Orecchiette and an Irish pub
Undiscovered by American tourists, Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot, is a peninsula within a peninsula. Here, rustic wines and fruity olive oils are served with each meal. The provincial capital, Lecce, is overflowing with culinary delights and is the most interesting architectural city in Italy outside of Florence.
Table of Contents
A Short History
In the 8th century BC, Greeks began pushing eastward and settled in what was called Magna Graecia, or Greater Greece. This area included eastern Sicily as well as southern Italy, including Puglia.
The Romans conquered Puglia in the 3rd century BC, then the Normans in the 11th. Lecce was part of the Kingdom of Sicily for 400 years. Charles V built a castle to defend the city from the Ottomans in the 14th century. Interestingly, another wave of Greeks arrived in Puglia in the 16th and 17th century, fleeing the Ottoman invaders in their homeland.
By the late 16th century, relative peace and stability ruled Puglia. Wealthy patrons and religious orders migrated to Lecce, and a building boom began. Masterpieces of the baroque era were constructed using the local soft limestone. But, the good times wouldn’t last. As money and power consolidated in Turin (and later, Milan) with the unification of Italy, Puglia was forgotten. This left Lecce in a baroque time warp that persists to this day.
Excellent guidebook to
Lecce and Puglia
Almost every region of Italy has its favored pasta shape. Tube-shaped penne is found in Campania because the ridges and hollow center can hold rich tomato sauces. Tagliatelle makes use of the abundant eggs in the Emilia-Romano region while chitarra, or guitar strings, native to Abruzzo, uses eggs in the dough as well, but is freshly cut using a tool that resembles a guitar.
In Puglia, it’s all about the orecchiette. These ear-shaped pasta, orecchiette literally means “little ears,” are often made fresh giving the pasta a wonderful chewy texture.
Making orecchiette may seem easy enough, the ingredients are simply semolina flour and warm water, but in reality, it takes years of practice to get it right. The flour and water are combined to make a dough which is kneaded until smooth. Then, a small chunk of dough is cut from the ball and rolled into a rope less than a quarter inch thick. The rope is cut into small pieces using a knife and then rolled over the edge of the knife to create the distinctive dome shape; thinner in the center and thicker at the edges. If you’ve ever rolled gnocchi over a fork, it’s kind of similar.
Orecchiette is often served with tomato sauce and maybe a few basil leaves. It is also very popular with pork sausage. But, far and away, my favorite way to have orecchiette is with rapini, or broccoli rabe. The bitterness of the rapini, the saltiness of pecorino, the mellowness of the roasted garlic, and a little heat from red pepper flakes; it’s heaven.
Every restaurant serves some kind of orecchiette recipe. If you have time, try several. For a splurge I like Osteria degli Spirii. They use lots of local ingredients in their dishes and serve them with local wines. I’ve heard some customers (almost all non-Italians) complain about the service here. They use words like “aloof” and “inattentive.” If you’re hoping to get in and out of this place in an hour, forget it. Even two hours may not be possible. This is the kind of place where you linger over each course. Eat, talk, drink, enjoy. Don’t expect the waiter to hover over you. And, if you still think you’ll be treated poorly because you don’t speak Italian, invite a local to go with you and translate.
Lecce is called the “Florence of the south,” but in some ways it is better than its more famous sister. Lecce is compact, so it is easier to navigate the historical sites. It is far less touristed, especially by Americans, so the sites are more accessible. The locals are friendlier, probably because they aren’t constantly bombarded by massive tour groups. And, the pace of life is far more laid back.
Lecce turned out to be the perfect environment for a flurry of Baroque buildings to pop up. By the late 1500’s, the city was a stable and ready to flaunt its wealth. And, the local limestone was soft and easy to carve; perfect for the Baroque flourishes of animals, vines and flowers.
The masterpiece of this style is Chiesa di Santa Croce (Church of the Holy Cross). The church took 150 years to finish, finally reaching completion in 1695. One look and you can see why it took so long. Countless sculptures decorate the façade with saints standing in lavish niches, playful cherubs at their feet, columns and balconies supported by griffins, dragons, lions and Turks (prisoners from the Battle of Lepanto in 1571), and a spectacular rose window above the entrance. You could literally spend days looking at each carving and sculpture without ever going inside.
While Chiesa di Santa Croce is the best known and most visited Baroque site in Lecce, there are plenty of other buildings to see. Everywhere you turn, it seems, there are incredible, exotic, and sometimes grotesque works to be seen.
The Lecce Cathedral is also a masterpiece of Baroque art. It is actually a more important church than Santa Croce as it is the seat of the Archbishop.
The Church of Santa Chiara has a less interesting façade, but the interior is a spectacular orgy of intricate carvings. The wooden ceiling is interesting as well.
The Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista (Church of Saint John the Baptist) also has an incredible baroque façade. The alter inside is magnificent.
The piazza is the center of Italian life and for Lecce that is Piazza Sant’Oronzo. The piazza is dedicated to the patron saint of Lecce, Orontius, an early Christian convert who was executed for failing to renounce his faith. He is also credited with ending a 17th century plague, even though the city’s population was decimated. A statue of Sant’Oronzo sits in the middle of piazza, atop a massive column, lest anyone forget his importance.
There is also a partially excavated Roman amphitheater in the piazza. It is said to have seated 25,000 spectators in the day. Somehow, most passersby only give this historical site a passing glance.
This is also the best spot in Lecce for people watching. The daily passeggiata ritual takes place here before dinner. Everyone in the town, it seems, comes out for a walk and a short chat with friends and neighbors. If it’s hot, you might want to grab a gelato at Pasticceria Natale. It’s right on the piazza and if it’s too hot they have air conditioning.
We once spent an entire afternoon on the piazza, just watching the world go by. A pair of nuns approached us, trying to give us pamphlets about Jesus or something. They had them in all different languages and, try as we might, I’m not sure we ever convinced them that we were American and not Chinese.
Then, a police officer and a driver got into an argument about a parking ticket. The motorist arrived to find the cop writing him up for illegally parking. The scofflaw wasn’t having it and a wildly entertaining exchange commenced with much gesticulating. It still wasn’t resolved an hour later when we had to be on our way.
Needless to say, this is a great spot for a selfie with you camera or a GoPro vid.
Wines of Puglia
Puglian wines are still mostly undiscovered by American drinkers. Maybe that’s because of their rustic character which might come on a bit strong, or maybe it’s the long since abandoned stereotype of Puglian wine only being good for mixing with higher quality northern Italian varietals. Whatever the reason, the relative unpopularity of wine from Puglia is a boon for savvy wine drinkers because, compared to other regions of Italy, Puglian wines are a relative bargain.
Primitivo is the most famous grape varietal in Puglia. Growing in the hot southern Italian sun, the vine’s roots struggle through the limestone rock soil to find water. The grapes mature early, thus the name, and are harvested in August. Dark berry and floral notes define this rich, fruity, and alcoholic (14% or more) wine. If you try primitivo and think it tastes familiar, you are right. Primitivo is genetically identical to California’s famous zinfandel grapes. But, be careful about who you share this information with. I once told a winemaker in Puglia this and he disagreed with me vehemently. Perhaps it’s the limestone soil or the traditional winemaking process, but I often prefer primitivo to zinfandel.
While primitivo is likely better known, the most widely planted grape in Puglia is negroamaro, probably because of the vines high yields. Negroamaro has a rich berry flavor with earthy notes. Some find the earthiness off-putting, so negroamaro is often combined with other grapes for winemaking purposes.
Rosè is becoming more popular in Puglia. Varieties of negroamaro are often used to make a strong rosè. White grapes are infrequently grown in Puglia.
Reusable bags to
in your luggage
If you’re thinking of buying cases of wine and shipping it back to the US, consider this. Many wines from Puglia are available in American wine shops or online. And, when you figure in the shipping cost, buying bottles back home is often less expensive than shipping. You might find smaller wineries don’t have an American presence. In that case, securely wrap a couple of bottles in your checked baggage. A couple traveling to Italy can bring back three bottles of wine duty free. Duty for extras is $1-2 per bottle, much less than shipping costs.
Maybe beer is more your speed. Well, you’re in Italy, so how about a nice pint of….Guinness! Of all the things you’d not expect to find in Lecce, an Irish pub would have to be near the top of the list. Yet, here it is. An Irish Pub started by a retired local footballer who loves James Joyce.
Bob Marley Legend
with all his
Step inside and pictures of Bob Marley dot the walls. Although they often have live jazz at Joyce, the night we visited they blasted reggae from a jukebox. I tried asking out waitress what the appeal of reggae music is to Puglians, but the only answer I got was “reggae music is good.”
So, I can only give you my theory. Southern Italians, including those in Puglia, have long felt forgotten at best and oppressed at worst by their rich brothers and sisters in the north. And Bob Marley sang forcefully and sincerely about oppression. And let’s not forget the subjugation of the Irish by the English. Perhaps they all have common ground on which to stand.
Or maybe it’s as simple as “reggae music is good.”
One of my favorite things about Italy is that nothing is wasted. Have grape skins and stems left over from making wine? Distill it into grappa. Dug up some stones from building a cistern? Build a trullo. And if you have scraps of dough left over from breadmaking, you bake them into la piscailetta. La piscailetta was originally a peasant food, scraped together by grandmothers who added leftover vegetables like sun dried tomatoes or grilled zucchini to the dough. Today, you can find la piscialetta in any bakery in Lecce. There’s even an annual festival in August to celebrate to local treat, although it’s more of an excuse to party and enjoy some raucous music.
If you only venture out of Lecce briefly, be sure to visit Alberobello. Here is the largest concentration of the unique local homes, called trulli. Trulli are dry stone masonry (mortar free) conical shaped homes. They were originally built to house agricultural workers and legend has it that they were constructed without mortar so they could be easily deconstructed into a pile of rocks if the taxman was in the area.
Today, many of these beehive shaped homes have been rehabbed into second homes for vacationers and B&Bs for tourists. Yes, Alberobello is crowded with tourists, but seeing, and perhaps staying overnight in, the whimsical trulli is more than worth the effort.
Because Puglia is surrounded on three sides by water, it is a very popular beach destination, especially in the summer when temps can rise to well over 100°. There are lots and lots of beach resorts where you can let the kids frolic in the waves while you recline under a beach umbrella. But, Dune di Campomarino beach near Maruggio, one hour by car from Lecce, is quite the opposite. Sandy dunes lead to a less touristy shoreline where wild thyme and fennel grow.
Torre Dell’Orso in Melendugno, on the other hand, is a touristy beach resort with hotels an hour by bus or half hour by car from Lecce. You definitely won’t be alone at Torre Dell’Orso, but the cliffs that abut the beach and blue flag awards for clean water are a draw.
Santa Maria di Leuce, the very tip of the heel of Italy, must’ve seemed like the end of the world to the ancients. Here, the Ionian and Adriatic Seas meet and make rough waters for navigation. There are lots of sandy beaches and waterfront restaurants, but for a panoramic view, head up to the lighthouse which has been guiding navigators for over 150 years.
Greeks originally settled in southern Italy in the 8th century BC. Nine towns are part of what is called Grecia Salentina (Calimera, Martano, Castrignano dei Greci, Corigliano d'Otranto, Melpignano, Soleto, Sternatia, Zollino, Martignano, Carpignano Salentino and Cutrofiano.) Here, a version of the Greek language called Griko is still spoken and taught in schools. Street signs are in both Griko and Italian. Although there are not many Greek sites in Grecia Salentina (the Byzantine churches have long since been destroyed), the EU is working to preserve the culture and the Griko language. But, what may end up saving the Griko language and culture is music. Several groups in the area perform music, mainly traditional but some modern, in the Griko language. An annual festival takes place each August to celebrate local music, when an emphasis on Griko artists.
Orecchiette and Rapini recipe
There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of ways to prepare this recipe. You’ll often see a version with sausage and anchovies are a common ingredient as well. Most recipes from Puglia will not use roasted garlic, but instead sauté it in olive oil.
Also, recipes in Italian or translated literally will mention “turnip greens.” What they are referring to is broccoli rabe or rapini, but, if you like, you can substitute other greens to your liking.
Ingredients for the pasta:
Fresh pasta (dried pasta can be substituted)
1 cup semolina flour (plus extra for drying on the baking sheet)
½ cup all purpose flour
½ cup warm water
½ teaspoon salt
Making fresh pasta takes some practice. If you haven’t made pasta before or are in a hurry, use dried orecchiette.
Sift dry ingredients together and place in a mound on your baking table. Make a well in the middle of the mound with your finger and add half the water to the well.
Mix slowly, adding a little more water at a time until a dough starts to form. Then, knead the dough for at least five minutes until it is smooth and uniform.
Place a tea towel over the kneaded ball of dough and let it rest for at least 30 minutes.
Cut off a piece of the dough about the size of a golf ball and roll it out into a rope about ¼ inch in diameter. With a knife cut the dough into a 1 inch length.
Using the sharp edge of the knife, roll the piece of dough over the knife to create a uniform thickness, being extremely careful of the sharp edge.
Using your thumb, press down in the center of the piece of dough to create a dome or hat shape. Place the orecchiette on a floured baking sheet and repeat until all the dough is used up. Uncooked orecchiette will last a day covered, or place in the refrigerator.
If you have trouble with the knife method, place the small piece of dough in the palm of your hand and create the dome shape with your opposite thumb.
Ingredients for the sauce:
1 pound rapini, aka broccoli rabe (broccoli may be substituted)
1 head of garlic
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons olive oil (separated)
¼ pound grated Pecorino Romano (or ricotta salata)
Coarse black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons of salt plus one pinch
Bowl of ice water
Preheat oven to 400°
Cut off the top ¼ inch of the garlic head. Sprinkle pinch of salt on top. Place the clove in a garlic roaster or piece of aluminum foil. Pour 1 teaspoon of olive oil on the head and cover. Roast for 30 minutes or until cloves are soft. Let cool and remove cloves from skin.
Bring pot of salted water to a boil. Wash the rapini and trim the tough ends. Place the rapini in the boiling water and completely submerge for only 30 seconds. Remove the rapini with tongs (do not drain the water) and immediately place in the bowl of ice water. Let the rapini sit in the ice water until completely cooled (you may have to add more ice). Remove rapini from ice bath and pat dry. Coarsely chop the rapini.
Then, heat one teaspoon of olive oil in a sauté pan. Add the rapini, garlic, and red pepper flakes and stir to heat and mix thoroughly. Set aside.
Meanwhile, add two tablespoons of salt to the hot water that you used to blanch the rapini. It will have a green tint to it. Bring back to a boil and add pasta. If using fresh pasta cook about 3 minutes (time will vary based on thickness and size of pasta), if dried, follow package instructions and subtract one minute cooking time, or cook until al dente.
Once pasta is cooked, use a heat resistant measuring cup to remove one cup of pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta. Add the pasta to the rapini mixture in the sauté pan and stir to mix over medium heat. Add some pasta water to keep the dish moist, but not wet.
Serve in bowls topped with the grated cheese and ground pepper.
Much of Puglia, including many day trip destinations from Lecce, is accessible by train. But, if you’re planning to visit several towns, consider renting a car.
Bari Karol Wojtyła Airport
Flights from many European cities as well as Egypt and Turkey (some flights seasonal). Train takes 1:45 to 1:55 to get to Lecce from Bari Centrale station.
Closer to Lecce but fewer flights. Train takes one half hour to Lecce.
Things to Do
Chiesa di Santa Croce (Church of the Holy Cross)
This church is a baroque masterpiece
Via Umberto I, 3, 73100 Lecce LE, Italy
When Luciano Faggiano tried to repair a broken pipe, he discovered 2,000 years’ worth of archeological finds. The only private museum in Lecce.
Via Ascanio Grandi 56, 73100, Lecce, Italy
Masterpiece of baroque architecture.
Piazza del Duomo, 73100 Lecce
Church of Santa Chiara
Spectacular carvings on the interior of the church.
Piazzetta Vittorio Emanuele II, 73100, Lecce
Joyce Irish Pub
Irish pub dedicated to James Joyce in Lecce. Wonderfully incongruous.
Via Matteo da Lecce 5, Lecce, Italy
La Notte della Taranta Festival
Annual music festival held in August celebrating local music and culture, especially that of the Griko people.
Quirky private residence of Vincent Brunetti. Crazy mosaics, sculptures, paintings and kitsch. No admission fee, no tour, this is Vincent’s home, please proceed respectfully.
Via Case Sparse 718, Guagnano
Torre Sant’Andrea rock formations
Interesting rock formations just off the shore and caves.
Torre Sant’Andrea, Melendugno, Puglia
Festival held each August to celebrate the peasant food of Puglia. Lots of music, too.
Piazza Aldo Moro, Maglie, Puglia
Town filled with adorable trulli houses
Dune di Campomarino
Sand dunes lead to a peaceful beach
SP122, 74020 Campomarino TA, Italy
Food and Wine
Osteria degli Spirii
Fine Puglian dining
Via Cesare Battisti 4, 73100, Lecce, Italy
Excellent Puglian wines. Tours available by appointment
Via Armando Diaz 46, 72025 San Donaci BR, Italy
Lecce bakery where you can get la piscailetta
Piazza Sant'Oronzo n 23, 73100, Lecce, Italy
Great place to get a gelato right on Piazza Sant’Oronzo
Via Salvatore Trinchese 7, 73100, Lecce, Italy
Osteria da Angiulino
Lecce cuisine served to locals. Reservations recommended.
Via Principi di Savoia 24, 73100, Lecce, Italy
Alle Due Corti
Local cuisine with lots of vegetarian options
Corte dei Giugni !, Lecce, Italy
Lecce is famous for paper mache and this is the best place to find some great works in that medium.
Via Vittorio Emanuele, 27, 73100, Lecce, Italy
Part bookstore, part restaurant, part wine bar. What could be better?
Corte Dei Cicala 1, 73100, Lecce, Italy
Food market with bulk items and gifts.
viale Francesco Lo Re 79, Lecce, Italy 73100
La Casa del Tarallino
The spot to pick up tarallino (crispy little pieces of dough, rolled into ropes, cut, and shaped into a circle). Yummy for snacks and a good gift.
Via Regina Isabella 22, 73100, Lecce, Italy
MI - La Pietra Prende Forma
Cute jewelry and gift shop in Lecce.
Via Arcivescovo Petronelli 16, Lecce, Italy 73100
Places to Stay
Gorgeous resort near Piazza Sant’Oronzo
Via Imperatore Augusto 19, 73100, Lecce, Italy
Lovely hotel in the old town
Via Vittorio Emanuele II no 14, 73100, Lecce, Italy
Cute, budget B&B in Lecce
Via Quattro Novembre n_ 51, 73100, Lecce, Italy
Excellent family-run B&B
Via Lombardia 6, 73100, Lecce, Italy