Whenever I heard someone mention Puglia over the past 25 years, I could only think back to the music-filled and pasta heavy restaurant in Manhattan’s Little Italy, where I once threw my husband a memorable and ruckus birthday party before we were married.
All that changed a few years ago when I met Antonello Losito, founder of Southern Visions Travel, and heard him boast about the beauty and food of his native region, Puglia, located in the heel of Italy’s boot and up along the Adriatic coast. “You must come to Puglia to see for yourself,” he urged. He listed the reasons why, and I listened. I can now say firsthand that Puglia is a trip worth making. With only six days to explore, my husband, Rich, and I made the most of our time, splitting our week between the coastline area south of Bari and the historic city of Lecce. With the help of Southern Visions, we spent our first two days bicycling, equipped with titanium bikes and self-guided directions that the company provided.
Biking along the flat coastline proved leisurely and scenic beyond my expectations. Setting out, I had no idea that we’d be biking amongst acres and acres of ancient olive trees, some as old as 2,000 years and still producing olives. The small country roads were perfect for taking it all in, the red poppies blooming and fennel bulbs popping up amidst the olive groves. We stopped for a crudo (raw fish) lunch in the seaside town of Savallettri, at a modern raw fish bar called
Pescheria 2 Mari. Our server, Rosanna, who’s family owns the restaurant, made sure in her perfect English that we understood the restaurant serves only raw fish. Nothing else. We nodded, and she offered her suggestions, explaining that the fish is caught each morning and cleaned and cut to order. We savored a sampling of slices of sea bream, tuna, small shrimp and langoustine, washing it down with a local rose wine. One Italian family and their young son finished their meal—their chairs quickly filled by several couples who had come from Milan to Puglia for a long weekend.
Back on our bikes, we rode inland a few miles to our hotel, the Masseria Torre Coccaro. Beautifully appointed, the masseria (farm house) is part of an estate and olive farm dating back to the 16th century, recently transformed into a charming, 39-room hotel. The highlight is not the rooms, which are simple and comfortable, but the masseria’s charm, manicured gardens, delicious restaurant and spa–the olive oil massage was
sheer heaven. The following day, we set out in our rental car with our bikes attached, for a 31-mile ride beginning in the town of Alberbello, known for its cone-shapes Trulli houses. Riding through more olives, vineyards and small country roads, we made our way through the village of Locotarundo where we stopped at a creamery to snack on some cheese and crackers, and continued on to the town of Martina Franca, a baroque town filled with art and history. Although there were few people at the Osteria Piazzetta Garibaldi, we were treated
like the locals that frequent the place and savored a vegetarian lunch of grilled eggplant, fava bean puree, escarole and grilled sweet pepper. Finished with a macchiato and I was ready to get back on my bike.
That evening, we drove to the cliffside town of Polignano a Mare—not to be missed. Before dinner, we walked along the craggy rocks lining the sea, and strolled through the charming centro storico, still surrounded by ancient walls. If you stop here, do not miss Il Super Mago del Gelo, the gelateria right across the street.
Food is a well-earned and notable theme in Puglia. The creamy burrata. The burnt wheat pasta. The robust olive oil. The orrecchiette. The following morning we had a chance to hone our culinary skills firsthand with a Puglian chef, Tiziano Mita. We met Tiziano at the outdoor market in Monopoli, and helped him collect
beautiful tomatoes, asparagus, fava beans, fresh purple-skinned garlic, and gorgeous strawberries. A consultant for Eataly in New York as well as a talented pastry chef, Tiziano regaled us with stories about his mother and her preparation for his family’s ritual Sunday meal. Tiziano taught us how to turn pasta dough into macaroni which we rolled over a long metal rod, sear rabbit in oil, thyme and rosemary, create individual frittatas with pecorino, asparagus tips and topped with burrata foam. And for dessert, ricotta with fresh berry juice and crushed almonds from Tiziano’s mother’s garden.
We learned the fascinating history of the local cuisine, known as cucina povera, or peasant cooking, which refers to the frugal talents of poor Italian cooks who conjured up what they could from gardens, forests, fields and oceans.
Sitting outside with the sea far in the distance, we sipped a local wine and savored the fruits of our labors. A visit to Puglia wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the old town of Ostuni, also known as the white city. Its cream-colored walls and cobblestone streets are the magic of this citadel, built on top of a hill and still surrounded by ancient walls. At an outdoor table at Taverna Gelosia, we dined on black rice with shrimp and curry and orecchiete—a local specialty—prepared with tuna, anchovies and black olives. We washed it all down with a local red wine made with Negroamaro grapes.
Before heading south to Lecce, we stopped by the Masseria Maccarone to buy some of the delicious olive oil we
savored with our crudo at the Pescheria 2 Mari. Three large bottles packed in a box, and off we went. Midway in our two-hour drive, we stopped off at the Li Veli winery, a tasty and worthwhile stop. Alfredo, one of the owners, gave us an in-depth tour of the winery and surrounding vineyards, before sitting down to taste some of their wines—we were happy to learn that Li Veli exports to the U.S. so we can drink them at home too.
Entering the Hotel Mantatelure in the center of historic Lecce is like going into a private home. With six guest rooms and a large common garden with tables, lounge chairs, sofas and a hot tub, the hotel is like a vacation unto itself. That said, the winding streets of Lecce’s old city are peppered with boutiques,
wine bars, cathedrals and ruins of a 2nd century Roman Amphitheater in the middle of its central square. A two hour walking tour with Silvia Como–who works with SV and is originally from northern Italy–exposed me to the city’s rich history, the character of the region, and some fascinating facts behind its architecture. Silvia pointed me toward a few good restaurants, like La Torre de Merino and Le Zie, a well known wine bar called Mamma Elvira, and naturally, the famous Natale gelateria which I visited more than once and spent little time worrying about calorie consumption.
As we walked and talked about the people of Puglia, Silvia explained that in this particular region of Italy, there are very few psychologists. Coming from New York, this is a pretty startling comment. “People work and have stress,” she said, “and then they take care of themselves with siesta,” which I saw firsthand is a devout practice that continues with stores closing from 1:00 to 5:00 pm. “People eat and talk and take walks during that time,” she went on, and are less stressed than those in other regions, now swept up by faster-paced ways. I thought about what she said while I savored my gelato, following the winding cobblestone streets back to my hotel. I also wondered when I’d next make it back to Puglia.