Pecorino, orechiette, fusilli, pesto define Puglia’s “poor cuisine”

VIESTE, ITALY  — I walked down the street with a jump in my step, a parch in my throat and a hunger in my stomach. It’s remarkable how much appetite you build lying on an Italian beach. Plus, it’s a lot of stress. No. 35 sunscreen or 15? Dante or “The DaVinci Code?”?And, when in Puglia, pecorino or caciocavallo?

Halfway back to my hotel, I stopped like I’d been hit by a Vespa. The sweet aromas of fresh Italian cheeses waifed out of an open door. I peeked in and a beaming man in a white smock held court over his small table of Pugliese cuisine.

There was a giant wedge of pecorino next to a beefy stick of hard salami. Towering over the two was an unlabeled bottle, the pride and joy of Costanzo Laprocina’s homemade red wine.

Laprocina waved me in, unfazed by a tall, very ugly American in baggy black swim trunks, wet tank top and hair resembling last week’s pasta.

As I munched on the sharp pecorino too perfect to spoil with a cracker, Laprocina told me his story. He’s a third-generation cheese man, as proud of his cheese as Italians are of their art.

To them, they’re both the same.

Laprocina’s story could be told by thousands of people in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. Every region in Italy has cuisine as unique as their history, and a heel is an apt description for Puglia. The Pugliesi have been stomped through the centuries by seemingly everone, from the Greeks, to the Normans, to the Swabians, to the Spanish to the Green Bay Packers.

When Benito Mussolini took charge in 1922, Puglia became central in his self-sufficiency-through-fascism plan. With 480 miles of coastline, it became Italy’s best fish market and a lot less smelly. The interior is covered with forest and green valleys, and a train ride down the heel still passes vast wheat fields, olive groves and fruit farms.

Thus emerged Puglia’s famed cucina povera or poor cuisine. Olive oil. Peppers. Shellfish. Salami. Mushrooms. Eggplants. Grapes. All local. And all spill out from various plates the Pugliesi throw on every dining table.

“Our cuisine is poor cuisine not because we are poor but because we make food with simple elements like water and flour to make pasta,” said Maria Rosaria Micolani, a Puglia native and teacher.

Italy has more than 300 varieties of pasta. Two represent Puglia like brats represent Wisconsin. Orecchiette, the ear-shaped pasta, and fusilli, the narrow, twisty tube variety, were born in Puglia.

At my hotel overlooking the Adriatic, Rocca sul Mare (Rock on the Sea), I watched our Turkish-born cook, Stefania Osman, use a knife to curl pads of dough into the shape of little ears. In 10 minutes, the entire table was full of enough orecchiette to feed a dozen people.

Later, she twisted dough around a skewer, removed the rod and she had little tube fusilli pasta which she could fill with cheese or seafood. In the old days, it was perfect for village feasts. Only one problem.

“Orecchiette was hard to find in the markets so we made it at home,” said Maria Teresa Mafrolla, the hotel owner.

In an hour I sat down at the hotel’s dining room and had fusilli allo scoglio, a yummy, messy pile of mussels, clams, cuttlefish, squid, shellfish and chopped tomatoes tossed with fusilli in a light broth.

Vieste is the perfect ville to dive into Pugliese cuisine. The town of 14,000 sits like a spur on the side of the forested Gargano National Park. Vieste is known for its spectacular white-sand beach hard against the white rock monolith, Scoglio di Pizzomunno.

But for hungry travelers, it’s best known for its small centro storico, a maze of narrow alleys lit in dim yellow light from 19th century lanterns and a romantic trattoria around every corner.

At Osteria a Duomo, I sat in a 600-year-old cave-like room with arched ceilings. The biggest item in the room was a wine rack.

I started with an appetizer of octopus (Note to self: Careful swimming in the Adriatic the next day) on a bed of sliced apples and parsley. Then came a big plate of orecchiette sprinkled with breadcrumbs and piled on with fat, juicy chunks of local sausage and leafy broccoli.

A few nights later in the larger seaside town of Otranto, the easternmost point in Italy, I had a feast fit for a conquering Norman. Read ’em and weep, Americans: an aperitivo of tomato, parsley and garlic on a wooden spoon — Lecce style — followed by a bucket of mussels in pepper broth followed by a big plate of local breads followed by a pasta dish of orecchiette and chunky squares of pecorino cheese on a bed of pesto.

I washed it all down with local Salice Salentino wine and free pours of grappa from Vittorio Nicolardi, the silver-goateed chef all too happy to show off Pugliese cuisine to a stranger from Colorado.

But the best meal? It had to be provided by my old friend Costanza. I took the pecorino and sausage and a bottle of Puglia’s trademark Negroamaro wine up to my hotel rooftop. I looked out at the Adriatic on a 75-degree day and soaked in the best Puglia has to offer.

The view was good, too.

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