Did you ever hear of the pasta grandmas of Bari Vecchia? Eating in Italy is always a magical and scrumptious experience, but the Bari food experience is without a doubt the best one I’ve had yet. Here’s why the little port city of Bari is well worth a visit.
(Even if, for now, it’s just a visit via a screen)
Off the beaten path Italy- the region of Puglia
Bari is the capital city of Puglia- a region right down in the very South of Italy, which occupies the ‘heel’ of the golden boot. And even though the weather here is pretty much consistently amazing, and the scenery is incredible, it’s somehow managed to stay under the radar when it comes to tourism. Puglia is definitely considered to be an off the beaten path location in Italy.
This region is famous for olive oil and trulli (the little round white houses which look vaguely Hobbiton-esque), and has more beaches than anywhere else in Italy, plus a whole load of magnificent dialects. Historically Puglia is quite a poor area; there are no grand Renaissance galleries and spectacular cathedrals like the cities of the North. Instead, it is filled to the brim with agricultural land, tiny villages and cave-houses. In fact, many people agree that Puglia is culturally pretty similar to parts of Greece.
Talking of off the beaten path: Check out this secret Corfiot village
So when it comes to eating in Bari, it goes without saying that the experience is rather different from elsewhere in Italy. Food in Puglia is rustic, traditional, and hearty. It’s also absolutely delicious.
Don’t get me wrong guys, there are some classy restaurants around (especially in Bari), but if you want a truly Puglian food experience: you need to visit a grandma.
The orecchiette ladies of Bari Vecchia
The day that I stepped into the pasta street in Bari was a truly brilliant day.
Via Arco Basso is the official street name, although unofficially it’s known as the Strada Delle Orecchiette. And it is MAGNIFICENT. Ladies sit in their doorways up and down the little alley, kneading pasta dough and expertly cutting, twisting and shaping it into rough and chunky orecchiette shapes. Orecchiette meaning, ‘little ears,’ which is pretty downright cute when ya think about it. The pasta shapes are left to dry in the sun in big wooden-framed trays, and then scooped into little plastic bags to sell to people passing by. All the while the orecchiette ladies gossip amongst themselves, the washing sways on the little lines between the houses and every now and then a moped buzzes its way down the alley.
Another place with a lot of washing swaying in the breeze: Trogir, the ‘Little Venice’ of Croatia
The orecchiette ladies of Bari are basically a bunch of living legends, superbly skilled at what they do. They also make taralli- which are very hard and addictive crackers made with olive oil, flour, salt and white wine. I ended up buying a bag of taralli to take back to the ship with me every single week because they made the ideal cabin snack.
Us English lads and lasses regularly dunk a biscuit into tea, but I’ve recently discovered that the Puglians are known for dipping taralli into wine, so I might try it next time I can get my hands on a bag. And if you want to try Bari food properly, the traditional way to serve orecchiette is with a sauce made from turnip tops. Which is a lot nicer than it sounds.
The best restaurant in Bari
Now guys, there are plenty of other far classier restaurants in Bari, but Maria delle Sgagliozze is a unique establishment which I would recommend to anyone and everyone .
We arrived outside the rather unassuming little doorway in the corner of a square at around midday, which is actually a pretty early time to be eating lunch in Italy. Locating the restaurant had been kind of tricky; Bari Vecchia isn’t particularly big, but it’s surprisingly easy to lose your bearings in the winding old alleyways. The September sunshine was STRONG, so we asked if we could sit inside…
…in what appeared to be a family dining room. There were some tables and chairs crammed into the little space, and a stack of pots and pans balanced in a corner. THIS is what life is all about.
At Maria delle Sgagliozze, there is no menu. You literally just sit down and a lady starts bringing you plates of food, one after the other, whilst chattering in Italian. Maria is the matriarch of the family, who stands out the front cooking all the meals underneath a massive sunshade. English isn’t widely spoken here (and why should it be?), so with each new plate of food the lovely daughter of the family gave a very detailed explanation in Italian of what we were about to tuck into. With our very limited language skills, my pals and I managed to piece together most of what she was saying, and occasionally even answer back- in actual broken Italian!!
For more amazing food and steps back in time: The magical town of Monemvasia, Greece
Amongst other things, we had traditional Puglian dishes like orecchiette (of course), riso patate e cozze (that’s rice with potatoes and mussels), pure di fave e cicorielle (fava bean puree with chicory), popizze (fried pizza dough), and sgagliozze- fried polenta. So basically, fried stuff is all the rage here- this is Italian comfort food at it’s finest. Maria is renowned for making the best sgagliozze in Bari- crispy, golden and delicious- and locals and tourists alike flock to the corner of the square every day to get their fried polenta fix for a few euros.
By the time we left, the atmosphere outside the restaurant had changed completely. No longer a sleepy back street, there was a cluster of people tucking into food and wine in the sunshine.
The Bari food experience doesn’t get much better than this.
What else to eat in Bari
First and foremost: raw fish. It turns out, eating uncooked fish isn’t just a Japanese thing; here in Bari they’ve been eating it fresh out of the ocean for donkeys’ years. Octopus, cuttlefish, sea urchins and other seafood are all sold by fishermen in the docks early each morning, and a lot of it will be eaten completely raw.
Secondly- Puglia has been called ‘the breadbasket of Italy’ thanks to the amount of durum wheat it produces, and as well as orecchiette, FOCACCIA is a big deal around here. The best place to eat focaccia in Bari Vecchia is undoubtedly Panificio Fiore– the smell coming out of this little bakery is incredible.
Whilst you’re not eating in Bari- keep wandering
Wandering around the streets of Bari Vecchia is like stepping back in time. Windows and doors are flung open, striped awning and net curtains hiding the cool dark interiors of the little houses. In early morning and late afternoon people sit outside their houses gossiping and watching the world go by. (Especially the grandmas, they love a good people-watching session). Somehow everything seems to be pastel coloured and beautiful, but still with the gritty sense of this being a genuine slice of Italian life.
On our last day docked in Bari, my pal took a picture of me strolling down a little alleyway of the old town, and a lady watching from a chair outside her doorway (in classic all-black Italian outfit) called out to us – “Bella! Bella!”
Well frankly, Italian grandmas are bella in my humble opinion. So I turned the camera on her and called out ‘Bella!’ in return.
Grandmas don’t just rule the Bari food scene, they rule full stop.
- Bari has a hugely important port, so many visitors arrive (or leave) here by ferry or cruise ship. There is also a fairly new airport close by, with an airport bus service connecting it to the city.
- The distance from Bari port to Bari Vecchia is approximately 5 minutes. To get to Bari Vecchia you literally just exit the port gates (no need to take a shuttle bus), cross over the road and you’ll be inside the winding alleyways.
- Outside of Bari Vecchia, the rest of the city centre is very modern. There are plenty of shops, restaurants and swankier place to stay. (But I am all about that old town life, soz)
- A lot of the family-run restaurants, cafes and bars in Bari Vecchia take cash only. It’s better to always carry some Euros on you so you don’t get caught out.
- Don’t be an arrogant English-speaker. Brush up on your basic Italian and be prepared to communicate mainly through gestures. (Let’s face it, ‘gestures’ is basically one other form of the Italian language anyway.)