When I visited Puglia, the heel of Southern Italy I was charmed to say the least! Apulia as it is popularly known, is the largest coastline in Italy, flanked by the mighty Adriatic Sea on one side and the Ionian Sea on the other. The region is famous for its vegetables, fresh sea food (but naturally), its wonderful golden bread and olive oil. It is common to see olive trees nearly a thousand years old dot the countryside and nearly all its native population is at least, a third generation of olive oil extractors.
The air in Puglia is crisp and heady. Being an extended coastline this region has imbibed many influences from its neighbours and invaders over the centuries. It still has a lot of ancient Roman, Byzantine and Turk influences both in its architecture and food. I was surprised to see a great amount of Arabic influence in Bari (the largest town in Puglia) both in its spoken dialect and food. The region abounds with fresh sea urchins, mussels and a huge variety of fish thanks to its position in the Mediterranean, touched by the Adriatic sea in the north and Ionion sea in the south.
Dining at Ottimo at the ITC Gardenia, has always been a culinary eye-opener for me. Master chef Grecco Vittorio and I have developed a deep friendship over the years bonding over food tales and his sheer passion for presenting all the good memories of his Italian heritage (including his ‘MAMMA’S” recipes) and presenting them on a plate.
This time it was from the sunshine belt of Italy…Puglia.
We got straight down to business as soon as we stepped into the buzzing restaurant. Ordering a crisp glass of rich Merlot, I was excited to start my culinary journey..All those flavours that still lingered on my palate even after a year.
When he mentioned that the first course was Friselle with heirloom tomato, cucumber and onion With a drizzle of Puglian extra virgin olive oil, I nearly swooned!!
Friselli is a dried bread traditionally used by fishermen as their meal at sea.They often dip it into the salty sea water to soften it and then add their.various versions of condiments that are popular across Puglia.
Just to know that Chef Vittorio had made his own Friselli and dried it for a couple of days made me order the second non-vegetarian version too!. Friselli with salami piccante, (not to be confused with the mass produced pepperoni) and creamy buratta!
Our next course was the almost sublime Sea bass stuffed zucchini flowers lightly coated with a thin batter and served with a ‘secret sauce’. Delicate slivers of zucchini were tantalizingly wrapped around this ‘secret sauce’ on my plate and I went mad trying to decipher the complex beautiful flavours. But it pays when ‘the man’ is a friend and he revealed the secret ingredients…pickled zucchini and charred yellow bell pepper and oregano emulsion and the pure Puglian Olive oil! The oil used in the emulsion was the clincher!
I saw a lot of hand made pasta being made in Puglia, the most famous being the ear shaped Orecchiette. But I preferred their firm egg less pasta with a hint of semolina to give it its texture and lo and behold!That was exactly what was served as our next course but with a little ‘master chef’ twist by Vittorio…Braided pasta with zucchini and prawn!
Apparently chef Vittorio braided his pasta because it reminded him of his little sister who always had her hair in braids when they were growing up in Italy. But the ‘super chef’ did admit that the indentations made by the braids in the pasta, added a capacity to capture the sauce between the strands for added flavor!! This simple dish held unimaginable flavours for sure.
The Capunti pasta with lamb ragout with a a shaving of the beautiful ewe’s milk cheese, Pecorino, was simply out of this world!The young lamb ragout is left to simmer for over six hours and the meat had a ‘melt in your mouth’ quality! The Capunti pasta is made from an egg less dough with semolina to give it it’s signature texture. It is then made into a pasta on a special mat to give it the grooved pattern on the outside to help hold and absorb the flavour packed sauce better.
Lovely Puglia abounds with nut, olive and fig trees. Almost all the dishes have some element of the gorgeous sweet plump fig in it. So when Grecco brought out the simply gorgeous thin crust hand made pizza topped with honeyed caramelized figs, goat cheese and rocket, my cup runneth over with joy! Each mouthful gave way to a crisp pizza base, squishy caramelized figs, peppery rocket leaves and that fabulous goat cheese…Simply sublime!
If there is an Italian heaven…it must surely be Puglia.
The promotion is only on for a another week.There is no option but to go back for sure.