Ten Unknown Local Dishes to Try

While there are many local specialties that everyone will recommend, like orecchiette in Apulia, I want to mention some that do not get mentioned as often.

Egg soup, Salina: A soup with poached eggs and vegetables.

Egg soup

Fried cheese, Abruzzo (and other areas): This fried cheese is a bit like haloumi in Greece, but not as salty. Served melted from the oven. In Salina, it is deep fried.

Fried cheese

Pizzeli (wine cookies): Most regions of Italy have round hard not sweet crackers that are for dipping in wine.

Egg cheese balls, Abruzzo: These were like a cheese egg souffle in a round donut hole size and shape. Served with red tomato sauce.

Raw artichoke salad: Actually, try any of the salads and vegetables that you have never tried before like raw fennel or artichoke.

Fried egg tart, Campania: A frittata which is then deep fried.

Taralla (Napoli): These are another baked bread twist. Many places in Italy make them like a small ring but in Naples, they are longer.

Fish balls, Salina: On this island off of Sicily, one can try tender fish balls. Try them. They are surprisingly good.

Fish balls

Pizzette (small pizzas), Rome: Many bakeries sell mini pizzas (many with no cheese or red sauce as a pizza just means a type of bread). These pizzette are often served at happy hour.

Pane Cunzatu, Salina: This is like a giant garlic bread. The plate-sized bread is toasted and smothered in toppings. Absolutely awesome!

Cunzatu

The melon-cucumber of Apulia: I wrote about this before. When in season, it is served as the “vegetable” but only to locals so make sure to ask!

Melon cucumber slices served with radishes

M’s Adventures Top Ten Restaurants in Italy

A crunchy creamy cannolo. Two would be cannoli.

Obviously, this list is a work in progress as I have not been to that many restaurants, not even 100. First, a word about dessert. Stick to the tiramisu. Except when you really want to try the cannoli and the young man says that they make it in house.

This list is only places that are not super super famous. But, first let me mention one famous place in Verona. Antica Bottega del Vino was recommended to me by a sommelier. It is all the pomp and atmosphere that you did not know you wanted to watch with your food. Maybe they hire the barkeeps to look like Roman gods? The food was clearly cooked by someone trained as a professional chef. It looked like that too. But was still great. I have not included any photos from there because their website shows what the place looks like quite well.

Grilled cheese in ‘nni Lausta.

Peccato del Vino, Otranto, Apulia: The owner will make you feel so welcome and the bubbly doesn’t hurt either. Her dishes are riffs on classics and not in a way that makes them unrecognizable, but in a way that makes them delicious, and distinct.

Those russet filaments of chili make my day. This is in Otranto.

‘nni’ Lausta, Santa Marina, Salina, Aeolian Islands, Sicily: of the many excellent restaurants we tried on Salina, this was the one with the most refined food.

At ‘nni Lausta, the classic caponata is presented with bread crumbs on the side.

Mamma Santina, Santa Marina, Salina, Aeolian Islands, Sicily: For their innovative eggplant parmesan, made with local anchovies but still a traditional dish. All their other food was also excellent. This restaurant is located in a hotel but don’t be put off by that. The restaurant is open air and overlooks the town and the sea.

The upstairs garden of ‘nni Lausta is an oasis.

La Tagliata Fattoria, Positano, Amalfi Coast: A recommendation. Also famous, but still on my list, not for the food which is homemade and good, but for the magical view, and the family. And the elevator.

Everything on this plate was made within an arms length of the plate.

Le Comari di Farfa, Castelnuovo di Farfa, Sabine Valley, Lazio: I think this place is only open as part of special tours. I went with Johnny Madge on an olive oil tasting.

This customized vegetarian lasagne was the star at Le Comari di Farfa.

The place that most likely not to be on anyone else’s list was a camping site. In fact, I can’t even find it on my Google maps… But, don’t judge. If the food served there had been served in a fancy place in Bologna or Verona, people would be raving about it. Their pasta alle vongole was so good that we each had our own serving. The cannoli was as gourmet as you can get (as you can see from the photo at the top) served on a slate plate and with a dusting of powdered sugar. Although cannoli are famous from Sicily, this one was at the other end of Italy… the lesson is that if your navigator (me) says to go there, then try it!

Trattoria il borghetto, Salve, Apulia: I recommend this place because the “mayor” of Torre in Pali sent us there. The restaurant is in a small hilltop village and one eats inside a castle courtyard. It has that sort of fairytale feel to it. The meal is a large one with many first courses so make sure you are hungry.

Osteria dell’elefante, Lazio (Where Rome is located): I wrote about this before. I really like them.

Finally, I also recommend the steakhouses (we went to one called 101 Best Steakhouses located near the train station) in Florence. Even if you don’t eat meat. Just thinking about their steak makes me weak at the knees, but their vegetarian ravioli was good too.

Was that ten? But, as I keep finding new ones… I will update this list.

Caffe Freddo

The chocolate syrup is an extra touch. This one is from Naples.

When it is hot in Italy, you want to order a “caffe freddo” (cold coffee) which is sort of like a coffee milkshake. It’s a bit confusing because it is not a “frappe” which is a different drink. I include a photo here so that you can see that a frappe is a coffee which is frothed to the point where it has a frappe/froth/head on top. A caffe freddo has milk added, a frappe does not.

A frappe — not a caffe freddo.

When you see the slush machines spinning with coffee colored caffe freddo, you know that summer has arrived. A caffe freddo is different from an iced coffee or milkshake.

A caffe freddo from Otranto, Apulia.

As an aside, the milkshakes in Italy are quite liquid and not unlike a caffe freddo except that they are not always as cold. Also, you can get a milkshake most of the year but caffe freddo is a summer thing.

A caffe freddo from Salento, Apulia.

Another Perfect Apulian Town

There is a beach.

When I was writing about Polignano a Mare, I realized that maybe there was another perfect Apulian town that I overlooked. I suspect that there are many perfect towns in Apulia (Puglia in Italian). Here is one that I really liked and where I’ll be going back, Otranto.

The restaurant is in the shade of the cathedral.

I was so distracted by the perfect restaurant in Otranto (Peccato di Vino), that I forgot about the beach and the rest of the town. It has those things as well.

There is a fort.

We took a quick moto taxi/tuk tuk ride to get a good overview and my driver was playing disco and dancing the whole time.

A world away from the disco taxi was the elegant cool wine restaurant which I might put on my list of places to try in Italy…

Our visit was short, so I’ll be back, especially to try the restaurant again. I might have been biased last time because the owner greeted us warmly with cool refreshing prosecco. She also called us beautiful which we appreciated considering how sweaty and bedraggled we looked.

The classic Apulian dish of bean puree and chicory.

All Roads Lead to Rome

Six miles outside the Aurelian walls of Rome.

This is such a well known expression. While “all roads lead to Rome” is an idiom, I don’t think it gets used that way as much these days. People seem to take it literally. Everyone wants to visit Rome. As an idiom, it actually means the opposite, that there are many ways to approach the same subject. No one seems to know if the Romans ever said this. The earliest example of its use in English is from Chaucer. If you want to geek out about this, read this article.

Great place for a bike ride.

On a beautiful sunny day, it is hard to imagine the atrocities carried out along this road 2,000 years ago. The Romans crucifed people, famously Christians, along this road. But, this road was also used as a graveyard and many of the most famous sites today are the remains of mausoleums. This road was built more than 2,300 years ago. In 71 BCE, the famous Sparticus fought along here. Over 6,000 slaves were crucified as a result of that slave revolt. At that time in the Roman Empire, one in three people were slaves.

The large paving stone are original and have the groove marks from chariots.

The Appian Way goes all the way to Brindisi in Apulia. I would like to see it down there too. But, closer to Rome, one Sunday, I decided to go walk on the most well preserved part of Roman road, near Rome. Today, this road is a park and tourist attraction. There seems no trace of the sorrow of the past. And the only armies one sees are joggers, walkers, and bikers.

One can get to the archeological park and join a bike or walking tour, or just choose a spot and go there. I took a 20 minute car ride out to a spot where a modern road intersects with the Appian Way. It seemed so far out. Cars are allowed on the Appian way but there are parts where most drivers choose the highway. The taxi service had no problem finding me when I wanted to return. One can walk from the center of Rome and walk out but the road is busy for the first five or six miles (8-10 kilometers). One can take the bus or metro as well. My taxi ride cost 29 euro each way. It was so far removed from central Rome that I saw bales of hay and chatted with farm hands.

Even the air is fresher out here.

Typical Foods of Apulia

In Bari, I saw a lady making the “little ears” pasta.

Orrechiette are the famous pasta shape of Puglia/Apulia. There are over 350 official shapes of pasta in Italy and many more if one includes all the variations and local names. Just watch Pasta Grannies and you’ll know. One day I ordered the handmade “little ears” pasta and I found them to be filling. Maybe because when the pasta is made, the dough is squished so it becomes much doughier than a machine-made pasta?

Apulians also eat lots of raw seafood (they have a dish of pasta with sea urchin roe — typical of Apulia) and many forms of fresh cheeses. Somehow these are not as famous as the little ears. I also saw row after row of almond trees and olive trees.

Apulians also eat a puree of fava beans served with sauteed chicory greens. I’m not a bean eater, but I like this dish.

This was a fancy version topped with crumble made from beans.

Another typical food of Apulia is the foccacia. I like it when it’s got a crunchy greasy bottom. I wrote about this previously.

Apulia is also famous for their round dried breads, “friselle” or “cimbale” if they are tiny as rings. These are savory dried breads like crackers but used as the base for a meal (dipped in water to reconstitute) or dipped in wine… They may look like bagels but the dough is much lighter.

Various round cracker breads at a local supermarket.

But the one I like the best is the greasiest — panzerotto. I also mention it in the “not pizza” article.

Made with cannabis flour
Assume the eating position.

Basically, a panzerotto is a deep fried pocket pizza. If you like fried dough, calzone, or melted cheese sandwiches, then you’ll like this.

At the one place in Monopoli, one can get it made with hemp dough. Hemp is a variety of Cannabis. Hemp is good for many things and was Christopher Columbus took tons of it with him to the new world. It’s good for rope making.

Hemp makes you happy.

Look at how happy they are…

Streets So Clean You Could Eat Cheese Off Them

During and after the rain, this woman scrubbed her street in Locorotondo.

Possibly the most poetic moment on our Apulian adventure was when we were driving down from another adorable hill village. As we left the urban area, the road changed to black asphalt. The soapy water from the town was running down the street and my friend said, “It’s like stracciatella” — truly a sign that she was enchanted by la dolce vita.

Mini fresh mozzarella balls filled with stretchy fresh cheese.
A dairy shop in Monopoli.

Stracciatella is a word used for many things including my favorite ice cream flavor (vanilla with streaks of chocolate) but, as you can tell, it also refers to a form of fresh cheese that is in stretchy strips.

An omelet with stracciatella cheese.

One morning we had breakfast at a place in Monopoli, and the omelet had stracciatella. As good as that was, the best use of stracciatella I’ve had so far is Pierluigi’s vegetarian pasta.

A rare non touristy street in Gallipoli.

Apulia is famous for the white stone used to build its towns. Add to this the constant cleaning and it really does look clean enough to be eat off of.

Lecce is at the center of Apulia.

Or like the whole town is made of fresh white cheese.

The Perfect Apulian Coastal Town – Polignano a Mare

View to the right from the cafe.

Sapphire blue water, cute old white stone streets, a public beach, and easy access to other places (if you ever want to leave), Polignano a Mare has it all. The city is walled and the old part is pedestrianized. The only wheeled vehicles inside are pedicabs transporting customers and their luggage to the many hotels and B&Bs.

It was hard to get a photo of this door without people in front of it, but I managed to snatch one in the few seconds between tourists.

The old city has many shops but doesn’t feel excessively touristy (even though it is), and once in a while you can glimpse real people living their lives here.

The swimming area is surrounded by cafes on cliffs.
The beach is a pebble beach but that’s the only downside.

Since visiting, I have been raving about this town. It just seems too perfect. Even in 95/34 degree heat.

There is poetry dotted all about the town. This basically says, “Happiness is easy when the sea is in front of you.”

We went just for a the day but I could see staying here for an entire vacation.

The access to the beach overlook.

Outside the old city, there are also lots of streets and neighborhoods to explore, or stay in, but we only explored the old town. We parked in the piazza just outside the old walls, helped by old gentlemen sitting in the square (they helped explain the parking sign — lunch is free parking), and when we returned at the end of the day, the same gentlemen were doing their “passaggiata” (daily walk to be seen, see, and catch up with neighbors) in the square.

Try to get that table for the photos. It was a bit windy out there so we ate inside.

We ate breakfast at a cafe, Caffe Dei Serafini, with a jawdropping view. Utterly amazing. The restaurant is in a cave wall of the city on the cliff and has only one table for two/three out on their tiny balcony… but if you are lucky, you can get that table, or, at least, use it for photo ops.

View to the left from the cafe balcony. Around the corner to the left is the swimming beach.

While I thought Lecce was more intellectual, and Otranto had a smaller vibe, I think that Polignano a Mare has a good combination for an overall Apulian vacation. And it has those blue waters.

I’m told that Sicily and Sardegna have blue waters as well, but for now, these have been the most jewel like yet.

A snorkeler seen from the balcony. Photo with an iPhone. No filter.

My photos were taken with my iPhone and I did not use a filter. The water really is that color. Better than on postcards.

The Not Pizzas of Puglia

The focaccia of Puglia is famous and there is so much olive oil in it that it seems like a fried pizza even though it’s not deep fried. Also, it’s a bread, not a pizza.

A panzerotti looks like a calzone but it’s not one. The reason is that a panzerotti is fried, not baked. Panzerotti are specialities of the central and southern parts of Italy, especially Puglia/Apulia.

Panzarotti are also called calzoni fritti, fritte, and frittelle.

They are much like pizza and pizza is popular in Italy. While American pepperoni pizza is rare to find (not impossible, you just have to call it “con salame picante” to get something resembling it), I was delighted to find that spicy salami was one of the flavors on offer. If you ask for a “pepperoni” pizza, they will think you want a bell pepper pizza.

The Round Cucumber of Puglia

When researching my book about Italian food, I discovered the round melon cucumber of Puglia. It was described as a cross between a melon and a cucumber.

I was eager to try it and I thought I would have to wait till I could travel to Puglia. But, one day at the Campo de Fiori market, I saw it. The cucumber tastes like a mild cucumber (even milder) but has the shape of a melon. The rind is slightly leathery and I actually liked the way it has a pleasant chewiness.

Imagine if these were grown without seeds? They would be perfect for sandwiches. Never mind that, after my terrible encounter with a normal Italian cucumber back in November, I was just happy that this one didn’t bite my tongue off with bitterness. I had a Greek salad the other day, and the cucumber was equally bitter.

I didn’t expect the cucumbers to be bitter in Italy. But, then again, Romans like bitter greens like chicory so why not bitter cucumber (not to be confused with bitter gourd).

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