Italy’s overlooked ‘heel’ has a wealth of food, wine and unique architecture

Washington Post

Italy’s overlooked ‘heel’ has a wealth of food, wine and unique architecture

Like many opinionated people who love to travel, I can be dead wrong about a place.

I sure was about Italy’s southern region of Puglia. A one-day stay as a teen backpacking around Europe left me thinking, “Meh.” But after several Italian friends who’d vacationed there gushed about its charms, I vowed to give it another try.

It helped that this year my wife, son and I — who have visited Venice three years in a row — were eager for new Italian experiences during his spring break. If we could find them without selfie-stick-wielding tourists, even better. Puglia, we’d been told, would do the job.

After nearly a week in Puglia (pronounced POOL-ya), I’ve more than changed my mind. I’m in love with the place.

Determined to give the region a more competent second look, I sought trip-planning advice from experts on southern Italy at Southern Visions Travel. Although Puglia’s beaches are renowned, March weather would make for a chilly dip, so they suggested an itinerary highlighting the area’s famed foods and funky architecture.

Springtime at a farm in Alberobello. (Lorenzo Pesce/For The Washington Post)

Hotter days and cooler nights in Puglia favor local wine-grape varietals such as negroamaro and primitivo. Though back in the States I’d often associated these grapes with inky, tooth-staining wines, this same fruit in the hands of folks such as Edoardo and Alessia can, as I discover at first sip, become fresh and crisp rosés.

As with most regions in Italy, Puglia is a riot of local grape types, often known only by dialect names. Among my favorites of the wines we taste at lunch is a zingy white made from verdeca grapes. “We found these grapes totally by chance in [neighboring] Ostuni,” Edoardo says. “We saw these vines one day and wondered what they were.” My wife, Gail, is especially smitten with Li Veli’s pinot-noir-ish red made with an ancient local grape called susumaniello, dialect for donkey. A fitting name, Edoardo says, because “it’s slow and stubborn to grow.”

Even the building housing the winery is unique to the area. A masseria, Alessia explains, is a kind of fortified farmhouse. Part barn, part castle, it was for centuries a main form of protection against invaders. Today, she says, hundreds of these buildings, abandoned and crumbling, are scattered throughout the region. It’s a structure we’ll come to know well.

Sated and jet-lagged, we say goodbye to Edoardo, Alessia and our new basset buddies and head farther south to our hotel, La Fiermontina, in downtown Lecce. As with Li Veli, this chic but cozy lodging was once a masseria. And, as with so many buildings here, it is made from the same lovely, cream-colored pietra leccese, or Lecce stone. After a light supper at the hotel, we’re soon asleep. 

Next morning, we’re met by Puglia-born guide Paolo, who regales us with local lore on a short drive south to the little town of Sternatia. Settled centuries ago by Greeks, it is still home to many citizens who speak in a Greek dialect. Greek words adorn street and shop-front signs. As we’ll see in the coming days, this is but one of the many cultural mashups that make the region so curiously cosmopolitan.

Midday sun signals lunchtime. Down a narrow street Paolo leads us, stopping to knock discreetly at a nondescript door — and we are welcomed into the courtyard of a privately owned palazzo. We follow our noses through fresco-decorated rooms to the kitchen, where several women are busy chatting and cooking on a wood-burning stove. On a wooden table, the eldest deftly uses the edge of a knife to press bits of dough into fresh orecchiette.

Paolo reaches toward a large bowl heaped with little deep-fried balls of dough called pittule, snatches one and pops it into his mouth. “It’s tradition that you have to steal these from the cook,” he says, smiling. A wink from a cook signals approval, and we’re soon all sneaking bites of these light-as-air appetizers.

It’s a meal of other firsts for us, including crispy deep-fried and dried fava beans, ringlet-shaped sagne ncannulate pasta with tiny meatballs, and Ewan’s new favorite, zeppole, delicate cream-filled pastries.

As we lounge on the outdoor patio afterward, we marvel at how quiet it is. Siesta time in Puglia, Paolo explains, is sacrosanct. Making too much noise between 1 and 4 p.m. can lead to a visit by the cops to tell you to pipe down. “I’m serious,” he says. “It’s the law.”

He takes us on a short walk to an ancient urban olive oil factory, or frantoio. Like many, it’s located underground. Not only did this make it easier to crank the massive stone wheels and giant wooden screws used to crush and press olives into oil, but it also helped keep the place hidden. Precious both as food and as fuel for lamps, olive oil was liquid gold. Children, who could more easily sneak in and out of such a place, often toiled in these cavelike factories. “Kids just around your age,” Paolo teases Ewan.

Back in Lecce that evening, we join the pre-dinner stroll, a daily ritual in even the puniest Italian villages. The whole convivial city seems to have turned out for this passeggiata. And we appear to be the only tourists. Not a selfie stick in site.

Pugliesi tend to eat supper later than most of their compatriots to the north, so we have plenty of time to explore this lovely, walkable city. Ambling through streets and piazzas, we notice how old baroque churches and modern office buildings alike share the same tan color of Lecce stone.

Diners eat at Lido Bianco, a restaurant in Monopoli overlooking the Adriatic Sea. (Lorenzo Pesce/For The Washington Post)

During the next morning’s hour-long drive north, like earlier drives, we passed fields of bright-yellow flowers and olive trees. Hankering for a more direct experience with the area’s most prized agricultural product, we visit olive oil producer Antica Masseria Brancati. An underground frantoio has been abandoned for more modern methods. But as we walk through the grove with seventh-generation owner Corrado Rodio and a friendly black cat, we learn that many of these trees have been bearing fruit since before Jesus was born. One comically gnarled tree, dubbed Il Grande Vecchio (the Great Old One), was planted by Romans nearly 3,000 years ago.

Over a tasting of his oils, Corrado talks about how different types of fruit and pressings yield wildly different flavors. A teaspoon of Extravergine di Oliva Coratina is a delicious bomb of fresh, bitter herbs. A can of this one will definitely be coming home with us.

A short drive away is the city of Ostuni. With its whitewashed buildings perched atop a hill, the Greek-built city looks like a giant chef’s hat. From a cozy outdoor table at restaurant Taverna della Gelosia, we eat lunch and gaze beyond the “White City” to the flat plains and dark-blue sea beyond. Among the dozens of dishes we eat (this is Puglia, after all), I’m especially hooked on the baccala in black tempura, a salt cod dish that looks like charred wood but tastes like briny heaven.

That afternoon, we head farther north to the coastal city of Monopoli. Dropping our bags into our room at seaside hotel Don Ferrante, we speed-walk to the sea wall. Waves crash into the rocks below, sending up plumes of cold, salty spray. Hanging out by the outdoor pool after dinner and a couple of Negroni cocktails, Gail and I agree that although we could see what a frisky scene this place would be in the summer, we prefer our more laid-back offseason visit.

The next morning brings a family food epiphany. We’ve come half an hour’s drive south, to Itria Bontà, a small farm that makes and sells cheeses and sausages. Proprietor Giorgio shows us where and how the company makes its cheeses, first introducing us to a few of his 65 milk cows.

In a nearby room, master cheesemaker Giacomo, clad in a white lab coat and blue rubber boots, wields what looks like a wooden cricket bat. Into a stainless-steel tub full of steaming hot water he plunges it, twirling and stretching big blobs of gooey white cheese. Setting the paddle aside, he reaches into the cauldron-like pot and grabs a baseball-size wad of cheese. With the other hand, he quickly folds in a handful of wet stracciatella cheese shreds. Pinching it closed, he hands the warm bulb of burrata to Ewan. At first bite, Ewan closes his eyes. “Mmmmmm,” he says. After our own tastes, Gail and I ecstatically concur.

The rest of the day brings us other fresh local experiences, including visits to leather and ceramics workshops, where we help fashion a leather key ring and paint traditional designs on plates.

A man walks in front of a tourist shop in Alberobello, in Italy’s Puglia region. The city is known for its trulli, or little white houses with conical roofs. The roofs are built by stacking rings of stones. (Lorenzo Pesce/For The Washington Post)

By afternoon, we can tell we are getting close to Alberobello when we begin seeing the occasional trullo, little conical-roofed houses for which the city is famous. When we arrive, we’re met by Alberobello-born guide Mimmo. Warm and intense, he’s an ideal ambassador.

Much like an igloo, Mimmo explains, the roof of a trullo is built by stacking rings of stones. A hole is left at the top for venting smoke from hearths. Cisterns below the floor collect rainwater. The curious designs painted in white on some trullo roofs aren’t primitive graffiti, as many visitors think, he says, but mixtures of Christian and pagan symbols meant to protect homeowners. Once a city of several thousand trulli, Alberobello today has about a third as many.

As a mist settles over the city, we climb to the top of a nearby hill. From here, the village seems even more mystical. I almost want to look for the movie special-effects crew responsible. This being our last night, we hurry back to Monopoli to gawk again at the sea and stars.

After we get home, Ewan says he has one regret about having visited Puglia. “Burrata here in the States will never taste as good,” he says. Agreed.

Abercrombie is a writer in Tampa.

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