Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Eating in Italy

As you can see from this blog, I consider myself an expert eater.  I love and appreciate good food. For me, it is clearly one of the draws of being anywhere in Italy. When Americans tell me they have had bad food in Italy, it makes me very sad.  Such a waste to not eat well in this country, where good food is more of a religious experience than what you will find at the Duomo.

At a lovely restaurant, the Convent, in Specchia, we spent a bit of time with the owner Pietro. He was charming and informative.  He runs the restaruant with his wife, Maria, who is the fabulous chef.  He is frustrated that his English is not good enough to talk to English and American visitors. He wants to improve this situation so he spending 2 hours everyday taking English lessons.  Good for him!

He wanted to communicate to foreigners how to really enjoy the food in Italy. These are his opinions with my comments added in.

1.  Whereas in the US eating "local" has become a politically correct term, in Italy it is a way of life.  What this means is that you can not get spaghetti carbonara any where in Puglia.  This is not where that dish originates. If you ask for something that they don't make, they don't really know how to handle it, and they are embarrassed.  Of course they would know how to make spaghetti carbonara but it is now what they do. In the US it seems normal to take the best dish of each region and present the best of the best at a restaurant.  Not here.  If you are going to Florence, Milan, Rome you can get any food from any region.  If however, you get off the beaten path, know that the menu in each region is very specific to that region.
 When ordering food in a restaurant in a small Italian town, do what the locals do...ignore the menu and ask the waiter what they advise.  

Before you can get their advise, you must chose how many courses you want to eat, antipasti, primi (this is soups and pastas) secondi (fish and or meat). Sometimes you want all three, but often you do not. Once you make this choice, the waiter can then help you eat the freshest and most delicious things the kitchen has to offer.

2.  Got out of your comfort zone with the food.  They do have hamburgers here as well as McDonald's but what is the point of coming all of this way and ordering American food? I understand that food is comfort and sometimes we would like a taste of home...but try to push yourself, order the seafood salad, try the squid, and I think you will be surprised at how delicious these dishes are.

3. Restaurants in Italy are very different operationally than in the US.  The cook is usually a family member and the staff are also family.  Restaurants here, except in the large cities, are not really a business the way we think of them. They are run by people who have a passion for food and want to share that with others. In the US the cooks, are not the chefs.  Here there are no cooks, only chefs. This means that the owners take the food and your response personally.  If you are happy with the food tell them.  They really don't expect tips, in money, only in words.

4.  Restaurant service..the big complaint about Italian restaurants is that the service is slow.  That is a fact.  The kitchen is actually in there cooking the food, not reheating it so the service is slow because the cooking is slow. When you eat here, try to just kick back and enjoy the leisure meal.  If you want something fast, go to a "tavola calda" which is basically good food cafeteria style.  It is where many of the workers eat. The environment isn't all that great, but the food is well priced and good. If you go to a restaurant, expect it to take a while.  

Buon appetito!

The Salento Peninusula Part II

Here are the towns that we visited in the Salento Penninsula.

Gallipoli means "beautiful city" in Greek, and it is just that.  It is on the Ionian coast, which is the body of water located on the inside of the heel of the boot.  It has beautiful beaches, a rich history and fascinating architecture. The history goes back to Greek days and because it held a strategic position on the water, people were constantly wanting it for their own.  Sitting at a caffe, I looked out to the sea and wondered what it must have felt like hundreds of years ago to see a huge enemy armada approaching on the horizon.  What to do? Where to go? Would they be friends or enemies? When to stay and fight and when to escape? Nowadays the only hoardes who want to "own" Gallipoli are tourists.  I wonder if the locals ask the same questions.

I love this picture of the old and the new.  How much has stayed the same and how much has changed in this city? This photo shows how the city is divided into two parts, the old city on the left and the new city on the right.  The old city, where we spent all of our time, is bascially a limestone island.  I learned a lot about Lecce limestone on this trip, how is soft and then with age becomes hardened like cement. It is easily carved as it is a calcareous rock.  It is traced back to the Miocene period and although it starts out white, with age it becomes a soft amber color that changes with the light.

It is important to remember that Galipolli is still an important fishing place.  The reason the food is so tremendous is because if comes out of these clean waters.

The colors in this part of Italy are vivid. In Umbria our colors are much more sedate, soothing. Our color from nature is green, so our brown houses complement the hills.  Not here. This is the land of primary colors and they are proud of it.  Their nature color is turquoise of the sea and deep blue of the skies. These colors require strong colors as complements.   Note all of the colors of blue.

Ok.  So where did we eat? Il Bastione.  The restaurant had a terrace that overlooked the sea.  We had wonderful fish antipasti.  Then there was the ravioli. It was stuffed with sea bass, cooked with tomotes, olive oil and sprinkeld with ground pistachio.   Delicious!

For a map of the area:,17.8621305,10z

Next town, Santa Maria di Leuca
This was the town I expected to fall in love with and maybe live here in the winter.  It was beautiful but...I didn't fall in love.  Love is a funny thing isn't it?

The sea is stunning. This is the place where the Ionian sea and the Adriatic meet.

The town has a long and documented history. Virgil described it in his 3rd book of The Aeneid. As the hero approaches the town, these are his thoughts.

"From the eastern sea,
Curving in an arc,
The thick foaming waves break
Against their opposing rocky masses.
Hidden from sight,
Sheltered behind its double seawalls,
Lies the internal port, 
From where the hilly land rises
Towards the far-off temple."

St. Peter was said to have stopped here on his way to Rome. The Basilica is known as the Basilica De Finibus Terrae because this is where the land ended for the Romans. The town's name comes from a  Greek word meaning luminous.  I love that.

It also has beautifully restored Art Deco villas owned by wealthy Puglians.  I love this also.

This town also had surfers.  There are 3 out in the water, and one lonely guy carrying an orange (of course) surf board. These are the first surfers we've seen in Italy.  I loved that as well. It reminded me of California.  I think this would be a fantastic town to come in the summer if you are beach lovers.  The air is clear and crisp and one can stare endlessly at the changing sea landscapes. I loved this town, but I didn't fall in love. There is a difference.

We moved on.

Marina di Novaglie
Our local guide recommended this town saying that it had a walking path, similar to Cinque Terre.  Unfortunately for us, we didn't find it, although we didn't really look very hard.  We were too smitten with the clear, turquoise waters. Again the waters and the food in this town are spectacular.

Antipasti at Lo Scalo restaurant.  Very delicious fresh, seafood.  My Italian teacher says this is like eating the ocean.  We agree.

Pasta made with flecks of mint. The sauce is lemon, oil oil parsley with cooked shrimp.
The houses built into the hillside are made from the local stones.

This reminded me of the area around Monterey in California, but not nearly as crowded or developed. Not much more to see or do in this town. Perhaps if we had found the sea path....
We moved on.

Specchia is an inland town so therefore a bit different.  They were having their festival of San Nicola so lights were up everywhere. Unfortunately we were not there at night but I am sure it was beautiful.

It was voted as one of the 100 most beautiful towns in Italy.  

We had a wonderful meal at a restaurant called Il Convento/ Pinch Pinch.  The owner could not have been nicer.  The food was excellent, fresh just what you would hope for. Look at this fantastic dessert.Il Ristorante Il Convento

Lecce is a city of around 95,000 people.  It doesn't feel that big when visiting, but it has a large suburban area outside of the center. They call this city a baroque masterpiece. Baroque is a style that came into Italy in the 1500's. It was partially in response to the Protestant reformation, to show the power and the authority of the Catholic Church. 

The history of Lecce goes back way beyond the Baroque period, to some 2500 years ago, but how much of that is myth, (Trojan Wars) and how much is factual history is hard to tell. What  is documented is that there was a Roman city here in the 3rd century BC. The busy Romans build a straight highway to the sea and a 25,000 seat amphitheater to keep them entertained. The theatre was covered over from earthquakes, bombings, and general neglect until after WWII when excavation began in earnest after someone rebuilding a foundation for his house, came upon the theatre.  That was a surprise!

When Rome fell, it became part of the Byzantium empire. The town prospered as part of the Kingdom of Sicily. Then the Baroque period.  Old buildings were given make overs and some were torn down in this new style.  Most of the buildings from this period remain.

We loved Lecce and plan to go back sometime this year in the fall.  There was much to explore, and it was just a fun city.  It has a youthful vibe that goes along with the prized antiquities.

One of the marks of the baroque style is a facade that butts out and has fanciful sculpting on the front.  Hard to get photos that clearly show this.  This is something one must see in person.

This crazy style was also brought into the inside of the churches.  Fantastic!

Now about the food.  Unfortunately, it was terrible...just kidding.  Of course is is fantastic here.  We ate at the Volo. Volo Ristorante  We ate Ciceria e tria.  It is chick peas with tagliatelle and fried tagliatelle.  Such a simple disch but so very delicious. My friend Lorraine said her mother used to make it for her. I had never heard of it or eaten it.  A true treasure!

Lecce is also known for its desserts. The Pasticceria Natale is a must stop. They are the people who invented the pasticiotto...a little pound cake filled with custard. Oh, my.

Pasticceria Natale  Here are some of the desserts we didn't eat...not because we didn't want to but because we just couldn't.  

On to the next town.

Otranto's claim to fame is that it is Italy's easternmost city.  It is on the Adriatic side and has sandy beaches, charming and pitturesque streets and a long and complicated history. In Roman times it was an important commercial port and a point for Roman military expeditions to the east. Again, this town's position was both a blessing and a curse, as it became a prized possession for those from across the Adriactic.

The most notorious attack came on July 28, 1480 by a Turkish fleet carrying 18,000 soldiers. The townspeople heroically battled for 2 weeks, but they were vastly out numbered and out manuervered. The Turkish soldiers killed all the men over 15 and sold the women and children into slavery.  800 survivors barricaded themselves inside the cathedral and prayed for deliverance led by the Archbishop Stefano Agricoli. The Turkish soldiers wanted them to convert to Islam.  When they continued to refuse the Bishop was cut into pieces and the 800 were beheaded.  Such a violent history for such a peaceful town.

In spite of its bloody history, this was a city that charmed us.

I love the Stop sign in this photo.  It reminds me to slow down, take a deep breath of that wonderful sea air and appreciate the fact that we do not have to worry about attacking hoardes who want to murder us if we don't convert, either to Christianity or Islam.

One more food picture and then I must go.  This is another antipasti.  I could go to these restaurants and eat only antipasti in this part of Italy. The is from the restaurant L'Altro Baffo.

L'Altro Baffo

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Salento Penninusla Part I

Greetings from the Salento Penninsula

The Stoic One and I have just returned from a week's vacation, I know some would say our whole life is a vacation, and that is partially true.  Anway, one of our goals in moving to Italy was to travel within Italy and visit neighboring countries.  We try to take at least one overnight excursion a month. For May's excursion, we rented an apartment in the Salento peninsula, and so we had to commit to a week's stay.  Poor us. The Salento peninusula is basically the "heel" of the boot of Italy.  It is the southern most part of the provice of Puglia. From Umbertide the drive down is about12 hours so we decided to break up the time going and coming.

We chose an agriturismos to stay in down and back.  Agriturismo's are kind of like farm B&B's.  The word is a combination of agriculture and tourism. They are all very different with different facilities. In 1985 the Italians passed a law that gave tax breaks to small farms who needed to supplement their income by having rental property.  It was defined by the government as “...activities of hospitality performed by agricultural entrepreneurs and their family members that must remain connected and complementary to farming activities.” 
 Each agriturismo is quite different from the other. Some agriturismo's are on farms, but some are just country houses. Some are very basic and others are quite luxurious.
An excellent site to check out agriturismos in all of the Italian provinces:  

One of our "sorts" in finding a place was one that would take dogs and have a full time restaurant on site. As we have found from other trips, after a day of driving we don't feel like going out on another excursion to find food. We do our sort,  look at the photos, read the reviews and then cross our fingers.

Our first stop was on the Gargano peninsula in the town of Peschici. Peschici is one of those towns that look better at night and from a distance.  It sits up on a hill and the light reflecting upon it at night seems magical.

 Most Italians love the Gargano because it is wild, but coming from California, wild is in the eyes of the beholder.  Our main problem was the road going into the peninsula is windy, twisty, and seems to go on forever.  Luca hated it.  He shows this by heavy panting, shaking and generally conveying a sense of misery...sigh...We took this dog across the US without problems but he has not adjusted to travel in Italy.  

Finally, after about 5 hours, we arrived at our first agriturismo Torre Dei Preti.

The grounds are lovely with roses on all of the borders.

We had our own private casetta. Very clean. Functional. Had a hair dryer...yeah...The beds in these places are like rocks...I guess that is better than soft and sloping! Note to self, take my own pillow when we travel..the pillows are also like boards!

There was also a lovely clean pool, but it was too cold and rainy to try out.

Luca was overjoyed to get out of the car and bound around.  They had a large dining hall with excellent antipasti and good firsts and seconds. The prices at these places are great.  One night stay, breakfast and dinner for two,including wine, water and coffee was 140E .

We left Gargano and headed down to the heel of the boot.  It was our first time there.  In all of the times we have been to Italy, we never traveled this far south in Puglia.  I don't think I had ever even heard of the Salento penninusla.  This area has its own specific food, language, architecture.  It is a fascinating place to visit, about as unlike Umbria as one could imagine!

We rented an apartment in the village of Specchia Gallone, a tiny village hidden on the map and barely discernible with the GPS. The villa was impressive with high ceilings, fantastic outdoor space and pool.  Because we were off season, the bad news was we couldn't use the pool, the good news was we could afford the place.

The ceilings are this high because of the heat in the summer. Even though there is no air conditioning,  I imagine it wouldn't be too bad. It was like staying at an estate of royalty. 

It was Sunday the day we arrived and we read that there was an antiques fair in Tricase, so we left Luca at the Palazzo and headed out with dreams or noble furniture cheaply priced dancing in my head.

What is the expression, one man's junk is another man's treasure.  I, unfortunately, do not have an eye to recognize treasures in junk.  We moved on.