking up our rental car we attempted to keep up with the Puglians speeding to lunch. Our pilgrimage to the home of taralli, orecchiette, year-round citrus and beyond was close at hand.
We’d enlisted Italian food expert Livio Colapinto to help us make the most of our short time. Find me at Orto di Pietro Zito Antichi Sapori, a trattoria an hour’s drive from the Bari airport, he told us. Pietro Zito himself walked us around his four acre organic orto –– the kitchen’s nearby garden – after lunch. The chalkboard above our table read “Maggio: raccolto, odori and in semina’. This was May’s garden harvest, a list of all the vegetables, fruits and herbs featured on this month’s menu. As any true farmer plans the growing season, Zito lists what seeds he’s planting for diners to read and pontificate.
As soon as we sat down, Zito, cuoco contadino (the farmer chef) sent plates upon plates to our table. They arrived family style and included burnt wheat orecchiette with “L’ Cimchcozz” apulian dialect for germogli aka zucchini shoots and hard ricotta; a bright green egg frittata filled with beet and dandelion greens, mint and marjoram. In Puglia, Livio explained how durum wheat grains were once cultivated and recultivated. After the harvest fields were burned, the peasants gleaned the grains that remained. This special wheat flour called grano arso was a necessary invention by frugal Italian farmers centuries back in efforts not to waste a single grain of anything. Burning fields is no longer a common practice yet the flavors, in the form of toasted semolina, remain alive due to chefs like Zito. His homage to Puglia’s contadino heritage transcends with the slightly smoky and nutty grey earshapped pasta intertwined with squash shoots – yet another delicious ingredient overlooked often by growers.
Like a young, bald and clean-shaven Santa Claus, Zito pointed out his prized heirloom vegetables as if they were little elves working night and day to spread cheer. The erbe selvatiche, herbs that are left to grow in wild abandon, flagrantly flaunting themselves beside otherwise pristinely kept rows. While this trattoria is a destination in a rural village of Montegrosso, a working class town with humble origins, Zito is lauded for traditional dishes that revolve around his garden. Dishes like pumpkin parmigiana and broad beans and chicory with fried olives are why Livio calls him the godfather of Apulian cuisine.
With several bags of Zito’s dried orecchiette al grano arso our the backseat, we set our navigator to Bitonto. 45 minutes by car on the way to Ostuni in the metropolitan outskirts of Bari, Bitonto since the 12th century, is at the center of northern Puglia’s olive oil production. Livio guided us through the medieval streets in search of Puglia’s most prized aperitivo snack: taralli. At Antico Forno San Pietro a legna di Nicola Bisceglia the stone wood-fired ovens have been cranking out these tiny, addictive crackers for over four centuries. After the oakwood fire is lit at 2AM, the oven hits max temperature. Their traditional bread from local durum wheat semolina is retrieved using long paddles. The ancient oven is capable of holding up to 300 kilos of bread (or 3 Fiat cinquecentos!) at one bake. As the oven temperature drops and the focaccia is done, the non-leavened taralli, made with flour, olive oil, white wine and salt go in. These flaky aperitivo crackers are twisted into little circles by hand at San Pietro. We piled several bags of fennel seed and onion taralli in our back seat, said ciao to Livio and made our way to Ostuni for the night.
Masseria le Carrube, is one of the many masserie (farmhouses) in Puglia restored for hospitality over the last 20 years as Puglia has risen to the top of any Italophile’s bucket list. Once a frantoio (olive oil production mill), the old mill equipment is in the lobby. Before dinner we took pictures in the gardens surrounding the buildings with the mediterranean chaparral and the blooming cacti. We both wondered why we weren’t staying longer.
Nestled at the crossroads of Fasano and Cisternino, the door to Trattoria il Cortiletto is a hole-in-the wall with a sign easily missed while driving past it at dusk. The beaded doorway led us into a precious candlelit veranda much larger than a little alley as the name hints. The bounteous antipasti spread of fava bean salad, stuffed eggplant, fruity tomatoes suspended in peppery olive oil were complemented by a lively Bombino Nero rosé. Our shared primo of fresh pasta maccheroncini with lemon pesto and fresh perch left room for the crunchy cannoli filled with almond mousse and fresh strawberries.
While one night was certainly not enough to see (or eat) in Ostuni, Livio was waiting for us back in Trani. We stopped in Alberobello for a few photos and explored Trani before a light aperitivo dinner followed by gelato, still full from yesterday. We met Livio in the morning for a trip to the spur of Italy’s boot: Gargano. A large territory that includes one of the largest forests in Europe and Gargano National Park we stopped first in Rignano to meet what I am sure are the happiest cows on earth. Livio introduced us to the Paglicci cows and also to one of his good friends, Giuseppe Paglicci: agronomist, heritage cow and goat breeder and a multigenerational cheese maker. His caciocavallo podolico cheese is only made in small batches in a cast iron cauldron over a wood burning fire. The only evidence of technology within the stone barn was a thermometer hanging on a thin string by the wall. Roaming free year-round in 500 hectares of unspoiled mediterranean bush, Paglicci cows have over an acre to call their own yet the land is dry and rocky and so the cows must be nourished by Paglicci and his family. While caciocavallo is common in Southern Italy, podolico refers to the fact that this cheese is entirely made from the milk of the stunning podolica bovine; grey and beige colored with large commanding horns. Paglicci, along with the support of the Slow Food movement, are trying to preserve these animals — it is estimated that only 25,000 remain in Italy. Only expert cheesemakers who have mastered the stretched-curd can shape the caciocavallo into its iconic rounded bottle form, bathed in a cold water and brine immersion and then hung for maturation.
The magic, love and labor to keep these cows alive cloaked each bite of cheese in pure joy.
Before our final meal with Livio, he took us to meat artisan Michele Sabatino in Apricena. Livio hyperbolically described Sabatino as the best butcher in the world. We soon learned that he wasn’t the only one. Sabatino’s meat was shipped weekly around Italy including to Milan’s two Michelin starred restaurant Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia. Chefs all the way in Milan feel the same way.
Sabatino explained that like the rare citrus fruits and olive cultivars, the wild breeds of cow, pork and goat populating its National Park have been devoured by Gargano people for generations. Sabatino is a proud breeder of the indigenous black Dauno pig, supplied by five other local farms include Paglicci’s masseria. His shop in Apricena supplies many villages in Gargano. As he walked us through his facility he shared: “My wish is that consumers and society will treasure and remember what nature gives us. I hope this will not be forgotten. The air we breathe and the food we eat requires human attention and we can’t live without taking care of our land.”
While our hearts exploded with all the Puglian artisans we had met, our stomachs were ready for one more meal. Gargano has beautiful beaches and a dramatic coastline of white limestone cliffs. With little time for anything but lunch, we went straight to the end of Italy’s spur to experience the trabucchi, seaside restaurants that center their menu around the old fishing techniques. In Gargano, they are protected as historical monuments. At Al Trabucco da Mimi, the trabucco is an ancient wooden structure with ropes, pulleys and knots. It looks like a beautiful wooden sculpture that if you affixed a sail to it, it might soar into the sea. They are still used by fishermen daily to cast their nets into the Adriatic. Antipasti with octopus, anchovies and mackerel kicked off our meal before an entire mullet graced the picnic-style table, a surfboard hanging from the ceiling. Built with wood saved from refuse after big coastal storms, the Ottaviano family established Al Trabucco in the 1920s. Today, the grandchildren Domenico and Vincenzo who have experience working in kitchens in Asia and Australia carry on the delicious family tradition alongside their parents Carlo and Rossella.
It’s only a matter of time that we will return to this culture I grew to love in 72 hours, with so many nooks and crannies in this expansive culture, food and nature-rich region. I aspire to make it at least 72 days next time.