To this day, whenever I think of Puglia, a vision of the red, green and white of the Italian flag is what immediately comes to mind.
It was 1983 and I was visiting this southern region that forms the heel of Italy’s boot for the first time with my partner Paolo Volpara. It was the middle of summer and everything was in a heightened state of color and freshness. Succulent, juicy red tomatoes were in abundance. Aromatic leafy green arugula and basil accompanied almost every dish. And I was surrounded by white– not only the beautiful sun-bleached and whitewashed buildings of Puglia’s rural villages, but also the glistening white cheeses so typical of this region. Fresh ricotta, mozzarella and the regional specialty burrata were ubiquitous and in the peak of their flavor.
Paolo and I flew into Bari, the capital of Puglia just in time for dinner. The weather was glorious, so we chose a restaurant where we could dine al fresco. Thus began what we would refer to as our “Italian Flag” dinners. Its no wonder that many Italian dishes are described as “Tre Colore,” Italian for three colors. A similar name – Tricolore – is also used by many Italians to refer to their flag. It was these same three colors that dominated the ingredients in the dishes we enjoyed during our lovely summer journey.
We relaxed with a glass of a local white wine and ordered a plate of burrata, which arrived interspersed with slices of fresh tomatoes lying on a bed of arugula. Drizzled with the nutty, buttery extra virgin olive oil of the region it was the perfect simple summer dish to introduce us to this sublime season.
Simplicity is what drew me to Italian cuisine in the first place. Good Italian cooks are all about restraint, about knowing that adding ingredients is not always going to result in a better dish. Wanda Bottino, my original partner and mentor, always emphasized the importance of using fresh, seasonal ingredients and doing as little to them as possible. She understood the “less is more” concept and this dish clearly exemplified that concept: three main ingredients with the addition of a sensational liquid condiment.
This approach most certainly applies to one of the regions iconic foods, Burrata. This handmade cheese has always been one of my favorites. Burrata means “buttered” in Italian and is created by taking very fresh mozzarella and forming it by hand into small somewhat oblong pouches and then filling them with soft, stringy mozzarella curd and lush rich cream and resealing the pouch, thus creating a little pocket of rich creamy deliciousness! Both are frequently served with fresh sliced tomatoes – a perfect combination. In my opinion, quintessential summer dishes.
Like all fresh cheeses, burrata has a short shelf life. Some “cheese puritans” claim it should be eaten the same day it is produced, though I find that a little dogmatic. Because importing this cheese from Puglia is so costly, recently U.S. companies have begun to produce a domestic version, especially in areas that have a large Italian-American community. But the imported variety can still be found in many gourmet markets around the country. Convito tries to keep either the imported or the domestic burrata in stock especially in the height of the summer season when tomatoes are at their best, though its popularity makes keeping it in the case a real challenge!
Depending on the size of the burrata pouch, slice the cheese into ½ inch thick slices and intersperse with ½ inch slices of fresh tomato. Serve on a bed of arugula (as pictured here) or with fresh basil. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.
My Italian journeys are always a combination of food, wine and culture, which always made them so educational and so mind-expanding. On this particular trip I not only looked forward to visiting some of Puglia’s unique villages but I was also very interested in the land itself. I had traveled to so many mountainous areas of Italy, I guess I expected more of the same. It surprised me that Puglia was not at all mountainous. It was very flat with lots of level spaces in-between towns and hills and beaches most overflowing with flourishing crops of tomatoes, eggplants, artichokes, almonds, olives and citrus fruits making it clear why this region is considered the breadbasket of the south.
Bordered by the Ionian and Adriatic Seas, Puglia has the longest coastline of any region in mainland Italy. Beautiful sandy beaches, picturesque fishing villages and lovely little towns dot this mostly rocky, seemingly never-ending coastline. On our second day there, we would have lunch in one of those lovely little coastal towns Polignano a Mare at a seafood restaurant called Da Tuccino. Sitting on the terrace with a spectacular view of the marina we leisurely perused the menu while the sea distracted us with a ballet of dancing waves in all their aquamarine glory.
Da Tuccino is known for its fresh-caught fish so naturally we inquired about the catch-of-the-day. Branzino (sea bass), we were told. Of course that was the dish we ordered. Sautéed in the region’s olive oil, it came atop a fresh red tomato sauce laced with the region’s green cerignola olives (also called bella di cerignola). Another tre colore treat.
Branzino con Salsa Pomodoro e Olive
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons finely minced shallots
1 clove garlic, finely minced
3 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, halved and seeded
½ cup green olives, pitted & chopped
¼ teaspoon dried crushed chili peppers
salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
4 (5-6 ounce Branzino or Sea Bass fillets (or other white fish)
In a medium skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat. Add shallots and garlic and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and olives and chili peppers and cook for another 3 minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Set aside.
In a large non-stick skillet heat the remaining 1-tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the fish and cook until opaque in the center. Turn over and cook the other side – approximately 2 – 3 minutes per side.
You may want to rewarm the tomato sauce. Spoon a ladle of sauce onto 4 plates and top each with a sautéed fillets.
Puglia’s cerignola olives are mild and large and one of the favorites of the region but they are not the only olives grown here. There are a great many varieties — Coratina, Provenzale and Ogliarola just to name a few — all growing in groves throughout the Puglia. It was astounding to see the sheer number of olive trees that blanked the landscape. Some estimates put the number of trees at over 60 million, so it was no surprise to learn that more than forty percent of Italy’s olive oil comes from this region. Much of the oil, however, goes into mass production which means it does not go through the very carefully monitored process which results in the “extra virgin” designation. Instead it is used in lesser blends, combined with other domestic and imported oils or is simply sold under the “virgin” label (a lesser grade).
There are still a number of estates in Puglia that produce the high quality extra virgin variety and Convito currently carries two of them: Masserie di Sant ‘Eramo, a delicate, smooth and wonderfully fruity oil and Gallentino, a more complex oil with a distinctive bite and a somewhat spicy flavor. We also carry Gallentino’s flavored oils: garlic, lemon and basil.
Convito has always prided itself on our olive oil selection. Like wine, it is a product that deserves careful attention and understanding its complexities requires study. Sofia Solomon, owner of Tekla Inc. (importer and wholesaler of top quality products) has introduced Convito and our customers to many excellent Italian olive oils and a great percentage of our selection comes from her company. Because of her passion and her depth of knowledge, she has helped to educate Convito staff and customers to the wonders and many uses of these extraordinary olive oils. All of this information is extremely helpful to customers when Convito conducts their biannual olive oil tastings. I invited Ms Sophia to share some of her knowledge to this blog which she was gracious enough to do.
OLIVE OIL AND WINE: AN APT ANALOGY
by Sofia Solomon
Throughout many parts of the world, especially the Mediterranean basin, vineyards and olive groves have been planted closely for millennia. Olives, like grapes, come in many different varieties. Many varietals are indigenous to a region, and many more may be grown in areas foreign to their origins. Like certain wines, certain olive oils may also be offered protections and designations, such as D.O.P., and A.O.C., relating to their geographical areas and cultivars. Some wines may be single varietals, or, single estates, so too olive oils. And like many wines, both exceptional and common, they may be blended, their quality dependent upon cultivation of the fruit and artistry of the blender.
Just as one may have a “house wine”, one that’s very versatile, will go with most foods, and is reasonably priced to be able to drink every day, so one should have a “house olive oil” with the same attributes. As wine is classified, so too is olive oil. In the case of olive oil, this means the designation of extra virgin. It is both prudent and beneficial, in wine and in olive oil, to know the producers. Caveat emptor! * (That’s another story).
However, just as one needn’t drink the same wine with every food and every meal, so too, one should have a selection of olive oils for various foods and occasions.
- Peppery Tuscan olive oil like Capezzana, an unfiltered estate production, is exceptional as a finishing oil for poached, roasted or crudo fish.
- Buttery Ligurian olive oil like Ceppo Antico enhances pestos.
- Redolent of grass and tomatoes, with a long peppery aftertaste, elegant Ravida, Sicilian estate oil, is delicate enough to fry a farm fresh egg to perfection.
- Olio Verde also from Sicily, with its assertive grassiness brightens salads, vegetables and pulses.
- Badia a Coltibuono, a Tuscan blend, adds flavor and texture to a hearty soup or stew.
- Complex, flavorful Laudemio Frescobaldi, a Tuscan estate, elevates grilled and roasted meats.
- And, of course, all styles of olive oils suit all types of pasta.
There is nothing simpler and more delicious than excellent pasta dressed with parsley, black pepper and a very good extra virgin olive oil. A touch of Parmigiano Reggiano and some lemon peel gild the lily!
* caveat emptor: the principle that the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made.
Since extra virgin olive oil is one of my favorite products, I was thrilled to be in this region where one is surrounded by olive groves. Row after row of olive trees proudly shimmering their silver green leaves in the bright summer sun gave the groves an almost ethereal appearance. As we drove into some of the more accessible areas, I was especially fascinated with the large number of ancient trees we came across – all gnarled and twisted looking like wizened old souls. Some looked like the kind of sculpture art one might find at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. Astonishingly, they were still producing olives. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of olive oil came from these ancient trees? Did they produce oil infused with wisdom? Paolo laughed at my musings but did concede that adding “wisdom” to the already long list of olive oil benefits would be a great marketing tool.
After our olive oil adventure we drove towards the lush woodland setting of Hotel Sierra Silvana in Selva di Fasano. Located in the province of Brindisi, it is the highest elevation in the area with a view of many of the charming villages we would visit over the next two days. We arrived in the late afternoon and found ourselves surrounded by a bustling staff making preparations for a wedding that would take place late that evening. The hotel I learned is a popular location for weddings – especially those of the chic, glamorous and wealthy. Though the scene was festive, we sought quieter surroundings and decided to head to a nearby restaurant for dinner.
The words fresh and succulent appear over and over again in my Puglia journal and perfectly described the meal I had that evening called Orecchiette alla Crudita. Orecchiette literally means “small ears” in Italian and is the signature pasta of Puglia, this time served…tre colore! Ripe red tomatoes, bright green basil, and fresh ricotta all atop the orecchiette pasta echoed the ever-familiar colors of the flag. All those lovely ingredients were mixed with the extra virgin olive oil of the region – probably from one of the groves we had driven through that morning. In this particular dish an excellent extra virgin olive oil is essential. It is not a part of a sauce. It IS the sauce.
I have tried to duplicate this dish over and over again and somehow it never lives up to my memory of the one I had that evening. So simple. So delicious. Even making it during the height of the tomato season when mid-western tomatoes are at their succulent best, it’s never quite the same. I guess eating al fresco, surrounded by lush woodlands, enjoying soft summer ocean breezes is not so easy to duplicate. And atmosphere – I have always felt – will always influence the taste buds!
Orecchette alla Cruda
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1 teaspoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ pounds tomatoes, chopped*
½ cup fresh basil, chopped
pinch of chili pepper flakes
¾ tablespoon salt
freshly ground pepper
¾ cup fresh ricotta
basil leaves for garnish
In a bowl, mix together shallots, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, basil and chili peppers. Add salt and pepper. Mix well. Let marinate for approximately 30 minutes.
In the meantime cook pasta in a large amount of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain pasta well and toss with the tomato mixture. Adjust seasonings. Place in individual bowls and top each with dollops of fresh ricotta and a basil garnish.
*This is a dish best made during the height of the tomato season when plump tomatoes are available (I recommend seeding the tomatoes)
Though the white in my tre colore meals tended to be represented by the white of Puglia’s fresh cheeses, there is another white that also comes to mind when I recall this visit – the white of Puglia’s many charming towns and villages. Set against the shimmering, rippling turquoise sea and cerulean skies, the starkly sun-bleached homes and whitewashed buildings gave off a magical aura. Walking through their winding, cobbled streets one feels a kind of purity that is unique to my memories there.
Further up the coast in an unusual little town called Alberobello we spent a whole morning wandering amidst a sea of nearly identical white stone huts topped with gray conical roofs that filed up and down the hilly slopping streets of this village. Looking both picturesque and at the same time totally bizarre, these pyramidal structures are called trulli and date back to the 14th century. They are scattered across Puglia but Alberobello is truly the trulli capital of Puglia (pun intended!) and of the world. I was fascinated with both their shape and their history.
Our guide informed us that their unusual shape is a result of the economic conditions at the time – a time when peasants were not allowed to build anything without the permission of the king. Supposedly, that permission was very difficult to obtain. Property taxes were also extremely high. So as the story goes, because the stones of the trulli had no cement and could be dismantled quickly, their owners could easily move them to another location in order to avoid the king’s inspectors. Once the coast was clear, they could also be easily re-assembled. Very tricky these truilli owners!
Another charming “white village” was Martina Franca, described in our guidebook as “a memorable maze of winding alleys where whitewashed simplicity sits side by side with baroque extravagance”. Martina Franca used to be a fully walled city but some of the towers have been removed. Four Renaissance and Baroque gates still exist – all in white or shades of white.
Of all the many white villages we visited during this trip, my favorite was Ostuni where we stopped for a mid-morning coffee at a small café near its splendid piazza. This city is literally called the Citta Bianca (white city). Bright blue or green doors added a touch of contrast to many of the houses lining the town’s streets – as did the charming terra cotta pots of bright red geraniums or exotic succulent cacti positioned in front of the entryways.
We spent our last morning driving along the beautiful coast heading back to Polignano a Mare where we would have another lunch before we flew back to Milan. This time we dined at Grotto Palazzese. The restaurant juts out some 74 feet above sea level and is carved out of magnificent limestone rocks. Paolo ordered grilled octopus simply prepared with fresh herbs and olive oil and I ended as I had begun, with a plate of succulent tomatoes, burrata and this time instead of arugula – fresh basil. I thought it appropriate to end on the same note I had begun.
The most interesting part of our lunch, however (besides the magnificent view of the sea) was our conversation about Italian cooking. I was always in complete rhapsody when I talked about Italian cuisine whether it was during my cooking sessions with Wanda or dining with Paolo. Although simplicity dominates the best Italian cooking, I realized that not every Italian recipe consisted of just a few ingredients. Some were much more complicated like Calabria’s Lasagna Calabrese (see Basilicata and Calabria – “Behind Closed Doors”) and Liguria’s Cappon Magro (see Liguria II – “Expect the Unexpected”). However, many of those more complicated dishes were usually not everyday food but rather holiday fare – dishes for special occasions.
My only dining disappointment during that summer journey was that I was not able to order one of my favorite regional dishes in the region it is from – one that Wanda had cooked for me both in her Milanese kitchen and in my Glencoe home when she visited the U.S. The dish is called Orecchette con Cima di Rape and it is the region’s most famous pasta dish. But it was not on the menu because its main ingredient – broccoli rabe (cime di rape) was not in season. So when I returned to Chicago and broccoli rabe came in season I made it for dinner one night and reflected on my amazing Pugliese journey. It is a dish even non-anchovy lovers love.
Orecchiette con Cime di Rape
1 bunch broccoli rabe (approximately 1 ½ pounds)
2 – 3 cloves of garlic, finely minced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (or more)
6 anchovy fillets, chopped
¼ teaspoon hot crushed chili pepper flakes*
Thoroughly clean the broccoli rabe, cutting off tough parts of stems and any yellowing leaves. Chop into pieces about 1 inch long. Rinse again thoroughly, drain well and set aside.
In a small skillet heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook just until the garlic is soft. Add the chopped anchovy and mash into the hot oil. Add chili pepper flakes and stir into mixture. Remove the skillet from the heat.
In the meantime, bring a large pot of slated water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook halfway through (approximately 6 – 7 minutes). Add the broccoli rabe to the pasta and stir to mix thoroughly. The broccoli rabe should cook for approximately 6 minutes so the pasta and the broccoli will be done at the same time. (Check the cooking time for the pasta and adjust accordingly remembering that the broccoli should cook for only about 6 minutes)
When pasta mixture is just about finished reheat the anchovy mixture.
Drain the pasta and broccoli well. Place mixture in a large bowl and add the anchovy mixture. Mix well distributing the pasta, broccoli and anchovy sauce adding a little more oil if you wish. Season with freshly ground pepper.
*Depending on how spicy you like your food, more chili pepper flakes can be added.
Over time I have reflected on my Italian journeys with Paolo and have only recently come to fully appreciate his impact on my life then and now. He after all was a real Italian. This was his country. This is where he grew up eating, and in a household with a mother who was also an extraordinary cook! Wanda was the best. So all my rhapsodizing must have at times seemed over-the-top to him. But he always seemed happy to indulge me; never scoffed at my ravings over a particular dish, a bottle of wine or some ancient building that in retrospect must have seemed ordinary to him. I like to think that maybe he was seeing regional Italy and its splendid, diverse cuisine again through my eyes. I dream that I was able to reinvigorate a passion for his country that one can often only experience through the eyes of someone discovering culinary, cultural and social wonders for the first time, much like a parent revisits experiences through the eyes of their children. I will never know for sure whether I had that impact on his life, but I like to think that in some small way I helped both he and his mother appreciate their Italy a little bit more than had this particular American woman never wandered into their lives.
I felt lucky to have traveled to Puglia during the summer season. If there is ever a season when simplicity in cooking is at its peak, it is the summer when produce itself is at its peak – when zucchini is thin and tender, sweet basil is bright green and extremely aromatic, tomatoes are firm and plump and everything is just gorgeous and so damn good. But every season has its “stars” – dishes that reflect the season of the moment like the delicious broccoli rabe pasta dish I just described; a vegetable available in the colder months of the year. A different seasonal dish. And I have often wondered, if tomatoes were succulent and completely delicious all year long, would I appreciate them as much? So even though my Tre Colore journey was sensational I am sure I could return to this region in another season and still be enthralled with the many other ingredients it has stored in its plentiful breadbasket. And of course, the charming white villages and the glorious sea would still be there waiting to be rediscovered.