(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.