Living Local in Puglia
No sooner had the words passed our lips when the Shock and Awe antipasto begins….gorgeous grilled prawns are set down in front of us. As we all start to politely pass the plate around, the stuffed mussels arrive, then the octopus salad, the seppia salad, the raw gamberoni, the incredible stuffed mussels, the mussels in red sauce….and now the waiter is encouraging us to eat faster so he can bring out more plates. We literally had the entire Adriatic in front of us. And it was all fantastic…fresh, clean, amazing, flavorful. By this time, we’re all giddy with abundance when the waitress comes over and asks if we’d like maybe a little pasta to fill out the meal. I confess, I caved and said, NO MORE…but I was outvoted and a double portion of the most fragrant and delicious pasta made with sea urchin sauce comes out. We finished it.
All work and no play is just not a good thing. So in the interest of good mental health, part of our work schedule included some well needed beach time in the Gargano area of Puglia. Not knowing anything about the area, other than it was on the Adriatic side, we rented a little apartment and hoped there would be a decent nearby beach and some good sea food. The Gargano is at the northern end of the region of Puglia; it’s that little spur on the back of the boot, and that's all we knew.
After a 5+ hour drive we officially entered the Gargano region, with its pine covered mountains laced with narrow roads and hairpin turns that reveal gorgeous cliffs and the sea. We finally wound our way up to the small city of Vico del Gargano, and armed only with a ‘man made map’ from the owner of the apartment, we drove in endless loops and twists and turns until we finally found our new abode. The apartment was supposed to be on the second floor. Now, I don’t know how they count in the Gargano, but it was a full five flights up a narrow, teetering outdoor staircase to reach the doorway of the apartment that was yet another flight up. And let’s just say…..the apartment put the funk in funky and leave it at that. You know that dis-orientating feeling when you don’t know where you are and it’s nothing like you imagined it to be?
We also discovered we were a good 15 or 20 minutes away from the ocean. We could see it, we could smell it, but there was a winding, twisting, lurching switchback filled road between us and being able to dive in and cool off. Did I mention it was HOT?
Desire overcame fatigue and we braved the switchbacks and finally jumped into the sea while our fearless friends Bruce & Giovanni headed out in search of a suitable restaurant for dinner. By the time we got back, and showered (who rents out a place without any sort of shower curtain and a shower head that sprays straight out at 90 degrees??) we’re all feeling a little…oppressed. Then we hit the street and it’s festa time in Vico! There are armies of folks out strolling and the people watching is spectacular. We finally sit down at the dinner table around 10:00pm and the waiter baffles us with his bizarre local dialect…we pick out the words water and antipasto and agree to both. No sooner had the words passed our lips when the Shock and Awe antipasto begins….gorgeous grilled prawns are set down in front of us. As we all start to politely pass the plate around, the stuffed mussels arrive, then the octopus salad, the seppia salad, the raw gamberoni, the incredible stuffed mussels, the mussels in red sauce….and now the waiter is encouraging us to eat faster so he can bring out more plates. We literally had the entire Adriatic in front of us. And it was all fantastic…fresh, clean, amazing, flavorful. By this time, we’re all giddy with abundance when the waitress comes over and asks if we’d like maybe a little pasta to fill out the meal. I confess, I caved and said, NO MORE…but I was outvoted and a double portion of the most fragrant and delicious pasta made with sea urchin sauce comes out. We finished it. Then a dessert arrives made with a local berry called the amarena. It’s sort of like a mulberry crossed with a blackberry and very tasty, now that I know the name, I'm seeing it everywhere.
And guess what? We were starting to like this crazy town of Vico with its impossibly twisting streets and friendly wandering dogs. The Shock & Awe Restaurant, which is not it’s real name; it’s either called Peppino’s or Miki’s, there is some genuine confusion among the staff about what the place is officially named, is a sea food lovers fantasy restaurant. At the end of the meal, the chef/owner, probably named Miki or Peppino, gave me a present of a kilo of DeCecco No. 12 pasta because I had quizzed him on the lovely pasta they used in the sea urchin sauce. I only mention this because if I didn’t tell you, someone else would. I discovered that dancing in the street while twirling a kilo of pasta over your head is just a fine, fine way to start a vacation. There, now you all know…. I like to dance with pasta.
As anyone who has spent time in Italy will tell you, finding the right coffee bar is key to having a good time. Well, Vico has the ultimate bar: Bar Pizzicato. Huge, long pastry cases, divinely creamy cappucino, fresh made almond milk, and as a bonus, the pastries are all made with natural yeast. The place is crazy good. It even has ‘free’ wi-fi internet, which is free right after you buy the 5 euro access card.
Bit by bit the Gargano started to reveal itself to us. One route down to the coffee bar went by the Pasta Fresca lady and she became our new best friend with her huge hunks of soft, fresh, fragrant Pugliese style bread and delicate home made pastas. By Thursday, she was reserving some special ricotta and spinach raviolis just for us because she knew we would enjoy them.
There’s a thriving ‘back of the truck’ trade that goes on in Vico. Vegetable trucks, tucked away in random places, would be piled with the treasured local lemons and oranges, various kinds of tomatoes, and tons of herbs tied in bunches.The freshly dried oregano blew me away. We bought a small sack and the scent literally filled the apartment. I thought I knew about oregano, but not until I had this oregano did I understand just how good it could be.
We were loyal to the 2-Euro-Man. No matter what we bought, it was 2 euros. And no matter where you went, if you were the least bit hesitant about buying something, a taste was immediately offered. Every bit of produce or herbs came with a story about the health benefits that would come from eating it. The wild fennel was sure to reduce stress, cure depression and any sleep disorders. The olives were a natural way to get all your vitamins, because you shouldn’t eat meat at night. Unless you went to the butcher, where his locally raised meat would be the most tasty fresh and healthy thing you could put in your mouth. It was a little like being in the Garden of Eden, the abundance of gorgeous meat, produce and fish was staggering.
Wine was another story. When we went to the Salento area of Puglia a few years ago, there were shops selling some good, strong Pugliese wines like Primitivo or Salice Salento. In the Gargano, it was more of a home brew situation. The ‘enoteca’ or wine shop only carried wine that the guy made himself and it came in plastic jugs. The price was right, and although wine in plastic jugs is a little sketchy, we were a lot of people and it was dinner time, so the menfolk did the right thing and carried the wine up our teetering, tottering staircase. I was a snob and it wasn’t until the 3rd night that I finally broke down and tried the local “Nero di Troia” and guess what….it was a respectable red table wine! In a nice carafe, you could fool anybody with this medium bodied, very balanced wine.
Cheese was mostly ‘cacciocavallo’ and that seemed to only describe the characteristic shape of a small globe on top of a big globe, because some of it was cow’s milk, some was sheep and some was even goat. It came fresh, medium and aged, and it was all excellent paired with some local tomatoes, a sprinkle of oregano and a glass of Nero di Troia.
If it sounds like we were being seduced, you are right, we were falling for the charms of the Gargano. If I’ve painted a picture of a generous people who are proud to share their bounty, then I’ve done an accurate job. If you are going to visit, bring cash. Credit card machines don’t work anywhere, although the Bancomat will dispense cash when you need it. It’s not a slick and polished area, it’s a little gritty around the edges, but if you don’t mind running into the sheep and goat herds on your way home from the beach, well, you just might enjoy a trip to the Gargano.
Wow, what a beautiful place!!! I have wanted to go to Puglia for years and haven’t had the chance. I am going to add it to the next region we want to stay in.