I just returned from about 2 weeks in southern Italy, and even though the main purpose of my visit was not gastronomy, I wanted to share some observations and recommendations for what they are worth. The two biggest surprises for me of the trip were
1) the exceptional deliciousness of the olive oil from Larino in Molise
2) how intensely I disliked Puglia
I could say I was also surprised by how very much I liked Basilicata and Molise, but I am used to enjoying new travels in Italy, and until Puglia, I had yet to come across a region of Italy to which I had such intensely negative reactions. To be fair to Puglia lovers, I didn't visit many picturesque towns most first-time visitors do (i.e., Ostuni, Trani, Polignano a Mare, Alberobello, Monopoli). Curiously, the part of Puglia I enjoyed most is the usually-shunned Bari, and would be curious to return there.
To my mind, my week's worth of experiences in Puglia is almost proof-positive that not everybody enjoys the same things about Italy, and this can be a cause for celebration rather than conflict. In the end, isn't it better that not everybody is crowding into the same places and fighting over the same food? I don't doubt for a second that other people who return from a trip Puglia and who report life-changing eating experiences found thrilling things to eat there. Surely there are incredible eating venues in Puglia that I missed. And what is a week's worth of food tell you anyway? But to be totally honest, I can't join those urging other people to go to Puglia ahead of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Emilia-Romagna, Le Marche or even the valle d'Aosta and Basilicata as a destination for food or wine.
I left Puglia largely underwhelmed by Pugliese wine, Pugliese pasta, Pugliese cheese and -- most surprising to me -- Pugliese bread. I regularly purchase tastier Pugliese-style bread outside of Puglia in Italy. Apart from the days I spent near Taranto, and a lunch in Lecce, I got a remarkable amount of blah bread served to me in Puglia, even in Slow Food recommended restaurants. (In Basilicata, I got delicious bread as the norm).
I should also note that Puglia is famous for many specialities that I made no effort to try. I skipped eating sea urchins, didn't stop in Cerignola for the olives, and only ate burrata when it showed up on cheese plates in restaurants other than in Corato. (All the cheese served to me in Basilicata and Molise was better than any served to me in Puglia, with one exception in Lecce). I also didn't eat at any of the highly regarded destination restaurants that require reservations weeks in advance, nor did I eat in a "fornello." People going to Puglia mainly for gastronomy might want to do what I didn't.
While I enjoyed many dishes in Puglia and ate in some wonderful Slow Food-recommended restaurants, the taste treats just didn't compensate for my overall disappointment. I ended up blaming a lot of my reactions to the food on Puglia on its olive oil, which even in Slow Food restaurants seemed to flatten a lot of dishes. Too often the Pugliese dishes I ate reminded me of the tastes I associate with Italian-American cooking, which I don't always dislike, but I prefer other tastes.
I relied on the Slow Food guide for osterie for 99 percent of my food choices and felt the quality of the restaurants was high, even if I didn't like the olive oil they used. Sadly, I found that staying in "masserie" recommended by the Slow Food locanda guide was a continuous disappointment gastronomically in Puglia, and that is something that hasn't been such a problem in other parts of Italy using the same guide. (I also found the business of turning these humongous masserie into super- luxury hotels in the middle of blasted nowheres bizarre, but that's not a discussion Chowhound will allow.)
My final complaint about eating in Puglia is that I wearied of the vast amounts of food being served to me. This proved a problem in Basilicata and Molise as well (but at least there, I found the food brighter and more to my liking). I didn't like a single cup of coffee I drank until I got to Campania (where I ended my trip, and have talked about in separate threads).
All that said, the eating wasn't bad, not even in Puglia and sometimes it was lovely (even in Puglia). My single best restaurant experience of the entire trip was in Puglia, on the Gargano promontory. In Bari, I was treated the best orata that I have ever tasted. I also highly encourage any foodie anywhere near Bari to visit the alleys of its old quarter where women still sit in their doorways making orecchiette, and drying it on special tables made of wood and wire. It is an amazing thing to see, and it has yet to be turned into a tourist cartoon. It remains a genuine tradition. (Do read up on the warnings about theft in Bari and take precautions.)
On to the eating highlights of my trip:
I DOLCI GRAPPOLO (Larino, Molise) -- This sparkling new agriturismo on the upper slops of Larino is attached to the well-regarded d'Uva winery, which produces the near-extinct Tintilia wine of Molise. Tintilia turns out to be a very enjoyable, inky rich wine, but the real thrill for me in Molise was tasting the "gentile" olive oil of Larino. This is sensationally good olive oil, incredibly light. a perfect accompaniment to the most delicate spring vegetables. I found its taste positively haunting, and I would go back to Larino in Molise in a flash to not only taste this marvelous olive oil again, but to pick up several bottles to take home. Abundant fresh food is served at the agriturismo's restaurant --- handmade pastas, highly local cheeses and the freshest meats.. Guests eat with the winery staff at dinner. Recommended by the Slow Food locanda guide.
LA COSTA -- San Nicandro Garganico (Puglia) -- Because we chose this eatery from the Slow Food guide, we were therefore surprised to find mostly creative dishes on the menu, and even more surprised when an antipasta plate of mixed seafood arrives with a splash of bright blue sauce on top. But it proved to be our best meal in Puglia, start to finish, with outstanding antipasti (including a divine eggplant roll stuffed with minced fish), plus a primi of divine garganelli in a seafood cream sprinkled with poppy seeds and studded with bits of lobster, and another pasta with mixed shellfish, perfectly rendered and blissfully light. For a shared secondo, a platter of fried-to-perfection small fish (including unusual local eels) that was good beyond description. I have no idea why anyone would go to San Nicandro Garganico other than to eat this food (I was on my way through the quasi-south Texas landscape to an allegedly scenic drive around the promontory). The day we zipped in for lunch, the steep ziggurat of the isolated town was hectic with what appeared to be a kind of "diffuse" market day, with pint-sized trucks and hatchback cars parked helter-skelter everywhere up the slopes of the historic center and customers blocking traffic in the narrow streets to hurriedly buy cheese, fruit, fish, etc, out of the backs of the vendor's vehicles. If you are ever tempted to a scenic drive around the Gargano promontory, I say skip the drive and just go eat at La Costa instead.
LE BOTTEGHE (Matera, Basilicata) --- This is a Slow Food pick at the very bottom of the bowl of the Sassi, worth the hike down and back up on the hard stones (you can take a taxi if your knees or back are not good). My pasta with chickpeas mixed with fried bread crumbs was so good, it would be worth a hike from America to eat -- and it is the only "destination" dish I could recommend from my entire trip. , It was simply a dream come true and I intend to master the dish in my own kitchen, and will happily go back to fascinating Matera as often as needed to get it right . An excellent Aglianico wine from Venosa was the server's recommendation. It was heavenly, best wine of the trip. We also ate roast meats, grilled steak and a truffle pasta (nice, but the truffle overpowered our taste buds into the next day). We shared a cheese plate with some of the most interesting cheeses of the trip. Be warned that pasta dishes are huge.
LOCANDA DI NUNNO (Canosa di Puglia) -- I was heartbroken when I ran out of time to drive from Canosa di Puglia to Cerignola before the end of the lunch hour, I so much wanted to eat Cerignola olives in their home town. But Locanda di Nunno in Canosa di Puglia --- right near the road out of town to Cerignola --, is a really very wonderful place and worthy of being a first choice itself. (I found it in the Slow Food osterie guide). Standouts from the meal were stuffed calamari in a very seductive lemon sauce, and a seemingly simple home-made pasta that incorporated red wine in the base, but it was the most successful version of that type of pasta I have every had. (We also sampled squares of a bread made of grano arso and Pugliese foccacia, neither of which I liked.) I had a sophisticated pistachio concoction for dessert, and adding to the pleasure was the outgoing hostess, whose radiant smile and enthusiasm for welcoming visitors to the region exemplified the most enjoyable aspect of being in Puglia. The people are terrific.
BACCO (Bari, Puglia) -- I chose this from my 2011 Gambero Rosso guide, and it is a very civilized place to try many specialties of Bari. (It even has an internal glass cubicle where cigarette addicts enter to smoke between courses). I particularly enjoyed their "tiella", an individual casserole of mussels, potatoes and rice, plus an outstanding salt-baked orata. They loaded us up with tasty amuse bouche and have exceptional crudo for antipasti (go for the shrimp). Wine from Castel del Monte suggested by the server was the best wine we drank in Puglia, and sugared almonds presented at the finish, among other many small pastries, were a memorable treat. My only caution is that this overly generous restaurant will overload you with food if you are not careful. All antipasti can be shared, especially plates of raw seafood. They are huge.
AL GATTO ROSSO (Taranto, Puglia)
"Pristine" is not a word easily associated with Taranto, but Al Gatto Rosso serves pristine seafood in a pristine setting that is about a 2-minute walk from the treasure-filled National Museum in Taranto. We had terrific octopus and perfect pastas with seafood. Recommended by both Slow Food and my 2011 Gambero Rosso guide.
And honorable mentions to:
ALLE DUE CORTE -- (Lecce, Puglia) -- A shared platter of fried vegetables reminded me of the fried onion rings of my youth, but a pasta of ribbony, frilly noodles, with oil-softened cherry tomatoes, a real kick of pepper and served with a stinky, crumbly cheese on the side was just the kind of made-by-mamma dish I think many people head to Italy dreaming they will find. It made me very happy (although the kick of pepper sent my husband's stomach into a tailspin on Puglia's miserable rural roads). This is a Slow Food recommendation.
CIBUS (Ceglie Messapica, Puglia) -- On a rare beautiful stretch of scenic road in central Puglia, heading south from Locorotondo through an untouristy stretch of trulli country, Ceglie Messapica is a particularly picturesque white hilltown, clean and quiet. CIBUS is in the heart of town and has won lots of applause (Gambero Ross and Slow Food), and we enjoyed the thankfully modest array of unusual and highly flavorful antipasti we ordered, which included the tasty fried hyacinth bulbs of the region. Less impressive was a house-made pasta that incorporated ground olives into the base. CIBUS earns much of its high praise for meat dishes, which we didn't try.
IL FALCO GRILLAILO (Matera, Basilicata) -- this is a very workaday place right opposite the Ridola archeology museum, perched where the upper ridge of the Sassi meets the modern town. We picked it for lunchtime convenience, but we quite enjoyed the rustic food. Cheeses in particular were fresh and fascinating, and the fava bean puree and chicory was fully satisfying, less refined but more satisfying than ones we had eaten in Puglia. The hardworking staff is friendly (as is seemingly everyone in Matera), and there is a cosy back room with small windows overlooking the Sassi. It does a whopping business in pizza (including take-away) during the passeggiata hours, and there are tables out front where you can watch the unending theatrics.
Not worth mentioning are most of the fish and seafood meals we ate along the Gulf of Taranto, which never rose beyond what we find is typical of many respectable coastal restaurants in Italy. In May, the small-town coast between Gallipoli and Metaponto is unnervingly empty, and we really have no idea how good the cooking might be when the summer season has brought the depressed coast to something resembling a life.
As Goethe almost said, you can have Puglia, but leave me the rest of Italy. It had to happen at some point that the Italian boot would kick up a region I didn't love on the whole, and I was utterly surprised it turned out to be Puglia -- since I love olive trees, the sea, vegetables and sunshine -- but it just doesn't speak to me.