I first came to Puglia many years ago when some friends invited me along for a week in the sun-drenched countryside. As a chef in search of myself—I was about to open Charlie Bird, my first restaurant in New York—I relished the opportunity to discover a list of new ingredients, culture, and identity. We ate and drank our way around the sleepy towns, gobbling up bowls of orecchiette with fresh ricotta, platters of ricci di mare, and figs plucked warm from the overgrown trees.
Today, my family and I return to Puglia every summer to continue our siege on Italy’s best seafood. It’s these taste memories of my time on the coast that inspire the menus at my restaurants, which have grown to include Pasquale Jones and Legacy Records. During these sweltering summer days, we meander about the country roads along the rugged coastline, in and out of small towns, forever in search of a cool glass of wine and piping-hot panzerotti. The backcountry paths yield roadside contadini selling their local melon-cucumber barattieri and succulent percoche, a type of peach. There’s just something magical about the steel-green color of the Puglian landscape, covered with 50 million gnarled olive trees and Martian-red clay soil.
When venturing out into the heel of Italy, a few things to remember. Fundamentally, Puglia is not Tuscany. Service can be rough around the edges at the seaside shacks, but the exceptional seafood is worth the plastic tables. Get out of the car. The best ingredients for Italy’s cucina povera are along the tiny back roads. Lace up the running shoes and gather wild fennel, lemons, figs, arugula, almonds, and plums on your way back from a jog along the ancient stone walls. Get up and go. No matter where you’re staying, the coffee will always be better in town. Order your espresso macchiato and warm cornetto integrale at the café and skip the complimentary cappuccino in the borgo. Go for a dive off the black volcanic rocks into the turquoise Adriatic and swim the grottos before lunch. Take a drive to a local caseficcio for the freshest and best burrata, mozzarella, and ricotta to eat on the spot. Remember that everything is made and often sold before pranzo, which is the biggest meal of the day, so plan your appetite before you blow off the afternoon lying in that gorgeous Puglian sunshine.
Da Tuccino, Polignano a Mare
The finest raw seafood the Adriatic has to offer. Make a reservation for a patio table and enjoy the crudi, a bowl of orecchiette, and one of the best wine lists in Puglia.
Il Bastione, Gallipoli
The move is a lunch of crudi, pasta, and a salt-baked fish at this restaurant perched on the top of the seawall. After that second bottle of wine, take the ancient stairs down to the water and go for a naked dip.
Il Principe del Mare, Fasano
Italy’s version of the lobster-roll shack. They open 1,000 sea urchins per day in season, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. Order 25 to start, followed by the spaghetti al ricci di mare. Doctor it up with lemon and sea salt.
Al Gatto Rosso, Taranto
Taranto is a great place to stop as you drive south from Puglia toward Basilicata, Calabria, and Sicily. This trattoria near the port has a tightly edited list of spectacular wines, and serves dishes made from top-notch ingredients.
RistorantE Lo Scalo, Marina di Novaglie
If ever there was a reason to splurge on a boat, the exceptional swimming spot Santa Maria di Leuca should be to blame. Ask the captain to take you to the grottoes, and arrive as early as possible so there’s still room to drop anchor in this picturesque cove. We tend to dive off the boat and cool off before gorging ourselves with pesce all’acqua pazza and a crisp white wine.
The Fish Markets in Bari, Savelletri, and Gallipoli
Buy the freshest catch in the morning or go in the evening for a plate of crudi and cheap wine. Great people-watching and photography.
Oleificio De Carlo, Bitritto
Puglia produces almost half of Italy’s precious golden olive oil. In my opinion, the best Puglia has to offer is located near Bari, where the De Carlo family has been making oil since 1600. Private tours are only available to those of us in the trade, but don’t discount the local shops—the De Carlo’s bottles are often found on their shelves.
Panificio Al Vecchio Forno dei fratelli d’aversa, Cisternino
A family-run bakery with delicious focaccia with a secret panzerotti. Every afternoon at about four, the father quickly fries the bread dough after stuffing it with tomato and mozz. The line is real, and there isn’t enough for everyone, so be prompt.
Caseificio LaCarbonara DONATO, Ostuni
Simply put, the best ricotta and burrata is best enjoyed a few hours after it’s made. When you’re visiting the White City, stop in for a bite and watch the guys at work.
Cremeria History VIGNOLA, Cisternino
A great café perched on the back wall of the town where this local family runs a bakery and gelato cremeria. A good place to grab an outside table and have a coffee or spirits while eavesdropping on spirited discussions about local politics.
The original location of this storied bakery is one of the finest cafés in all of Italy. It opened here in the tiny town of Specchia in 1927 and has grown to a mini-chain, but the quality is remarkable. Head to the back of the shop and wait for the freshest pastries to come out of the oven. This is the spot to finally order that cappuccino and devour plates of perfect cornetti.
Ryan Hardy is a chef and co-owner of Delicious Hospitality Group, which includes the restaurants Charlie Bird, Legacy Records, and Pasquale Jones