Like many regions in the South of Italy, the best food in Puglia comes from a tradition of cucina povera, “peasant food.” This was common in the evolution of regional cuisine throughout the Mediterranean where the ingredients were historically difficult to procure, but at the same time they were nutritionally dense, delicious, and worked into perfection by local chefs… and mamma, of course.
On this episode of the podcast, I chat with Scott, a Scottish expat who has been living in Puglia for many years and has become an advocate for the region and its many treasures, culinary and otherwise, through his own website, podcast, and social media accounts.
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Scott and I discuss some of the typical food from Puglia, both the ingredients and a few typical Puglia dishes, such as orecchiette e cime di rapa and my new favorite pasta dish, spaghetti all’assassina, which I attempted to make myself with the help of my father (“help” meaning he did the work while I took the photos). Details below.
What Are Some Facts About Puglia Food?
Puglia is known as the breadbasket of Italy.
Puglia is Italy’s top regional olive oil producer.
Puglia is Italy’s number two regional wine producer, famous for reds (Negroamaro and Primitivo).
Best Food Puglia
For those who aren’t familiar, Puglia is a region in southern Italy, and its cuisine is reflective of the area’s history and culture. Puglia has been occupied by various cultures over the centuries, including the Greeks, Arabs, and Spaniards. As a result, Puglia’s cuisine is a mix of influences from these various cultures.
Some of the most typical dishes of Puglia include orecchiette (a type of pasta), friselle (a type of bread), and taralli (a type of snack). Puglia is also known for its olive oil, which is used in many of the region’s dishes, as is the case throughout Italy and the Mediterranean.
Where to Eat in Puglia
Like many parts of Italy, the food specialties are very location-specific. In other words, you’ll find typical Puglia dishes near the sea that you won’t find further inland. This makes sense, of course, because these specialties evolved when food distribution systems rarely extended beyond the next town.
So when someone asks, “Where to eat in Puglia,” you’d have to know what part of the region they’re talking about. Let’s look at some typical Apulian dishes and find out where they come from.
Orecchiette con cime di rapa (“Turnip Tops,” aka Broccoli Rabe)
Orecchiette are a true icon of Apulian cuisine, and are now renowned throughout the world. A homemade semolina pasta with a classic concave shape that looks like a little ear.
This pasta is among the most appreciated Apulian primi piatti by both locals and visitors, and it can be found cooked with different variations. The most classic version is orecchiette accompanied by turnip greens, oil, salt, and anchovies, But some prefer them with meat sauces, such as brasciole ragù, with cherry tomatoes and ricotta, or with vegetables.
Tiella can be thought of as “Apulian paella”, and it takes its name from the pot in which it is traditionally cooked. Rice, potatoes, and mussels are placed in the tiella then mixed with onions, tomatoes, garlic, parsley, and breadcrumbs, and then baked. It was once enjoyed only on holidays, but today it is found year round.
The name derives from their rounded shape, but it can also be thought of as an “explosion” of flavors that are unleashed once they are bitten. Bombette are small meat rolls prepared with slices of capocollo, and stuffed with cheese, salt, pepper, and spices. Their unique aroma spreads pleasantly in the air, especially among the streets in the Valle d’Itria and in particular, Martina Franca, Cisternino and Locorotondo.
Ciceri e Tria
Ciceri e tria is pasta made from chickpeas in Salento. Once a dish reserved for the feast of San Giuseppe, you can now find it on menus in practically all the typical Apulian restaurants.
The Taranto lagoon is the perfect place to make the famous Taranto mussels successfully bred here proliferate thanks to the freshwater currents that meet the salty water of the sea. The mussels of this area are fleshy and succulent, and lend themselves well to any type of traditional recipe. For example, cozze arraganate, where they are stuffed with egg, parsley and cheese, and baked with oil, garlic and breadcrumbs.
Scapece (derived from the Spanish word, escabeche) is fried fish marinated with breadcrumbs soaked in saffron and vinegar. If you are around Gallipoli, you are obliged to taste this specialty.
Scapece is one of the oldest Apulian second courses in the region. It originates from the methods of preserving food used in the Middle Ages. This dish still stands proud among stalls of the village festivals, as well as in the homes of Puglia, prepared following recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation.
A true paradise for street food lovers, the Apulian panzerotto can be found in every little food stall in Puglia. It is the classic mezzaluna (half moon) made with pizza dough and generally filled with mozzarella and tomato. It’s fried and crunchy on the outside, but soft and gooey on the inside.
Fave e cicoria
The true tradition of the Apulian inland backcountry, the one made from simple and genuine ingredients. “Broad beans and chicory” is not just a dish; it’s a smell, it’s an emotion, it’s the feeling of home. Comfort food.
The dried white fave are cooked for hours until they become creamy, then the chicory from the field is lightly sautéed in a pan, and finally everything is combined in the dish and finished with a simple drizzle of oil.
Spaghetti all’ assassina
A more recent dish, Spaghetti all’ assassina (killer pasta) originated at the end of the 1960s at Al Sorso Preferito, a restaurant in Bari’s city center. They still serve the dish today.
I made this dish myself with the help of my father, and I must say it turned out quite good. The dish is prepared using the risottatura method (like when cooking risotto), which calls for slowly adding broth to raw pasta in a very hot pan. You essentially burn it, well, caramelize it. On purpose.
If you want the recipe, I’m attaching it here: Spaghetti all’ assassina. But honestly, this is the sort of dish that you learn by doing it.
Best Food in Puglia
Puglia: the heel of the Italian peninsula, a place where history, cultures, and many varied civilizations have come together since ancient times to create spectacular food traditions. Its landscape and its position have favored a rich variety of crops, livestock, and seafood, giving life to simple but delicious dishes that blend perfectly with the renowned Mediterranean diet.
A shout-out to Scott from The Gay Puglia Podcast for sharing his knowledge and love of Puglia.