As I already mentioned, my mother’s hometown is in Salento, the southernmost part of Puglia, which is the easternmost part of Italy, in the South.
I could bore you for ages about the history and the geography of this region, and the impact that both have had on Salento, but this is a food & travel blog, so let’s first address the most important issue: what do you eat in Salento?
Historically, Puglia is a land of farmers who were working the vast estates of a few rich landowners. They were growing wheat, mainly, so that Puglia was famous for being the granary of Italy.
Therefore it is not surprising that the traditional food of Puglia is not opulent.
Wheat flour is found in pasta and other oven products: friselle and taralli, and bread, of course, it’s made with durum wheat and it’s called puccia: There are also small puccia breads with olives and/or tomatoes, the puccelle. Barley flour was an economic alternative to wheat’s, and it is still very common.
You will have to drive just a few miles into the curvy country roads to find yourelf among fields of olive trees as far as your eye can see. EVO from Puglia has a very decided taste, and it is used to preserve the many bounties of this land: to name a few, bitter lampascioni, wild paparine, briny critimi.
Livestock here means sheeps and goat, and traditional cheeses, such as hard cacioricotta, are made with these milks.
As for meats, other that sheep, Salento has a tradition with horseflesh, as horses were eaten, when they got too old to work in the fields. Offal are common, as the precious cuts of meat were for the wealthy and the noble.
Then, being a peninsula, also fish is present: mainly oily fish, whose value has now been revaluated, after being snobbed for centuries by the well-off classes.
Typical cuisine from Salento reflects all this.
As a starter, you can try the pittule, deep-fried small balls of bread dough. They may contain small bits of other ingredients, savoury or sweet, depending on the time of year.
As a first course, you may choose between ciceri e tria (handmade tagliatelle with chickpeas, the pasta is half boiled half fried), or sagne ‘ncannulate with ricotta forte (I showed them here) or orecchiette con le brasciole (orecchiette pasta with roulades and the tomato sauce where roulades have been cooked). If you visit in wintertime, you can find orecchiette with cime di rapa (famous in the USA as broccoli rabe) and fave e cicoria (fava beans puree with a variety of hickory).
As a main dish, tajeddha (an oven baked dish of rice, potatoes and mussels); polpo alla pignata (octopus), pezzetti di cavallo al sugo (horseflesh stew), brasciole (roulades) in tomato sauce; turcinieddhi (lamb offal roulades, on the grill).
Dessert are strongly influenced by the different dominations, especially from Turkey: almond paste is a classic, even if it’s not an ingredient of the iconic pasticciotto.
What to do other than stuffing oneself?
Salento is very convenient, because it has two coasts with opposite characteristics: rocks and cliffs on the Adriatic coast and white beaches on the Ionian coast. There is something for everyone, and if you change your mind… Salento is just 53 km wide!
I like rocks, so for me it’s the Adriatic!
My favourite spot is called Frassanito, which is actually a rocky beach! I spent all my youth summers on the rocks of Torre Sant’Andrea, and a few years ago I discovered Baia dei Turchi (called so because it is said to be the bay where the Ottomans landed ashore in 1480). Other popular spots include Roca, with its Ancient Rome diggings and the only actual beaches in this area: Torre dell’Orso, Alimini and Acquachiara.
On the Ionian sea, in recent years the so-called “Salento’s Maldives” in Pescoluse have become hugely popular… I went to give a look, and was not impressed. There is plenty of gorgeous beaches: Punta Prosciutto up north, Baia Verde and even the big Torre San Giovanni beach, just south of Gallipoli.
Even on this side it is possible to find rocks, anyway: I love Punta Suina and Porto Selvaggio.
Wherever you go, in the summer months you’ll find hundreds of people, and minimum beach facilities, so brace yourself and go june or September: the weather is every bit as good as july or august, but the crowds are not there. Plus you get off-seasons prices.
And if the weather is not good, or when you get bored by the seaside, there’s plenty of day-trips.
LECCE & SURROUNDINGS
In my opinion, the only attraction where you want to pay the admission is the Museum of the Roman Theatre. The Castle is not really interesting, besides it has been used as a garrison for the Carabinieri for decades and I don’t know if restoration works have been conducted recently.
The beauty of Lecce lies in the golden colour of the stone that all of the city centre is made of. The many churches, from the cathedral, Santa Croce, to Santa Chiara and Sant’Irene are in the Barocco Leccese style, a very richly ornated style made possible by the softness of the stone, a tuff that has been shaped by man and reshaped by time, often with conflicting, fascinating outcomes.
In Lecce you will want to sample all the specialties from the territory. These are good picks:
Cucina casereccia (known as “Le zie”, the aunts) via colonnello A. Costadura 19, tel. 0832 245178. Inside what once was an apartment, this place should be your first choice. Taste everything if you can, you cannot choose wrong. The place is very small, and very famous… reservation mandatory.
Alle due corti, corte dei giugni 1, tel 0832-242223. Reservation recommended, otherwise the wait can be long, especially in summer. The place to try ciceri e tria or fave e cicoria. Remarkable wine list.
Osteria degli spiriti, Via Cesare Battisti 4 tel. 0832 246274; a little more elegant in the setting.
Trattoria Nonna Tetti, Piazzetta Regina Maria, tel 0832-246036. Very rustic place, and very low prices: I have to admit that it’s been many years since my last visit, but when they’d just opened I really liked their take on octopus and the horsemeat stew.
In Lecce, it never gets so cold that an ice-cream is ruled out. You want to get to Natale, Via Trinchese 7, tel 0832.256060. Just off the big square with the Roman Amphitheatre, Piazza Sant’Oronzo. You get yourself also the pasticciotti for tomorrow’s breakfast, trust me.
The contendent for the best pasticciotti in town is nearby Caffè Alvino, Piazza Sant’Oronzo, 30.
And as no italian lunch/dinner would be complete without coffee, you go on along via Trinchese until it meets with via XXV Luglio: Bar Avio is at number 16.
When you are done with the restaurants Lecce, drive a few miles on the tangenziale going south, and exit for CAVALLINO. Highly recommendeOsteria del Pozzo Vecchio, Via M. Silvestro 16, tel. 0832 611649.
Here are some of the culinary wonders I ate there.
In GALATINA, 30 km south of Lecce, the Church of Santa Caterina di Alessandria is Salento’s answer to Giotto. It is amazing, and I often wonder how come it is not as famous. After the visit, a good restaurant is Anima & Cuore, Corso Garibaldi 7, tel 0836.564301. If you eat outside, make sure you turn your back on the eyesore… you’ll know when you’ll see it).
My advice: call ahead to check opening hours, especially in the summer months. Brace yourself for the service that won’t be neither fast nor impeccable. Sip that glass of good wine, and wait patiently.
THE ADRIATIC COAST FROM OTRANTO TO LEUCA
Otranto is a picturesque town on the Adriatic Sea, very close to the most easterly point of Italian mainland. The visit should comprise at least:
1) the cathedral and its mosaic pavement by prete Pantaleone, deservedly mentioned in all art manuals as the most comprehensive summary of the medieval conception of the world. Facing the altar, the right nave will take you to the moving Chapel of the 800 Martyrs. You can read about them here or in a novel by Maria Corti, very recommended.
2) the small Bizantine church of San Pietro, which may be hard to find, and also to find it open!
3) the castle, made famous by the first gothic novel of the history of literature: “The castle of Otranto” by Sir Horace Walpole, short and also a great beach read!
Beware: in the summer evenings, the crowd in the narrow alley of Otranto will have you long for your mall on Black Friday. Avoid at all cost.
In Otranto it’s time for some seafood, and you will go to Da Sergio, corso Garibaldi 9, 0836-801408; reservation highly recommended, especially as there are not alternatives in town. Service is very present, if not speedy, but they know how to pamper you while you wait. Fish freely for the menu. Remarkable wine list.
From Otranto to Leuca, other stops are: SANTA CESAREA TERME, famous for the thermal baths and for its villas in eclectic style, the most famous is Villa Sticchi.
Slightly to the interior, close to POGGIARDO there is an interesting cave church in Bizantine style, chiesa dei santi Stefani.
In CASTRO MARINA, the grotto called la Zinzulusa is the local highlight.
SANTA MARIA DI LEUCA it’s the tip of the peninsula, and not much else. But once one has gone this far, the reward is dinner in PATÙ, in the restaurant La rua de li travaj, Via Cavallotti 44 (close to Piazza Indipendenza), tel. 349.0584531. Highly recommended.
IONIAN COAST & GALLIPOLI
The old part of Gallipoli, enclosed in its bastion on the sea, is well worth a morning. Arriving early, very early, the fish market in piazza della Dogana is fun to see.
Instead, to enjoy the many bars and clubs that have sprout on the bastions, you have to arrive for the aperitivo or after dinner. Right, and for dinner?
Also in Gallipoli it’s seafood, and there are two options:
La Puritate, via Sant’Elia 18, tel. 0833264205. By the beach of the same name, it’s an established restaurant with no thrills and no frills, but a solid seafood knowledge.
Angolo Blu, via Carlo Muzio 45, tel 0833261500. What annoys me most of this restaurant is that they do two rigorous shifts for dinner, as Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea, safe that they’re not Gordon Ramsay! I prefer restaurants that try and please the client, even if he wants to book outside of their comfort shift-zone. That said, food is great, and the waiter didn’t even flinch when we asked for something that was outside menu.
PORTO CESAREO is a small, charming fishing village. I used to go to U cannizzu, Piazza Nazario Sauro, 11, tel 0833 560335. It’s been a long time since my last time… but I remember this antipasto very well!
As Salento has become very popular as a destination in the past 10 years, so its wines have also become very popular, and you can find people raving about Salento’s varietals (primitivo, negramaro…) all around Italy. In Salento, we have one DOCG, a number of DOCs and also one IGT.
Leone de Castris
The winery that invented rosé wine, in the immediate aftermath of WWII with the famous Five Roses.
I used to buy: “Five Roses” (in both regular version, and “anniversario”), “Salice Salentino” (red), “Messapia” (white Salento’s varietal verdeca, barrique) and “Elo Veni” (red, negroamaro), sometimes a bottle of red Donna Lisa rosso. I also like their sweet wine, “Negrino” (aleatico).
Via A. Diaz 46 – San Donaci (BR) tel. 0831 635674.
I used to buy: “Le pozzelle” (rosé, my favourite), “Cappello di prete” (red, negramaro, great value for money) and at least one bottle of “Duca d’Aragona” each year. They too produce one sweet aleatico.
Via Cesarea – Leverano tel. 0832.925613
I used to buy: “Nero”, “Cantalupi Rierva” (red, salice salentino) and the monovarietal “Primitivo”.
Via Tuturano, 21 – San Donaci (BR), tel. 0831 635073
I used to buy: “Limitone dei Greci” (red, salice salentino), “Orfeo” (red, negramaro) and “Fiore di vigna” (red, primitivo)
S.P. 365 (Salice Salentino – Sandonaci) Km 1 Guagnano (LE); tel. 0832 705010
I used to buy a bottle of “Teresa Manara” (red, negraoamaro).
If wine is not souvenir enough, and you prefer chocolate, in Lecce there is Maglio, via Templari 1. I’m usually very picky with dark chocolate and I’m always dissatisfied with milk chocolate. Not in this place, where everything is perfect. The production is seasonal, the shop itself looks like a jewellery, and even the packaging is classy. It’s art applied to chocolate. I especially recommend dry figs coated in chocolate or the candied orange zests, coated in chocolate as well.
To buy olive oil I go to Melendugno, 20 km southeast of Lecce. There is a cooperative there, they collect and process olives from the area and are very serious about their job. Go inside at the beginning of november, you’ll see the baskets full of olives, ready to be squeezed. In the shop, you can find everything Salento: not only extra-virgin olive oil, but also preserves, pasta and wine.
Macchia del Barone, viale Luigi Einaugi, Melendugno, tel 0832.834830