Past blazing crops, industrial zones, olive groves, carefully tended Negromaro vineyards, picturesque sunsets and outside of the province of Lecce I arrived in Martina Franca in “Trulli Country”, Puglia. Martina Franca is best known for its Trulli houses (above) and its abundance of Macelleria/Salumeria’s, otherwise known as MEAT. Upon arriving I counted approximately 2 per street, 46 in total. I also saw woman selling Salumi out of the back of their houses!! Every time a town is specific for one thing and is in no close proximity to a larger residential community I cant help but wonder who is eating the product, locally. The answer is unimportant, I was anxiously anticipating a better understanding of the Puglian diet, now securely north and inland, away from the Beach towns I have become accustomed.
Unfortunately the highlight of my night (not including the food!) was never properly documented with a photo. As I crept into the white walled Old Town I was greeted by a woman, not more than 3 feet tall; characteristically Italian and from another era (likely 60 years my senior). She shooed me away from her property with a hint of cheekiness, not believing I was American (not the first time, weirdly). When I asked for a picture of her she told me to simply, “Fuck off” and to "return when I was drunk from my meal", lol (clearly the reason I ended up on her doorstep). She was a gem and perhaps didn’t know the localized fame I could bring her in beloved Brooklyn. Still, she directed me towards my culinary destination. Ciacco.
Ciacco’s façade was like a food fairytale. Housed in a steep 3 story house, with holy intricacies; pale pinks and oranges matched the sullen and distant mood. It has only 10 tables (all reserved), a roof terrace and a dumbwaiter. Its charm was dizzying and the front of house woman was equally stunning; bronzed and demure in a little conservative dress, she peeked down the steep stairs to greet me. Ahh, the man from Lecce “come on in”. And so I ate, beautifully…
The Antipasti Casa is one of the most important elements of a trip to Puglia. Every course that follows is almost a favor to the chef; it is an unspoken truth that the Antipasti will 9 times out of 10, fill you up! It is a medium which allows chefs to experiment, show off and play with presentation with respect to their locale. Let’s dance…
Polpettine of mixed meats
Lardon on a pita-like, olive oil drenched foccacia
Capicollo, served atop figs
Mozzarella di Fior di latte with Arugula and Pomodorini
A clay pot baked, mixed herb Omelet
A salivatingly superb pizza rustica of practically candied Onions with Capers, Oilives, Tomatoes etc
And then folks there was Eggplant; Eggplant so distinctly perfect my words cannot express. There was no taste of salt or rich olive oil, simply a moist cushion of pure unadulterated Eggplant. I have never/will never experience this taste again. I frantically tried to discern their approach, and even later when I talked with the chef, I knew the secret was not out. We shared a long smile; so much said with so few words. She knew she got me and I think I might have made her night. She certainly made mine…
Next were two primi’s, Handmade spaghetti with long beans, shaved Ricotta and fresh Ricotta, the other a tartino of Bulghar Wheat (?) and Ricotta Forte; a rich parmesan like tangy surprise. Both were exquisite; grand and savory.
A selection of Roasted meats followed. Sausage, involtini’s and chops of Pork, Lamb, Veal…and (?). Each distinct, charred with a perfect brown hued sizzle. Although rich, the differing textures and processes were apparent with each carnivorous bite. This is a dish that I have generally avoided. It is rarely served with any vegetables and I find its intrinsic solo-ness to be a gastronomic deterrent to what I like about food; variation. Here, after so many wondrous treats which preceded, it navigated my mouth with a rich local punch.
Coffee followed in beautifully ornate espresso cups.
I retraced my steps to find the old woman. She was nowhere to be found, but her memory crept into my dreams later that night. Her brazen energy greeted me into the soft arms of her offspring; the food of Martina Franca.