The Southern Italian region of Puglia has never been at a loss for great food and drink. In the old days, by train, it used to be an overnight slog of six-plus hours from Rome. These days, with smaller air carriers, you can get there in an hour from all over Europe.
It is a region that has long been known for its mix of beaches, castles, fantastic seafood and great wines. Food in much of Southern Italy, contradictory to the commonly held belief, tends to be actually much more vegetable focused and lighter in style.
Traditions from the region’s cucina povera or “poor cuisine” still hold sway and locally harvested field greens run riot in many of the local dishes. Orechiette with rape—or broccoli rabe—is one of my first, and best, food memories from the region and the dish still reigns supreme.
You almost can’t go wrong in the cities and small towns of Puglia. Fresh fish is hauled directly out of the ocean, burrata—a cream-filled version of mozzarella—is abundant; and the local wines are fresh and affordable.
What is more, if you rent a house you can try your own hand with local ingredients and potentially cook up some of the best meat and pasta that you might ever eat. Breakfasts are rich in local jams, meats and bouncy mozzarella swimming in olive oil.
One of my best food experiences was in the outskirts of Bari. Al Gusto Antico is a restaurant and pizzeria with a lovely garden that is open until midnight. The wine list is limited but has some delightful wines such as a Negroamaro—a local grape—vinified in a white wine version. It is rare—only a handful of winemakers produce it—and fresh, fruit forward and delicious.
The restaurant serves up simple dishes of orechiette in a couple of ways: including, when in season, with rape. The portions are for two so come hungry. The pizzas are also amazing: crunchy, savory and fresh out of the wood-burning oven.
Other Foodie Destinations
Mola di Bari is a small, residential town just outside of Bari itself. For reference Bari has about 300,000 residents compared to Mola’s 25,000. However several of them are cooking up a storm. The only joint in town open on a Monday when we rolled into town was the seafront La Rotonda.
Where the restaurant is short on charm, it is big on talent in the kitchen. Lobster-drenched pastas and others made with local artichokes were stunning and incredibly affordable at seven Euros a pop. Once again, sadly the wine list is limited, with local distributors seemingly buying out whole lists at restaurants and dedicating them to only a handful of producers.
The Aromi Bistro, in the town of Sannicandro di Bari, is also a standout for its delicious pastas and fabulous flans and antipasti. The castle, of the same name, right around the corner is well worth a visit.
The region’s great, diverse bounty of local wines is worth seeking out in local wine shops. Fresh and fruity whites like Falanghina are great with seafood and local grapes such as Uva di Troia make delicious red wines and are part of blends with other noted red grapes such as Primitivo and Aglianico.