Each platter of food that arrives at the table outdoes the one that came before. Ripe tomatoes dotted with capers. Grilled eggplant served with mint and vinegar. Crusty bread and golden oil pressed from olives that grew nearby. We’re digging into a midday feast at Alle Due Corti on a quiet street in Lecce, the main city in Salento, which itself is part of the Puglia region on the heel of Italy’s boot.
We’re brought bowls of pasta tossed with chickpeas simmered with onion, carrot, celery, and tomato. I twirl the tagliatelle and take another bite, incredulous that these simple ingredients can taste so good. It’s the magic of cucina de terra—food from the land. The dishes we’re devouring come from recipes that have been handed down in Salento for hundreds of years.
Most of the noodles with the chickpeas are prepared al dente, but some are lightly fried in olive oil to lend a chewier texture. Salento was traditionally very poor, and people couldn’t afford a lot of meat, so the chewier pasta was a sort of stand-in. The family-run restaurant is bringing back these traditional recipes—efforts that have been lauded by UNESCO, legions of food critics, and intrepid travellers Lili Okuyama and Robert Collins.
The two Vancouverites first came to Lecce years ago, promptly fell in love with the city of 100,000, and decided to start Espressino Travel to bring other people along on their favourite Salento adventures. They introduce us to espressino (a small cappuccino special to the region), take us for daily gelato breaks, and show us plenty of Lecce quirk.
That quirk starts with the gorgeous Piazza Sant’Oronzo in the centre of the city. Every day at noon, a recording of opera singer Tito Schipa fills the piazza for a few minutes in honour of the revered performer, who died in 1965. When the mini opera ends, Collins tells us that the statue of St Orontius, towering above us on his podium, has been turned exactly 180 degrees from where he was positioned a century ago. Back in 1901, crews were digging to build a foundation for a bank when they stumbled upon a First Century AD Roman amphitheatre. The bank had to dig elsewhere, but the city got ancient ruins to show off—and the saint got turned around so that he could look over the new piazza built in front of the amphitheatre.
Collins, originally from London, brings a dry humour to the tour; Okuyama, who speaks fluent Italian, takes care of the translating—people here don’t speak a lot of English. Walking along the narrow streets, Collins points to a phallic symbol on a window grate, signage from the brothel that was once inside. He shows us a chunk of Roman road and tells us that while it was being excavated, crews found a tunnel between a convent and the monastery across the street.
At the Jesuit Church, we hear about an old tax dodge. You had to pay when your building was finished, so the Jesuits (and plenty of others) left the exterior alcove empty of statues to claim the building was incomplete, and therefore avoid paying up. One statue that did make it on the church, a pelican on the top, lost its head to a bolt of lightning a few years ago—perhaps paying a different kind of tax.
Stories abound in Lecce, and we meet one of the best storytellers at Pizza & Co. As we feast on slices with fresh buffalo mozzarella and basil, proprietor Maurizio Ortona tells us how the Margherita pizza was born 200 years ago when Queen Margherita wanted to try tomatoes on the dough that peasants were eating. The cook jazzed it up with the cheese and basil. With Okuyama translating, and giggling, Ortona leads a pizza-making class and shares a few of his tricks: never buy diced tomatoes, don’t work the dough too hard, and, crushing a beloved stereotype, never throw that dough in the air.
In the evening, after another full day of eating, laughing, and exploring Lecce, we join hundreds of locals and a few street performers for the passeggiata. The walkabout is like a mobile meet-and-greet for residents—and also for those of us lucky enough to be visiting, and discovering that the simple things in life are simply better in Lecce.