18 must-try items on any Puglia food bucket list
The Mediterranean sun, Southern winds and the sea all come together to help grow an abundance of vegetables and fruits and that make Puglia the perfect setting for memorable meals.
Unlike other Italian regions or cities, here there’s still a fierce pride in home-style cooking using foraged ingredients and recipes concocted centuries ago. Many families and local communities still make a living from this bountiful land.
More often than not, there isn’t a single thing on the table that isn’t local and traditional. The distance from the vegetable garden to the restaurant is usually a matter of yards – and very few of the ingredients used by the kitchen ever travel further than that.
“At our restaurant, we support the values of farm-to-table, we only source locale ingredients that are in-season and cook them in their purest, most honest form.” – Luca Montanaro, chef
There is always so much anticipation when it comes to food if you’re planning a holiday to Italy. Sometimes, however, expectations don’t match the experience. More often than not this is because you haven’t prepped beforehand, but don’t worry, that’s where we come in!
We want to share with you all our best tips for eating out in Puglia so you can avoid disappointment. We know a thing or two, after all, having selected only the best restaurants for our self-drive holidays.
Let’s get started, shall we?
How to enjoy an Italian meal
The first thing you’ll need to know is that meals are structured differently than abroad, even Italian restaurants back home. A menu will usually comprise of antipasti (starters), primi (pasta and soups), secondi (meat, fish), contorni (side dishes), dolci (desserts). You can order something for each course or not, as you prefer.
You may also see the words ‘KM 0’ or ‘chilometro zero’ on the menus or on a sign, this wording equals to farm-to-table, further reassurance that you chose a great restaurant, as most ingredients will be locally sourced and therefore fresher.
At a sit-down restaurant you’ll often find a coperto charge on your receipt. This is not a scam but a modest charge that covers service, tipping and the bread basket.
You also won’t find any of the following dishes on the menu: garlic bread, spaghetti and meatballs, fettucine Alfredo, chicken pasta, chicken or veal parmesan, cheesecake, penne alla vodka – these are not traditional Italian dishes!
In Italy, and that’s even truer in Southern Italy, taking your time during a meal is the norm and that’s what we recommend too. Don’t rush it and savor it!
The cuisine of Puglia
Puglia’s most traditional dishes have been inspired by local ingredients, some unique to this region. With the list below, you won’t feel lost when reading a menu in Puglia.
Snacks and street food
These are savory baked goods. Similar to crispy flatbread, they come in a donut shape. Friselle are eaten with tomatoes on top and are dipped in water first to soften them a bit. Olive oil, salt and pepper complete the dish.
A delicious, savory snack made with flour, fennel seeds and olive oil. They’re donut-shaped too! Taralli go perfectly with a charcuterie board, dips or other appetizers.
- Focaccia barese
This focaccia takes its name from the town of Bari and it’s topped with delicious tomatoes and olives. It’s made with semolina, boiled potatoes, water, yeast and salt.
This is another type of focaccia, local to Brindisi, whose name comes from the Latin word pollex, meaning thumb. It stood for the sign that the baker would leave when working the dough. The recipe is very simple: flour, olive oil, salt, brewer’s yeast and water.
- Rustico leccese
A crispy disc of golden puff pastry containing a soft filling of béchamel, tomato and mozzarella. Yum!
These canine onions are cooked and then preserved in olive oil. You won’t find them elsewhere in Italy so don’t miss your chance!
You may think that polenta is only found in Northern Italy and you’d be wrong because sgagliozze are fried polenta squares and an extremely popular street food in Bari.
A soup with stale bread boiled in broth or water and a sprinkle of olive oil. This dish is a legacy of ages past, when Puglia was mostly rural but don’t let its simplicity discourage you, it’s still worth a try.
- Orecchiette con le cime di rapa
Named after their shape, similar to that of an ear (orecchio in Italian), they’re probably the most iconic dish of Puglia. Traditionally served with a sauce made of turnip greens, they’re made with hard wheat flour, water and salt.
- Ciceri e tria
Part of the culinary tradition of the Salento region, this dish is made with chickpeas and durum wheat semolina pasta. The pasta is partly fried and partly boiled then combined with chickpeas cooked with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, onion and herbs.
- Sagne ‘ncannulate
Fresh pasta strips shaped to resemble twisted ribbons, usually served with a sauce flavored with olive oil, basil, and a touch of garlic, all finished with generous amounts of crumbled cacioricotta cheese.
- Tiella barese or ‘riso, patate e cozze’
Layers of rice, potatoes, tomatoes and mussels baked in the oven. Popular in Bari and the surrounding area.
Roulades of horse or veal meat stuffed with herbs, spices and cooked in tomato sauce. Usually enjoyed as a Sunday special preceded by orecchiette topped with the same sauce.
A slice of fresh capocollo stuffed with a cold cut, a canestrato or caciocavallo cheese, salt, pepper and parsley.
- Cozze alla tarantina
Mussels prepared with tomato sauce and accompanied by croutons. Popular in Taranto and the surrounding area.
- Scapece di Gallipoli
Fried fish covered with breadcrumbs soaked in vinegar and saffron. You cannot visit Gallipoli and not try them!
- Fave e cicoria
Pureed fava beans and chicory – a simple yet tasty side dish.
You can read our dedicated article to learn all about Puglia burrata and other traditional cheese.
Dating back to the 1700s, it’s made with a sweet crust and pastry cream, it’s incredibly popular in Puglia.
- Pittedhe salentine
Shortcrust pastry biscuits without eggs or butter, almost savory, that contrast very well with the filling that is traditionally made of “mustard” (grape jam).
No day in Italy would be complete without coffee and in Puglia there’s a twist to traditional espresso, where almond milk is used as a sweetener in place of sugar. It’s called caffè leccese. The espresso coffee is prepared without sugar and it is poured into a glass filled with pieces of ice – perfect for Summer.
Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive, each town and village has its own traditional recipes or variants so we recommend you ask your waiter for recommendations or even us! Drop us a line and we’d be happy to give you a few tips.
What else left to say other than buon appetito!