Plenty in Puglia

Examiner food critic Patricia Unterman continues with her latest report from her culinary adventures around the world. Today: Puglia, Italy

Puglia, the region at the heel of the Italian boot along the Adriatic, is one long swath of olive trees — beautiful, noble, silvery, gnarled ones, mere babies at 50 years old. Some are centuries-old and still producing olives.

The Puglians are long-lived, too, and experts credit this longevity to their diet. The northerners call it “cucina povera” because it’s based on such humble ingredients: dried fava beans and chickpeas, 15 varieties of chicories and wild greens, pasta, bread and bread crumbs, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, fresh cheese, tiny amounts of meat and fish mostly preserved or cured, red wine and gallons of olive oil.

These ingredients in the hands of Puglian cooks turn out to be as satisfying as truffles, aged cheese, buttery pastas and prosciutto — and a lot more healthy.

In Puglia, a visitor really has no choice but the traditional diet, pretty much unchanged for the last 500 years. Food is directly connected to the land, the season, the occasion. People eat to honor, remember, celebrate. They look forward to certain days of the week for special dishes — pasta with meat on Thursday, fish on Friday, sweets on Sunday, the comfort of vegetables and grains on the rest.

The year begins in November with planting, when people eat seeds and nuts — grapes, pomegranates, walnuts. In the spring, the sprouting seeds are reborn like Christ at Easter. Aug. 15,a time of bounty, marks the Fest of the Virgin Mary. Food not only sustains but gives meaning to Puglian life.

I happened to be stationed in Bisceglie, a small town on the coast just north of Bari, during an olive oil conference sponsored by the region of Puglia, the largest producer of olive oil in Italy.

On my first night, locals on the street steered me to the sweet little Il Gatto e la Volpe (via M. Storelli, 20, Bisceglie, 080 395 33 02), a pizzeria with a wood-burning oven. We had a delightful, iconic, Pugliese meal that would be repeated over and over again with varying degrees of finesse and elaboration.

A Puglian restaurant meal always starts with lots of small dishes, in this case pickled wild hyacinth bulbs with a bitter edge; thin slices of pickled eggplant; balls of just-made mozzarella with a delicacy and sweetness we rarely find in the U.S.; dried fava-bean puree beaten with olive oil and smothered with dark greens braised in olive oil; a bowl of cima di rape, slightly if excitingly bitter broccoli; hunks of mild salt cod cooked in a terracotta casserole in the wood-burning oven with peppers and onions; wood-oven baked flat breads dotted with intensely flavorful whole cherry tomatoes and olive oil; and for dessert, amaro liqueur drizzled on an ice cream ball.

Only dessert was modern. With newly fermented Puglian red wine, called nuovo, the tab came to $20 a person.

But there are destination restaurants in Puglia, as well. In the jewel-like hill town of Ostuni, about an hour south of Bari, at Osteria Piazzetta Cattedrale (via Arcidiacono Trinchera, 7, Ostuni, 020 203 707 44) pixie Marilea Santoro creates fabulous meals: tiny polpettone, meatballs fried in olive oil; puffy vegetable and cheese fritters scented with mint; olive oil-fried wild artichoke beignets; juicy hunks of just-soaked salt cod on a tangle of wild chicory, the width of spaghetti; white eggplant custard; a crispy crepe filled with cauliflower puree; light green strands of wild cardoon that evoke artichokes, naturally salty with minerals; the dreamiest pasta I have ever tasted made with wild cardoon and cardoncelli, a mild, shiitake-like, wild mushroom that grows in the same places as the cardoon; orecchiette, tiny ear-shaped pasta with donkey and tomato sauce (the lean, thinly sliced, then rolled up donkey meat tasted like young, grassfed beef); and sophisticated desserts.

This whole meal came out of a kitchen the size of a closet. Guests don’t order. Family-style plates just appear. Our one choice was the pasta. Every night, I was told, the parade of antipasti and pastas changes, though the raw materials remain the same.

Ristorante Da Tuccino (via Santa Caterina, 69/F, Polignano a Mare, tel. 080 424 1560), 20 minutes south of Bari, is perched on a grotto above the sea. After being seated in a comfortable dining room, the owner asked us to step outside onto a patio with a fish counter filled with ice and a sparkling array of sea animals. He pointed to a small octopus for crudo — to eat raw. We were dubious. He pulled off a leg and handed it to me to taste.

I gulped and took a bite. The flesh unexpectedly gave way and tasted briny, just like a bite of the sea. It was exhilarating. We went wild, picking out not only baby octopus but creamy white cuttlefish, shrimp, langoustines, ridged clams and a slab of red tuna to eat as carpaccio over toasts, plus three different fish each about 6 inches long, We dressed the raw seafood with Puglian extra virgin straight from the bottle, drops of lemon and a few grains of sea salt.

When we had our fill of raw sea animals, the remains were whisked away and returned dusted with flour and gently fried in hot olive oil. The little clams were breadcrumbed and broiled. The shrimp and langoustines, salted and grilled. But frankly, no langoustine or shrimp has ever tasted sweeter than the ones I ate here raw. As a food writer commented as we finally left the table, “That was a holy experience.”

We paid $125 a person, which included many bottles of crisp white wine from nearby Lorcorotondo. This seafood immersion would have cost $500 in Tokyo or Rome, if it could have been duplicated. Of course, the da Tuccino meal was a Pugliese anomaly — all fish and no vegetables save for a plate of refreshing raw fennel, radishes, cucumbers, celery and carrots strewn with shaved ice, brought at the end. Only in Puglia would a plate of raw vegetables constitute dessert.

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