I’m one of those who doesnt subscribe to the idea of asking locals for food recommendations. This is popular advice that works for many people, and in some places like small villages. But if you ask my neighbor in NYC for food recommendations, she would send you to the nearest Olive Garden branch. Personally I prefer to get acquainted with the local a little to make sure their tastes align with mine to some degree. Our host in Lecce gave us fantastic sounding seafood recommendation, until I learned the next day she doesn’t really eat seafood, her favorite exotic foreign food is hamburger, and she likes her steak well well done (chills). While this distrust can be a blessing and a curse, a serial food researcher like myself usually arrives at the destinations with not only an arsenal of possibilities but the knowledge of what to order in each one. Good or bad, that’s how I roll.
With that said, it didnt take long to learn that Pierluigi, our host at the splendid Masseria Spetterrata is the sort of food and wine enthusiast I can trust. When he talked to us about cities we should visit, I started finishing his sentences. “… and if you into food you should go to Ceglie Messapica and…”, me: “Cibus!”, “Oh… you know Cibus? You are the first guest that knows Cibus”. A surprising comment considering the legendary status of the place. But the way his eyes started to bulge, I figured the dude got more fine picks up his sleeves, or he has some sort of a thyroid issue. Later on I gladly accepted his more local recommendations, with Ristorante Mezzofanti in Cisternino being the most successful of the bunch.
Cibus was just shy of flawless, but had all the triumphant qualities you’d expect from a Slow Food legend. Cibus was in fact the first Puglia establishment to receive the Snail designation in the 90’s. But the first thing you should know about Cibus is that its located in Ceglie Messapica, the proud food capital of Puglia. A sleepy gem almost as striking as the much more touristy white towns of Ostuni, Locorotondo, and Cisternino. In fact when we strolled around the old city, we were practically alone in some corners. It is believed that its impossible to eat badly here. Yet, many establishments that struggled mightily during the pandemic, had to shut their doors.
As with most restaurants we visited in Puglia, the menu usually starts with one item, perhaps the most important one, Entrata di piccoli antipasti del territorio, a selection of small local appetizers. This is not your typical selection in a restaurant in Italy. Compared to the rest of the country, in Puglia, its often an eye popping tour de force selection of local cold cuts like Martina Franca Capocollo, cheeses, cooked or raw seasonal veggies, fried goodies, various salads often featuring more local cheeses, and pretty much anything and everything you can fit on a tapas size plate. Before you know it, you are showered with small plates covering the entire table and you start questioning “what have I done”.
You essentially have an environment where every place tries to outdo its neighbors in quality and quantity (number of plates). The “Antipasti for two” you’ll see in most menus is really for two to four depending on the place. This created an ordering challenge for much of the trip as we would often get full even by the Primi course. In Puglia, sharing is caring and key, and skipping the antipasti course could lead to hot flashes and sleepless nights.
In Cibus, the said antipasti course is a feast to all senses. A shockingly earthy baked eggplant that tasted almost like a mushroom. A stringy Stracciatella with black truffles. Zucchini flowers with ricotta and toasted almonds. Giuncata, a soft, ricotta like cheese made from various milks topped with jam. Wheat salad, and more. Just when you think they stopped and its safe to take a photo, here comes more.
The oohs and ahhs did not stop there. Orecchiette with Stracciatella, cherry tomatoes, basil pesto and Cegliesi almonds was a pleasant reminder that you are in Puglia, in the summer. Lasagnariccia, a perfectly deconstructed Lasagna offshoot with eggplant is the best eggplant parmigiana you will ever eat. And just when you thought you’ve seen every pasta shape, comes Sagnapenta, a chewy, slightly thicker than Bucatini, with aged ricotta cheese and fried breadcrumbs. This was enjoyable but the strong cheese a bit overpowering for some of our palates.
Since we somehow managed to miss Bombette (stuffed meat rolls) in the Bombette capital of Cisternino even though we were there on two evenings, I had to order the mixed meat platter with veal Bombette and sausages. While the Bombette were solid, I kept reaching for the splendid sausages. The ultra tender donkey stew you can cut with a hard stare was another winner. Its cooked for 10 hours, but tastes like 20. Scrumptious desserts sealed the deal, leaving you in a food euphoria for the rest of the day. Just what the doctor ordered for our anniversary. That and some antibiotics after a mouth surgery.
This is why we travel.