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Travel

Italy’s Puglia region: a setting for all the senses

Times Staff Writer

Six years ago — or was it a dream? — I spent a day and a half in southern Italy on the Adriatic coast, and there I was left mesmerized by the sun-bleached stone, the blue sky, turquoise sea and dazzling white hilltop towns with twisting cobblestoned streets. I feasted on exquisitely pristine seafood and savored homemade orecchiette sauced with limpid green olive oil and bittersweet rapini served in shallow bowls decorated with blue dots. And I’ll never forget the taste of the creamiest burrata cheese, still dripping with whey.

Good food and faraway places cast a spell on me. It may take months, it may take decades, but eventually I find my way back. And I finally did, returning last September to Puglia, one of Italy’s most mysterious and compelling regions. Of course I got lost. Over and over again. But getting lost only makes getting found more interesting.

Our trip was delightful insouciance, full of surprises and serendipity as we negotiated the meandering roads and the starkly beautiful landscape. We set out to discover the pleasures of an ancient, agrarian cuisine, and we found ourselves seduced by a way of life deeply rooted in this tradition.

We started off one morning last fall. There were four of us: my husband, my Korean friend Sonya and an Italian friend, Roberta, from Seattle who grew up in Turin. Roberta’s family comes from the outskirts of Bari, and as a little girl, she used to spend summers at her grandmother’s house, where the family had a little grocery.

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Before the trip, Roberta lavished me with memories of the bread — huge golden loaves her grandfather used to cut with a knife into thick slabs. So of course one of our missions was to track down that bread. The other was to discover the regional cooking of Puglia.

Italian cooking is a misnomer. There is no such thing, only regional cooking — Tuscan or Piedmontese, Sicilian or Ligurian — and like much of Italy and especially the South, Puglia doesn’t really have a restaurant tradition. Other than seafood, which is grilled or cooked practically minutes after it’s been pulled from the sea, the best cooking is la cucina delle donne — women’s cooking, at home.

Wild greens and all sorts of grains and beans, sea urchins and sweet shrimp, rabbit and baby lamb awaited. And so the four of us arrived in Puglia, hungry to taste everything the region had to offer.

A trek for bread

Finding the bread wasn’t easy. Ambling through stony white hill towns, we’d see a bakery and Roberta would dash in only to rush back out shaking her head, “No, no, no, that’s not it.”
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We took to snacking on taralli, crisp semolina crackers, shaped like miniature teething rings and flavored with fennel seeds or peppercorns. Where, we wondered, was the bread? We thought those huge golden loaves would be so much a part of everyday life, you’d find them everywhere.

Eventually we realized we’d need to go to Altamura, a town perched on the rocky highlands between Bari and Taranto that is famous for its bread.

Our drive took us from Ostuni, where we were staying, through Martina Franca, another hill town, this one chockablock with baroque and rococo buildings. We spent a couple of hours strolling through streets lined with carved stone facades and curlicue ironwork balconies leaning so far out they almost kissed overhead. At lunchtime, we bought sandwich makings and ate in a park where elderly men gossiped on park benches and teenagers straddled their Vespas, smoking.

Our next stop was Alberobello, a minuscule town with so many beehive-shaped stone cottages, or trulli, that it has been designated a World Heritage Site. Sadly, it’s also full of tacky trinkets and busloads of tourists pulling up to inspect prime examples of the region’s vernacular architecture — and a kid who tried to hit us up for money to see the family trullo.

We lost our way to the ceramics town of Grottaglie, and when we finally asked for directions, two policewomen got into an argument attempting to put us right. On our inevitable meandering way, though, we passed through a fantastic landscape of red earth and ancient gnarled olive trees, fortified farmhouses — the whitewashed masserie — where jasmine and fuchsia bougainvillea clamber up the walls and cactuses cast shadows on white screens of old stone.

What with stops for espresso, snapping pictures and a visit, finally, to the renowned Nicola Fasano ceramics studio where we lusted after huge terracotta pots incised with geometric patterns, the afternoon was waning. And by the time we reached Altamura, we were more than ready for our bread. We spiraled upward, climbing ever closer to the center, until we found a trio of young men hanging out in a tiny square, having a smoke.

Roberta slowed down. “Where’s a good bakery?” she called out.

They’re all good, said one. Roberta raised a raven eyebrow.

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“I know one, not far from here,” volunteered another, acquiescing to her gaze, and as soon as he started to explain how to get there — turn right, left, left, right and after the second curve, right again — he could tell we’d already forgotten the first turn.

“Follow me,” he said, jumping into his car and squealing around the corner like a Formula One driver. And we were off, soon coming to a precipitous halt in front of a nondescript storefront, at which point our guide honked, waved and raced off again.

Puzzled, we stepped out, and the smell of bread fell upon us like a benediction. A gentleman stood in front as if he had been waiting for us. He nodded and invited us in. He cut us each a thick wedge of warm focaccia topped with tomatoes and olives that had sunk into the pillowy dough. It was incredible.

Come, he said, and led us to the back where two young bakers were taking huge loaves out of the wood-burning oven. They’re enormous, misshapen, hunchback breads that weigh well over 10 pounds.

“That’s it,” cried Roberta. The mother loaf. And this is the Di Gesù bakery, founded in 1838 and run by the same family for generations.

Soon an uncle, a cousin, a nephew begin to show up to see the bread-crazed Americans, and we were just that. This may be the best bread I’ve tasted in my life, made with gold durum wheat and fragrant with yeast, a perfect accompaniment for the burrata and fresh sheep’s-milk ricotta cheeses we picked up at the Dicecca cheese shop around the corner.

Glorious seafood

By then it was dusk, and we were easily an hour and a half from where we were supposed to be. But before we left, we bought one of those huge golden loaves and some of the various focaccias. We took a photo of Roberta in front with her bread and also with the entire Di Gesù family and said goodbye.

In the car, the scent of warm, yeasty bread enveloped us, and as we drove into the twilight, we were getting hungrier and hungrier with no idea of where we’d eat.

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It was dark. Everyone except me and Roberta was nodding off when I saw the sign for Polignano a Mare, home to Da Tuccino, a restaurant known for its crudi, raw seafood. We called to see if we could get in.

Yes, we were told, if you come right now.

The exterior of Da Tuccino is brutally ugly, and I began to wonder if this was such a good idea. And what about the bread? It won’t taste the same tomorrow.

Leave it to me, said Roberta as she explained our predicament to the tuxedoed maitre d’ in rapid-fire Italian. “Is there any way we could enjoy our bread with dinner tonight?” I waited for an impassioned blowup but heard instead, “Non c'è problema,” he said, whisking the big crumpled paper bag off to the kitchen.

After inspecting the glorious spread of whole fish and seafood laid out on ice, we took a table in the nearly empty ballroom-sized room. Modesto wrote down our order. Our bread arrived beautifully sliced and arranged on a platter. This is heaven, I thought. To arrive tired and hungry and find such hospitality is to experience the real and ancient Puglia.

Da Tuccino’s antipasti crudi was spectacular, plate after plate of raw scampi, sweet red shrimp with skeins of roe, pearly squid, small violet-tinged octopus, clams, mussels and oysters. Orata carpaccio arrives put back in the shape of the fish and topped with house-made prosciutto di tonno (tuna ham). Supple orecchiette stained black with squid ink and tossed with zucchini blossoms and small rosy shrimp is fabulous. So is the spaghettini with scampi and bottarga. We could have continued with grilled fish, but we had to stop before we burst.

In any trip, there is a fine balance between planning too much and planning too little, and to have one day like that one, full of surprises and serendipity, colors the memory of the entire trip. Hours drifted leisurely by as if there was no such thing as time, except when it was time to eat.

For years, a friend had been touting the food at Il Frantoio, a bed-and-breakfast on a working farm (an arrangement known as an agriturismo) outside Ostuni, as the perfect Pugliese experience. He started going there when the farm with more than 4,000 olive trees had only a handful of rooms. Now, 15 years after two escapees from the city, Armando and Rosalba Balestrazzi, created Il Frantoio, the number of rooms has expanded, requiring a staff to run the place. It still maintains a quirky, well-tended cultivated charm. Rosalba is such a gifted cook that visitors from around the world descend on the farm for her meals, which are preceded by an informal lecture from Armando on the history of the farm and Puglia’s ancient food ways.

On the night we stayed for dinner, Armando was in full throttle when one of the staff whispered, “How much longer?”

“Twenty minutes.”

“Can you wrap it up in 10?”

He nodded and spoke faster, ending the presentation by sweeping a cloth off a collection of jams and olive oils and some 30 infused liqueurs, all for sale and each bearing the Il Frantoio label.

Dinner was a multi-course extravaganza where vegetables took center stage. It was served in a dining room with vaulted, arched ceiling. In summer, tables are set up in the spacious courtyard and garden.

Antipasti is an art in Puglia, and Rosalba’s is no exception. Fagiolini pinti, skinny local green beans nearly a foot and a half long, are splashed with sweet tomato sauce and embellished with ricotta. Fresh anchovies are stuffed with capers, parsley and bread crumbs, and eggplant is rolled up with smoked mozzarella. Each course employs a different single-varietal olive oil from the farm, and Armando pairs each dish with local wines. It’s wonderful, but with so many guests and studied flourishes, it’s a production more worthy of a restaurant than a rustic farmhouse meal.

Because Rosalba performs just two or three times a week, the next night we ate at Cibus, tucked away in the center of nearby Ceglie Messapica, just steps from the cathedral.

Owner Lilino Silibello has an exceptional list of Puglia’s best wines, sturdy single-vineyard Primitivo, full-bodied Negroamaro and interesting whites and lighter reds, and everything that comes from the kitchen is honest and true. We savored zucchini flowers stuffed with delicate sheep’s-milk ricotta and mint followed by ribbons of the summer squash dressed in fragrant lemon and mint. Then came homemade cured meats, a fabulous carpaccio of milk-fed baby pig and a sunny yellow frittata laced with squash blossoms and ricotta. And here too was wonderful pasta — “priest’s ears” — similar to orecchiette but longer and more open in shape and served with a tomato sauce enriched with roasted meats.

We ate and ate, but by the time we finished the lamb cooked in the wood-burning oven, we had to cry uncle. But you have to try this caciocavallo, Silibello urged. This cheese is made from the milk of a special cow that produces only a small amount. How could we not? Much later, we wandered into the night, slightly delirious. Such is the enchantment of Puglia.

Kicking up their heels

Cisternino is a small hilltop town with a spectacular panorama of the countryside. The streets are narrow and maze-like, whitewashed like in Greece, but on weekends the historic heart of town wakes up and parties. On the night we were there, a stage was set up and musicians of all ages played traditional music. The whole town shows up, grandparents, young families with toddlers and babies in arms, teenagers with elaborately spiky gelled hair and the occasional tourist. That would be us.

Cisternino has an irresistible tradition — a good dozen butcher shops with restaurants attached and tables set out in the street. At Arrosteria del Vicoletta, skewers of meats sizzle at a tilt against the wall of the wood-burning oven, the better to get smoky and stay juicy. The day before, when I sussed out the place and saw the rudimentary wine list, I asked the butcher with wavy blond hair, like a matinee idol from the ‘30s, if it would be all right if we brought our own wine. Non c'è problema. Roberta of course insisted on bringing wineglasses too.

That night, there was no end to the skewers of sausage links, pork rib chops, turcinieddhi (little bundles of lamb’s liver and innards), and braciola (thin slices of pork wrapped around wild herbs) and lamb riblets, all washed down with some inky dark Primitivo and accompanied by vinegary green salad and melted smoked scamorza cheese to sop up with our bread.

Traveling with three other people can make it difficult to plan ahead, and by the time I found a day to go south to Lecce to meet Silvestro Silvestori, who runs the cooking school the Awaiting Table there, it was late into our weeklong trip. The school’s website warns students not to bring their cars to Lecce, but we attempted it and quickly learned that driving in Lecce is easy. Finding your way is not. If you’re timid about asking for directions, you’ll never get where you want to go. Even with the Italian-speaking Roberta and race-car-driving Sonya, we got lost all the time.

At a stoplight, we managed to get the attention of a driver in the next lane, and we implored him for directions. He stared off into space and, finding it impossible to explain, told us to follow him. By now we knew the drill, and we set off on a merry route zipping around squares, squirting around corners, a zillion turns and then, miraculously, our meeting point Porta Napoli, one of the old gates of the city, stood in front of us, with two minutes to spare.

Silvestori grew up in the United States but moved back to Puglia several years ago after earning degrees in jazz studies, sculpture and languages. He immersed himself in the region’s traditions and became a leading expert in Pugliese cuisine. He lives and works in Lecce’s old town in a palazzo that dates from the 16th century. A former stable is his teaching kitchen. Garlic and dried red peppers and little lanterns were strung from the rafters. At two big work tables, a group of women from Canada were busy shaping pasta into small sombreros by flattening it over the top of a wine bottle.

Silvestori collects recipes from grandmothers and the old ladies in the villages around Lecce and the Salentine peninsula to the south. Sometimes he invites guest teachers like Clifford Wright, who’s written a number of books on Mediterranean cuisine, or Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who wrote “Flavors of Puglia.”

He took a moment to demonstrate how to make the most basic Pugliese pasta, those adorable orecchiette. It’s all in the gesture, he explained, how you roll the dough off your thumb. And nothing, quite frankly, you could learn from a cookbook.

That’s the beauty and my regret. Sadly, we had no time to stay, and as we left, he walked us past the glorious honey-colored Baroque and Rococo buildings in the historic center. Wherever he went, the fishmonger, the baker, the woman who runs the bed-and-breakfast, called out a greeting.

It was a beguiling farewell to Puglia and just the right touch. I’m a romantic. I like to leave a place believing that I’ll be back. Without that hope, it would be too wrenching to say goodbye to all the places I’ve fallen in love with over the years.

virbila@latimes.com


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