Today Eating Italy goes to Puglia! I'm so happy to share this interview with you and introduce you to my very good friend, Claudia Parisi who is from one of my favorite regions in Italy - Puglia! I met Claudia on my very first trip to Puglia, and on my first day in Lecce. She, of all the ladies I met way back then, is one of the most knowledgeable and passionate about the food of her region and I give her most of the credit for my love of Puglia and especially its food.
Claudia and I inside an ancient dolmen
We have spent time togehter on every of my many visits to Puglia. She was there when I first learned about lampasconi and what a frantoio ipogeo was. And, she's been there on my numerous visits back, introducing me to other food loving Pugliese, explaining the history and little stories behind many dishes and places in the region. Her passion for her region, its traditions and its food is absolutely contagious. Claudia is also very VERY discerning when it comes to quality. I can always trust her recommendations on a dish and an eatery. She has worked in the tourism business as a guide, group leader and also as manager of a few bed and breakfasts in Lecce. You can meet Claudia as she will be our local guide on the Food Lover's Culinary Journey in Puglia (next trip is October 5-13, 2014 - we have only 4 spaces left!) and you can follow her on Twitter (@ClaudiaParisi1) and where she tweets many amazing shots of Salento.
In today's interview, Claudia, a Lecce native, shares her tips and gives us a little background about the food and its traditions in Puglia, but specifically in Lecce and Salento - the most southern province of Puglia, right at the very tip of the heel. Lecce is the capital of Salento. I especially love how poetically she's described her terra and its food....
1) How did your passion for food and wine come about? What was the first dish you made?
When I was young I used to watch my mother cooking. She cooks very well and I learned a lot from her. My first dish was “Parmigiana” made with fried eggplant slices, fresh tomato sauce, lots of basil and parmesan. I started appreciating wine just a few years ago, when I met my friend Andrea who has a enoteca (wine bar) in Lecce, Mamma Elvira. He introduced me to many of our local wines. My favorite Pugliese wine is Negramaro.
2) In general (we'll get to the food next) what do you love most about Lecce and Salento?
I love my land (mia terra) because it is still pristine. If you take a stroll or drive in Salento you can see the never-ending stretch of our wonderful and ancient olive groves with the red earth below them. As we in Salento are on our own little peninsula in the heel of Italy, you will certainly and all of a sudden arrive at the sea, one that is completely transparent and showing off all the colors of its extraordinary vegatation. This Mediterranean blue is, in some places, completely enchanting. When lying on any of our many beautiful beaches, you'll have this Mediterranean blue in front of you and the cicadas singing in the trees behind you. Il mare mio (my sea) is the most beautiful of all beause it is MINE and has been since birth and I love him especially for the tranquility he gives me when I look at him.
Lecce is most beautiful at sunset when the old buildings, made with our local stone Pietra Leccese, take on a warm golden yellow color. The best moment (il momento più bello) to explore and discover Lecce is at dawn, when the city is deserted and you can walk undisturbed throughout the streets, gazing upon its ancients alleys and baroque buildings.
The tradition of using less expensive flour for our pasta still exists. We still make pasta by hand at home: orecchiette, sagne 'ncannulate, maritati (a pasta combination of orecchiette and handmade maccheroni). They can be made with wheat flour but you will also see them made with grano arso (burnt wheat flour) and barley flour, which was less expensive then wheat flour. [People who were too poor to buy wheat flour are said to have foraged the just burnt wheat fields or baking ovens for the the burnt grain (grano arso) that remained. They took it and made flour and then pasta with it.]
Even the desserts are influenced by our long ago rulers, mainly from the Eastern world. In fact, the predominant ingredients in the sweets are honey, almonds and cinnamon.
Taste as much of the food of our region as you can; rustico, pasticciotto, cotognata Leccese (quince jelly), pittule, lampasconi, handmade pasta dishes, taralli, ciceri & tria, and lots more. Spring, early Summer and Fall are the best times to truly enjoy Salento and its cuisine.
Do not to miss sagne ‘ncannulate or orecchiette, home made pasta with fresh tomato sauce, lots of basil and cacioricotta (fresh cheese) on the top.
Don’t miss melanzane ripiene (stuffed eggplant), la parmigiana (Eggplant Parmigiana), burrata (beggers' purses of mozzarella cheese stuffed with cream), and taieddra (a primo piatto of rice, mussels, and potatoes).
Be sure to try our "street food: il rustico and pasticciotto (Pasticciotto is the typical Salentino dessert you can never find in other Italian regions).
If I want to eat well at a more upscale restaurant in Lecce, I go to Corte dei Pandolfi. They serve modern cuisine with fresh local products.
Another place I like is Mamma Elvira, both the enoteca and the casual eatery. It is the best eatery and wine shop where you can taste the freshest local products produced well and in a casual atmosphere and you can sample hundreds of local wines. International atmosphere. Good aperitivo and Andrea, the owner, is very knowledgable and eager to discuss Pugliese wines.
Pescheria con Cottura, also in Lecce offers a new concept for eating fresh fish in a friendly and informal setting.
La Scarpetta - For a good pizza and main courses. Internal garden, very cute.
And around Lecce I would suggest Lemi, in Tricase, a few kilometers far from Lecce, on the sea. Creative mediterranean cuisine made with local products and a good wine list.
Sagra de Lu Porcu Meu - At the end of October, roast pork is celebrated in Muro Leccese and Ortelle. In the past, this was a farmers’ tradition.
8) What dish is your signature dish, or cavallo di battaglia, as they would say in Italy?
I don’t know..I’m not sure I have a “cavallo di battaglia." I just cook with passion every time I cook. I think passion is the best ingredient to make your dish “the best ever." My friends do always ask me to make torta pasticciotto and my crostata con marmellata with my homemade orange or mandarin marmelade. The oranges and mandarin are buonissime and picked right from my trees.
9) What would your ideal "best ever" food lover's day in or around Lecce look like?
I would wake up early in the morning, and while everyone else is sleeping, have an Italian breakfast in one of the cafes or bars in the historic center. Then I would go to visit the little towns of the Grecia Salentina where traditions are still very strong and then to the coast and to Otranto and its beaches. The thing I love to eat is eggplant parmigiana, but I would also want to remember the flavor of the sea with an aperitivo and a crostini with the pulp of ricci from Porto Badisco. Then a beautiful plate of spaghetti with mussels accompanied with the best rosè pugliese! At the end of the meal, I must have a pasticciotto and the best coffee. In the evening, I would return to Lecce for an aperitivo at dusk, once again astonished by the honey color of Leccese stone as the sun sets upon it.
Wow, who's ready to meet Claudia, explore Puglia with her and make a Torta Pasticciotto together?! Thank you again, Claudia, for sharing your love and tips of Salento with us. Meet Claudia, who will be our local guide and with us every day, on the Food Lover's Tour in Puglia! We have only 4 spaces left for this vacation and are offering a last-minute $800 discount on all double occupancy bookings! For all the details see the: Culinary Journey in Puglia page.
Eating Italy is an interview series focussed on finding out how locals eat throughout Italy. Once every few weeks we'll take a virtual food-lover's trip to a specific spot around the boot. I'll ask my food-loving friends to share their insights and tips on where, what & how to eat in their home city or region.
More Puglia posts and interviews from the Eating Italy series you might like:
PUGLIA (where you can find all my posts on Puglia, its food and recipes)