PW's dining critic visits Puglia, experiences Italian-food revelation

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 25, 2014

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Ear to the ground: Orecchiette pasta from Trattoria del Purgatorio. (Photo by Brian Freedman)

I’m writing this column in Italy, from the second-floor porch of a friend’s house that I’m renting for the month of June. As I type, I’m staring out over the Ionian Sea directly in front of me, the waves counting their metronome beats over the rocks and providing the white noise of my days and nights here, the calming background against which I hear the patter of my older daughter’s feet inside, and the giggling of my younger one, and the padding around of my wife, more relaxed now than she’s been in a longer time than I can remember. We both are.

When this opportunity came about, and once we ran the numbers and realized that, if we cashed in my frequent-flier miles, it would cost less than renting a nice house for the month at the Jersey shore, we jumped at it.

The house is in Torre Colimena, a lovely seaside town of stucco and stone buildings, sienna-colored roof tiles, great beaches and friendly neighbors. And it’s an easy drive to countless destinations in this part of the proverbial heal of the Italian boot.

Indeed, it’s proven to be the perfect place from which to launch our daily expeditions to explore as much of the local culture as we can: Puglia, for all its recent press, remains relatively off the well-traveled Rome-Florence-Venice tourist path. And the food is generally less well-represented in America than that of more familiar regions. But now that I’ve been immersed in it since the beginning of the month, I’m convinced that its time has come for widespread success in America.

It has been an amazing education. From a dining standpoint, the cuisine as I’ve experienced it is the very embodiment of the explosive pleasures of ingredient-based food. This is to say that the best dishes I’ve tasted are built on a base of a few simple, impeccable components, any one of which will take your breath away. The mozzarella is otherworldly, so deeply lactic that I may well be getting my week’s supply of calcium every day when I tuck into that afternoon’s knot of it on the porch, alongside a chilled Campari and soda. The range of ricotta, the caciocavallo and more are deeply satisfying.

Meats are both varied and utterly delicious, and over the past few weeks I have developed a passionate love of equine: Chunks of horse or donkey meat simmered away in a tomato-based sauce, or packed into a sausage that’s grilled over an open flame and used as an anchor for an epic sandwich: It’s a family of flesh that I’d never really explored but that I have been beyond impressed with. I’ll miss it back in the States. The bread is both hearty and elegant, and the pasta, especially the miraculous orecchiette, astounding either on its own or with a simple sauce of chopped tomatoes, a dusting of dried oregano and a drizzle of some of the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted. (I’ve loved Le Ferre’s offerings. Snap them up if you can find them.) Or with the seafood, plucked from the local waters.

Last week I visited Masseria Guidone—one of the most justifiably decorated producers of extra virgin olive oil in the entire country—and toured the stunning estate with owner Luigi Guadalupi and my friend Francesco De Rinaldis Saponaro, while Luigi’s wife Stefania stayed back with my wife and two daughters: Italian hospitality is second to none. (Francesco also introduced me to the stunning Negroamaro “72100” from Cantine Risveglio, at the phenomenal Negroamaro Wine Festival in Brindisi, which I’ve been dreaming about since finishing the bottle.)

Wine-wise, I’ve been blown away: I’ve rarely had so many great wines for such fair prices. The local markets here sell nice bottles for around $7 each, and if you want to go just a bit higher, you can really taste something remarkable. I recently toured and tasted at Cantine Due Palme, Cantele, and Gianfranco Fino, all of which were spectacular: From value-priced bottles to pricier ones that have been garnered with awards all over the world, they embody exactly what make Puglian wine so special: Expressiveness and food-friendliness, as well as a sense of exuberance that demands a second glass, and then a third—and, let’s be honest here, a fourth, as long as you’re not driving.

Puglia is also a region packed with cities and towns that stick in the mind long after you’ve left them. One of my favorites has been Laterza, a city of a bit more than 15,000 people, where my family and I spent an amazing day last week. Thanks to the help and enthusiasm of my new friend Monica Caradonna, we were welcomed with incredible warmth and generosity by Mayor Gianfranco Lopane, a number of his associates, and everyone we encountered. From the mysterious charms of La Cantina Spagnola with its frescoes and carvings, and an epic meal at Trattoria del Purgatorio, to the gorgeous ceramics at SuMo Maioliche d’Arte and the deeply soulful breads of Due Emme Panificio Artigianale (and so much more), Laterza is the embodiment of everything that convinces me that Puglia will be the next big destination in Italy.

So while the decision to come here may have happened quickly—a friend’s off-the-cuff suggestion was all the catalyst we needed—it has proven to be among the best ones we’ve ever made.

Sometimes, if you’re truly lucky, a spouse’s half-baked idea can grow into something unforgettable. In this case, it has resulted in a month that I have no doubt we’ll be talking about for years to come. And with all this great food and wine, I’m sure I’ll be a walking advertisement for the gluttony that this region all but demands: We are eating and drinking well enough here that I plan on wearing the excess pounds I’ve packed on as a badge of distinction. My wife may think otherwise, but I’m okay with that. It’s one of the risks of the job. And one of its greatest joys.

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