Orecchiette nelle ‘Nchiosce
Grottaglie is, for most of the year, a sleepy little town. The centro storico (historic center) is practically abandoned. You will find a scatter of bars, and maybe a few shops, but not a whole lot. It is a shame because it is beautiful, and these are the parts of Italy, especially Southern Italy, that need to be polished and treated like the jewels that they are. The reality is that the more modern portions of these towns are depressing, even if they are teaming with a little more vita.
For two nights in August the centro storico comes alive. Grottaglie puts on a sagra, or food festival for Puglia’s most famous fresh pasta, le orecchiette. The festival utilizes the maze-like centro storico in a wonderful way, leading you through streets that you had never seen before, turning the corner to find another treat of orecchiette or another glass of wine. Chefs from all over Puglia come to show their talents with different recipes, and vineyards from the region come to offer their wine. With your food and wine tickets, you receive a small ceramic plate made by one of the local artisans, a wine glass, a little holder for the glass that you put around your neck and a guide with a map of all of the kiosks and a blurb on the chefs and their recipes. It becomes something of a scavenger hunt, hunting for the stand with the orecchiette that you have your eye on from the map.
Between the two of us, we tried almost all 10 of the pastas, sweating and standing in long lines. Some of them were mediocre, but a few of them really stood out. The one that I sought out was from a restaurant called Bakè, from Torre dell’Orso in the Lecce province. The chef, Giuseppe Lolli, has invented this enormous pan, suspended over the flames and cooks the pasta in all of the ingredients, as opposed to cooking it separately in boiling water. He proposed orecchiette with mirto (myrtle leaves) and truffles from Salento, Southern Puglia. Outstanding.
We had the good fortune to watch the entire process, with sweat dripping down every part of my body, I watched this process with great enthusiasm, it wasn’t cooking, it was a performance. They started with a “drizzle” of olive oil, probably about a liter. Added some truffle shavings, salt and pepper to that and then a few liters of water. While bringing the water to a boil over the propane flame, he added a few branches of fresh myrtle leaves. Once the water was boiling he added the orecchiette and shook the pan for the time it took for the orecchiette to cook. When the orecchiette was al dente he turned off the flame and added more truffle shavings and grated grana padana cheese where more truffle shavings had been added.
We will have to take a day trip to Torre dell’Orso one day and visit his restaurant. If it was that good in those conditions, feeding the hoards on a hot night, I can only imagine how good it will be in the cushiness of a restaurant.
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