Even with with limited time, you can take a day trip to Puglia and experience authentic Italy away from the touristy cities up north.
Puglia. How could we visit the neighboring Basilicata region and not spend some spend time in this area rich with food but not American tourists? With limited time, we took a day trip to Puglia and experienced enough to know we want to come back again.
Like Basilicata, many Americans skip Puglia in their quest to experience Italy via the larger northern cities of Rome, Florence and Venice. For a vast majority of American leisure travelers, a trip to Italy is a once in a lifetime experience, and, let’s face it, there is only so much Italy that one could explore in a typical two weeks.
Ironically, Puglia is a part of Italy that feels authentic in a non-touristy way, where pastas like ear-shaped orecchiette are lovingly made by hand and markets are filled with the colorful bounty of the mostly flat, fertile Apulian plains.
Many years ago, before the Food Network became a cavalcade of competition and reality shows and when Mario Batali had a dedicated cooking show, the chef predicted that the region of Puglia would be Italy’s next great food destination rivaling the culinary epicenters of Rome, Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. Well, time has passed since those halcyon Food Network days, but, still, the masses have yet to explore this burgeoning gastronomic cornucopia at the heel of Italy’s boot.
Puglia, with its vast flat plains of olive groves, vineyards and conical houses, is abundant with a rich, sophisticated food culture that goes beyond the simple rustic food that most associate with southern Italy. At the same time, there’s still a piece of amusing provinciality that can be found in the towns we visited – Alberobello, Cisternino and Martina-Franca. Having a rental car available to us in Basilicata gave us a perfect opportunity to explore, if only briefly, Puglia’s varying charms including its hospitable people and its awesome gastronomic culture. Although we couldn’t see all of Puglia in a day, visiting three different towns gave a taste that left us happily hungry for more.
Day Trip to Puglia
Our day trip from Matera to Puglia began on a road that weaves through jagged Lucanian cliffs and exits into vast Puglian fields dotted by the province’s signature residences: the round, conically-topped trulli.
What are trulli you ask? Well, trulli are the dry wall constructed homes that date back centuries. The initial purpose of this unique construction is debatable. Some believe the construction was a convenient way to assemble and disassemble houses in order to avoid tax assessors. Others note that the structures provide perfect insulation from the harsh southern Italian sun in the summer months. Whatever the reason, the oddity of the fairytale structures define the Puglian landscape. In the town of Alberobello, trulli are ubiquitous, clustered by the hundreds.
But in ways that go beyond the trulli, we found other captivating attractions on our Sunday morning in Alberobello – open air markets, an outdoor church mass and a festive bandstand where older residents of the town gather to hear traditional music in the southern Italian sun.
Bounties of a Puglia Market
We adored the Sunday markets and olive vendors that are prevalent on the city streets. It’s fair to say that eating olives in Puglia is akin to eating baguettes in Paris. Puglian olives with their delicate nutty, salty flavor and thick meaty texture are incomparable to the olives we eat in Philadelphia.
Tasting Tip: Olives make wonderful snacks to enjoy during a Puglian day trip. They also travel well and taste better than olives we enjoy in the U.S.
Beverage Break in Cisternino
The southern Italian lifestyle is easy, and there are small towns like Cisternino atop hilltops where one can breeze in and enjoy a panini for lunch. Such a break is even better when accompanied by an inordinately large Negroni cocktail and an expansive view of Puglia’s Itria Valley.
Tasting Tip: Most businesses close for several hours each afternoon. Many cafe’s, where you can relax, eat lunch and enjoy a tasty libation, are open throughout the day.
An Evening in Martina-Franca
As the evening breaks in Martina-Franca, the nightly passageata begins. The stately yet compact town’s grand center affords an excellent opportunity to view the nightly stroll while hanging at a local cafe. The passageata is serious business, as even the town’s oldest citizens proudly struggle to walk through the medieval town center using rails and walls if necessary to keep their balance. This is the Italy we’ve always read and heard about through Italian-American immigrant stories. You can literally feel the heritage of the country behind every rustic door.
Tasting Tip: Dinner time is later in Italy compared to dinners in the USA. Use the time before dinner for a stroll, and don’t forget to stop along the way to toast the evening.
Dinner at the Southern Edge of Martina-Franca
There aren’t a ton of resources on ‘where to eat’ in Martina-Franca. We found a number of nondescript reviews in difficult to understand, Google translated Italian, but there were a couple of good reviews that pointed us toward the southern border of the town’s center. It was there that we found Osteria Coco Pazzo.
Italians eat late (see our tasting tip above), and many restaurants open for dinner as late as 8 p.m. Such was the case with this white-walled cantina which we found after a maze-like walk that left us along a two-way main drag. We approached the restaurant, located in a bi-level Itrian strip mall and were quickly greeted by a food runner who treated us like long lost guests. It was just then that we heard a familiar refrain.
“How did you find my restaurant?”
Chef Stefano Colucci, who just emerged through kitchen door dressed in street clothes, repeating the same humble greeting that we received back during our pizza experience in Naples. We explained that our selection was purely by chance. Literally: the restaurant looked good, so we went in. He was fascinated by our serendipitous arrival and proceeded to shower us with a stream of well crafted yet traditional Puglian dishes.
The osteria’s menu offers a selection that embraces local ingredients that are abundantly available in Puglia. We began the meal with a melange of antipasti and enjoyed treats like squash blossoms, shrimp, fava bean dip and a red snapper carpaccio. Although the fava bean dip is a Puglian staple, our favorite starter was a plate of local meats and cheeses including bresaola, tender cured pancetta and vaccherino – a local, intensely funky cow’s milk cheese. All this was served aside rich, soft, creamy buratta.
Other standouts included a pasta dish made with handmade orecchiette pasta and a flavorful tomato sugo. Another was the house special marretto, a lamb roll made with organ meat and served with roasted potatoes and bay leaves.
We ended the meal with after-dinner liqueurs and cookies, which provided a sweet but not too sweet conclusion to the satisfying meal.
During the meal, we enjoyed a bottle of wine made from indigenous susumaniello grapes. Rich and peppery, the medium bodied wine is one that we want to drink again, but, alas, it is not easy to find outside of Puglia.
Osteria del Coco Pazzo is located at Arco Mastrovito 18-19 74015 Martina Franca (TA), Italy.
Our day trip to Puglia ended much like it started, with us driving through winding roads. As we approached the ancient city of Matera, we already missed Puglia but took comfort in the plastic bags of olives just waiting for us to enjoy for days to follow.
Although we only got a small taste, we tasted enough to know that we want to return for a proper trip to Puglia. Next time, perhaps we will make time to explore the seaside towns near the Adriatic and Ionian seas. Without a doubt, we will eat and drink lots of local food and wine among olive tree-dotted fields and quaint towns. To us, that is the ultimate local experience in Puglia.