Your Best Food Memories Won’t Come From Restaurants in This Italian City
“Mangia, mangia!” (“Eat, eat!”) said Porzia Petrone, the nearly 90-year-old Italian woman I’d met an hour earlier. We were eating lunch in her home in Bari Vecchia, the historic center of Bari in the Puglia region of southern Italy.
Porzia’s daughter, Rosa, busily refreshed my plate with tuna-and-tomato bruschetta and fried cod, my glass with red wine from a plastic jug, and, later, my bowl with homemade stracciatella gelato and juicy plums. I could barely keep up with the family’s conversation in the unfamiliar Barese dialect, let alone focus on the constant influx of food.
Meanwhile, the granddaughter modeled her new sunglasses and the men asked me what beaches I’d visited in Puglia — everyone seemingly unfazed that a random foreigner was joining them for Tuesday lunch, apparently a common occurrence in Porzia’s house.
I met Porzia during a walking tour of Bari. She’s a fixture in the old town’s assortment of exuberant “pasta ladies” who spend their days making ear-shaped orecchiette at wooden tables in the narrow streets by their front doors. She’s passionate about passing on her pasta skills to younger generations. I liked her immediately and decided I would go back to her table after the tour. I’d buy her orecchiette, ask her what sauce to make, and put the dish together at my Airbnb.
My plan fell through when I found her street and saw through her open window that she was eating with her family. Before I could turn back, I heard, “Vieni, vieni, siediti.” (“Come, come, sit.”)
And so began my first meal in Bari. Though I didn’t manage to get invited to another hospitable nonna’s house during my trip, I was always able to find delicious, inexpensive meals without ever sitting down at a restaurant. In a city like Bari, that’s not hard to do.
If you visit Bari, you’ll often hear the streets of the old town referred to as the residents’ living rooms. The families of Bari Vecchia live in slender buildings, three or four stories tall, with one room on each floor. The homes, built close together in a winding maze of tight cobblestone streets, don’t get much sunlight, so the residents prefer to relax outside. That’s why a walk through Bari Vecchia — with windows and doors wide open, grandparents sitting on plastic chairs in the streets, and young people shout-chatting with neighbors and blasting music for all to hear — often feels like you’re inside someone’s house. (And why you should always smile and say “buongiorno” or “buonasera” to everyone you see).
As the day turns into night, the living room becomes one big house party. That’s the best time to eat.
A proper introduction to Barese street food starts with all things fried. In the old town, two women compete for the title of “best sgagliozze,” which are golden, deep-fried squares of polenta. Try Donna Carmela’s in Largo Albicocca and Maria’s on Strada del Carmine (they’re €1 for six pieces) and pick a favorite.
Near the San Sabino church, Rosticceria Dirello fries panzerotti, calzone-like crescents stuffed with anything you like, to order. You can eat them standing, grease dripping down your forearms while soaking up the energy of Peroni-drinking locals as they smoke cigarettes and play cards.
The evening excitement extends all the way to the Lungomare, the path along the Adriatic Sea. People like to set up speakers, coolers, and bubbling pots of oil so they can listen to music, drink, and fry food as the sun sets. You’ll find sgagliozze, french fries, or, my favorite, popizze, which are little balls of fried bread dough, for sale here.
Then you’ll need something to soak up all that oil. At the butcher in Puglia, it’s common to buy not only meat to cook at home, but also a snack to eat on the spot. Old-school but still popular (and a favorite of Porzia’s) are braciole di cavallo, rolls of thinly sliced horse meat stuffed with cheese, parsley, and a little bit of pork fat. Beccheria on Strada Vallisa cooks their lean, slightly sweet braciole on the grill right behind their butcher case, which is also stocked with sausage, chicken, and other meats for sandwiches.
Mornings are quieter in Bari Vecchia but lively by the sea, where fishermen sell the day’s catch on and near the piers surrounding Teatro Margherita. Wake up early for a walk by the water, where you’ll see multi-generational fishing families reeling in red mullet, cleaning clams, and rather violently hurling octopus onto the dock to tenderize the meat. (You’re extra cool if you eat the octopus right there at the market without any salt or lemon to calm the brininess.)
During sea-urchin season from September through April, you can buy a plate of several spiky skeletons and scoop out the orange roe with bread. Or you can just stroll along the Lungomare and smile curiously at busy fishermen. That’s how I met Gino, who handed me a steady stream of raw mussels (their assertive oceany essence lingered in the back of my throat all morning) while telling me about his favorite seafood pasta.
If your accommodations allow, you could take some of that seafood home to cook yourself. In Puglia, which produces some of Italy’s best wine, olive oil, and produce in its brick-red, mineral-rich soil, staying in for dinner is actually a great idea. Use those skillfully-cleaned mussels to make the Barese staple riso, patate, e cozze (rice, potatoes, and mussels layered in a dish and baked), then supplement the meal with seasonal produce sold by small street vendors in the old town — maybe cime di rapa (a bitter green popular in Puglia) on the side and fresh figs for dessert.
Of course, the best thing to take home is a bag of just-shaped orecchiette. When it’s time to cook them, hopefully you’re armed with the wisdom of a pasta lady. Porzia’s advice to me? Tomato sauce (the simpler the better, just tomatoes and a little onion cooked for at least 20 minutes) with basil and salty-crumbly cacioricotta cheese. Subtle, understated, and not at all in your face. A definite contrast to the city she calls home.
Follow me on Instagram @caglecooks for more on Bari, Puglia, and life in Italy.