People go to Italy for all kinds of reasons. They go for the history. For the architecture. For breathtaking landscapes, and for the warmth and culture of its people. They also go for the food. If you are not going to Italy at least in part for the food, then you are either fibbing or a bit crazy and will miss out on a critical element of the Italian experience.
So, let’s all admit it. We’re going to Italy for lots of stuff, but also absolutely for the food. Maybe your trip has a more, um, fluid focus — as in, the vino. Some of us are all about guzzling plummy red Barolos in the Chianti region, or sipping fizzy, golden Prosecco in Venezia. The choices are endless, north to south, with each region having its own claim to fermented grape fame.
If you’re all about the pasta, when in Rome you might try the city’s signature dish, the simple but hearty Cacio e Pepe. Another Roman specialty, and my favorite, is Pasta alla Gricia. That’s a carbonara-type dish of pasta mixed with some form of ham or bacon, garlic, black pepper, and
Pecorino cheese. Sheer bliss. In Puglia (the region I visited recently -picture the heel of the boot), orecchiette, or “little ears,” are the favorite – and next time I’ll tell you about a cooking class where my friends Sue, Dan, Ginny, and I learned how to make them.
For whatever reason, it didn’t really occur to me until now that with all of Italy’s fabulous foods, this country’s sorcery involving milk-based foods should firmly place Everything Dairy at the top of the list of Things You Must Eat in Italy.
First, there’s gelato. Gelato is simply Italian ice cream, but it’s made with milk – not cream. You’d think ice cream would be, well, creamier and richer than ice milk, but it’s not. Italian gelato (not the stuff you buy in the mall on the Las Vegas Strip) is outrageously, decadently rich, creamy and so indescribably delicioso. Oh, I could count the ways. Una – stracciatella, due – cioccolato fondente, tre – limone . . . .
But second, there’s Italian cheese, which is every bit as varied and delicious as the array offered nearby in France. From Bologna’s sharp, aged Parmesan to Naples’ sweet, melt-in-your-mouth bufala mozzarella, every region of Italy has its stable of local cheeses. You can walk into any grocery store and ogle the stuff near the butcher’s case, trying to pronounce the unfamiliar, yet lyrical Italian names for each and wondering how one would taste accompanied by a slice of salami or stuffed into a fresh fig.
So. My belissima Puglia. On our second full day in the area, we met the beautiful Antoniana to guide us on a tour of Alberobello. If you go to Alberobello, I so highly recommend that you contact Antoniana (follow this link!) for a most enjoyable visit.
In addition to learning about and seeing the adorable trulli, at the end of the tour Antoniana took us to a little shop called Latte e Fieno to try the cheese made by a local
cheese factory of the same name. We were given little plates of nodini, which are odd-looking little chunks of mozzarella cheese – each a bit smaller than a Cadbury egg. The nodini were served with salty little pretzel/cracker-type snacks called tarallini, and we were offered a small glass of wine to accompany our treat.
The nodini were the best mozzarella cheese I’ve ever eaten. I’m calling it mozzarella, but in Italy, I learned that this cheese made from cow’s milk is actually named fiordilatte. True mozzarella cheese is made from buffalo milk and if you are served genuine “bufala mozzarella,” most likely the cheese was made from the milk of buffalos living the good life in southern Italy or Bulgaria.
Whatever the case, these petite nodini were a slightly chewy cross between the very soft mozzarella we buy that’s shrink-wrapped in plastic with a little water, and the drier mozzarella that comes in slices or shredded for pizza. Nodini are a bit salty, a bit sweet, and pair perfectly with the crispy crunch of tarallini. I’m going to start looking for this cheese in local stores. I thought I’d found it earlier this week, but no dice. Wish me luck as the quest continues.
Another dairy delight you’ll find in a number of Italian desserts and pastries is custard. A popular breakfast treat is a cornetto con crema, which is a croissant filled with custard and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Give me a café macchiato and a cornetto con crema for breakfast and I am one happy contadina. (Yes, you may point out that “contadina” is the name for “peasant,” which actually fits for me, but in Italian camper is “camper.” That’s no fun. Unless you say “camper” like an Italian. I think everything’s fun to say in Italian. It’s kind of impossible to stay angry if you distract yourself by trying to read Italian out loud. Give it a shot sometime if you’re feeling vaguely irritated or blue.)
Anyhoo . . .
As we were browsing through YouTube for information about Puglia before the trip, Sue came across a video by Katie at #keepitquirky. An episode on Katie’s YouTube cooking channel featured her visit to Puglia, ending with a recommendation to try a tiny custard pie called pasticciotto. This treat is made almost exclusively in the Salento, or southern section of the region of Puglia. We already were planning a day trip to the largest city in that area, gorgeous Lecce, which is known as “The Florence of the South.” Thanks to Katie, we also learned that Lecce is the unofficial World Headquarters for pasticciotto.
So why mess around? We put the Caffe L’intorno, Katie’s recommended source for the absolute best pasticciotto in the city, into the GPS and parked nearby to start our discovery of Lecce. And since pasticciotto (say it like this: pass-tee-chee-OH-toe – fun, right?) is a common breakfast choice around here, we made a beeline to the café for cappuccino and pasticciotto before doing anything else.
At Caffe L’intorno these classic local pastries are served warm. Above, you’re looking at a rich, buttery short crust encasing a delicate vanilla pastry cream that gently oozes out when you pull it apart. The scent of vanilla wafts upward and if ever a morsel of food said EAT ME, the pasticciotto whispered it seductively in Italian. Oh, Madonna.
I had just one because I didn’t want to make a spectacle of myself in front of my friends and assorted locals. Had I had the ability to buy a bag full and rush to a private spot to inhale a half dozen or so while enjoying mini food orgasms, I’d have done that. They’re that good.
On a side note, as we plodded back to the car after exploring wondrous Lecce all day, we stopped in another bakery/café to use the facilities before heading home. In Italy, you are generally welcome to use the restrooms in a bar or café as long as you’re buying something to drink or eat, which seems fair enough. While waiting I thought it only made sense to try this place’s pasticciotto before leaving Lecce and my newly-beloved custard cutie, possibly (sob) forever.
Well, kudos to Katie, because she was absolutely right. I wish (kinda) I could say that I taste-tested every pasticciotto in Lecce, but in lieu of a fair, citywide sampling, I can attest at least to the fact that this particular little pie couldn’t hold a candle to Caffe L’intorno’s. The crust was thicker and the custard slightly gelatinous, in part, I’m sure, because it wasn’t warmed up. Maybe the shop owner (who was a bit cranky) thought since we were foreigners, we wouldn’t know any better. Ha. And harrumph.
The moral of the story is, go to Caffee L’intorno when you’re in Lecce (say lay-chay) and you won’t be disappointed. The cappuccino was fabuloso, too. In fact, why stop at the pasticciotto? The whole display case of pastries looked freaking amazing.
Until next time when I’ll tell you more about orecchiette, ciao!
*that’s Italian for Dairy Queen