Posts Tagged With: Puglia

This is Polignano a Mare

Volare, oh-oh. Cantare, oh-oh-oh-oh. Everybody!

When you stroll the winding streets of Polignano a Mare in Puglia, one of the first things you’ll notice is that everyone is humming the same song. Everyone except the locals that is. They still wont forget that Volare singer Domenico Modungo who left Polignano a Mare as a child never mentioned the city much as an adult. Maybe the reason the residents turned his statue around to face them, instead of the sea, was to throw produce at him on occasion. They probably do it with Calabrian tomatoes as they are very proud of their own. My youngest will be the first to tell you that we couldn’t get enough of Puglia tomatoes.

Nel blu dipinto di blu. I wish there was a way to embed videos here. Wait… Googling… looks like not only there is, but I’ve done it before.

Volare means to fly. And Polignano a Mare, with its limestone cliffs, and majestic balcony views will make you wish you could. You can see what inspired Modungo within minutes of your arrival. Just 30 minutes from Bari, and a short drive from Monopoli, another stunner, Polignano is one of Puglia’s biggest gems. Its not exactly a secret in Europe these days. But in the US, pretty much anything outside the Rome-Florence-Venice express is fairly unknown. Polignano a Mare is exhibit 1-A why it makes sense to veer off the route, or come back to see the rest.

You can start your flying lessons by diving from those cliffs as many do. Polignano after all is home to the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. For American readers, this World Series involves athletes and teams from all over the world. A curious concept. The beaches here are rocky, but the water is crazy inviting. We opted for a swim in one of the many caves off a boat.

I’m not necessarily advocating to stay here for a few days. I havent done it so I dont know what its like. But Polignano is as touristy as they come, for good reason. Exploring it on one day, and from the water on another, would compliment your Puglia adventure nicely. Doing both on the same day is a tough task, especially if you want to include a nice seafood fest at the excellent Antiche Mura. Or if you are strictly after a setting like no other with no budget in mind, you got the famed Grotta Palazzese and its cave restaurant.

You will also want to spend some time in San Vito, where most of the boats take off. Easy to get there with a car or a short Tuk Tuk taxi from Polignano. The San Vito Monastery, beach and picturesque port will make you stick around a bit, while waiting for a Dorino boat. Seeing the cliffs, the mesmerizing caves, and swimming within one is an experience you wont quickly forget. The slightly X rated Dorino stories can only add to the experience. This is a great way to see Poligano a Mare from the water

San Vito

You can easily get lost in the old town, but keep going until you reach yet another terrace. You will take the same pictures again and again, and be thankful for all those photography classes you took. I didnt as you can see. Your best bet is to stop reading immediately, and look at Google. In my defense, I didnt know I will resume blogging when we visited Puglia. In my defense when I used to blog, shaky hands, excessive drinking.

After lunch at Antiche Mura, you may want to visit Super Mago del Gelo Mario Campanella, or Super Mario in short. Skip the hyped ice cream in favor of the specialty coffee with lemon and Amaro. Turns out we’ve been drinking coffee wrong for centuries.

Another tip: Combine Monopoli and the boat tour from San Vito on one day, and spend a day in Polignano on another, for a more leisurely visit to the coast. Or consider staying in Monopoli for a few days, especially if you are not driving. Not only more subdued, but positioned well for day trips, and beaches.

In closing I should mention that my thoughts are with the residents of Fort Myers and area. Although we lived through Sandy, and even lived in South Florida briefly, I cant even begin to imagine what they are going through. Its really tough to watch, and scary that Ian is regaining strength and about to strike again. In the small chance you are reading this from Ian’s path, I hope you stay safe.

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Four Gems in/near Alberobello

Lets get the puns out of the way. The Trulli town of Alberobello is truly magnificent. The UNESCO World Heritage site is one of Puglia’s main selling points. After the initial shrug of “why Puglia, what’s there”, all you need to do is show pictures of some random Trulli, followed by pictures of Polignano a Mare, followed by a church in the shape of a Trullo, and before you know it, she’s shopping for yellow dresses.

Spending two nights in Trulli Disney in a Trullo was an unforgettable experience. The only thing we forgot was Mrs Z’s (and mine) favorite bra hanging behind the bathroom door. But the touristy nature of the town made it a bit more challenging to find good food. Unlike food heaven Ceglie Messapica, I did not get the sense that Alberobello is known for its cuisine, hence half of the places mentioned here are actually in the nearby town of Noci.

Al Boschetto in Noci – Fantastic find. We stopped here for lunch on the way from Matera as I was looking for a safe place to park with luggage. Unfortunately in Italy you have to think about that. A sprawling, old school, formal without the formal prices type. We were the only tourists in a packed house on a Monday afternoon, with clientele ranging from the business type and nonnas who lunch. They had an American celebrity spotting not too long ago and I swore not to tell. Frankly I forgot who it was anyway.

This is where we started questioning the amount of food we ordered the rest of the trip. One needs to come to Puglia just to experience the thrill of the house antipasti, an array of 6 to 20 small plates that most restaurants we visited offered. Here it was a brilliant combination of all sorts of salami (Martina Franca Capocollo of course), cheese, fried goodies, marinaded veggies and more. Extra brownie points for offering us to half the pastas when the waiter noticed we were making funny full noises, which we gladly accepted. Tagliatelle with seafood was the undisputed winner among the Primis. Highly recommend.

L’antica Locanda in Noci – This is a popular “Slow Food” legend that required me to reserve well ahead from home, via phone. Parking was a little challenging in Noci, especially with two cars in our case, but we managed. The town seemed quite busy with a picturesque square and a tourist free old town. You know there are no other tourists by the “are you lost?” stares.

While we were eating, heard some fireworks nearby, probably to commemorate Johnny Depp’s court win. Or maybe I just heard them in my head after tasting the pear, ricotta, rum dessert. A deadly combination and solid contender for best dish of the night. The Plin-like Raviolini was exceptional, as were the scrumptious meats. A very solid meal all around probably deserving its own dedicated post.

Il Guercio di Puglia in Alberobello – I suppose it should not surprise anyone that most places on this post arent in tourist central Monti area, the busiest of the two Unesco zones in Alberobello. Il Guercio is located in the newer part of the city. We noticed that after the day visitors are gone in Monti so is the electricity. The evenings are as dead as the current Nasdaq bounces (trying.. not… to… look). Il Guercio on the other hand, got fairly busy after 9 pm, so make reservations or come as soon as they open.

The specialty here is “Pinsa”, one of several Roman style pizzas. It’s a long oval shape, thicker but fairly airy dough. Its not terribly different than pizza to be called something else (same goes for New Haven Apizza) but I can see why they would. It features a quality crust and top notch ingredients including of course Martina Franca Capocollo. We had to order it because the stand alone Capocollo (Gabagool in “Brooklyn Italian”) we had every other day was not on pizza.

La Lira Focacceiria in Alberobello – People often ask on the boards what else is there to eat in Italy besides pasta and pizza. Well, lets see, there’s also Focaccia, Trapizzino, Puccia, Pinsa, Lasagne, Calzone.. La Lira specializes in Focaccia and Puccia, another form of a pizza sandwich, the Puglia answer to the Roman Trapizzino.

Out of the Puccia we tried in Puglia and Matera this was the best one. Though the stuffed focaccia sandwiches were even better. Another reason to come for this busy take-out is for the animated owner.. “Now wait outside until you hear Puccia!! Like this… PUCCIA!!!!”. No tables outside means “trully” take-out. Ok, I’m done.

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This is Otranto (and Coast)

Variety, the most important attribute in picking destinations for this author (Still me, Ziggy). Something I gathered from experience, and TikTok. I would like to see and experience not only “different”, but all kinds of different. Different foods, nature, monuments, and anything unique that’s hard to classify (mechanical elephants anyone?). This explains why I like spending time in supermarkets in foreign cities, sometimes until closing or they call the cops, whatever comes sooner. On vacation I consume sodas, junk food and other things I dont usually eat at home. Old and new habits, like no longer eating something sweet in the morning, are out the window when I’m in Italy or elsewhere. All for the purpose of trying something different.

I had forgotten how easily I digress and start writing about food even when I dont plan to. The sad reality is I think about food even in inappropriate moments, like funerals, and sex (sorry honey, family), so this is not much of a stretch. But the point I’m trying to make here is that Italy has the type of variety we cant find anywhere else (Spain, Portugal come close). And Otranto, sitting on the heel of the boot, along with that entire Salento Adriatic coast stretch is an excellent example of that. While not exactly known for it’s cuisine (here we go again), its incredibly rich in man-made and natural beauty. You want to see pretty things, and take selfies near pretty things, you are in the right place.

This is why our day in/near Otranto was one the most memorable days of the trip. It had a little bit of everything. Jaw dropping scenery, beaches, great architecture, good food, and sunshine. What else do you need? Maybe rainbows and puppies (for the remaining TCI readers). Its a popular destination in the summer, but also an easy day trip from Lecce. Here’s a nice and easy day itinerary:

Cava di Bauxite – A beautiful quarry lake. Not a must as you can find similar quarries all over the world, but its quite picturesque and so close to Otranto, so might as well.

Otrano – Italy’s easternmost town is another white stunner. Its a popular beach destination for Europeans, but it wasnt overly busy when we were there. Otranto features an imposing castle, port, beach, a striking church, and a charming and clean old town. The problem with planning a day with multiple sites is that you dont get to fully enjoy the ones you want to stay longer. Otranto is exactly the type that makes you want to stay longer and explore.

SoFish in Otranto – One of the joys for me is finding exceptional food in places not known for it. Easier to do in Italy. For some reason Otranto, as with much of Solento (the greater bottom “heel”) is not really known for great food. Yet, we somehow managed to have some of the best meals of the trip on this leg. SoFish as the name implies is a hip, “Fast Casual” joint specializing in quick seafood. It appears that this is a relatively new fast spreading concept, started by the great success of Pescaria in Polignano a Mare.

The menu features a nice selection of seafood sandwiches, salads and particularly craft beer (Reminder: Italian craft beer is most underrated in the world). While everything we tried was good, the lobster roll is worth a dedicated blog post. Its one of the most outrageous Lobster Rolls I ever had. Pricy (for Puglia) but once you get it you see why. More like a well crafted lobster salad with huge chunks of meaty lobster and the rest of the lobster resting on top.

Baia dei Turchi – We opted to skip this beautiful secluded beach in favor of another one. But worth mentioning

Torre Sant’Andrea – Perhaps the jewel of the Adriatic coast in Puglia. Stunning white rock formations off beautiful, crystal clear water where you can swim. You want to spend some time here, and view the rocks from different angles.

Torre dell’Orso – While the best beaches in Puglia are on the opposite side of the heel, closer to Gallipoli, like Punta Prosciutto (make it stop!), you can find some gems here, with Torre dell’Orso perhaps the most famous one. We drove all over the coast from Bari to Otranto, and this was by far the most Caribbean-like sand and water we’ve seen. We ended up at Baia D’oriente to be precise with fairly easy street parking nearby.

Cave of Poetry – An enchanting natural pool where you can bring out your inner diver. After one dive however, I decided to retire my inner diver once and for all.

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Cibus – Slow Food City

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.

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