By Susan Van Allen
There was no room on the table for any more antipasto, but the waitress at Terrazze Sotto Il Castello kept it coming. I was in Puglia after all, where a typical meal begins with a variety of small plates of local specialties. Tonight’s treats were focaccia, tiny meatballs, fresh mozzarella, stuffed zucchini, hot chunks of mortadella, raw thinly-sliced swordfish, proscuitto, a bowl of fragrant black and green olives, and a basket of taralli. As we poured ourselves glasses of Primitivo wine, I felt grateful for the delicious abundance this region of Italy in the heel of the boot has to offer.
With eighty miles of coastline providing a bounty of seafood along with fertile land where olive, almond, and fruit trees, vineyards, and vegetable fields flourish in sunshine, Puglia does not lack in its choices of fresh ingredients to bring to its tables. The region’s dishes are more complex than in other parts of southern Italy, as the influences of centuries of invaders (including Arabs, Greeks, Normans, and Spanish) pervade their recipes. Here eggplant and zucchini are seasoned with fresh mint leaves and beef is marinated in cognac.
Conversano, a medieval walled village (population 24,000) situated twenty minutes southeast of Bari, Puglia’s capital, was a perfect place to indulge in culinary treasures. I settled in for a few days at the Corte Altavilla, a beautifully refurbished former castle, located in the historic center of town. My suite featured a comfortable king-size bed and a sitting room with a desk offering internet access along with a dreamy view of the town’s 16th-century cathedral. The charming staff and delicious breakfast buffet added to the experience of making this a sublime home base.
Wandering the curved whitewashed alleys of Conversano, I discovered the daily lively market with stalls overflowing with baskets of chicory and sweet peas, countless varieties of olives glistening in basins, and canvas sacks bursting with dried beans and almonds.
Outside caffes, men in caps and dark suits sat playing cards; on tiny baroque balconies, women hung laundry. The smell of a wood-burning oven drew me into the oldest bakery in town, Panificio Aurora. It was stocked with all kinds of taralli, focaccia, pastries stuffed with grape marmalade, and almond cookies. At a masseria a short drive away, I sampled fresh ricotta and caciocavallo, which along with buratta are among the most prized cheeses of the region.
“People make special trips from Bari to walk through town and eat gelato,” Letizia Velanzano, a member of Assieme, a group that works to promote and maintain Conversano’s cultural and culinary traditions told me. We stopped at one of the village’s many gelaterie, Caffe del Corso. There, chef Nicola Zivoli, an enthusiastic thirty-eight-year-old who has been working as a cook since he was twelve, insisted on starting us off with his specialty lunch crepe—filled with local ham, cheese, and greens. I was stuffed, but couldn’t resist tasting gelato he’d made that morning. I’m glad I didn’t—the hazelnut and vanilla were fantastic.
The chefs I met in Conversano were former home cooks who were now bringing their many years of experience and passions they once lavished on families to dining rooms.
At Pasha, one of the most highly rated restaurants in Puglia, Maria Magista, the mother of owner Antonello, created elegant presentations of Pugliese classics. As jazz played in the background of the sophisticated dining room, I enjoyed a vibrant pea soup and a rich vegetable flan of chicory and fava beans.
Down the road, at Agriturismo Montepaolo, chef/owner Niny Bassi hosts diners in charming country surroundings. The energetic, petite Bassi has masterfully restored a 17th-century farmhouse, retaining the layers of its history. Décor in the dining and guest rooms is accented by furniture, which she has hand painted, along with linens and ceramics made by local craftsmen.
During my three-hour lunch at Montepaolo, Bassi’s talent shined. Using primarily ingredients from their farm, she served up cucina povera in style. Most memorable was focaccia made with grano arso—wheat mixed with ash, which was what the peasants once gathered from the fields after they were burned, and is now a subtly-flavorful delicacy. We finished the meal with a taste of her homemade liqueurs—sweet almond, limoncello, and bay leaf—which along with a selection of fruit marmalades are offered for sale to guests at the agriturismo.
It was a gorgeous afternoon and after lunch, we walked around the property with her son, Nicholas, tasting cherries from the ripe trees. He handed me a green almond that tasted bitter but good, and then, like magic, pulled up shoots of wild asparagus from the side of the road. They burst with fresh spring flavor in my mouth. This was quintessential Puglia: a place where good tastes can be discovered every step of the way.
For more information about discovering small towns in Italy and cooking classes, visit Cooking Vacations (www.cooking-vacations.com).