La Rusticana: Articles

Puglia Cuisine: Home of Orecchiette Pasta and Burrata Cheese

A cuisine born of peasants living seasonally off the land, Pugliese cuisine is rooted in olive oil, wheat and vegetables. Puglia produces more than 50% of Italy’s olive oil and it has been a thriving industry here for centuries, thus the huge olive trees and there are 50 million of them! Durum wheat grown here is used to make 80% of Italy’s pasta as well as the region’s famous bread. And with two coasts, local seafood is a huge staple of the cuisine. So needless to say, La cucina pave, or poor man’s food as it’s called, is one of the highlights of your time here.

While the land is arid, it’s very alive. There are olives, fruits, vegetables and grapes growing everywhere, like no other region I’ve ever seen. Just across the stone wall from our suite at the masseria was a huge field sprouting with broccoli surrounded by giant olive trees. The air had a nice scent of fresh broccoli (not cooked ;) ). The masseria’s huge garden was an abundance of artichokes, chicory, fennel, figs, almonds, radishes and early buds of grapes.

Pranzo, or lunch, is the heartiest meal of the day and what most locals keep sacred (thus town shops closing from 1-4pm daily). Cena, dinner, is more simple. On our visit we typically reversed it although most days we had three full meals… couldn’t turn down the masseria’s amazing fresh local breakfast.

In Pugliese cuisine, you’ll find…

* Olives: Whether it’s the olive or the oil, most meals start with this. Most abundant are the green Cerignola olives. The olive oil is all extra virgin and because of the above point it’s often referred to as ‘liquid gold.’ Best regions for olive oil, all with DOP grading (denomination d’ origin protetta), are the Salento around Lecce, Fasano and around Brindisi.

* Fruits and Vegetables: Tomatoes are another staple here but that’s just the beginning. Eggplant and zucchini… deliciously fried up for antipasta or grilled in pastas. We started every meal with sopratavola, raw vegetables usually including fennel, chicory, carrots and cocomeri (a tiny mild cucumber). In earlier times sporatavola was eaten after a meal as the peasants couldn’t afford fruit. Cicorie, wild chicory, was a new one for me and is used in abundance especially cooked up in the local specialty purea di fave, fava bean puree (fava beans cooked up with olive oil and chicory until its a deep green). Legumes, like fava bean and ceci (chickpea), you’ll also find as a staple. Fruits like cherries, grapes and figs were in season during our visit. Later in the summer add pomegranates, watermelon, melons, peaches, strawberries and raspberries.

* Pasta: THE famous pasta from this region is orecchiette meaning ‘little ears’ often served simply delicious with oven-roasted tomatoes, olive oil and garlic. We also had a yummy trofiette pasta with fava bean puree, crispy artichoke leaves and baby shrimps.

* Bread: Made from the local durum wheat, the typical loaf is a hearty bread with a crunchy crust and chewy inside. Perfect for soaking up your pasta’s sauce, or fare scarpett (‘to make a little shoe’) as they say in Italian. My FAVORITE bread is the taralli, little baked dough knots like an Italian pretzel made of simply wheat flour, olive oil and white wine. We had them with sopratavola before almost every meal.

* Cheese: The specialty here is the fresh and creamy kind…burrata. A type of mozzarella (which is originally from here too) it’s a little round of stretched curd cheese filled with cream. When you cut it open, the creamy cheese just oozes out. Yum!

* Seafood: Mussels, octopus and prawns everywhere. Mussels make the very popular and traditional Pugliese dish riso cozze e patate (rice, mussels and potatoes) baked in the oven (also known as taieddha in Lecce where zucchini is added). One night at the masseria we had a delicious local Adriatic Codfish with spicy cherry tomatoes and eggplant. One lunch was a simple salad of shrimp, avocado and cherry tomatoes.

* Meats: While not a staple, you will find it on menus. We had a fabulous pork tenderloin stuffed with sundried tomatoes and glazed with a Primitivo wine sauce at the masseria. One night in Ostuni at Casa San Giacomo, we had orechiette al argue mist e braciola, pasta with a mouthwatering sauce made of pounded thin beef rolled with cheese and herbs. And if you’re interested, or want to avoid it like I did, you will find horse meat on the menus here, cavallo in Italian.

* Pastries: Flaky pastries in savory or sweet. THE best we’ve ever had was the Rustica at La Rusticana in Lecce. This local specialty is a flaky pastry shaped like a cinnamon roll filled with mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and a little béchamel sauce. Yum!! For sweet, try zeppelin and sporcamusi, both phyllo type pastries filled with custard, or cassatina, a yummy spongecake.

Squisito!! I made notes on all our meals and pictures so I could write for hours. But now on to the Pugliese wine to accompany this amazing food!

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Puglia: Exploring the Unique Towns, Part 2

After a few days lounging by the pool and beach at Masseria Torre Coccaro and touring towns of Valle d’Itria, we drove south to explore the splendors of the Salento region, often considered the third island of Italy because it’s very hot, dry and lined with beaches.

Lecce

Our first stop was the capital of the Salento region sitting in the middle of Italy’s boot heel. Known as the ‘Florence of the south’ for its spectacular of baroque architecture, Lecce is a gem to visit and I was looking forward to it as I love Florence.

When you enter the Old Town, you can immediately see the similarities with Florence. Great news is you can explore the treasures of this small town’s Centro Storico (historic center) in just a few hours. We parked just outside the Old Town next to the Lecce’s Castello, 16th century Norman Castle, and entered at the famous Piazza Sant’Otranto, the town’s main bustling area.

Here sits the remains of a 2nd century 15,000 seat Anfiteatro discovered in a 1930 excavation. Only half of the Roman Amphitheatre can be seen today but is quite a ‘welcome’ to town. Standing over the amphitheater is the Colonna di Sant’Oronzo, a 115-foot tall column, dedicated to the city’s patron Saint Oronzo, said to have cleansed the region of a plague in the 17th century. This very column was one of two that marked the end of the Appian Way in Brindisi. Also in the Piazza you see your first of the town’s forty churches.

The most well known of the churches and THE baroque spectacular is Basilica di Santa Croce. Built in the 15th century, it took a team of craftsmen lead by the town’s famous Giuseppe Zimbalo over 100 years to ornament the church with gobs of baroque sculptures finishing in the 17th century. Baroque architecture exploded in the region from the 17th to 18th century as a celebration to the end of the Turkish invasion and saving of the Roman Catholic faith. The stone figures adorning Santa Croce, and structures throughout town, are made from the local stone, pieta leccese, soft and easy to sculpt. Lean up against the wall across from the Basilica and take in the intricate details of saints, angels, animals, fruit and flowers.

Via Vittorio Emanuele is the main street running through Old Town. Walking from Piazza Sant’Otranto you’ll come upon Piazza Duomo mid-way then at the other end stands one of the gorgeous three remaining old entry gates to the town. Also along Vittorio Emanuele you’ll find lots if shops, cafes and bakeries. There are many chances to pick up the town’s famous papier-mâché figurines. We LOVED La Rusticana (Via Vittorio Emanuele, 31) that while doesn’t look like much has incredible pastries like the Rustica, the yummiest flaky pastry shaped like a cinnamon roll filled with mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and a little béchamel sauce. YUM! There’s also a cool enoteca / bookstore / restaurant, Liberrima, which is worth the visit.

One of the town’s best restaurants is Alle Due Corti (1 Corte die Giugni) specializing in traditional pugliese cuisine like  La Taieddha (layered potatoes, rice and mussels baked). The very well known and well regarded cooking school, Awaiting Table, is also located in Lecce.

Note the shops bolt up from approximately one to four in the afternoon. So we headed out after our light lunch from La Rusticana.

Gallipoli

From Lecce we drove east to the Ionian Coast then south down the local roads along the gorgeous beaches in route to Gallipoli. We stopped along the way in Santa Caterina‘s square for an espresso and aperitif. This cute little village on the sea is very popular for divers who want to explore the many rock caves in the area.

Greek influence in strong in the Salento region… you’ll find towns named Calimera, meaning ‘good morning’ in Greek, and Gallipoli, from Greek Kale polis meaning ‘beautiful city.’ And beautiful it is.

This old traditional fishing village was once a small island and one of the richest towns in Salento. Fought over for its riches developed in the 16th and 17th century… fishing industry and olive oil (exported to light the streets of most European capital cities).

We entered at the harbor just outside the town walls with the later afternoon sun beating down on the colorful boats parked around the castle entrance. Passing the fish market we made our way up into the Old Town to Corso Roma, the town’s main street.  There are fourteen churches in this tiny town. We strolled the streets and ramparts then sat down on bar stools at La Spingula wine bar for a few glasses of local Rosato enjoying the sun and views of fishing boats on teh water coming in with their day’s catch. Ready for dinner we made our way around to Trattoria Scoglio delle Sirene (Riviera N. Sauro, 83) for the town’s specialty seafood cooked up with fresh local pastas as we watched the sunset into the Ionian Sea.

 

A perfect end to our tour of Puglia’s unique towns…Alberobello, Ostuni, Locorotondo, Lecce and Gallipoli!

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