The Old City of Bari is full of narrow alleys and hidden streets surrounding small piazzas. The basilica, dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Christmas fame, dominates the skyline. However it is not the sites I have come to see because hidden away in the heart this warren of passages and alleys is some of the best food you can eat in the province of Bari.
Our tour began in Piazza Mercantile or Market Square. Close to the port it was here that the produce the merchants and fishermen brought into the harbour were sold. Now it is the place to gather and is surrounded by bars and restaurants. It was not the place for us to start eating though as that was to be deeper in the Old City of Bari on a street called Strada Palazzo del Citia.
Tucked away and barely noticeable was the Fiore Panifiocio where the best focaccia barese is made and sold. Made from a simple mix of flour, yeast and salt focaccia is produced in wood fired ovens. The dough is topped with olive oil, tomatoes, salt, olives and oregano. Beautifully soft on the inside and crisp on the outside the finished focaccia was sliced like a pizza and handed in a paper wrap to be eaten during the passaggiata or evening stroll. Not only was the bread fresh but so were the olives and tomatoes on top.
The bakery building is old, very old. There are Byzantine columns holding up the arched ceiling with object d’art of the same era displayed casually on stone niches in the walls. It is unlikely it has been a bakery for that length of time but it demonstrates that the Old city of Bari is a lived in, worked in city. The bakery has an enviable reputation as selling the best focaccia barese. Fiore Panifiocio is the place where all the locals go which is always a good indication of quality.
There was so much taste; the tang of the tomatoes, the picancy of the olive oil and the rustic, fresh baked taste of the focaccia bringing joy to the taste buds. This was the taste of Italy and as I was to find out it was also the taste of Puglia.
Wandering down the street eating a slice of focaccia we headed to our next course.
After a brief visit to Basilica St Nicholas we arrived at Antica Salumeria. This is an alimentari, an old style grocers selling cold meats, cheeses and dried products along with olive oil, wines and preserves. Antica Salumeria had been in the same family for four generations and is an Bari institution.
We were here to taste a selection of Puglian cheeses from ricotta, mozzarella (made with sheep’s milk) and stracciatella. The latter is a shredded mozarella with cream hence the name which comes from the Italian verb “to tear” or “to shred”. There were also matured cheeses including a lightly smoked cheese and matured mozzarella. The cheeses were accompanied with crostini and taralli – small rings of baked bread dough.
Being a fan of cheeses of all kinds it was hard to drag myself away for the next course. However, as it was to include pasta, which I am also very fond of, I made the effort.
In Bari there is a street where ladies make and sell the local pasta. It is made from durum wheat semolina and small pieces of the dough dragged with a knife and flipped over using the thumb. The result is a small circle of pasta with a depression that looks like a small ear. It is this shape that gives it the name orecchiette – “little ears”. The old ladies make and serve the pasta on the street outside their homes. True home cooking on the streets of Bari.
We stopped at Carmella’s place in one corner of Piazza lago del Albicocca just off the street of the same name. Already her hands were moving back and forth in a blur of motion as she dragged tiny pieces of pasta across the wooden table and tossed them to one side, each shaped like a little ear. Soon these were tossed in to a pan of boiling water.
She then turned her attention to the sgagliozze. These are little squares of cornmeal (similar to polenta which is used in northern Italy to make the sgagliozze) deep fried in oil before being sprinkled with salt. These are very definitely finger foods and a very tasty snack.You can often see people walking along eating them out of a wrap of brown paper during the evening stroll or passeggiata.
Once the orecchiette was cooked it was added to the sauce. Typically, on the streets of Bari, the sauce is olive oil, tomatoes, a little chilli a few anchovies and some cime de rapa. In just a few minutes we were served a plate of Bari’s traditional orecchiette alle cime de rapa. Sweet and tangy with a hint of piquancy it fills the mouth with an explosion of flavours that in this day of processed foods the olfactory memory could well forget.
In my opinion no street food tour would be complete without indulging in a gelato. Gelato is an Italy-wide sweet treat and several places lay claim to inventing it. However, steering away from the standard chocolate, caramel and coffee you can experience the delights of Puglia by going for gelato with local ingredients. Martinucci, famous for their cakes and pastries as well as gelato, was our final stop.
They make gelato on their premises on Piazza Mercantile where everyone seems to want to start their passeggiata. Figs, almonds and sour cherries are all grown in abundance in Puglia so I chose to sample the ricotta and figs, amarena and mandorla flavours. Each in their own way was special and difficult to choose between them but the ricotta and figs was my favourite by the narrowest of margins.
All too soon the street food tour was at an end… actually it had taken us three hours and the evening was still young. Sampling the street food of Bari was our introduction to a longer foodie tour of several provinces of Puglia. There was a lot more to come and we were to meet many of the foods again as we toured the region. As we were to discover Puglia deserves the title “Bread Basket of Italy”.
I took a tour with Velo Service who are based in the Old City of Bari. The tour was taken on a “tricycle made for two” a kind of cyclo-rickshaw. Often these were the only wheeled vehicles able to negotiate the narrow streets and passages. It was a bespoke tour with a guide (who does all the pedalling) and lasts about three hours. Prices for a Prestige tour start at €40 per person. Contact: www.veloservice.org; firstname.lastname@example.org or call +39 0802 374 039
Declaration: I travelled as a guest of Pugliapromozione. However I value my editorial independence and write as I see things.