Puglia is one of my favorite Italian regions for deep food immersion and it would be a shame to squander even a single culinary opportunity, so don’t cringe when I tell you: eat pezzetti and involtini di cavallu. Both are braised horse. Just do it. While on the quest for Puglia’s treats (equine and otherwise), bear in mind that the region is huge and overwhelming. I recommend beginning in Bari, which many visitors pass over. It’s a shame because historic Bari Vecchia is gorgeous and atmospheric and has some delicious focaccia at a place called Panificio Fiore (Str. Palazzo di Città, 38).
South of Bari in Polignano al Mare, check out Da Tuccino for crudi and generally other fishy awesomeness. Also in Polignano there’s Super Mago del Gelo for granite (mulberry and almond flavors are terrific). Further south along the coast in Monopoli, visit Lido Bianco (for more crudi). Near Fasano on the coastal road SS Savelletri-Torre Canne there’s a place called La Rotonda. They do grilled octopus and piles of sea urchins, which they serve with bread to scoop out the roe. The place is super simple with zero frills.
I’m not a super fan of Alberobello, the touristy town in the Valle d’Itria with the highest concentration of conical trulli (I prefer driving or cycling around the region instead), but you should probably stop there for at least a stroll. L’Aratro is nice for a bite featuring local specialties: vegetable-based antipasti, capocollo, cheeses, fave e cicoria, and orecchiette. Work off lunch by strolling the cute towns of Cisternino, Locorotondo, Noci, and Martina Franca nearby.
In Salento, the “heel” of the Italian boot, I have found a sad decline in the food and even the towns of the region as tourism (Italian and foreign) coupled with a local economy that prizes quantity over quality have ravaged the dining culture. Gallipoli is especially sad, but Otranto is increasingly depressing as well. For the best experience, consider avoiding Salento in high season (June-August), but if you can’t, be prepared to eat very badly in both towns. Lecce, the spectacular rock-hewn capital of Salento doesn’t have a ton of good restaurants, either, but you’ll eat well at Le Succursale and Quanto Basta mixes some of the best cocktails in the south. Don’t leave town without eating rustici and pasticciotti at Cafe Alvino in Piazza Sant’Oronzo. Check out the pasticciotti at Pasticceria Citiso, as well. The most famous spot in Lecce, Le Zie, wasn’t all that on a recent trip, which totally bummed me out.
In Guagnano 20 min outside Lecce, there is an excellent traditional trattoria called L’Orecchietta. It’s an adorable family run place that started as a pasta shop but now they do meals cafeteria style (but very good). There is an excellent local wine selection and the place is open at lunch, closes for the afternoon, then reopens until 8PM.
Further south, Nardo’ and Galatina are 2 beautiful little inland towns great for passeggiata and apetitivo. There’s a little bar in the main square in Nardo’ called Caffe Parisi. They have a great selection of spirits and a pretty outdoor patio on the square for aperitivo or an after dinner drink.
As previously mentioned, Otranto lost its lustre ages ago, but it’s still kind of a must for a passeggiata (though prepare to cringe at the tourist traps). If you do have to eat in Otranto, visit Peccato Di Vino. Meanwhile, inland, Farmacia dei Sani in Ruffano is very good, if a bit fancier than what I crave in Salento. For traditional dishes, try Rua de Li Travaj in Patù. Get in a swim at Torre del Orso, Sant’Andrea, and la Grotta della Poesia before heading to the Ionian coast to catch the sunset. If you go to Gallipoli and need a reliable bite, Blue Salento is a fine option. Though if you want to eat properly good food in that part of Salento, make the 20-minute drive inland to Le Macàre in Alezio.
Now as for what to eat in Puglia, here’s what’s typical:
Pasticciotti (cream-filled tarts), mustaccioli (cookies made with wine must), fave e cicoria (fava bean puree with sauteed greens), burrata, gamberi rossi di Gallipoli (sweet red shrimp), pane di Altamura (hearty durum wheat bread), focaccia, tieddhra di cozze e patate (casserole of mussels and potatoes), cozze pelose (“hairy” mussels), taralli, turcinieddhri (roasted heat, lungs, liver, and caul fat from goats or lambs), ricotta, capocollo di Martina Franca (cured pork shoulder), orecchiette con cime di rapa (ear-shaped pasta with sauteed greens), cavatelli con pomodoro e ricotta scante (pasta with tomato and fermented ricotta), panzerotti (fried mini calzones), giuncata (soft, fresh cheese), rustici (puff pastry filled with tomato, béchamel, and mozzarella), polenta fritta (fried polenta), crocche’ di patate (potato croquettes), purpu alla pignata (simmered octopus), granita di gelso nero (black mulberry granita), and latte di mandorla (almond milk). Is your skin feeling taut just thinking about the food extravaganza? Good! 🙂
Special thanks to Linda and Vanessa Rampino for directing me to many of the delicious places above.