Everyone thinks they know what Italian food is, but ask them about Puglia food and you will probably get a blank stare. Italy is divided into 20 regions, and each region has its own distinct cuisine.
The region of Apulia Italy, or Puglia as it’s called in Italian, is perhaps the best place in Italy for food. This is especially true if you are vegan or vegetarian, or if you want to explore beyond the famous Italian food like pizza and taste some delicious, lesser-known local specialties.
Italy as a whole is quite vegan friendly, but some regions are better for vegans than others. Southern Italian food is largely plant based, and nowhere is this truer than in the Puglia region. The south is thought of as being poor and rural compared to the wealthier, more industrialized north.
Indeed, for far too long, the foods and cooking styles of the south were undervalued, with preference being given to the French-style dishes of the north, flavored with cream and butter.
That has all changed, though, with the recognition in recent decades of the many health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. This rustic cucina povera, based on sun-ripened, seasonal ingredients, has now become an international model for healthy living.
The south is where you will find the typical Mediterranean vegetables like eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, artichokes and tomatoes. Olive trees also grow abundantly here. The south is, without a doubt, a veggie-lover's paradise.
The land is not suitable for cattle grazing, so this is where you will find the largest number of naturally plant-based dishes. Leafy greens feature heavily in a number of dishes and contribute many nutrients to the local diet.
Indeed, just as southerners jokingly refer to northerners as polentoni (polenta-eaters), northerners used to refer to the inhabitants of Puglia and Campania as mangiafoglie (leaf-eaters).
Where is Puglia Italy?
You’ve probably guessed by now that Puglia is in the south of Italy. More specifically, if you imagine Italy as a boot, then Puglia is the heel of the boot.
It’s known as il tavoliere or il granaio d'Italia (the “table” or “granary” of Italy). This is because most of the region is a flat plain, with vast expanses covered by fields of grain, vegetables and fruit. You will also see huge swathes of olive trees here; Puglia supplies most of the olive oil sold in Europe.
It's not easy to scratch out a living in Puglia as a farmer. The region suffers from chronic water shortages, and the soil is very stony in parts.
Why Visit Puglia?
Here, you will have the chance to meet the friendly locals and see how they live. You will also see some incredible historical and architectural sites, without the crowds.
The stony soil has actually given rise to one of the most unique architectural features in all of Italy — Puglia’s conical stone buildings known as trulli. Every time a new field is plowed and de-stoned, a new trullo is built with all the stones and is then used as a tool shed, animal shelter, or a new home.
The town of Alberobello has a wonderful collection of trulli. Some of these have been turned into restaurants and guest houses, so it's even possible to sleep and dine inside them.
Bari is the regional capital of Puglia and has an active port with ferries leaving for Greece, Albania and beyond. Lecce is unquestionably the most beautiful of Puglia’s cities, with its stately baroque buildings made of ocher-colored stone.
It’s often referred to as “the Florence of the South”, even though the predominant architectural style in Lecce is Baroque rather than Renaissance. In fact, the city has its own distinctive take on this architectural style, which is known as barocco leccese (Lecce baroque).
Best of Puglia
Alberobello, Bari and Lecce are some of the best towns in Puglia and should not be missed. Other places that you should consider visiting when you travel to Puglia are Locorotondo, Martina Franca, Trani, Otranto and Gallipoli.
Matera, with its evocative sassi houses carved out of stone, is technically in the neighboring region of Basilicata. However, it is easily visited as a day trip from Bari, so I highly recommend including it as part of a trip to Puglia.
Vegan Puglia Tour
We will visit many of these places on the vegan tour of Puglia that I will be leading in May 2019. Registration is closing soon, but there’s still time to join us!
Why Puglia is the Best Place in Italy for Food
No matter where you go in Puglia, you are certain to eat well. Despite the many stones, the land here is still quite fertile and produces a number of different vegetables and legumes. And since Puglia has always been a relatively poor region, there is a strong cucina povera tradition that includes many plant-based dishes.
These feature handmade eggless pasta, dark leafy greens, and hearty legumes like chickpeas and fava beans. There are many different pasta shapes, and these are almost always made without eggs. The most common is the orecchiette, which means little ears. When you see them, you’ll understand why they’re called that!
While orecchiette are sometimes eaten with ricotta cheese and other non-vegan ingredients, the most common way to serve them in Puglia is with cime di rapa, known in English as broccoli rabe or turnip tops.
Puglia is arguably the most vegan-friendly region in all of Italy, and you’ll probably find yourself wishing you had more time to sample all the naturally vegan local specialties.
Pasta Pugliese Recipe
Watch the video to learn how to make a simple but delicious pasta pugliese dish for yourself!
Top 12 Apulia Food Dishes -- The Best of Puglia Cuisine
Pugliese food is so varied that it can be hard to know where to start. Here are my top picks of plant-based dishes that are specific to the Apulian food tradition. Don’t miss the chance to taste these when you visit Puglia!
1. Fave e cicorie
Also known as N’capriata in the local dialect, this dish is made up of two parts: puréed fava beans and wild chicory leaves or other wild greens. These two ingredients can be served either side by side or mixed together, and they often come with a few slices of crusty, toasted bread for dipping. Sometimes served as an antipasto at the start of a meal, fave e cicorie can also stand on its own as a primo piatto.
2. Orecchiette cime di rapa
Orecchiette, literally “little ears”, are one of the most popular forms of pasta in Puglia. Like so much of the pasta in the south, even when made fresh they do not contain eggs, as they are made with hard, durum wheat flour (semolina).
A common way to serve them is with broccoli rabe (cime di rapa). This dish is known as orecchiette alla cime di rapa in Italian. It's often topped with anchovies, but you can easily ask for it without (senza acciughe).
While broccoli rabe is certainly the most popular accompaniment for orecchiette, you’ll also find them served with various other plant-based ingredients, such as arugula, potatoes, black olive sauce, or just a simple tomato sauce. Just be sure to ask for no cheese, as grated Parmesan is often sprinkled on top.
3. Strascinate integrali
This pasta is similar in shape to orecchiette, except that it's a bit larger and flatter. Strascinate are made from a mix of durum wheat flour and whole wheat flour and thus offer a rare chance to have whole grain pasta in Italy. They’re often served with zucchini flowers.
This is another great cucina povera dish that was invented to use up stale bread. A typical summer recipe, the bread is softened with water and mixed with red onions, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers and served chilled in a dressing of oregano and olive oil.
Olives are also sometimes added. Chef Pietro Zito from Antichi Sapori — a restaurant near Andria — makes a great version of this dish.
5. Ciceri e tria
This pasta dish comes from the Salento peninsula in southern Puglia. Tria is a pasta shape that is cut into long, thin strips. It's similar to tagliatelle, except that it's made without eggs.
In this dish, the tria are tossed with chickpeas in a simple vegetable-broth-based sauce. What makes it unusual is that, while most of the pasta is boiled as per normal, about a fourth of it is fried until it's golden brown, giving the dish a nice, crispy texture.
Known as “rusks” in English, this hard, twice-baked bread is soaked in water and olive oil and then topped with tomatoes and sometimes other ingredients, such as mushrooms, arugula or eggplant preserved in olive oil. They are also sometimes called “frise”, in which case they are usually larger in size than friselle.
7. Focaccia barese
Focaccia is made in many different ways throughout Italy, but the one you will find most often in Puglia is the Bari style focaccia (barese), which is topped with cherry tomatoes, olives, oregano, salt and olive oil. It's commonly found in bars and makes a convenient breakfast or snack.
8. Ceca mariti
This delicious and wholesome soup from the Salento peninsula is made with broccoli rabe and a mix of different legumes and served with toasted bread on top.
The name roughly translates as “blind husbands”, and the story goes that Puglian housewives would convince their husbands that they had been home all day cooking this soup, when in fact it just needs to be left to simmer for hours and basically cooks itself. The men were thus “blind” to the fact that their wives were free to do what they wanted all day.
A puccia (or pucce in the plural) is a type of bread roll that is a popular local specialty in and around the town of Lecce. Most pucce will have olives mixed into the dough, and there’s also a version called “puccia rustica” that includes not just black olives but also onions, parsley and hot red peppers.
The bread roll is typically sliced down the middle to make a kind of pocket and then stuffed with one of a variety of fillings. It’s sold in this sandwich form at stands called “puccerie” and is a favorite street food snack in Puglia. Since the pucce are made to order on the spot, you can ask for any filling you like, so they can easily be made vegan.
10. Polenta di ceci
Also known as farru in the local dialect of Salento, where it originated, this is a more nutritious and heartier version of polenta, as it’s made with chickpea flour instead of the usual corn meal. It’s served steaming hot with a simple tomato sauce. If you’re looking for a wine to wash it all down with, Castel del Monte rosé is recommended.
These fritters are essentially fried balls of dough and are especially popular around Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when they are served up at Christmas market stalls and also sometimes in restaurants.
They can be made savory or sweet. It’s easy to tell the difference, because the sweet ones have an outer coating of powdered sugar. Non-vegan ingredients such as anchovies or sausages may sometimes be added to savory pettole, so check to make sure.
12. Fichi di cioccolato
This is a simple but delicious dessert that is also easy to make at home, should you wish. Dried figs are stuffed with one or two toasted almonds and then sprinkled with dark cocoa powder.
They are then baked in the oven and basted with vin cotto, which is grape must that has been cooked down to a thick, sweet sauce. Alternatively, they can also be dipped in dark chocolate.
Want to Taste These Puglia Food Delicacies for Yourself?
In May 2019, I'll be leading a small group of vegan and vegcurious travelers around Puglia. Together we'll experience all the region's sights, sounds, smells and tastes. I'd love for you to join us!
Want to know more?