Where to Eat on an Italian Road Trip Through Puglia
My friend’s enthusiasm for a return stay at Borgo Egnazia — an exclusive, village-like, five-star golf and spa resort built in beautiful white stone — influenced my recent first visit to Puglia. We flew via Rome to Brindisi, on the southeastern heel of Italy’s “boot.” Our 30-mile coastal drive north followed the stark, rugged shores of the Adriatic Sea on a flat two-lane autostrada bordered by scraggy shrubs, windswept trees, occasional clusters of white houses with flat roofs, and a silver-hued stretch of centuries-old olive groves.
When it launched in 2010, Borgo Egnazia was designed to look like an ancient Apulian walled village, built of the dazzling-white local limestone called tufa. Inside La Corte, the 63-room main building, the vaulted entry welcomed with a series of straw baskets filled with walnuts and apples. Outside, pathways lead to Il Borgo — with a central piazza and 92 casitas on narrow streets — and to Il Ville, with 29 two-story villas, each with private pools and gardens. Throughout, the contemporary white-on-white décor features wall hangings reminiscent of everyday items used by farmers and fishermen.
The project celebrates Puglian heritage with its design, its staff, and especially its culinary program. The produce is about 60 percent homegrown – including eggplants, artichokes, friggitelli peppers, and Regina and San Marzano tomatoes as well as pomodorini. Fish, such as spigola (sea bass) and merluzzo (cod); Podolica beef from nearby Bari; and wine are also locally sourced. As for cheese, one of the many white wooden tables at the breakfast buffet displays regional specialties: fresh rounds of mozzarella, braided baby mozzarella, fresh ricotta, and a tub of pungent aged ricotta, and the most typical Puglian cheese: burrata, a mozzarella-like sack filled with curds and rich cream. Local breads, house-made preserves, warm pastries, hot egg dishes, smoked salmon, platters of fruits and vegetables appear atop other tables, plus there are made-to-order entrées and a juice bar.
Pugliese fare also dominates the menu at the San Domenico Hotel Group’s sister property, Masseria San Domenico Thalasso-Spa and Golf Resort.
A fifteenth-century stone fortified farmhouse is the centerpiece of the 47-room, five-star boutique hotel, which is affiliated with The Leading Small Hotels of the World and was formerly the owner’s family getaway. The restored structure topped with a Templar tower tall enough to spot invaders from the sea houses the bar, where I drank a local primitivo — the bombino bianco “Le Valli” by Alberto Longo — served with typical snacks: sliced and fried broad beans, roasted almonds, and olives. (There are 1,000 olive trees on the Masseria estate, which produces its own extra virgin olive oil.) It also houses the restaurant where chef Giuseppe Angelini grilled an Adriatic sea bass for me, according to the spa’s Mediterranean Diet menu; he presented it topped with diced tomatoes, capers, and herbs and served alongside grilled zucchini and eggplant slices. (I also enjoyed a seaweed wrap, a soak in a Thalgojet hydrotherapy tub, and a swim in the heated, indoor pool at the hotel’s seawater thalassotherapy spa later in my visit.)
Puglia supplies half of Italy’s olive production, so there were plenty of olive groves to admire one sunny morning as we traveled along the cypress-lined coastal route, en route to Alberobello. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the medieval città bianche (white towns) which are each perched on their own little medieval hilltop in the Itria Valley. This particular touristic destination is deservedly famous for its 1,500 iconic trulli, ancient, cylindrical houses. Each is built of dry, local, limestone boulders and has a conical stone roof, which is topped with an individualized symbolic cap. Most impressively, until 1797, the local ruler required that they be constructed without mortar. Though Alberobello is a busy summer destination, it was pleasingly quiet in late October and our driver found it was easy to park, so we could walk to visit churches and get up close to some of the trulli that crowd the town center.
In the historic coastal town of Polignano a Mare, a statue honors the singer (and later politician) Domenico Modugno. From the bridge, we looked down to the ravine between terraced hillsides to the tiny beach, flanked by tall stone seawalls. We strolled under a Roman archway, through a small square beyond the clock tower, and along narrow streets with newly transformed mini-hotels and residences, one brightly painted with a cranberry-colored façade, turquoise doors, and melon-painted trim. Then we lunched within the ancient walls at the aptly named Ristorante Antiche Mura, a popular family-owned eatery, where we walked beyond a table topped with whole fish on ice to our table, under a domed brick ceiling. The traditional Pugliese meal was accompanied by a Così rosé from Polignano and started with a runny stracciatella cheese, a white bean and chicory salad, and an octopus salad “alla Catalana” on arugula, with red onions and Fiaschetto tomatoes. The carpaccio di tonno (tuna) was dressed with basil-topped olive oil and the curvy torchietti pasta was studded with giant shrimp and lobster.
Before five each afternoon, we headed to the Vair Spa at Borgo Egnazia, where barefooted therapists, dressed in Roman-like garb, personalized services in which olive oil is the main ingredient. (My scrub, for example, combined brown sugar and honey with olive oil and a bit of hot water.) Vair Spa is a 20,000-square-foot, two-level sanctuary with 12 treatment rooms, a relaxation lounge, a yoga studio, and hydrotherapy pools. The hotel also has a fitness room, an indoor pool, and multiple outdoor pools.
Executive chef Domingo Schingaro oversees the Borgo Egnazia restaurants. Pasta and pizza appear from the open kitchen in the casual Trattoria Mia Cucina; chef stations add to the menu at Il Cortile; and rustic traditional dishes predominate at La Frasca, including a fresh tomato soup topped with burrata. At the 18-hole San Domenico Golf Club, Mimina, the former Melpignano family chef, is the messaia, (or homemaker-cook), and she prepared the fabulous Apulian focaccia (dressed with cherry tomatoes, olive oil, and oregano), orecchiette with turnip tops, panzerotti, sautéed vegetables, mozzarella cheese, artichoke salad, and a sponge cake with custard cream. Familiar dishes, including braciole, gazpacho, lasagna, and parmigiana, appeared on menus; others were new to me, including the panzerotti (fried dough pockets similar to ravioli and stuffed with tomato and mozzarella) and taralli (dry, round, pretzel-like biscuits).
The contemporary creations served during a fixed menu at the resort’s gourmet restaurant, Due Camini, were paired with regional wines introduced by the wine experience manager, Giuseppe Cupertino: D’Arapri Metodo Classico Rosé Brut San Severo and Rampone Minutolo Valle d’Itria, Leone de Castris Five Roses from Salento, and Gianfranco Fino Es Primitivo di Manduria. I sampled those and others, from spumante to moscato di Trani, the local dessert wine. Puglia is a major Italian grape producer and is known for its popular, fruity-sweet primitivo, negroamaro, and verdeca, the best white wine grape in the red-dominated region. Some Apulian wines have earned the Gambero Rosso guide’s highest prize, tre bicchieri (three glasses). Winemakers from other wine regions also blend Pugliese grapes with their local varietals.
The final pleasure was participating in the chef-run cooking class, where I actually learned to make fresh pasta — if not to master the skill of properly shaping the orecchiette into individual, ear-shaped bites. What a delight it would be to return to make ricotta in a farmhouse, lunch in a trullo, and harvest grapes or olives. One thing is for sure: There are ample Apulian culinary adventures to be had that showcase the region’s impeccable indigenous ingredients!