We all know that Italy is a food-lover's paradise — a place to eat until you can't button your pants (like Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love). The most important question when planning a trip to this boot-shaped, carb-loving country may well be Do you prefer pizza or pasta?
But maybe you've done it all — pizza in Naples, Chianti in Tuscany, carbonara in Rome, and cannoli in Sicily — and are looking for a trip unlike any you've had before. Or maybe you've never been and you want an experience that's unlike the ones everyone else has had. Either way, there's a destination you need to know about. Bonus: It's also surprisingly affordable.
I'm talking about Puglia. Commonly referred to as Italy's "heel," the region of Puglia is arguably the country's most stunning landscape. Think: hundreds of kilometers of Mediterranean coastline, groves upon groves of ancient olive trees, and whitewashed towns carved into hillsides. It is also home to some of the most incredible seafood, pasta, and wine in the world — and the only thing better than the region's food is the people who make it.
A Food-Lover's Guide to Puglia, Italy
Not convinced yet? Here's my cheat sheet to Puglia, from the wine that will change your life to the meal that will make you clap and cry all at one.
The Wine That Will Change Your Life
The product of sun, sea, and frequent wind, Puglian wines are unlike those found anywhere else in the world. And while the region is primarily known for its enticing Primitivos, it's a rosé that will change your life.
Behold: Calafuria. Elegant and vibrant with notes of peach, rose, and cherry blossom, Calafuria will leave you wondering which personal belongings to ditch in order to make room for a bottle (or five) in your suitcase. You can afford it, too, at around $10 per bottle.
Be prepared: The Best Way to Pack Alcohol in Your Luggage
The Town You Shouldn't Miss
While each town is as enchanting as the next, Polignano a Mare is Puglia's postcard town brimming with shops hidden between white-washed alleyways, restaurants carved into cliffs, an iconic beach and possible contender for most Instagrammed beach of 2017, unforgettable "special coffee," and a fried octopus panini and tuna carpaccio to write home about. The town itself is spectacular, and the abundance of quality seafood will make you wonder if any pasta that isn't doused in uni will ever be good enough again.
Tip: When heading to the beach, snag a seat and a spritz at Fly Bar, where you can overlook the whole magnificent scene from the comfort of your lounge chair.
The Meal That Will Make You Clap ... and Cry
You know those meals comprised of bites that make you wonder, Is everyone else having this same experience? Why isn't everyone crying and clapping? Would it be weird if I started crying and clapping? Dinner at Osteria del Tempo Perso is like that.
Located in a former mill in the town of Ostuni, a meal here is charming and delicious, and at around $13 to $20 per generous plate, it's relatively affordable, especially considering this is the nicest restaurant in town. The Puglian decor reflects the traditional farm life and serves up exquisite dishes paying homage to it — that is, if traditional 16th-century dishes boasted Michelin Stars.
The Local Fruit You Need to Try (in a Cocktail)
Prickly pear is literally everywhere. It grows wildly on the side of the dirt road, beside the beach, and between the cracks of the patio at your masseria (basically a farmhouse that's been converted into a hotel). Come day three, I debated creating an entirely separate iPhone photo album dedicated to the excessive number of prickly pear portraits I'd accrued.
Not only is the sweet fruit delectable, but it also makes for a mean cocktail ingredient. Look for prickly pear spritz for a Puglian twist on the classic Italian apertif.
The One Sweet You Need to Eat
Pasticciotto: A heaven-sent custard cake in flavors from hazelnut to blueberry, age-old Puglian breakfast staple, and the one sweet you need to eat. The first Pasticciotto is thought to have been created sometime during the 17th century at Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone, which you can still visit in the town of Galantina to this very day. Brace yourself for a bit of a wait, but it's well worth your time.
The Baked Good That's Better than Pizza
More than 45 percent of the country's olive oil comes from Puglia. With volume like this, it's no wonder the art of harvesting olives demands modern technology; however, there are a few traditions that remain, including foccacia.
During harvest (and year-round, for that matter), farmers still burn olive branches in their ovens and bake the focaccia by the heat of this rich fire — in five minutes flat. That leaves just enough time to savor a glass of Primitivo and hot round of focaccia before you get back to your harvesting duties.
Where to Stay If You're Not on a Budget
One of the benefits of being off the grid is that Puglia still has some very reasonable accommodations. It's possible to spend less than $100 per night for four-star lodgings; spend a bit more and you'll get a double room at the Masseria Il Frontoio, an olive farm with whitewashed buildings, bedrooms furnished with cast-iron beds and antiques, and an Italian mama who will make sure you come home a few pounds heavier. Prefer something less rustic? Try Relais La Sommita in Ostuni; the hotel's 15 rooms and suites are still authentic, but more modern in decor.
That said, if you're looking to splurge on a truly special hotel, look no further than Borgo Egnazia. Built seven years ago, the property's hand-cut, tufo stone walls are surrounded by ancient olive trees and unparalleled views of the Adriatic. It's hard to describe the feeling you get upon walking through the grandiose entrance and into Puglian bliss, but it's the experience of a lifetime and I'll be singing its praises for the next 30 some-odd years.
With six restaurants ranging from high-end to casual, you needn't look beyond the walls of Borgo Egnazia whether you're craving a traditional bowl of orecchiette served with rabe and a side of focaccia or an exquisite gastronomical experience. But thanks to the hotel's "Local Advisors," you can also see and taste the region in a way that most visitors don't. They'll write out a full day's agenda featuring the most authentic experiences for you then put in a call to their good friend's restaurant and let them know they have guests looking for a home-cooked meal.
Have you been to Puglia? Share you favorite food finds in the comments!