To paraphrase a well-known aphorism, a journey of one thousand excesses begins with a single bite. And—one single bite after another—I happily ate my way through Puglia, in southern Italy. Anticipating the visit was a gastronomic adventure in itself. Puglia has a long coastline, an agricultural heritage and a tradition of frugality. It is known for healthful and unpretentious cuisine, influenced by centuries of interactions, whether by trade or invasion, with Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, French and Spaniards. My heart was set on tasting the local specialties, particularly the superb seafood, burrata (a rich, fresh mozzarella) and orecchiette pasta. But my heart—and my waistline—expanded to embrace lowly vegetables, ripe fruit and humble bread as gourmet highlights. In Puglia, I discovered, fine food and folkways combine to make an irresistible repast.
Our culinary experiences, which I quickly came to regard as orgies of the very best kind, typically began between one and two o’clock in the afternoon and lasted until three-thirty or four, once even five o’clock. As in many other countries, the long meal here is timed to coincide with the hot afternoon sun, which precludes heavy labor both indoors and out. But no matter what one’s vocation, a meal in a hurry is an unthinkable insult in Italy, where sharing food is one of life’s simple—and essential—pleasures. And the fact that the event was stretched out over such a long period of time somehow made my holiday gluttony seem almost acceptable.
We ate at least five courses at each meal, beginning with antipasti. These were typically five or six small, very flavorful dishes, such as mozzarella tied into a small knot (nodino) or fresh seafood. Often there would be julienned beets or carrots dressed with olive oil and vinegar. Ristorante Orsa Maggiore’s antipasti included zucchini flowers fried in a light, tempura-like batter; and pittule, a fried croquette-like dish made with a batter of flour, potato and yeast surrounding a bit of blanched cauliflower. I never managed to choose among the antipasti. In fact, I felt compelled to try every one—in the name of culinary research—and a small bite never seemed to be quite enough. The antipasti were offered in such quantity and variety that I was inevitably satisfied after sampling them, but the main meal was yet to come.
After the antipasti we were presented with a “first course” of pasta and a “second course” of meat, the portions of which were inevitably generous and understandably quite filling. These were followed by a palate-cleansing raw vegetable course at which slices of carrot, cucumber or finocchio (fennel bulb) might be served. At the restaurant Trullo d’Oro we cleared our palates with raw slices of a pale green, slightly sweet vegetable called carocello, specific to this region, which reminded me of a honeydew melon and others of a cucumber. Next came the fresh fruit course featuring sweet watermelon slices; perfect, firm-but-juicy Bing cherries; small, tart apricots and sweet plums during our June visit. We finished with cookies or a cake course and then a serving, if one dared, of strong Limoncello liqueur. An espresso was available to top it off.
The meals were so huge and so delicious that I began to eat myself sick on a daily basis. And I began making promises to God: every day, I swore that if I could only finish this one last meal—sampling just a bite or two of everything that was offered—and then make it through the afternoon, I would never again overindulge. Every afternoon I pictured myself virtuously pushing away from the table at the next meal, maintaining my figure and my health. And every evening I sinned again, salivating the instant I saw the menu.
Mussels were among the most difficult to resist. Don Carmelo Ristorante Pizzeria served them in the peasant style—that is, combined with other ingredients into a one-dish meal, characteristic of this part of Italy because it was faster for working families both to prepare and to consume. Preparing a mussel tiella (casserole) is quick and simple: slices of zucchini and onion are layered together in a baking pan. Chunks of peeled potatoes are added and steamed, opened mussels in their shells are arranged on top, then layered with rinsed rice and sliced tomatoes. Finish with Pecorino cheese and breadcrumbs and bake in a hot oven for half an hour.
One taste and I became a mussel maniac. When cooked, the smooth, flesh-like morsels tightened and huddled—warm and peach-colored, sweet and tender—at the edge of their rough blue-black shells. They hunkered there, clinging, small and succulent, as if anticipating the approach of my hungry tongue and teeth. The mussels’ slippery folds released trickles of the dish’s rich juices, inviting exploration. (Simultaneously providing plenty of selenium, vitamin B12, zinc and folate.) I savored them at every opportunity.
Another local staple is purea di fave (broadbean puree). Many broadbean recipes call for the addition of cooked potatoes or a little milk for smoothness and to extend the dish. The heavy, pale puree is traditionally served with bread and a counterbalancing cicorie—wild chicory, salted and boiled, then cooked up with olive oil to a deep, bitter green. In the one-dish version, the chicory and fried cubes of dry bread called cecamariti (“husband-blinders”) are stirred together with the bean puree.
The origin of the expression “husband-blinders” to describe food is not clear. The most likely explanation, in my opinion, is that leftovers are used to create a dish so tasty that it dazzles—or blinds—a husband into thinking his wife has slaved for hours in the kitchen. But there is also the possibility the expression was used to describe a dish so filling it will placate a hungry husband, or a meal so delicious it will drive a husband to overeat, and subsequently to fall asleep. My favorite explanation suggests that cecamariti have the power of “putting husbands to bed, leaving wives free to meet their lovers.”
Husband-blinding may be the most picaresque of Puglia’s culinary traditions, but it is certainly not the only one. Fortified farmhouses—called masseria—dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries dot the landscape. Inside, the masseria resembled agricultural factories: wheat was separated, grapes and olives were crushed, and cheese was made. Today, converted masseria continue their tradition as an important part of Italy’s agritourism industry, providing intimate venues for weddings, cooking classes, romantic vacations and wellness spas. They still use house-grown or locally produced fruits and vegetables and often make their own wine, cheese and olive oil.
At Masseria Tenuta Pedale the fresh fruits and vegetables were irresistible. Here I discovered a delicious way to prepare carrots: sott’olio (under oil), parboiled and served with capers and a sprinkle of salt. Zucchini and eggplant are also traditionally prepared sott’olio: first they are salted and weighted to draw out moisture, then they are julienned, simmered with a little vinegar and water, cooled and dressed with garlic, mint and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Trullo d’Oro in Alberobello served beetroots prepared in a similar fashion. I had expected balsamic vinegar or perhaps red wine vinegar, but in Puglia a simple white vinegar suffices.
At Trullo d’Oro I also enjoyed a perfect plate of orecchiette (little ears), another specialty of the region. These small pieces of pasta were traditionally made by local women, who pulled a bit of dough off a larger piece and used their forefingers to poke it into a “little ear,” ideally shaped for catching and retaining sauces. My favorite way to eat orecchiette was with a sauce of hot fresh tomato chunks, a shaving of hard Pecorino cheese and fresh basil leaves. Something about this dish made me feel very naughty, as though I were actually chewing on the ears of little children, so I was tempted to hurry through it. But a perfectly al dente mouthful requires that one slow down and savor the flavors and textures.
La Cantina in Alberobello served one of the most irresistible culinary temptations: burrata, a local mozzarella that is simply, deliciously addictive. A large burrata is the size of an orange, a small one more like an egg. In fact, it reminds me of a soft-boiled egg, although round rather than oval in shape, with an outside layer the consistency of cooked egg white. Inside, a silky white melding of fresh mozzarella and cream bursts from its round white rind and spills forth like a soft-boiled yolk, oozing onto the plate, running together with the pool of golden olive oil that sits beneath the cheese. The taste is as creamy as one would expect, yet light enough that I could eat quite a lot—and I did.
Luckily for cheese lovers like myself, the companionably hearty Pugliese bread was served everywhere, its light, yeasty fragrance wafting from each restaurant table. Loaves have been made in the same way for centuries, and are deservedly world famous. Legend has it that the Roman poet Horace described them in 37 BCE as “by far the best bread to be had, so good that the wise traveler takes a supply of it for his onward journey.”
Traditionally, Pugliese bread was baked into large loaves with an exceptionally crunchy crust for a long shelf life—easy to send off with a working husband who might be fishing or herding sheep for days at a time. Dense and pale straw-colored, its ingredients are hard wheat flour, water, salt and biga, a yeasted starter. Multiple long rise cycles and baking at gradually decreasing temperatures are the secrets to producing the chewy loaf; spritzing with water as it bakes produces the characteristic crust. Pugliese bread is even useful when stale; it is porous enough to absorb other ingredients and therefore ideal for making crostini and bruschetta, lightly toasted bread slices spread with olive oil, cheese, tomato, meat sauce or other savory toppings. And of course it is essential for the infamous cecamariti.
Good as Pugliese bread is, Il Gioiello (The Jewel) in Alberobello has improved it. Their version, dotted with crunchy almonds and liberally studded with chunks of dried fig—ripe, sweet and moist—served steaming hot, is the most delicious bread I have ever tasted. It was served with a sampling of fig jam, onion marmalade, and marmellata di peperoncino e cioccolato—a remarkable conserve of rich, dark chocolate spiced up with hot peppers. As I perused the menu, I made a mental note to follow Horace’s advice and stock up on a few loaves for my onward journey.
And the figs! In Oria, Alla Corta di Hyria’s figs with balsamic reduction were so succulent they inspired me to a When Harry Met Sally-like dining performance. Warm sweet fig halves slid into my mouth like oysters; their soft, furry skin a welcome surprise. Eyes closed, head tilted back, I settled into a moment of gustatory ecstasy, the fig’s firm roundness heavy on my tongue, until the sweet-sharp tang of a sugared balsamic reduction filled my mouth and returned me to consciousness. Which was a good thing, because I would not have wanted to miss the rich, earthy flavors of crostini con crema di tartufo: rounds of crunchy toast topped with creamy truffle spread.
L’Ancora (The Anchor) in Monopoli served one of our finest meals, a two-and-a-half hour festival that began with a surprisingly tender little octopus. One bite followed another as we moved to what may well have been the most exquisite dish of our visit: lobster-drenched spaghetti. The silky sauce was deep adobe in color, thick and bisque-like, intensely flavored with lobster and peppered with small pieces of the sweet seafood. Ironically, this is the one dish I had tasted at home. Or perhaps it is not a coincidence at all that one of the finest recipes of the region should have been appropriated. In an attempt to recreate the meal in my own kitchen, I googled “recipe for spaghetti with lobster sauce” and got 156,000 results. If only I knew which one L’Ancora used.
But my final large meal in Alberobello was by far the most memorable. Bepe, a docent in the olive oil museum, invited my fellow travel writer Chrysa and me to his family’s home in a multi-domed trulli in the countryside beyond Alberobello. Outside, olive and almond trees circled the house and huge, pink-blooming hydrangea brightened the front yard. Inside, a gay multicolored tablecloth peeked out from beneath more than a dozen dishes Bepe’s mother had prepared for her family, the in-laws and cousins who lived next door, their grandfather and ourselves. I surreptitiously undid the button at my waistline and settled in for the feast.
The locally caught octopus was tender, light and delicious. Cold, thin slices of beef served with a smooth sauce of mayonnaise and tuna were equally appealing. A cool insalata di riso (rice salad) proved perfect for the hot day: pieces of tuna and sausage provided protein, and the light dressing of lemon juice and olive oil with capers added enough sharpness to balance the flavor. Bepe’s family shared anchovies and omelets, salad, bread, olives, cucumber, pizza, cheeses and more. Then we moved outside for fruit, two cakes, gelato and Limoncello. Not speaking Italian, I missed much of the conversation, but the hospitality was unmistakable. As my journey of one thousand excesses drew to a close, another maxim twisted in my imagination: A waist is a terrible thing to mind.