Eating the Italian way

(image by ehpien on Flickr)

Thankfully, the train does indeed go to Lecce, as I have a lunch date to get to, with Tina, of Tina Tangos.  There’s only one thing better than eating delicious food, and that’s sharing it with someone who appreciates it just as much as, if not more than, you do.  I practically have to be rolled home later in the afternoon, dozy and replete. Just as well it’s a long walk from the centre of town to the train station in Lecce or I’d probably still be digesting now.

Lunch starts (as all good lunches *should*) with a glass of prosecco and various nibbles. There are salty peanuts and deliciously plump, juicy green olives. However, the best bit is the ever-present bowl of that Salentino speciality: tarallini. It’s impossible to eat just one of these delicious little savoury, crunchy biscuits. Tina and I dive straight in, wondering as we do so how they’re made. Are they baked or fried? They taste so light that I feel it must be the former but, as Tina points out, how can anything baked possibly taste so good? Excellent point: I pop a few more into my mouth and munch happily, feeling the sun warm on my face as I watch the Leccese people passing through Piazza Sant’Oronzo. Food, drink, conversation and human observation: my cup runneth over.

Tina has been given some restaurant recommendations by a friend of hers (a chef, no less), so, our appetites stimulated by the prosecco, we head off eagerly in search of food. Along the way we ooh and aah over the Leccese architecture. This is the first time I’ve seen Lecce in daylight, and it’s just as beautiful as at night, albeit in a different way. At night, the baroque buildings are floodlit in multiple pastel colours, but during the day there is only the sun to do that same job. On a bright spring day like today, the light bounces sharply off the reliefs of each pale stone. In contrast, deep shadows appear around the ornate carvings, emphasising even the tiniest details in a way that the softer lights at night just can’t. It is impossible not to feel at peace, surrounded by such beauty. Even the rush-hour lunchtime traffic can’t spoil it.

We try a few different side streets in search of an open restaurant. Strangely, given that it is about 1.30 on a Saturday, many of them are closed. Still, this is Italy: there will always be somewhere good to eat, even if it’s down an unexpected alley, and so it proves on this occasion. Turning a corner, we see an open door, and smell fresh fritto misto. Looking at the menu board outside, I see they have octopus: I’m sold. With almost indecent haste, I follow Tina inside and we sit ourselves down.

In a restaurant, sitting with the menu in front of me is always a time of agonising indecision. Everything looks good here and, were my stomach as big as my eyes, I would happily scarf it all down and probably ask for more. Sadly, my appetite is far more limited than my greed. Luckily, Tina is in just the same sort of quandary, and we decide that there must be sharing, in order to maximise courses and our food-tasting potential. We therefore agree on an appetiser of burrata, followed by a pasta dish each, and a shared bowl of fritto misto. Perfect.

I’ve never had burrata before, and am very excited by Tina’s description. Apparently, it’s a Puglian speciality: cheese, filled with cream. Oh. My. God. I’m in artery-clogging, diet-hating, dairy heaven. I am a girl who can and does happily eat clotted cream with a spoon, straight from the pot. And by clotted cream I mean the proper Cornish stuff, thick enough to stand a spoon in, and lusciously yellow in colour. Cheese – well, it’s disgustingly common for me to eat a large block of the stuff at one sitting, with nary a biscuit in sight. To slightly misquote Vizzini: never go up against a Westcountry girl when cheese is on the line. Clearly the Puglians are people after my own heart.

When the burrata arrives, it doesn’t disappoint. It looks innocuous enough: seemingly just a  lump of mozzarella (although, admittedly, fist-sized), surrounded with tomatoes and rocket. However, cutting into it reveals its sinful heart: cream oozes fatly onto the dish, spreading slowly out to combine with the juice from the tomatoes. Tina and I spoon it eagerly onto our plates, add a slick of yellowy-green olive oil and a little salt for good measure, and then scoop it into our mouths with sighs of happiness. This is what food should be all about: texture, taste, and utter, delicious enjoyment.

While we concentrate on the burrata, silence falls temporarily. However, it’s not long before conversation starts again. Appropriately for this kind of lunch, it mainly revolves around food, and different tastes. I’ve noticed since I came to Italy that my tastes have changed, and I have developed much more of a sweet tooth. Before I arrived I would have chosen cheese and savouries over chocolate any day, but I now find myself actively seeking out puddings, and spooning Nutella straight out of the jar. Don’t get me wrong: I still absolutely adore cheese, and could eat it forever, but to that love has been added the sweet side of the spectrum. Tina suggests that it’s maybe because Puglian food is quite salty, which is possible. However, I think it may also be to do with the fact that foods here aren’t as sweet as the UK. Or, rather, there is far less artificial sweetness. It’s honey rather than saccharine, with none of the bitter aspartame aftertaste, and therefore much more palatable.

We are interrupted in our musings by the arrival of our pasta dishes, both of which are just as delicious as the appetiser. I’ve gone for papardelle in a pork and wild boar sauce, while Tina has gone for strozzapreti with salmon and rocket. Strozzapreti translates as ‘priest strangler’, and we laughingly ponder on the reasons for the name. To me the pasta looks like little pieces of rope, so I suggest that could be the explanation. However, I’ve since found out that it’s because a priest actually choked himself to death on this particular pasta, while shovelling it down with a little too much enthusiasm.  Blimey.  Still, it certainly looks delicious and, if it tastes anywhere near as good as my papardelle, would be well worth dying for. I’m in seventh heaven.

Leaning back in our seats and taking a deep breath, we quail slightly at the thought of yet another course. Is it actually possible to fit any more food in? Apparently yes: as the fritto misto is placed in front of us, the batter gently crackling as it cools after being lifted, mere seconds ago, from the fryer, and giving off the most tantalising hot seafood smells, suddenly we both find a compartment of space left in our stomachs. The calamari is mouthwatering: tender but with a slight bounce and resistance to it, giving it substance. However, the best taste by far is the baby octopus. Covered in feather-light batter, with delicate grey tentacles and that delicious, slightly meaty yet still unmistakeably marine, taste to it, if I weren’t so full I could guzzle this forever. I am a very happy woman.

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About Kate Bailward

Kate Bailward is a cat-loving, trifle-hating, maniac driver. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+
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11 Responses to Eating the Italian way

  1. Frankie says:

    Oh. Wow. Am so glad it’s nearly dinner time, my mouth is watering overtime.
    I have wanted to come to Puglia for ages- I reckon that description of burrata is gonna give me the final push to book the train!
    P.s. Thanks for publishing the limonmcello recipe. My first lot went really well and in spreading the good news I somehow ended up promising most of my acquaintances a bottle, so my house has now turned into a veritable limoncello factory!

  2. Oh. my. word. I can’t wait to get to Italy for this wonderful food and these experiences of my own. I found you from a comment at My Bellavita and I am adding you to my own blogroll. Yummy post.

  3. Katja says:

    Well, when life gives you lemons, make – limoncello, clearly. ;) Far more exciting than plain ol’ lemonade. The arancello also turned out pretty well, by the way – I used the same quantities as for the limoncello – so if you have oranges as well, then that’s a goer.

    Do come to Puglia! If you make it down here before June then we should meet up and bond over sinful amounts of dairy and alcohol. Ahhh, great days …

  4. Katja says:

    Thanks for dropping by, Michelle. I’m still salivating at the thought of that burrata. Italy may have its faults, but food is definitely not one of them. I’m as happy as a sandboy, sampling all the different delicacies that this country has to offer. I’m also thoroughly enjoying making lots of stuff, including limoncello and ricotta. Nom nom nom! What’s your favourite Italian food (a) to cook and (b) to eat?

  5. Thanks for sharing this story, Katja! I heard you and Tina were planning on lunch and am happy to “read” that all went well. If ONLY there was a good strada between Calabria and Puglia!

  6. Katja says:

    I’ll definitely make it across in your direction at some point, Cherrye! Mike and I will plot our course and keep you and Michelle posted … :)

  7. CarrieLyn says:

    This all sounds fantastic! I’ve come to enjoy Trieste’s offerings but look forward to venturing south a bit farther (Rome’s been my limit so far this year) for a new menu.

  8. Katja says:

    If there’s one thing I love doing, it’s trying new foods. My only limitation at the moment is having the time to go out – I teach until 9pm and am absolutely knackered by that point – but I must do this kind of thing more. Come to Puglia and give me an excuse to go to a restaurant! ;)

  9. Tina says:

    It was very nice meeting you! I’m always happy to spend the afternoon with a fellow foodie. And I’ll surely have to come to Maglie next time. :-)
    .-= Tina´s last blog ..Rimani Come Sei =-.

  10. Katja says:

    Lovely to meet you too! Sadly, all there is in Maglie is a cafe and a town square – although it can lay claim to being the birthplace of Aldo Moro, and has a few statues to prove it. Riveting stuff … ;)

  11. Pingback: Puglia Travel: A Few of My Favorite Things Interview | My Bella Vita

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