Italy

Puglia: Masseria Torre Coccaro, Our Home Away from Home

As we pulled off the paved back road just off the sea onto the quiet dirt road per our TomTom instructions, we came upon two white stone pillars and a gate which opened to the gorgeous grounds of Masseria Torre Coccaro. We circled around the drive and into view came the pure white washed main house of the Masseria dripping with pinkish flowers and green vines. I knew we had picked the right place to call home for our week in Puglia!

Masseria are old fortified farmhouses of Puglia… many have been turned into bed and breakfasts or to five star hotels like this one. Torre Coccaro has so many fabulous offerings and amazing service that you could never leave to explore Puglia.

* Grounds: Gorgeous gardens and olive tree groves surround the property. We wandered around our first morning after breakfast and couldn’t believe all the secluded spots we discovered. The vegetable garden was alive with grape vines, fennel, almond trees, radishes, chicory, zucchini, artichokes and figs. A secret path leads you to the billiards room and event space. There’s ample outside seating areas constructed out of the white washed remains of the masseria. There’s even a beautiful little chapel off the main courtyard.

* Accommodations: Our superior room on the backside of main courtyard was Italian rustic country style. Our front porch terrace draped with pink beach roses was complete with lounge chairs and table where we spent many evenings with a rosé watching the sunset behind the broccoli field and olive trees. As you entered through our red wooden double doors, you came into another sitting area then the bedroom with crisp white bed linens and white linen canopy hanging overhead. The only noises we heard in the morning were birds chirping. There are 39 rooms and suites to chose from.

* Restaurants: Egnathia is the main restaurant where the amazing breakfast spread is served…fresh fruit table, meats and cheeses, long pastry table or order from the menu. The dinners are divine! We had three here for the food AND atmosphere… low lighting, candles, sitting outside looking out onto the white washed Masseria. The Cabana by the pool is the perfect setting for lunch as is the Coccaro Beach Club where we had lunch one day. Opening night of the beach club restaurant was during our stay… a big crowd was expected for an into the morning party.

* Spa: Ahhh! You’ll find this sanctuary through a small secret red door. You descend the steps into Aveda spa that’s been build into the rock for a relaxing treatment. I opted for Massagio Olio d’Oliva as it’s the ‘liquid gold’ of Puglia. And the olive oil used for the massage was from the trees on the property! Whether in your treatment room or enjoying the whirlpool tub after, you’ll feel like you’re in a secluded cave. I used the Turkish Hammam then fell asleep on the lounge bed by the whirlpool. If you’re so inclined, there’s also a nice gym surrounded by windows so you feel like you’re exercising outside.

* Beach & Pool: The pool is a great spot to laze away the day. It’s constructed to look almost like you’re on the beach with a ‘sand’ entrance and surrounded by a small pier. Or head to the beach (a 10 minute drive or shuttle ride away) and enjoy their Coccaro Beach Club. We spent half a day here but wish we had more time. Swim in the blue waters of the Salento sea and soak up the sun on one of their beach chairs.

The Masseria staff is extremely accommodating. They can arrange many activities to enjoy like tours of the local towns, cooking classes or horseback riding.

Yet with all that’s available, Masseria Torre Coccaro is quaint, quiet and other than the lovely people around you at the restaurant or pool, we felt like we had this gem all to ourselves!

Puglia Cuisine: Home of Orecchiette Pasta and Burrata Cheese

A cuisine born of peasants living seasonally off the land, Pugliese cuisine is rooted in olive oil, wheat and vegetables. Puglia produces more than 50% of Italy’s olive oil and it has been a thriving industry here for centuries, thus the huge olive trees and there are 50 million of them! Durum wheat grown here is used to make 80% of Italy’s pasta as well as the region’s famous bread. And with two coasts, local seafood is a huge staple of the cuisine. So needless to say, La cucina pave, or poor man’s food as it’s called, is one of the highlights of your time here.

While the land is arid, it’s very alive. There are olives, fruits, vegetables and grapes growing everywhere, like no other region I’ve ever seen. Just across the stone wall from our suite at the masseria was a huge field sprouting with broccoli surrounded by giant olive trees. The air had a nice scent of fresh broccoli (not cooked 😉 ). The masseria’s huge garden was an abundance of artichokes, chicory, fennel, figs, almonds, radishes and early buds of grapes.

Pranzo, or lunch, is the heartiest meal of the day and what most locals keep sacred (thus town shops closing from 1-4pm daily). Cena, dinner, is more simple. On our visit we typically reversed it although most days we had three full meals… couldn’t turn down the masseria’s amazing fresh local breakfast.

In Pugliese cuisine, you’ll find…

* Olives: Whether it’s the olive or the oil, most meals start with this. Most abundant are the green Cerignola olives. The olive oil is all extra virgin and because of the above point it’s often referred to as ‘liquid gold.’ Best regions for olive oil, all with DOP grading (denomination d’ origin protetta), are the Salento around Lecce, Fasano and around Brindisi.

* Fruits and Vegetables: Tomatoes are another staple here but that’s just the beginning. Eggplant and zucchini… deliciously fried up for antipasta or grilled in pastas. We started every meal with sopratavola, raw vegetables usually including fennel, chicory, carrots and cocomeri (a tiny mild cucumber). In earlier times sporatavola was eaten after a meal as the peasants couldn’t afford fruit. Cicorie, wild chicory, was a new one for me and is used in abundance especially cooked up in the local specialty purea di fave, fava bean puree (fava beans cooked up with olive oil and chicory until its a deep green). Legumes, like fava bean and ceci (chickpea), you’ll also find as a staple. Fruits like cherries, grapes and figs were in season during our visit. Later in the summer add pomegranates, watermelon, melons, peaches, strawberries and raspberries.

* Pasta: THE famous pasta from this region is orecchiette meaning ‘little ears’ often served simply delicious with oven-roasted tomatoes, olive oil and garlic. We also had a yummy trofiette pasta with fava bean puree, crispy artichoke leaves and baby shrimps.

* Bread: Made from the local durum wheat, the typical loaf is a hearty bread with a crunchy crust and chewy inside. Perfect for soaking up your pasta’s sauce, or fare scarpett (‘to make a little shoe’) as they say in Italian. My FAVORITE bread is the taralli, little baked dough knots like an Italian pretzel made of simply wheat flour, olive oil and white wine. We had them with sopratavola before almost every meal.

* Cheese: The specialty here is the fresh and creamy kind…burrata. A type of mozzarella (which is originally from here too) it’s a little round of stretched curd cheese filled with cream. When you cut it open, the creamy cheese just oozes out. Yum!

* Seafood: Mussels, octopus and prawns everywhere. Mussels make the very popular and traditional Pugliese dish riso cozze e patate (rice, mussels and potatoes) baked in the oven (also known as taieddha in Lecce where zucchini is added). One night at the masseria we had a delicious local Adriatic Codfish with spicy cherry tomatoes and eggplant. One lunch was a simple salad of shrimp, avocado and cherry tomatoes.

* Meats: While not a staple, you will find it on menus. We had a fabulous pork tenderloin stuffed with sundried tomatoes and glazed with a Primitivo wine sauce at the masseria. One night in Ostuni at Casa San Giacomo, we had orechiette al argue mist e braciola, pasta with a mouthwatering sauce made of pounded thin beef rolled with cheese and herbs. And if you’re interested, or want to avoid it like I did, you will find horse meat on the menus here, cavallo in Italian.

* Pastries: Flaky pastries in savory or sweet. THE best we’ve ever had was the Rustica at La Rusticana in Lecce. This local specialty is a flaky pastry shaped like a cinnamon roll filled with mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and a little béchamel sauce. Yum!! For sweet, try zeppelin and sporcamusi, both phyllo type pastries filled with custard, or cassatina, a yummy spongecake.

Squisito!! I made notes on all our meals and pictures so I could write for hours. But now on to the Pugliese wine to accompany this amazing food!

Puglia: Exploring the Unique Towns, Part 2

After a few days lounging by the pool and beach at Masseria Torre Coccaro and touring towns of Valle d’Itria, we drove south to explore the splendors of the Salento region, often considered the third island of Italy because it’s very hot, dry and lined with beaches.

Lecce

Our first stop was the capital of the Salento region sitting in the middle of Italy’s boot heel. Known as the ‘Florence of the south’ for its spectacular of baroque architecture, Lecce is a gem to visit and I was looking forward to it as I love Florence.

When you enter the Old Town, you can immediately see the similarities with Florence. Great news is you can explore the treasures of this small town’s Centro Storico (historic center) in just a few hours. We parked just outside the Old Town next to the Lecce’s Castello, 16th century Norman Castle, and entered at the famous Piazza Sant’Otranto, the town’s main bustling area.

Here sits the remains of a 2nd century 15,000 seat Anfiteatro discovered in a 1930 excavation. Only half of the Roman Amphitheatre can be seen today but is quite a ‘welcome’ to town. Standing over the amphitheater is the Colonna di Sant’Oronzo, a 115-foot tall column, dedicated to the city’s patron Saint Oronzo, said to have cleansed the region of a plague in the 17th century. This very column was one of two that marked the end of the Appian Way in Brindisi. Also in the Piazza you see your first of the town’s forty churches.

The most well known of the churches and THE baroque spectacular is Basilica di Santa Croce. Built in the 15th century, it took a team of craftsmen lead by the town’s famous Giuseppe Zimbalo over 100 years to ornament the church with gobs of baroque sculptures finishing in the 17th century. Baroque architecture exploded in the region from the 17th to 18th century as a celebration to the end of the Turkish invasion and saving of the Roman Catholic faith. The stone figures adorning Santa Croce, and structures throughout town, are made from the local stone, pieta leccese, soft and easy to sculpt. Lean up against the wall across from the Basilica and take in the intricate details of saints, angels, animals, fruit and flowers.

Via Vittorio Emanuele is the main street running through Old Town. Walking from Piazza Sant’Otranto you’ll come upon Piazza Duomo mid-way then at the other end stands one of the gorgeous three remaining old entry gates to the town. Also along Vittorio Emanuele you’ll find lots if shops, cafes and bakeries. There are many chances to pick up the town’s famous papier-mâché figurines. We LOVED La Rusticana (Via Vittorio Emanuele, 31) that while doesn’t look like much has incredible pastries like the Rustica, the yummiest flaky pastry shaped like a cinnamon roll filled with mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and a little béchamel sauce. YUM! There’s also a cool enoteca / bookstore / restaurant, Liberrima, which is worth the visit.

One of the town’s best restaurants is Alle Due Corti (1 Corte die Giugni) specializing in traditional pugliese cuisine like  La Taieddha (layered potatoes, rice and mussels baked). The very well known and well regarded cooking school, Awaiting Table, is also located in Lecce.

Note the shops bolt up from approximately one to four in the afternoon. So we headed out after our light lunch from La Rusticana.

Gallipoli

From Lecce we drove east to the Ionian Coast then south down the local roads along the gorgeous beaches in route to Gallipoli. We stopped along the way in Santa Caterina‘s square for an espresso and aperitif. This cute little village on the sea is very popular for divers who want to explore the many rock caves in the area.

Greek influence in strong in the Salento region… you’ll find towns named Calimera, meaning ‘good morning’ in Greek, and Gallipoli, from Greek Kale polis meaning ‘beautiful city.’ And beautiful it is.

This old traditional fishing village was once a small island and one of the richest towns in Salento. Fought over for its riches developed in the 16th and 17th century… fishing industry and olive oil (exported to light the streets of most European capital cities).

We entered at the harbor just outside the town walls with the later afternoon sun beating down on the colorful boats parked around the castle entrance. Passing the fish market we made our way up into the Old Town to Corso Roma, the town’s main street.  There are fourteen churches in this tiny town. We strolled the streets and ramparts then sat down on bar stools at La Spingula wine bar for a few glasses of local Rosato enjoying the sun and views of fishing boats on teh water coming in with their day’s catch. Ready for dinner we made our way around to Trattoria Scoglio delle Sirene (Riviera N. Sauro, 83) for the town’s specialty seafood cooked up with fresh local pastas as we watched the sunset into the Ionian Sea.

 

A perfect end to our tour of Puglia’s unique towns…Alberobello, Ostuni, Locorotondo, Lecce and Gallipoli!

Puglia: Exploring the Unique Towns, Part 1

The Valle d’Itria‘s (Itria Valley) rolling green landscape chalked full of fairytale-like trulli and pergola style vineyards is home to three of the unique towns we visited this trip.

Alberobello

The trulli capital is what captured my attention many years ago on the cover of Italia! Magazine and drew me to Puglia. As you walk the Zona dei Trulli, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you’re surrounded by over 1,000 of these mysterious structures.

The limestone buildings date back to the Middle Ages and served as peasant homes. The conical roof which makes them famous is made of grey stones called chiancarelle. With few windows and a round base, they stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The name Trulli comes from the Greek word ‘tholos’ which means dome although Trullo, the singular version of the word, means silly in Italian. :)  You’ll see many roofs painted with symbols which is said to keep evil spirits away.

While the town is quite touristic with lots of souvenir shops, it gives you access to the inside of many trulli. Our favorite shop was Matarrese (Via Monte Pertica, 9) where we picked up some fabulous handmade linen towels, table runner and bread bag from the friendly owner Claudia Caporaso.

If you want to linger longer, grab dinner in a trulli at the Il Trullo d’Oro restaurant (Via Cavallotti 27) or rent your own for a stay at Trullidea.

Ostuni

As you approach Ostuni through the valley’s flat farmland, you see the breathtaking ‘white city’ sitting atop the hill in the distance. Find a spot for your car then make the short walk up to the Old Town dotted with churches including a 15th-century cathedral.

Called the ‘white city’ because of its white washed architecture, you feel like you’re in a Greek island as you meander through the town lanes busy with locals enjoying gelato or an aperitif at a local bar. Especially beautiful at sunset, we got to town in time for a great walk around and sunset views of the sea from the city’s limestone walls. We popped into one of the ‘direct from producer’ shops to pick up the region’s best olive oil, DOC Collina di Brindisi, which is delicious!

Thirsty, we stopped for a cocktail and people watching at Parisi Café (Via Cattedrale). Then stumbled onto a cute new restaurant, Casa San Giacomo (Via Bixio Continelli, 4), down a few stairs in a grotto with amazing local food and wine! We had the most delicious Incapriata di cicoria e purea di fave alla moda Ostunese, their local staple of fava bean puree with local chicory, and Orechiette al ragu misto e braciola, ‘little ear’ pasta which is THE local pasta shape with a mouthwatering sauce of pounded thin beef rolled with cheese and herbs). Squisito!!

Ostuni’s Old Town is full of restaurants and has one of the region’s best passeggiata, evening stroll. Parisi Café is also lively spot after dinner to cap off your evening in the ‘white city.’

More to come…Locorotondo, Lecce and Gallipoli, plus Puglia’s wine and cuisine!

Puglia: Exploring the Heel of Italy’s Boot

Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, first captured my attention several years ago when I saw pictures of Alberobellos fairytale-like trulli, white houses with conical roofs, on the cover of Italia! Magazine. Not only is it Italy, it has sun, beach, culture, cuisine, wine and spa, making it the perfect vacation spot in my book. After Our Big Fun Italian Wedding in Positano, we headed east across the country for our honeymoon in this relatively undiscovered region of Italy.

As we drove across, we zigzagged through the valleys of the Basilicata region’s mountains. Rolling hills then gave way to the arid landscape of Puglia and we were greeted by the land of olive trees. I’ve never seen olive groves like this before… forests of them and the olive trees were HUGE, many dating back thousands of years. The sides of the road were dotted red with poppies growing wild and in between lots of prickly pear cactus.

Puglia is a region of rural farming and as the land between two seas, the Ionian to the west and Adriatic to the east, its lined with coasts of beaches and cliffs. Its history dates back 8,000 years. The first settlers of note were the Greeks who settled here in 750BC…their influence can be seen across the region. At times you feel like you’re in small Greek villages. The Romans built the Apian Way in 190BC running from Brindisi (one of the two big ‘cities’ of the region) to Rome making Puglia the gateway to the East. Today Brindisi still serves a major ferry terminal to Greece.

With a week in Puglia, we barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer. We spent all of our time in two areas: the Valle d’Itria which is heart of the Murgia region (south of Bari, the region’s capital and other big ‘city’) full of rolling green hills full of olive groves, vineyards and orchards; and the Salento, the even hotter and dryer region with some of Italy’s best beaches and the country’s most southern point, Santa Maria de Leuca. Our home base was the fabulous Masseria Torre Coccaro in Savelletri di Fasano (north of Brindisi) with mostly Italians and a few British mixed in (we only came across one American couple the whole week of our travels).

The highlights of our trip…

* Towns: We made day trips to the top five on my list…Alberobello, Ostuni, Lecce, Gallipoli and Locorotondo. Each different and special in its own way. I’d love to spend weeks living in each one.

* Cuisine: The food in this area is one of the best I’ve had in Italy…steeped in their local pasta, bread, vegetables and seafood.

* Wine: Once only considered a producer of grapes for blending with other Italian region grapes, Puglia is now making fabulous wines. We tried many and found some favorites including a rosé.

I LOVE Puglia! The region is full of culture including historic ruins, music and local crafts like ceramics, papier mache and lacework. It’s also a great place for outdoor sports like hiking or camping in Garagano National Park, horseback riding in the Valle d’Itria and sailing, snorkeling and diving around the heel. And we stayed at a fabulous old restored masseria (fortified farmhouse), Masseria Torre Coccaro.

Puglia weather is the best in Italy… sun most of the year and very little rainfall. There are two airports, Brindisi and Bari, accessed via London, Milan and Paris mostly with a few flights (something that has kept it a hidden gem). We drove over from Positano then back to Rome to fly home (to Rome was four hours).

Looking forward to sharing more of Puglia with you over the next several posts and very much looking forward to my next visit!