When I think of Italy, I think of Renaissance paintings, luscious wines from Chianti, Roman ruins, and Juliet’s balcony in Verona. I imagine Venetian gondoliers and margherita pizzas in Naples. Limoncello in Sorrento, and George Clooney on Lake Como.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that the picturesque little town in southern Italy where I was staying was famous for its meat.
That’s right. Meat.
Cisternino, Italy, is a charming little town of white-washed alleys and postage stamp piazzas nestled in the heart of the southern region of Puglia. It is one of three towns – Cisternino, Alberobello, and Locorontondo – that roughly outline a triangle of the Valle d’Itria where you’ll find the enchanting stone houses with conical roofs called trulli.
The area is known for its rolling hills, vineyards, and acres of olive trees. In fact, Puglia produces something like 40% of the olive oil used in Europe and makes some very tasty wines to compete with the more famous Tuscan brands in the north.
And since Puglia is in the “heel of the boot,” you’re never far from the sea. Cisternino is less than a thirty minute drive from the Adriatic. The larger seaside cities of Bari and Brindisi have ferries scheduled for regular passage to Greece, Albania, or Croatia.
There’s lots to love about Cisternino (photos above) and it’s an ideal central location to explore beautiful Puglia (you’ll need a car). But what we didn’t realize until a few days after we’d settle into our Airbnb home just outside the town is that Cisternino is known for its meat. Specifically, for its butcher shops, marcelleria, where you select your meat from the butcher’s case and it’s grilled and served to your table right in the shop, or in an adjacent dining room.
Mention Cisternino to anyone living in other parts of Puglia and their eyes light up as they inquire if you’ve tried the meat there.
I don’t know if the locals ever buy meat and bring it home to cook for themselves. I suppose they could, but the Fornello Pronto – “ready oven” – concept has been a popular and economical option for dinner in this area for a long time. And Cisternino, with something like a dozen Fornelli Pronto to choose from, is known throughout the area as THE place to go for enthusiastic Pugliese carnivores.
We unwittingly stopped at one such place for a late lunch on Friday, our first day in town. Not knowing any better, we mostly ordered the signature local pasta (orecchiette, or “little ears”). Dan may have ordered a meat dish, but I forget now. Regardless, we were clueless and in this smaller town off the typical American/Italian tourist track, no one spoke English to explain the meat tradition to us.
On Sunday morning we visited nearby Alberobello, a UNESCO World Heritage site where we’d booked a walking tour to learn about the historic trulli. On hearing that we were staying in Cisternino, our delightful guide, Antoniana, was the first to tell us about its fame as Puglia’s Meat Town and enthusiastically encouraged us to try the local specialties.
That night we randomly chose Le Tre Lantern for dinner. Since we walked in looking like we had no idea what we were doing (true enough), the smiling host swept us past the meat case and into a dining room, handing us menus. He probably felt that spending half of his evening trying first to explain how it works, then puzzling out what each of the four of us wanted, could be accomplished far more efficiently by providing menus with English translations.
By the time we had each chosen an entrée (I had a fabulous steak) and ordered sides of salad and roasted potatoes and, yes, more orecchiette, we had enough food in total for maybe eight people. Word to the wise, if you’re going to a Marcelleria or Fornella Pronto (I’m honestly not certain which term to use), order sparingly and plan to share because the portions tend to be generous. One side salad, for instance, was plenty for the four of us.
While attending a cooking class on Wednesday to learn how to make orecchiette, our instructor Simona shared more tips on ordering meals at Cisternino’s meat market/restaurants. She said that one not-to-be-missed dish is the bombetta, or plural, bombette. These are little parcels of grilled meat – could be beef, veal, pork, or chicken – that are pounded thin, topped with a layer of cheese and/or other fillings and herbs, then rolled up, sometimes wrapped in bacon, and secured with toothpicks. Each bombetta is about the size of two thumbs pressed together.
So on our final night, we made our way back into the warren of streets and piazzi of the old center of Cisternino and stopped at the tiny Alvecchio Fornello for one last attempt at a traditional meal in Meat Town.
This time we nailed it. The patient man who greeted us explained what was in the display and allowed us to choose a variety of bombette from the butcher’s case. We also selected a coil of sausage, added a salad, an order of roasted potatoes, and jugs of red and white wines.
The bombette were delicious and reminded me of miniature versions of one of my mother’s favorite Italian dishes, braciola. In our family, braciola was made by pounding out a cut of beef like flank steak until it’s very thin, then spreading cheese, seasoned breadcrumbs, and other mystery ingredients (to me) on top of the meat. Then the whole thing is rolled up, tied with string or secured with picks, and baked in spaghetti sauce until tender. The braciola is then sliced and served in pinwheel-like portions.
We finished our last meal in Cisternino with complimentary shots of house-made limoncello and arancello (like limoncello, but made with oranges). Despite eating a substantial meal, that ounce or two of arancello made me giddy. I recommend it as a delicious way to obtain a quick buzz if you’re in Puglia and in the mood to get silly. I may be looking for a recipe to make my own, come to think of it.
Grazie mille for reading about Meat Town and if you ever have the opportunity to explore Puglia – GO. It’s my new favorite part of Italy.