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What is Apulian cuisine?
Traditional Apulian cuisine (or Pugliese – in Italian) is among the most wholesome and authentic in all of Italy, with many historic recipes passed down the generations still being used today.
Due to poverty in the region for a long part of its history, the food of Puglia is often referred to as ‘cuisine of the poor’ (cucina povera), with a culinary tradition that had to adapt to using affordable local ingredients and simple cooking techniques.
Still to this day, Apulian cuisine is centered around basic, accessible ingredients such as pasta and bread, as well as seasonal local produce including vegetables, fruit, fish and seafood from the regions many farmers and fishermen.
Though just because the traditional dishes are simple, Puglian food certainly isn’t bland or boring, with the fresh local produce and the resident’s immense passion for cooking coming together to create delicious flavours that make Puglia one of Italy’s best-kept foodie secrets.
Also read: the best places to visit in Puglia.
How to read a menu in Puglia
If you’re new to Italian cuisine you might not know that Italian meals traditionally include 4 courses;
- Antipasto – appetizers.
- Primi – the pasta course.
- Secondi – the main dish which often consists of seafood or meat with a side of potatoes or veg.
- Dolci – dessert.
Puglia Food Guide
In this guide, I’ve used my experience of living in the beautiful Puglia region for two food-filled months to walk you through the local delicacies and dishes you should definitely try, as well as where to try the best food in Puglia.
Puglia food you need to try
What to eat in Puglia – the Apulian food and dishes you have to try…
One of the best known Puglia food specialties, Orecchiette is a variety of pasta typical of the Puglia region with a name which means ‘little ears’ due to their unique curved shape.
Orecchiette can be found on almost every dining table and on the menu in every restaurant in the region. It’s usually served with a hearty tomato-based sauce or in the traditional Puglian dish of Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa – orecchiette with turnip tops (similar to leafy broccoli).
Strada delle Orecchiette in Bari:
Orecchiette is so popular in the Puglia region that there’s even an entire road in the capital city of Bari called Strada delle Orecchiette where local grandmas can be found daily making the pasta at small tables outside the front of their houses.
A panzerotto (plural – panzarotti) is a delicious and popular street food in Puglia best described as a savoury pizza pie that resembles a small calzone. While the two are both made from pizza dough, the main difference is that panzerotti are traditionally fried in oil rather than oven-baked, hence their nicknames ‘calzoni fritti’ (fried calzone).
Much like a traditional pizza, the most common panzerotti filling is tomato and mozzarella, however, most places serve them with a whole variety of other fillings including different types of cheese, cured meats or salted anchovies and capers.
How to eat panzerotti:
Panzerotti are always eaten hot and usually by hand, therefore the most important thing to remember when eating one is to do as the Italians do and make sure to lean forward to avoid any hot filling leakage down your top or legs.
Panzerotti di Patate
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If you’re in the Salento province, which makes up the southern tip of Puglia, be sure to double-check what you’re ordering as panzerotti can also refer to the local specialty of panzerotti di patate which consists of large mashed potato croquettes.
Equally tasty, but a very different dish!
Other than its beautiful beaches and historic towns, the Puglia region is characterised by its many olive orchards. In fact, Puglia is the largest producer of Extra Virgin Olive Oil in all of Italy.
As well as exporting their local produce all around the world, olive oil is also a key ingredient in Puglian cuisine and is used in almost all typical Puglian dishes, from pasta to focaccia and more.
Taking a stroll around the olive groves and sampling olive oils at a local farmhouse is one of the most interesting and authentic Puglia food experiences you can have. However, if you don’t have time to head out to the orchards, you’ll still find shops in the cities which offer tastings of local produce.
Interested in Puglian Olive Oil? Book a cycling tour through the olive groves and mills close to Ostuni or go for an extra virgin olive oil tasting at an 18th-century Masseria.
Focaccia Barese is the Apulian variety of the popular oven-baked bread which is found in different forms all across Italy. The Puglia version of focaccia traditionally comes with roasted cherry tomatoes, olives and of course plenty of local olive oil.
Focaccia is a popular street food in Puglia and can be found freshly made in most food shops and cafes in the region. It’s eaten at any time throughout the day, whether alongside your mid-morning coffee, as a lunchtime appetizer or an afternoon snack to be enjoyed on the beach.
Puccia is a small round flatbread typical of the Salento province but popular all across Puglia.
This local style of bread is traditionally made with pizza dough and baked in a wood-fired oven, giving it a crunchy exterior and soft inside, then used to make sandwiches.
But the real beauty of this popular Puglia fast food is that there’s no right way to fill a puccia – pretty much anything goes!
You can fill it with bacon and egg for a filling breakfast sandwich, with salami, mozzarella and veggies for a tasty lunch or with fries and mayo as a late-night snack. I once even tried a sweet puccia filled with Nutella.
You can also find some regional alternatives to puccia in Puglia’s different towns and provinces, such as the pasqualino – Alberobello’s traditional sandwich made with rosetta or turtle bread and filled with tuna, capers, salami and cheese.
Taralli & Friselle
Taralli are small ring-shaped snacks made using no yeast dough, olive oil and white wine. Similar in texture to a breadstick or a pretzel, they are one of the most widely-eaten snack foods in Puglia.
While taralli can be eaten any time throughout the day, these moorish little treats are most commonly served with wine or cocktails at aperitivo time alongside other snacks such as olives and cheese. You may even see locals dipping plain taralli in their wine before eating them.
You can also find taralli flavoured with the likes of salt, garlic, olive, chili flakes, fennel seeds, sesame seeds, poppy seeds and other local ingredients to give them an extra kick.
And if you like the sound of taralli, you’ll also enjoy friselle, another common snack food from Puglia which consists of a double-baked dry bread cut in half and topped with tomato, garlic, salt and oil.
Fish & Seafood
With the longest coastline of any region in mainland Italy, it’s unsurprising that fresh fish and seafood play an important part in Apulian cuisine, sourced straight from the local fishermen as their boats arrive into the area’s numerous fishing harbours.
Mussels are one of the most popular types of seafood in Puglia and can be found in many local dishes such as ‘tiella barese’ – a slow-cooked dish layered with rice, potatoes, mussels and breadcrumbs – and ‘cozze ripiene’ – mussels stuffed with softened bread crumbs, parsley, pecorino cheese and egg, cooked in a tomato and garlic sauce.
Oily fish, or ‘pesce azzurro’, are another particular specialty of the region, with the likes of anchovy, sardines, tuna and salmon being found in many traditional Pugliese dishes.
Polpette Pugliesi are Apulian meatballs usually made from beef, breadcrumbs, egg, milk and Pecorino cheese.
Meatballs are a traditional Pugliese food that once represented luxury in a time when meat was extremely scarce and was only eaten once a week on Sundays. These same meatballs have remained a popular food in Puglia and a typical component of Sunday lunch or a special holiday meal with family.
Other than meatballs, beef isn’t commonly found in Apulian cuisine. In fact, with the popularity of seafood, meat in general isn’t an important ingredient in traditional Pugliese dishes. The meats you’re most likely to find in Puglia these days are lamb, goat and pork (sausage, salami etc).
Like much of Italy, Puglia is known for its cheese production, with a number of tasty cheese varieties originating from the region which can be found in food stores, specialist cheese shops as well as served on antipasto platters in most restaurants in Puglia.
Burrata is the best-known cheese from Puglia, first developed on a farm in the Murgia district during the 1950s. From the outside, the tender ball of cheese looks like mozzarella (well, because it is), but cut into it and out will ooze a delicious mix of stracciatella and thick cream.
On the topic of stracciatella, this is another variety of cheese produced in the Puglia region which is also consumed on its own. Stracciatella is a unique soft cheese made with stretched mozzarella curds and cream. This style of cheese is best served on a slice of toasted bread or crostini or as a topping for pasta or pizza (and one of my personal favourites).
You also can’t miss caciocavallo, a popular type of stretched-curd cheese which you’ll often find tied up and hanging from a piece of rope, and cacioricotta, a soft cheese which is Puglia’s take on ricotta.
Although Italian cuisine in general is more widely associated with the likes of pasta, cheese and wine, the country’s abundance of delicious fresh veggies shouldn’t be overlooked, especially in Puglia.
With its warm Mediterranean climate, Puglia is an ideal region for agriculture and the vegetables you’ll find in both the shops and restaurants are almost always sourced from local farms.
Tomatoes (pomodoro) are one of the most important vegetables in Pugliese cuisine, while aubergines (melanzana), courgette flowers (fiori di zucca), wild chicory (cicoria), turnip tops (cimi di rapa), artichokes (carciofo) and fennel (finocchio) are other commonly used ingredients in local dishes.
Although some veggies can be found throughout the year, it’s always best to ask what’s currently in season to ensure you’re ordering dishes which use the freshest regional produce rather than imported products.
Moving on to Puglia’s sweets now, pasticciotto are delicious custard-filled pastries which originate from the city of Lecce and are commonly eaten hot for breakfast with a cappuccino – Apulians love a sweet breakfast pastry with their morning coffee.
While traditional pasticciotto are flavoured with vanilla or lemon, many places now also serve variations with hazelnut, chocolate and pistachio too for a tasty dessert or mid-afternoon snack.
The sweet pastry is most popular in its home of Lecce and the surrounding Salento province, however, it’s not uncommon to find them being enjoyed in cafes all across Puglia.
Sporcamuss are another iconic Pugliese pastry which consists of squares of puff pastry stuffed with pastry cream and sprinkled with powdered icing sugar.
Sweeter than pasticciotto, sporcamuss are usually eaten as a dessert rather than for breakfast.
In Barese dialect, sporcamuss means ‘dirty mouth’ (yes names of food from Puglia are often quite literal) in reference to the fact it’s almost impossible to bite into one without getting cream and sugar all over your mouth and face. Don’t forget to grab a napkin!
Pettole (Christmas only)
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Pettole are small puffed dough balls fried in oil and are a popular street food in Puglia during the festive season. They’re served either as a savoury snack, with fillings such as sliced olive, sundried tomatoes and anchovies, or more commonly dusted with sugar as a sweet doughnut-like treat.
Although exact traditions vary from province to province, most Apulians make and eat pettole during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on the 8th of December and on Christmas eve. But don’t worry if you’re not in Puglia for these exact dates as you’ll still find plenty of pettole in shops and cafes throughout the entire Christmas period.
You can’t truly appreciate Apulian cuisine without sampling the region’s amazing local wines.
Puglia is best known for its red wines, with the two most popular and widely available Puglia wines being Salice Salentino and Primitivo.
Salice Salentino is a dry red wine from the Salento province made with the Negroamaro grape (which means ‘black bitter’), while Primitivo is a richer, fuller-bodied red with notes of dark fruit.
Though Puglia is most known for red wines, you can also find some great whites in the region too, such as Locorotondo DOC, a dry white wine produced in the vineyards surrounding the town of the same name.
Caffè Leccese is a popular iced coffee drink from the Apulian city of Lecce, made by pouring espresso coffee into a full glass of ice then finishing it off with a couple of spoonfuls of almond milk to add a touch of sweetness.
While the drink has become somewhat of a symbol of Lecce, Caffè Leccese can be found in cafes across the region and is a must-try on a hot summer’s day in Puglia.
Where to try the best food in Puglia
So now you know what to eat in Puglia, here’s how exactly to find it…
Puglia food tours
Discover the best of Apulian cuisine on a food tour…
- Go on a Lecce street food tour by bike and sample specialties of the city including pasticciotti and caffé leccese, as well as other popular Apulian foods such as puccia and taralli.
- Or if cycling isn’t your thing, opt for a Lecce street food walking tour instead.
- Take a private street food tour of Bari by rickshaw and try dishes including focaccia, burrata cheese and panzerotti.
Puglia cooking classes
Or how about making your own Apulian dishes with a cooking class…
- Try a traditional home cooking experience in Lecce in which you’ll create regional Pugliese specialties accompanied by a selection of fine wines.
- Have lunch or dinner plus a cooking demo at a local home in Alberobello.
If you’d rather stick to eating in restaurants, check out these individual articles for my recommendations on the best places to eat in Puglia…
Masseria (Farmhouse) stay
A Masseria is a traditional Apulian farmhouse that usually dates back to the 16th or 17th century and sits within a larger country estate. While most Masseria were originally used for practical purposes, many have now been converted into charming B&B’s and luxurious agriturismo hotels.
A Masseria is one of the best places in the region for an authentic Apulian food experience, with most offering extras to their guests such as tours of their land and the working farms, tastings of local produce including olive oil, wines and cheeses, home-cooked breakfasts and lunch/dinner tasting menus using all home-grown and local produce.
Some Masseria worth checking out in the Puglia region…
- Masseria Il Frantoio – an organic farm near to Ostuni, surrounded by citrus gardens and olive groves and featuring an original mill dating back to the 15th century.
- Masseria Valente – an 18th-century masseria set in a 37-hectare garden dedicated to organic farming, including a variety of fresh vegetables and olive groves, plus an outdoor pool.
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