The southern Italian city of Bríndisi dazzles the palate with the best of the sea and the land. Exotic spices, meanwhile, reveal its proud and colourful past
Blessed with the Adriatic’s most accommodating natural harbour, Bríndisi has long seen the coming and going of the world’s ships – from ancient Greek triremes to snazzy modern yachts. In between, a million steamers and ferries have linked this southeastern tip of Italy to the wider world.
Costantinopoli, Indie, Egitto and Giappone - such destinations are neatly inscribed over dotted lines radiating out from Bríndisi’s port on 19th-century maps. No wonder then that the food in this lively and much underrated city shows a hint of the exotic. The world’s spices and culinary ideas have passed through so often that they’ve become part of the local tradition. Curried prawn risotto, anyone? Anchovies marinated with star anise and juniper? You’ll eat things in Bríndisi that you won’t find anywhere else in Italy.
And what fresh, flavoursome food it is. The sheltered harbour that brought the wider world to Bríndisi naturally also sees the arrival of superlative fish and seafood. Fishing boats of every size jostle amongst the ferries, battleships, and sleek pleasure-craft gliding in and out. They land their glistening catch on the harbourside cobblestones, where it’s quickly whisked away to local pescherie and ristoranti. Fish dominates Bríndisi’s restaurant menus, while domestic kitchens churn out pints of ciambotto (fish soup) and mounds of tiella – a dish of rice, mussels and potatoes whose similarity to paella (even in name) is a legacy of Spanish passers-through.
But just as much as the sharp, clean taste of the sea, the rustic taste of the land underpins Bríndisi’s cuisine. For all its bustle and prosperity, this is still a small city – with only 90,000 inhabitants – and it quickly melts at its edges into lush, fertile countryside. Some of Puglia’s most appealing rural landscapes surround Bríndisi, and the area boasts a high proportion of Puglia’s estimated 50 million olive trees, yielding excellen oil.
With ideal local growing conditions, you’ll be wowed by the bright bounty of the gigantic fruit and vegetables piled outside Bríndisi’s food shops. They inspire particular creativity in antipasti and desserts, making meals a colourful explosion of reds, greens and purples. You might meet with 10 or more vegetable-rich starter dishes before moving on to pasta and meat courses. Think courgette pieces filled with nutmeg cream, aubergine stuffed with garlic, peppers in Greek-style pastry threads, pumpkin mousse, orange slices in vin cotto, huge marinated olives, and of course the wonderful favé – a pureé of broad beans.
You wouldn’t guess it from looking at an average Bríndisi meal, but the Puglian expertise with fruit and veg actually comes from the region’s history of poverty. These are ‘poor’ foodstuffs compared to meat. The Pugliese fashioned wonderful traditional dishes with their ‘humble’ ingredients and, even though Puglia is now the most prosperous region in southern Italy, there’s no temptation to abandon recipes born of penury for an orgy of meat.
Start your meal by nibbling on taralli or tarallini, which always appear on any Bríndisi table – tiny, ring-shaped savoury biscuits cooked with oil and butter and flavoured with fennel. Try pucchette too, which resemble chocolate-chip cookies but are fried soft biscuits studded with olives. Puglian bread is very good, and the region produces some of Italy’s most highly rated pasta. Orecchiete are the signature pasta shapes here – ‘little ears’, traditionally dressed with turnip-tops (rape), or with tomato and seafood sauce.
So well stocked from the sea and the soil, the Bríndisi diet isn’t particularly strong on meat. It’s extremely rare to find chicken on a restaurant menu, though there’s usually beef and often horsemeat. Reflecting the region’s former poverty, offal dishes occasionally crop up, like the strong-flavoured turcinieddi – little bundles of lamb’s liver, heart and lung, roasted and skewered. Sounds off-putting? Try the similar but offal-free bombette instead – skewered bundles of wafer-thin roasted beef and ham.
One feature of the Bríndisi table that shows no legacy of poverty is wine. Wine has been made here for more than 3,000 years, and it’s always been good. (Legend has it that King Herod sought out Bríndisi wines for his cellar). But over the last decade or more, Bríndisi’s countless winemakers have enthusiastically embraced new agricultural and production technologies, bumping up the standard of local wines from good to excellent. Seek out the fantastically rich, fruity reds made from Negroamaro, Malvasia Nero or Primitivo grapes. And when you raise your glass in salute, remember that the Italian word for a toast is ‘un bríndisi’!
But you might choose to take dinner without wine on the table at all – without a table, in fact. Like many of the exotic countries with which it has enjoyed contact, Bríndisi has a robust tradition of street food. Takeaway vendors pepper the city, selling high-quality pizza variations for laughably little cash. Join the queue for a succulent fritta – a folded, fried pizza full of molten mozzarella and intensely flavoursome tomatoes. It’s fast food, Bríndisi-style. Savour one while strolling along in Brindisi’s teeming evening passeggiata – just about the liveliest and most populous in all southern Italy.
Note that urban strolling is even more enjoyable in Bríndisi now than it was a decade ago. Palm-lined central boulevards have been pedestrianised, so there’s no dodging traffic. Nor is there any stumbling over napping backpackers sprawled in piazzas. Greece-bound ferries used to depart from the city centre, so there were always InterRailers killing time here between connections. But now the ports have been moved, and the centre has been enthusiastically reclaimed by the locals.
However you choose to eat in Bríndisi, whether seated in one of the city’s many superb restaurants or sampling street food on the hoof, do try to end your meal in the traditional Bríndisi way. That is, with a caffè ghiaccio con latte di mandorle – a cup of espresso poured over crushed ice and almond milk. Sweetening the coffee and making sugar unnecessary, the almond milk is a legacy of Arabic contact. As so often with this venerable city, the final taste left in your mouth is one of subtle, yet delightful exotica.
WHERE TO EAT
Ristorante l’Araba Fenice
Corso Roma, 31
With its high vaulted ceiling of intricate stonework, this beautiful restaurant feels like a small cathedral. The atmosphere is refined but welcoming, with muted and tasteful décor. The lavish food is a delight to the eye and mouth, with particular creativity given to the antipasti and dolci – and you should definitely try the ‘taster menu’ of both. Expect a feast of colour and freshness.
Meal for two: about €70.
Via San Francesco, 1
Offering stunning food in beautiful surroundings, Ristorante Penny is a classy and relaxing place that’s been run by the stylish, friendly Mario Schina for about 30 years. It spoils you with choice. Where will you sit? Inside, beneath the spectacular, striped vaulted ceiling? Or outside on the leafy terrace? Both are so inviting. Then there’s the menu – long and interesting, with myriad classic and creative dishes. Decisions, decisions…
Meal for two: about €65.
Via S Lucia, corner of Via Pozzo Traiano
A Bríndisi institution for six decades, this small, tiled pizzeria is the place to come if you want to sample the city’s traditional fritte – folded, fried pizzas ideal for a sit-down fast food treat or for munching on the move. A sort of pitta bread pocket filled with molten mozzarella and succulent, flavoursome tomatoes, the quality of Romanelli’s fritte is superb, and they’re just €1 each!
Fritte and drinks for two: about €4.
Bar Rouge et Noir / Bar Rosso e Nero
Via Santi 15, next to Teatro Verdi
This classic Italian café has repeatedly been declared Puglia’s best bar by the Slow Food Society. Charming old-fashioned artisan Romolo Specchia runs the place, which remains small and inexpensive. Romolo’s standards are sky-high and his handmade ice cream is likely to be the best you’ve tasted in your life. Sit indoors or outside and savour the absolute perfection of every drink and snack on offer.
Drinks and snacks for two: about €12.
WINEMAKERS AND WINE SHOPS
Via Ammiraglio Cagni 2
A snug, charming cantina situated down an atmospheric alley in central Bríndisi, this is an excellent place to sample the produce of local grapes. Proprietor Sergio Botrugno is an affable and erudite man who speaks excellent English.
Via S Marco 130, Cellino San Marco
Got access to your own transport? Journey the few miles out of town to this giant, gleaming cantina. Winner of Best Winemaker in Italy 2007, Due Palme is a heavyweight local producer with sophisticated sampling rooms and a superb choice of bottles for sale.
Via F Consiglio 6
In addition to wine, this bright little paradise is full of sugary treats. Upstairs it’s a lavish sweetshop where you can buy by the kilo or snap up stylish giftpacks. Downstairs it’s an extensive enoteca with a huge range of wine, spirits and liqueurs – some in novelty bottles.
WHERE TO STAY
Viale Regina Margherita, 23
This stately four-star on Bríndisi’s harbourside promenade was built in the 19th century for merchants and aristocrats travelling onward to exotic locales – especially the British en route to India. Its 67 rooms are spacious and traditionally decorated with period furniture. The breakfast buffet is particularly good, and mini-bar prices surprisingly reasonable.
Double room: €130-€180.
Via Cavour, 1
Conveniently located just 100m from Bríndisi’s rail station and a stone’s throw from Piazza Cairoli, this comfortable three-star hotel remains remarkably quiet and free from street noise. All rooms have wi-fi, and are decorated in tasteful, understated modern style. Guests can hire the hotel’s 12-metre yacht with skipper if they like! Some local restaurants offer discounts to Barsotti guests.
Double room: €100.
Prolungamento Viale Arno, 51
This new four-star hotel sits just across a sliver of harbour from Bríndisi’s marine promenade. It’s well situated for watching the big ships come and go, and seeing the city lights come up in the evening. Rooms are spacious and comfortable. Staff are very friendly and there’s a good in-house restaurant. The grounds hold an indoor and an outdoor pool, tennis courts, and a spa.
Double room: €145.