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Puglia is a large, fertile region that forms the heel of the Italian boot. Unlike nearly all other Italian regions, which are mostly hilly and mountainous, it is relatively flat; in its sprawling Tavoliere Plain, much of Italy’s wheat and other grains are grown.

Two of Puglia’s most important cities, Bari (the regional capital) and Brindisi, were already central ports at the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. While cities along the coast (Bari, Taranto, Foggia, Lecce, and Brindisi) are the most densely populated, the areas most heavily visited by tourists are the dreamlike promontory of the Gargano Peninsula and the city of Alberobello, which is home to thousands of unusual stone houses with conical roofs.

Three things are essential to the Apulian kitchen: wheat, vegetables, and olive oil. Semolina flour is transformed into a variety of handmade pastas (some shaped like little ears, others like concave shells, others still like thick ropes) which are boiled with wild or cultivated greens, tossed with hearty meat ragùs, or cooked into soups.

Wheels of rustic bread are baked in the ovens of Altamura and other Apulian towns, to be enjoyed as companions to daily meals and serve as the starting point for numerous appetizers, salads, soups, and simple desserts; the most interesting offering is frisedda, a twice-baked ring-shaped bread. And almost every dish (from sublime tomato-topped bruschetta to lamb baked with bitter onions and potatoes) is doused with olive oil: after all, Puglia is Italy’s largest producer of olive oil.

Fava beans, Apulians’ favorite legume, are transformed into thick soups, refreshing salads, and comforting side dishes, and rice is baked with potatoes and seafood or vegetables to make an unusual main course called tiella (named after the pot in which it is cooked).

Sea urchins are savored raw in the port city of Taranto, flavored with a squeeze of lemon to underscore their briny flavor. The Apulians, shepherds by trade since ancient times, tend to prefer lamb, mutton, kid, and goat, which they cook simply with fragrant herbs, olive oil, and perhaps a handful of tomatoes or potatoes.

Offal too is prepared ingeniously: lamb’s hearts, lights, and intestines are skewered and cooked on a blazing grill, then eaten with raw celery and sharp sheep’s milk cheese. And when it comes to sweets, the Apulian appetite for honey, nuts, and dried fruit gives rise to a number of pastries, cakes, and fritters with roots in ancient Greece and echoes of the Orient.

Apulians use a wide variety of wild and cultivated greens in the kitchen. Some, like sorrel, are relatively mild and astringent; others, like broccoli raab and dandelions, can be bitingly bitter. Apulians tame the bitterness of these potent greens by lengthy cooking.

Like all Italians, Apulians don’t believe in undercooking vegetables; they prefer vegetables slippery soft, never crunchy. Bitter greens are typically boiled first in ample water, then sautéd slowly in plenty of olive oil; the result is a mass of tender greens with only a pleasant note of bitterness. The greens are then served on their own, plated as a side to a puree of fava beans, folded into pasta, or spooned into soups.


 

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