I will just say first of all, traveling in Italy in summer is not for the faint of heart (you might want to read this post on how to survive an Italian heatwave). This was our first full-blown summer in Puglia experience. Most of my trips have been either in autumn or winter and I personally love visiting in these months (this New York Times article agrees). Our very first visit was in early June, 11 years ago. It was a pleasantly warm trip with beautiful early summer produce, but not a sweltering one (hello climate change). This June it was almost too hot to even be at the beach but the water was incredibly refreshing and sparklingly clear. But fit in some long afternoon naps somewhere cool and quiet and keep your shutters closed in the hot parts of the day, plan to be eating out when the sun goes down and the breeze picks up (there is often a refreshing and cooling breeze even in inland towns) and you will keep your cool.
We were house sitting for new friends, Julie Ann Marr and her husband Francesco Creanza, of Everyone at the Table. They have created a beautiful home in the white washed town of Oria (above), which lies between Brindisi and Taranto, the Adriatic sea and the Ionian sea. Together they run workshops and cooking classes from their home (below, dream kitchen!) and their newly renovated studio in Altamura, which is famous for its bread. So if you’re looking for a really beautiful food experience, learning about local traditions and cooking together, contact Julie and Francesco through their website.
Taranto isn’t the first place people tend to visit when they arrive in Puglia in search of white washed towns, crystalline beaches and abundant good food (though the first two are close and latter there is definitely no shortage of). It’s a bit rough around the edges (a true port city is with a crumbling, half-abandoned old town, a history of corruption and Ilva, the largest steelworks in Europe, polluting the otherwise charming skyline. But what brought us the first time was personal research – a visit to the state archives to pull up a birth certificate that set off a project that resulted in a cookbook and a full family tree of Tarantini dating back to the mid-1700s. But what kept us coming back was the food, a special experience of rustic, incredibly fresh and simply prepared seafood and… no tourists. I’m quite sure that street photographers and history buffs will appreciate Taranto’s offerings too (MArTA, the archeological museum is a must).
“Taranto is a perfect city. Living in it is like living in a shell, in an open oyster. Here, new Taranto, there, the border, old Taranto, around them the two seas and the promenades.”
Film director Pier Paolo Pasolini put it beautifully — old Taranto, a it is known, is an usual city, an island in the middle of “two seas” (the Ionian sea and the Mare Piccolo), connected to the mainland by bridges (look it up on a map — fascinating), especially as oysters (and shellfish in general) are something that Taranto does so well. The Mare Piccolo, Taranto’s natural bay, is home to thirty-four citri (fresh water springs) that surge up from the seabed, creating bubbling pools on the sea’s surface. The mixture of fresh and sea water in the bay creates an ideal environment for cultivating shellfish like mussels and oysters, which has been done in Taranto since the third century BC when it was a Spartan colony.
Earlier this year, in 2022, Taranto’s mussels were finally recognised as a Slow Food presidium. Try them any chance you get in Taranto, but in particular, lovers of crudo, raw seafood and raw oysters should try them raw, yes, raw. You’ll find them as part of a raw antipasto in any of Taranto’s seafood restaurants (see below but note this was a photo taken in winter when you could get seasonal sea urchins; you should know the summer time is the time when they aren’t available as it is their reproduction time. For a good way to remember when you can find sea urchins, it’s during i mesi con la ‘r’, or months that have an ‘r’ in them — in other words, May, June, July and August are out! If you find them on offer then, they are either frozen or from elsewhere or they’ve been harvested disrespectfully).
I would suggest a taste of Taranto’s specialties in an old school restaurant like Basile Luzzi (Via Pitagora, 76) in Taranto Nuova (the “new” side of town), for abundant antipasti and wonderful plates of seafood pasta or the Cassola, a rich seafood stew (more from this instagram post here). They do pizza here too but we have never been able to shift our attention away from the mussels to try the pizza. If you want a real port experience, try one of the ristopescherie (fishmongers that function as restaurants too, or vice versa!) like Trattoria del Pescatore. And if you are after something a little more casual, don’t forget that panzerotti — deep fried pizza pockets — are from Taranto, as are pucce, delicious sandwiches that are made from plain, woodfired pizza dough that is sliced in half and stuffed with fillings.
I have more in my Taranto guide on my newsletter.
I had wanted to bring my mother in law to see this charming town in the Valle d’Itria and to eat at one of the Fornelli Pronti (literally “ready ovens,” they are butcher shops that cook your food for you) that I first wrote about in 2011. I hasn’t been back since that trip and was pleased to find it just it hadn’t changed. If anything it was even cuter than I remembered it. We ate at Zio Pietro and it was absolutely perfect, the kids loved it, my mother in law loved it and I have to say we had our best meal of the trip here.
The way it works at fornelli pronti (read more about it here along with the recipe for bombette, you will want to re-create these breaded involtini filled with ham and cheese at home!) is that you order your meat directly from the counter — these will be cooked on huge skewers in a roaring wood-fired oven, then brought out to your table in the white-washed alleyway (above). You can add on drinks and sides such as salad, grilled vegetables and woodfired roast potatoes. It’s simple and the atmosphere is magical. More here.
A stunning, elegant town, Martina Franca is, for me, the Queen of the Valle d’Itria, and if you are in the area you have to make a stop here. If you are a treasure hunter, you must time the visit for the third Sunday of the month when the flea market will be sprawled out in Piazza Crispi, or come for the huge, much-anticipated antique market, the biggest in southern Italy, which is held over a couple of weeks in August. And market lovers will appreciate the weekly produce market here on Wednesday mornings.
Try Martina Franca’s famous capocollo, it’s a Slow Food presidium: we’re talking cured pork neck, which spends first 15-20 days in salt, then is washed in vino cotto (made with grape must, wine and spices), wrapped in linen and smoked with Macedonian oak wood (il fragno) and almond husks for two days. After six months of aging, it’s ready. My spot for buying it in Martina Franca to take home is Macelleria Romanelli. But if you’re in nearby Cisternino, you can also find it from the excellent Salumificio Santoro.
Stroll through town to the wonderfully old school Caffe Tripoli (Via Garibaldi, 10, above) and order some wonderful gelato or perhaps some bocconotti and caffe leccese (espresso over ice with almond milk or a creamy almond syrup) and people watch from the chairs outside. Bocconotti (the name comes from the word boccone, mouthful) look simple enough from the outside but inside, these little pies harbour sweet fillings of custard and sour cherries, ricotta, perhaps with pear or chocolate, apple or jam.
We drove through Manduria and its ancient surrounding olive groves and vineyards each time we headed to the beach and back, with tired or eager kids in the back, stopping only to buy wine or fresh vegetables from the side of the road! So this isn’t so much about the town but to tell you about Manduria tomatoes, a Slow Food presidium, and if you get a chance to buy them and taste them, do! And if you do want to visit a winery — Manduria is well known for its primitivo, a DOC wine — then seek out Morella winery.
Marco had already tated their wines a decade ago in Melbourne and discovered they were so close to where we were staying in Oria. A husband and wife team run this winery in Manduria, he’s Pugliese, she’s Australian. They tend to ancient primitivo vines that are cultivated with biodynamic principles that are made into incredibly elegant wines.
I couldn’t come all the way to Puglia and not visit the ceramic quarter of Grottaglie, especially as it’s only 20 minutes drive from where we were staying in Oria. For someone who loves ceramics as much as I do, it is a gem. I revisited the places I wrote about already in this guide to Grottaglie, especially Nicola Fasano, but also want to mention a cute spot for a coffee (con ghiaccio! With ice!) at the top of the ceramic quarter is the literary cafe of Casa Merini (via delle Torri 4), above.
Beaches on the Ionian coast
If you’re here for the beaches you won’t be disappointed. We spent most of our time on the Ionian sea, Puglia’s west coast, just south of Taranto and not far from Manduria. This coastline is spoiled for choice with fine white sand and the clearest, most beautiful water I have ever seen in Italy. I read it is because of the low salinity of the sea around here, with a number of fresh water sources that flow into the sea creating this extremely fresh, clear water. You could see the fish swimming around your ankles — fish that are camouflaged with the sand — and you can count every grain of sand. Luna kept saying, “Mamma come into the pool!” She was not wrong. It was like a swimming pool, only better. One tip, go during the middle of week. The number of people you see in the photos here are not orchestrated, we practically had the place to ourselves.
Campomarino — First of all, do not let google maps mistake this beach with the town of the same name in Molise, a four hour drive away! Campomarino is close to Maruaggio, a charming village between the sea and Manduria. It’s a very cute seaside resort town with a ferris wheel and plenty of shops, gelaterie (go to Sandrino, a chain of natural gelaterie) and bars around. Not being prepared with beach umbrellas and all the accessories, we went to a beach resort with cold water showers and a simple bar, it really did the trick. Tuareg (above) was the perfect spot to plop ourselves on the beach and the bar served us a perfect, simple lunch with spritzes, frise or friselle (you must try these, twice cooked bread rings that you dip in water and serve topped with tomatoes and olive oil) and an ice cold plate of summer fruit. The girls loved the panini and easy access to magnums and other ice creams! It was simple but all you needed on a lazy beach day. Although we didn’t make it as it’s only open in the evenings, a very good friend told me the fish panini at La Barchetta Fish Bar were worth a stop, and I believe her.
San Pietro in Bevagna — This is the beach that Francesco told us we should visit and I’m so glad we did, it was stunning (below). The town around it doesn’t have as much going on as Campomarino but we stopped at a bakery to pick up some delicious olive buns for snacks, and headed to a beach resort, MurMur, where you can simply book your beach umbrella online. They also have a simple bar for cold drinks, snacks and meals — their seafood pasta and fried calamari, served simply on paper plates, were ideal. You can also get hot showers and wifi here.
Punta Prosciutto — Marco wanted to go simply for the name! I first came here with Maria Grazia and Chiara from Masseria Potenti (which is not far, and a divine place to sleep and experience a beautiful traditional Pugliese masseria), and was blown away by the crystal clear, light blue shimmering water so characteristic of this beautiful section of the Ionian sea.
Further down the coast towards Gallipoli there is a wonderful spot for a meal with rooms that I wrote about here. And if you’re going north, up towards Andria you should find every way you can to eat here. Have you been? Is there anything else you’d like to know about this part of Puglia?