Where do Italians go for great food? Straight to Puglia, where the cucina povera tradition celebrates the profound flavors of fresh, local produce. What’s amazing about the food in Puglia is that it boasts great flavor with minimal ingredients- only about 3-5 per dish. On your way to a restaurant, you might pass fields of artichokes, fava beans, and of course, olives- all of which you’ll find featured on your plate in a variety of creative and tasty ways. However, Puglia is still considered a “hidden gem” destination and most menus (the good ones) aren’t in English. Even if you do speak some Italian, you’ll need to learn the local dishes in order to truly discover Pugliese cuisine. I’m here to help with that!
Get a head start with this Guide to Pugliese cuisine:
Purè di Fave con Cicorie
Hearty, warm, and drizzled with olive oil, this was traditionally a dish for the poor which uses simple and whole ingredients that grow naturally in Puglia: fava beans and chicory greens (from the dandelion family). The thick puree has a similar texture and starchiness to mashed potatoes and is scooped onto grainy pieces of bread or mixed in with the greens. It’s surprisingly filling and full of flavor that lets your mind wander back to imagine farmers enjoying the same dish in the middle of a hard day’s work.
Orecchiette con le Cime di Rapa
Orecchiette, literally “little ears”, is Puglia’s handmade pasta specialty. No matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to replicate the chewy al dente center and somewhat softer edges. There’s a surprising richness to this traditional dish that comes from the anchovy paste. Balance that with the broccoli rabe which is cooked until no longer bitter and you have a typical, simple Pugliese dish that delights your taste buds.
Ciceri e Tria
It doesn’t get more authentic than Cicieri e Tria, an ancient dish from somewhere around 35 BC. It combines boiled pasta with local chickpeas cooked with garlic, onion, and spicy pepper in a broth. The featured guest? Fried pasta right on top! It tells the story of Arab occupation in Southern Italy. In fact, “tria” is a word derived from the Arabic word for pasta, “ittrya”.
This guide wouldn’t be complete without seafood. And in Puglia, the best way to appreciate the ocean’s bountiful gifts is to consume it raw in all its glory. Sea urchin (ricci di mare), salmon, octopus, squid, shrimp, mussels, and tuna are all enjoyed raw and praised for their fresh flavor. You either hate it or you love it!
There are a thousand different varieties of Pucce, but they’re basically a sandwich on steroids. They are often bigger than a typical panino, use lighter bread made from pizza dough, and are stuffed with intense flavors and ingredients ranging from spicy arugula to tuna and mozzarella or cured meats. And let me tell you something- Southern Italians LOVE their sandwiches. So look for the little shops packed with Italians uncharacteristically patient for their turn to order- there’s a good reason.
The Pugliese people may be proud of their coastline but they don’t skimp on the red meat. This dish was originally made of horse meat but is now typically beef. Thin layers of meat are topped with parmesan, parsley, and tomato sauce then rolled up and cooked. Similar to bracciole is bombette, veal rolled up with bacon inside.
Do not, I repeat, do NOT leave Puglia without savoring a rustico. In fact, it’s the perfect thing to grab when you’re fresh from the airport and just want to grab something before sleeping off the jet lag. This pastry-pocket of gooey, rich cheesiness features a touch of tomato and flavor for days. You’ll want to grab this on the go when you can’t tear yourself away from the gorgeous coastal promenade long enough to sit for a meal.
So, which one are you going to try first? If you want a unique way to experience Puglia and Italy’s lesser-known areas, take a look at our small-group trips!