Foreign Correspondence: Consider The Pasta Of Puglia, The Heel Of Italy

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Viktorija Todorovska, 40, was born in the former Yugoslavia and lives in Chicago. She has traveled extensively in Italy over the past 20 years and attended culinary schools there. More rece ntly, she spent time in Puglia — the "heel" of Italy. Her book, "The Puglian Cookbook: Bringing the Flavors of Puglia Home" ($20; Agate Surrey), was published in May.

Q: Puglian cuisine — what's the attraction?

A: The first time I was there, I was amazed by beauty of the region, and kindness of people, and how much their cooking differs. I'd only been in Rome and northern Italy. The main differenc e is that while it's bursting with flavor, it's lighter than any cuisine I'd experienced. It's all done with extra virgin olive oil. Puglia is the largest producer of olive oil in Italy. Because it was a poor region for such a long time, all local ingredients are used, and done with local extra virgin olive oil.

Puglia grows a lot of green vegetables and beans; those ingredients find their way into the vast majority of dishes. They use a lot of fava beans and chickpeas — in soups, in pastas sometim es — instead of meat for protein. They also use slightly bitter green vegetables: They eat chicory and broccoli rabe, which they call "rapini."

In Puglia, like elsewhere in Italy, every city has an array of new dishes you may not have seen in a city 20 miles away.

Q: Are Puglian dishes commonly found in the U.S.?

A: Most traditional Italian restaurants in the United States favor northern Italian cuisine. There are a couple things people would recognize, but always with a twist. Consider pasta: In Pu glia, it takes on a different taste because they add anchovies or capers for salinity or extra flavor.

Q: Puglia is across the Adriatic from Greece and had Greek colonies in ancient times. Is there a Greek influence?

A: Not necessarily. The commonalities are olive oil and olives as a snack and in dishes. Olives have been growing in the area for millennia; Italians wouldn't recognize this as a Greek infl uence.

For meats, both Puglia and Greece rely heavily on lamb. Puglia has a long coastline, but because transportation of ingredients was difficult for so long, you find seafood only close to the sea. Inland, there's a rich shepherd culture. Most cheeses in Puglia — like pecorino — are from sheep.

Q: Area wines?

A: Puglia produces a fair amount. Puglia rose — they call it "rosato" — is popular. The primitivo grape is the ancestor of American zinfandel: Immigrants brought its predecessor to Californ ia. Another area grape is negroamaro. It's sometimes pure, sometimes mixed with other grapes to make food-friendly wine. One of the most famous negroamaro wines common in the United States is Salic e Salentino: It's very food-friendly and quite affordable; it retails in America for $9 to $13.

Q: What should tourists see?

A: There's Castel del Monte in central Puglia, built by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, that's very famous. It's octagonal-shaped. There are many legends about it.

The beaches are unavoidable, and are the most beautiful on Italy's Adriatic coast. Farther south, see old villages with dome-shaped dwellings built 15 or 16 centuries ago. They're called "t ruilli." The roofs were cone-shaped and made by simply stacking flat stones. Legend has it that this was done for tax purposes. People would find out when the king's men would be coming down to lev y taxes, and they'd take down the rock roofs. This would make the houses unfinished and therefore untaxable. When the tax collectors left, the people would rebuild their roofs.



"In Bari — the provincial capital — go to the old part of town ('Bari Vecchia'), where the dwellings are very small and women make pasta by hand in front of their houses the traditional way , with wooden boards. They make it all day and sell it to people and to restaurants, which are around every corner.

"Focaccia (bread) is one of the most famous things in Puglia — and it's a delicacy nobody should miss.

"Many restaurants in Bari are very good, though many have been modernized. My favorite place is Le Travi, one of the best traditional places in Bari Vecchia. A pasta meal there would be bet ween 5 and 8 euros ($7.28-$11.65); a meal with meat would be 8 to 12 ($11.65-$17.48)."

—Viktorija Todorovska