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Today Eating Italy goes to the heel and we’re talking food in Puglia! I am so happy to share this interview with you and introduce you to my very good friend, Claudia Parisi who is from one of my favorite regions in Italy – Puglia! I met Claudia on my very first trip to Puglia, and on my first day in Lecce. She, of all the ladies I met way back then, is one of the most knowledgeable and passionate about the food of her region, and I give her most of the credit for my love of Puglia and especially its food.
We have spent time togehter on every of my many visits to Puglia. She was there when I first learned about lampasconi and what a frantoio ipogeo are. And, she’s been there on my numerous visits back, introducing me to other food-loving Pugliese, explaining the history and little stories behind many dishes and places in the region. Her passion for her region, its traditions and its food is absolutely contagious. Claudia is also VERY discerning when it comes to quality. I can always trust her recommendations on a dish and an eatery. She has worked in the tourism business as a guide, group leader and also as manager of a few bed and breakfasts in Lecce. Join me in Puglia, and you can meet Claudia! She is one of our local guides on the Food Lover’s Culinary Journey in Puglia.
In today’s interview, Claudia, a Lecce native, shares her tips and gives us a little background about the food and its traditions in Puglia, but specifically in Lecce and Salento – the most southern province of Puglia, right at the very tip of the heel. Lecce is the capital of Salento. I especially love how poetically she’s described her terra and its food….
1) How did your passion for food and wine come about? What was the first dish you made?
When I was young I used to watch my mother cooking. She cooks very well and I learned a lot from her. My first dish was “Parmigiana” made with fried eggplant slices, fresh tomato sauce, lots of basil and parmesan. I started appreciating wine just a few years ago, when I met my friend Andrea who has a enoteca (wine bar) in Lecce, Mamma Elvira. He introduced me to many of our local wines. My favorite Pugliese wine is Negramaro.
2) In general (we’ll get to the food next) what do you love most about Lecce and Salento?
I love my land (mia terra) because it is still pristine. If you take a stroll or drive in Salento you can see the never-ending stretch of our wonderful and ancient olive groves with the red earth below them. As we in Salento are on our own little peninsula in the heel of Italy, you will certainly and all of a sudden arrive at the sea, one that is completely transparent and showing off all the colors of its extraordinary vegatation. This Mediterranean blue is, in some places, completely enchanting. When lying on any of our many beautiful beaches, you’ll have this Mediterranean blue in front of you and the cicadas singing in the trees behind you. Il mare mio (my sea) is the most beautiful of all beause it is MINE and has been since birth and I love him especially for the tranquility he gives me when I look at him.
Lecce is most beautiful at sunset when the old buildings, made with our local stone Pietra Leccese, take on a warm golden yellow color. The best moment (il momento più bello) to explore and discover Lecce is at dawn, when the city is deserted and you can walk undisturbed throughout the streets, gazing upon its ancients alleys and baroque buildings.
I do not know how it feels to be a tourist in Lecce or how visitors perceive us Leccese. I love the people here because they are warm and open-minded. I often stop when I see tourists who look a little lost or troubled. I like to give them some tips on places to see and where to eat and also tell them little anecdotes about Lecce and our history. When I ran the Bed & Breakfast, most of the guests left me little notes to thank me and this was always the greatest satisfaction that I could have.
3) What is distinctive and/or special about Pugliese cooking, especially in relation to the other regions in Italy?
The cuisine of Salento is humble and poor and is based mainly on vegetables, grains, and beans, all rich in nutrients. It is also a cuisine very genuine because we use only the freshest seasonal produce. All the traditions of cucina povera (poor man’s kitchen) have been handed down over the centuries and are influenced by the various rulers/ruling nations we have had. The cuisine was extremely poor but also extremely rich in imagination and amazing flavors.
The main ingredient in any kitchen in Salento and Puglia is the love with which our grandmothers and our mothers taught us to cook. Every dish is like a child and is cherished and loved from the time it is conceived until the moment of tasting.
Although we do use many cultivated vegetables, it is still very common to see wild variations of vegetables in our dishes, like le paparine, gli zanguni (wild chicory), and also wild asparagus. People will forage for these verdure selvatiche (wild vegetables) that grow free in the countryside and make the best contorni (side dishes) with them.
We do not use lard or butter but instead the excellent olive oil produced from our land. Meat was not very common, and for the most part still isn’t a big part of our cuisine, as it was too expensive. The people instead cooked what the land gave them. Another product of the earth are the snails, here called in dialect, “municeddhri” that the peasants ate together with pesce azzurro (the group of tiny fish known for being less expensive). “Puppidi” are the tiny fish that are eaten fried or preserved with bread crumbs, vinegar, saffron and extra virgin olive oil. In fact, to give flavor to our dishes we used, and still use today, the herbs that flourish along the Mediterranean coast (la nostra macchia mediterranea): sage, rosemary, thyme, mint, marjoram. Anyone can go to pick them along the coast.
The tradition of using less expensive flour for our pasta still exists. We still make pasta by hand at home: orecchiette, sagne ‘ncannulate, maritati (a pasta combination of orecchiette and handmade maccheroni). They can be made with wheat flour but you will also see them made with grano arso (burnt wheat flour) and barley flour, which was less expensive then wheat flour. [People who were too poor to buy wheat flour are said to have foraged the just burnt wheat fields or baking ovens for the the burnt grain (grano arso) that remained. They took it and made flour and then pasta with it.]
Even the desserts are influenced by our long ago rulers, mainly from the Eastern world. In fact, the predominant ingredients in the sweets are honey, almonds and cinnamon.
4) What tips do you have for those visiting Lecce so that they can fully experience and enjoy the food in Lecce?
Taste as much of the food of our region as you can; rustico, pasticciotto, cotognata Leccese (quince jelly), pittule, lampasconi, handmade pasta dishes, taralli, ciceri & tria, and lots more. Spring, early Summer and Fall are the best times to truly enjoy Salento and its cuisine.
A typical Leccese breakfast is a great pasticciotto and un good cappuccino or cup of coffee. For those who love a savory breakfast, you can eat il rustico (it’s calzone-like but instead of pizza dough it’s made with flaky pasta sfoglia (puff pastry), stuffed with beschamel sauce, mozzarella and fresh tomatoes and baked). These also represent two of our most popular street foods.
Aperitivo (cocktail) hour starts about 7pm and is a true ritual not to be missed. Often, especially in Summer, you can substitue dinner for the abundance of food that is served during l’ora dell’aperitivo. You will typically find “mignon” (miniature sizes) of rustici, calzoni fritti (fried calzones), mozzarelline (little mozzarella balls), friselline with fresh tomatoes and basil (little frisa), stuzzichini (nibbles stuck with toothpicks) of cheese and salumi, vegetables with a mayonaise or yogurt-based sauce, tarallini (ring-shaped Pugliese crackers), and olives. All to go with a nice glass of Pugliese wine, obviously!!!
Especially in summer when it is very hot, we eat lunch very late, even around 2:30pm. Eateries start serving from Noon to 2:30pm. In the evening dinner is around 9pm and if you go to the theater or cinema, you can find a table even at 10:30pm. In general for dinner, restaurants could start serving as early as 8pm until Midnight.
I recommend that when you are at a restaurant not to order all your courses (antipasti, primo, secondo, etc.). Make sure to order a variety of antipasti, the many types of vegetable antipasti, polpettine (little meatballs), focacce, pitta di patate (aka focaccia di patate/potato focaccia). If you have a nice sampling of antipasti, you might not be hungry enough to continue with both a primo and secondo. It is quite normal to order your remaining courses after you have sampled the antipasti so you know how much more you can eat.
Do not to miss sagne ‘ncannulate or orecchiette, home made pasta with fresh tomato sauce, lots of basil and cacioricotta (fresh cheese) on the top.
Don’t miss melanzane ripiene (stuffed eggplant), la parmigiana (Eggplant Parmigiana), burrata (beggers’ purses of mozzarella cheese stuffed with cream), and taieddra (a primo piatto of rice, mussels, and potatoes)
Be sure to try our “street food: il rustico and pasticciotto (Pasticciotto is the typical Salentino dessert you can never find in other Italian regions).
La frisa is not a street food. It is a dish typical of la cucina povera that is substituted for a meal. It is a round hard bread that is dipped in water and dressed most commonly with only fresh tomatoes. Sometimes it can be topped roasted vegetables, tuna, capers and mozzarella.
Try a fornello pronto in Cisternino, where you can go to the butcher who has a little oven ready (fornello pronto). He will cook the meats that you choose.
About wines I think you have to discover our rosé, known here as rosato. Very good wine to be drunk cold and good with pizza and also fish.
If I want to eat well at a more upscale restaurant in Lecce, I go to Corte dei Pandolfi. They serve modern cuisine with fresh local products.
Another place I like is Mamma Elvira, both the enoteca and the casual eatery. It is the best eatery and wine shop where you can taste the freshest local products produced well and in a casual atmosphere and you can sample hundreds of local wines. International atmosphere. Good aperitivo and Andrea, the owner, is very knowledgable and eager to discuss Pugliese wines.
Pescheria con Cottura, also in Lecce offers a new concept for eating fresh fish in a friendly and informal setting.
La Scarpetta – For a good pizza and main courses. Internal garden, very cute.
And around Lecce I would suggest Lemi, in Tricase, a few kilometers far from Lecce, on the sea. Creative mediterranean cuisine made with local products and a good wine list.
Sagra de Lu Porcu Meu – At the end of October, roast pork is celebrated in Muro Leccese and Ortelle. In the past, this was a farmers’ tradition.
8) What dish is your signature dish, or cavallo di battaglia, as they would say in Italy?
I don’t know..I’m not sure I have a “cavallo di battaglia.” I just cook with passion every time I cook. I think passion is the best ingredient to make your dish “the best ever.” My friends do always ask me to make torta pasticciotto and my crostata con marmellata with my homemade orange or mandarin marmelade. The oranges and mandarin are buonissime and picked right from my trees.
9) What would your ideal “best ever” food lover’s day in or around Lecce look like?
I would wake up early in the morning, and while everyone else is sleeping, have an Italian breakfast in one of the cafes or bars in the historic center. Then I would go to visit the little towns of the Grecia Salentina where traditions are still very strong and then to the coast and to Otranto and its beaches. The thing I love to eat is eggplant parmigiana, but I would also want to remember the flavor of the sea with an aperitivo and a crostini with the pulp of ricci from Porto Badisco. Then a beautiful plate of spaghetti with mussels accompanied with the best rosè pugliese! At the end of the meal, I must have a pasticciotto and the best coffee. In the evening, I would return to Lecce for an aperitivo at dusk, once again astonished by the honey color of Leccese stone as the sun sets upon it.
Wow, who’s ready to meet Claudia, explore Puglia, and make a Torta Pasticciotto together?! Thank you again, Claudia, for sharing your love and tips of Salento with us.
Find out more about our fabulous vacation package: Food Lover’s Culinary Journey in Puglia
Eating Italy is an interview series focussed on finding out how locals eat throughout Italy. In each interview, we’ll take a virtual food-lover’s trip to a specific spot around the boot. I’ll ask my food-loving friends to share their insights and tips on where, what & how to eat in their home city or region.