I’ve been excited to get in touch with the culinary part of Italy, and in particular, where my family is from (have I mentioned I’ve been eating a lot here?). I decided to meet up with a local named Antonello for a day of experiencing authentic cuisine in this (overlooked) southern region of the boot shaped country.
We started the Sunday morning at a fish market on the outskirts of town. It was busy with a few dozen Italian men, lots of laughter, latina music playing in the background, and loads of freshly caught local fish – mussels, octopus, prawns, cuddlefish, and more. I was approached by a few smiley old men that said something sweet in Italian that I didn’t understand. But it didn’t matter. I liked it here. People were happy. The rhythm flowed here, as it did in the gentle bay outside the markets doors. Families were heading to the beach. A man was selling cactus fruit out of his trunk. Others had set up white tables to sell a few bushels of grapes. People were drinking cold beers and it was only 11 am. Antonello handed me a raw octopus and told me to rip the leg off and eat it, so I did. Doesn’t get much fresher than that!
The next stop was the bakery across the street (you may see a photo of me below with a huge smile – this is me while gazing away at the lot of freshly baked baguettes). Antonello asked if I’d like to get some cold beer and eat bread stuffed with cheese down by the sea(!). I really liked it here. We continued to an outdoor bar on the bay that was occupied by a dozen tanned Italian men who all seemed to be animated about something in discussion. Antonello explained to me that the mafia is still very much alive in these parts and that as a solo traveller, you really wouldn’t want to go to a place like this. Even for him, unless you know the people, you don’t go to the establishment. The cold beer and savory pastries were fantastic in the forever warm sunshine and azul water views.
We went back to his house, which was right down the street from the bay front. Disco music blasted as we walked up – his neighbor, apparently a DJ, did this daily. We passed through the garden of chickens and duck, and into the small kitchen to start cooking. Together we made a handful of seafood dishes with Italian names that I don’t remember, with ingredients like mussels, pasta, cheese, garlic, parsley, olive oil, tomatoes, and more. I cleaned and shucked the mussels – apparently something that anyone from Bari must know how to do. Antonello had prepared a dozen other dishes beforehand to accompany the main dishes which included – roasted tomatoes, eggplant saute, frittata, roasted peppers and olives, fava bean mash, grilled greens, tomato foccacia, roasted carrots.. which went with our mussel spaghetti, brined cuddle fish, mussel paella, mussel shooters, and baked octopus… It was more food than I’ve ever eaten in my life.
Our meal was held on his outdoor table with friends, and lasted (in good Italian taste) about 5 hours. We washed it down with red wine, then followed it with espresso and cigarettes, fruit and baked goods and more espresso and cigarettes. If there’s one thing that’s for sure, it is completely appropriate and encouraged to eat as much as you possibly can here. And that is exactly what i did.