We have always enjoyed delicious local favours in Southern Italy though continue to be amazed at just how easy it is to find wonderful local produce and restaurants serving delicious local flavours. Our last visit through Puglia, Basilicata and Campania was no exception and the variety and quality of the flavours amazed us again.
Having taken the ferry from Dubrovnik to Bari we journeyed south west across Italy through Puglia and Basilicata then turned north, along the coast, and through Campania. The scenery varies from barren to dramatic, lush to picturesque but what does not seem to falter is the fact that you can stop in any town along the way and you will find good food from amazing local produce with wonderful flavours.
We’ve travelled from Bari west before so we took a windy route through the hills in Puglia to see something new. Mile after mile we passed through valleys where every inch of the land was green with farmed crops and at the corner of many of these vast fields, abandoned, beautiful old farm buildings made redundant now by mechanised farming and large cooperatives.
First stop, desperate for coffee after our 6am start off the ferry, in what seemed like the middle of nowhere without a town or village in sight, we came across a tired looking roadside café with just a few builders’ and road workers’ trucks parked outside. As we opened the door we were hit by the most amazing smell – fresh baked bread and cooked tomatoes. Risorante Il Rifugio really was a wonderful refuge, behind the old bar wooden shelves were stacked with huge fresh rustic loaves, locally made Tartalli (savoury biscuits made with olive and white wine instead of butter), local jams and chutney as well as wines.
We resisted the massive, fresh-made, crusty panini filled with cured hams and mozzarella that the builders were enjoying but welcomed ourselves to Italy with classic espresso’s after buying provisions for later.
Next stop, lunch in Basilicata, the landscape around Potenza was a mix of farming and industry and predominantly modern building with not many places to eat. Finally at the edge of a modern but scruffy looking town a pizzeria hidden behind a shop selling mozzarella. We ventured in to find two uniformed policemen and a few people in smart business dress enjoying large plates of pasta. In our shorts and flip flops we too enjoyed wonderful pasta with fresh porcini mushroom and mozzarella sauce.
On to Campania where the road was lined with Buffalo farms many selling Mozzeralla direct. We chose one at random principally because it had Buffalo in the field next to the car park.
Behind an unassuming door in the farm’s immaculate courtyard we found the Caseificio (Creamery) where a queue of people with shopping baskets were busy placing their orders, the lady in a white apron disappeared into the creamery behind and emerged to pass over the counter various sized bags of water filled with various sizes of delicious looking white Mozzarella balls. When our turn came, we ordered Bocconcini, small mozzarellas about the size of eggs, and carried our prize away like a goldfish from the funfair.
Through another door a stylish, air-conditioned cafe hid where a couple of tourists in shorts and flip flops like us mingled with Italians in business dress evidently on lunch break. Though there were artisan breads and cakes filling the shelves, we were all after the same thing; ice-cream and yoghurt made from Buffalo milk. A worthy alternative to classic Italian ice-cream, not as rich but bursting with a fresh milk taste.
Now on to somewhere we know already, the Caseificio and Buffalo farm next to the ruins in Paestum where we know we can camp with our camper van for the night in their olive grove and taste some of their amazing local produce.
In the garden next to the shop we feasted on a 500 gram Mozzeralla, Bocconcini with prosciutto crudo and very simple but extremely tasty tomato salad (sliced, fresh plum tomatoes, sprinkled with rubbed oregano and drizzled in olive oil – all from the farm). Oh yes and a deep, ruby red Jungano wine from the farms vineyard, full of silky blackberry and vanilla flavours.
The next morning we watched the Mozzerlla and Bocconcini being made…
…before a run on Paestum beach in the hot morning sun, which was a memorable but rather painful experience due to our feast of wonderful wine and Mozzarella cheese.
We were late setting off to continue our journey and our bellies called lunch shortly after Naples. Leaving the motorway at Capua; our hearts sank as we entered what felt like no-mans land, a military town with scruffy industrial buildings on the outskirts. We trundled down street after street trying to see a glimpse of lunch, eventually we spotted a little sign over a door ‘Trattoria Antica’, it seemed our only option.
On tables by the bar a few people enjoyed plates of pasta as they watched The Simpsons on a small tv on the wall, a strange combination but the food looked good so we took a seat in the other room next to a few men who looked to be discussing business over their pasta. We listened discreetly but as we often find in southern Europe, their noise and gesticulation could have been arguing, agreeing but one thing we did understand was their enthusiasm about the food.
They downed their espresso and left us to our simple yet delicious food; freshly made pasta with wonderful ingredients expertly combined to make the sauces. My seafood pasta was piled high with mussels and clams with a tomato sauce that tasted like it had been infusing and simmering for days to get such an intense flavour and Adam’s simple sounding Spaghetti Pomodoro was perfectly seasoned and packed full of flavour.
Our schedule meant that we had little time left in Italy and after a long day on the road we chose the location for our last overnight camp, on the recommendation of friends who live in Rome, Sabaudia on the west coast just south of Rome. A little touristy, as our friends had warned, particularly near to the pristine sandy beach dotted with cool beach bars, beds and umbrellas but overall an intriguing and beautiful place.
Over leisurely morning coffee watching the sun rise over the lagoon, we recalled the amazing food we had had the day before and suggested it was almost inevitable that during the course of the day to come, we would have a similar experience in some unexpected place somewhere.
We walked back across the lagoon into the town itself, very sleepy on a Saturday close to the end of the summer season. In a street off the main square we came across an amazing delicatessen, packed to the rafters with an array of local produce and with tables outside suggesting we may find lunch there. It looked like the shop had been the same since the 1950’s, there wasn’t a menu, the lady simply told us all she had available that day which was pretty much anything you could possibly desire. A normal occurrence, it seemed, for several locals who nonchalantly took tables inside and sat chatting to each other or their dogs and reading newspapers until their delicious lunches arrived.
Sitting outside in the sunshine, we were treated to a huge plate of mixed cured meats, marinated, grilled vegetables and fresh crusty bread, simple and simply not reproducible in the UK.
After these days exploring Italy, punctuated by delicious, conversation-stopping, local produce our eyes, taste buds and bellies were completely satisfied and full (for now). We slept, one last night in Italy, dreaming of ruby red wines, the complex flavours of cured meats and melt in the mouth Mozzarellas.
We have travelled a lot in Italy and always we marvel at the unassuming ability to convert local produce into fantastic yet simple food with incredibly rich and distinct flavours. It all seems so natural and effortless, not food for special occasions, just food for every day.