Salento lies at the southernmost tip of the long coastal peninsula of Puglia, in Italy, at the confluence of the Adriatic and the Ionian seas. Hot and dry, the area is known for its olive groves, forest-clad plateaus and towns embellished with intricately carved stone facades.
The region’s proximity to Greece and the Balkans has made it coveted territory since classical antiquity. The Mycenaean Greeks were followed by the Romans, then a long line of other invaders: Lombards, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Turks and Venetians. They all left their mark, much of it at the table, and this makes shopping for food and dining in the towns and villages of Salento something of an adventure in time travel. Even now Salento isn’t home to just one culture. The interior, for instance, is inhabited by the Griko, who speak a dialect more closely related to Byzantine Greek than Italian or Salentinu.
Most Italians visit the region to bathe at sandy bays and limestone coves; I come for fresh fish caught by men I know by name, pasta made in distinctive regional shapes, and homemade digestivi produced according to century-old family recipes. The openness of Salentini and their devotion to hospitality make these essential features of daily life accessible even to first-time visitors.
getting there and getting around
Lecce is one of Puglia’s main cities and is about half an hour’s drive south of Brindisi Airport, which is served by regular flights from Milan, Rome, Barcelona, London and Paris. Direct trains from Rome to Lecce take about five and half hours. Once in Puglia, however, hire a car. Long-distance train services in the south have been scaled back in the past decade, making a driving holiday the best way to see this area.
where to stay
Casa dei Mercanti: The nine self-catering suites in a Fascist-era building on Lecce’s largest square are ideal for those who want to make the most of Salento’s produce markets.
Don Totu: Near the coastal towns of Castro and Santa Cesarea Terme, this six-room B&B features gardens, a pool, gym, library and a Turkish bath.
La Fiermontina: This ‘urban resort’ of 16 rooms occupies a refurbished 17th-century villa at the edge of Lecce’s historic centre.
Masseria Trapana: On the outskirts of Lecce, this rural retreat occupies a former fortified farmhouse.
where to eat
Farmacia dei Sani: The innovative dishes at this restaurant deep in Salento’s interior are inspired by regional flavours and elevated using modern techniques. Piazza del Popolo 14, Ruffano, +39-339-833-2514
La Succursale: This busy pizzeria serves thick-rimmed pizze with craft beer, as well as salads, legume dishes and cheese plates. Viale dell’Universita 15, Lecce, +39-391-497-7749
Le Macare: This trattoria serves Salentino specialities such as eggplant stuffed with mozzarella and ragu misto, pork and beef simmered overnight in pureed tomatoes. Via Mariana Albina 140, Alezio, +39-0833-282192
L’Orecchietta: This pasta shop and trattoria in Guagnano sells fresh pasta made in local shapes and traditional dishes to take away or dine in. Via Vittorio Veneto 49, Guagnano, +39-334-722-0264
Lu Pescatore: This family-run trattoria specialises in fish caught in the nearby nature reserve. Corso Annibale 1, Torre San Giovanni di Ugento, +39-0833-937018
Rua de Li Travaj: Expect earthy regional specialties such as pittule (fried dough fritters) and ceci e tria (chickpeas with boiled and fried pasta). Via Felice Cavallotti 44, Patu, +39-349-058-4531
where to drink
Quanto Basta: This craft cocktail bar is Salento’s first foray into the world of global spirits, combining foreign and domestic flavours. Via Marco Basseo 29, Lecce, +39-347-008-3176
Cubi: A new craft cocktail bar from the team behind Quanto Basta, mixing classic cocktails in southern Salento. Via S. Giuseppe 12, Maglie
Alvino: Its location in Lecce’s busiest square makes this café a point of reference for locals, for pastries, coffee and aperitivi. Piazza Sant’Oronzo 30, Lecce, +39-0832-246748
Bar Cotognata Leccese : Renowned for sweet specialties and cotognata, Lecce’s quince paste. Viale Marconi 51 Lecce, +39-0832-302800
Pasticceria Ascalone: Founded in 1740, this institution in its 10th generation of family ownership attracts pasticciotti lovers from across Salento. Via Vittorio Emanuele 17, Galatina, +39-0836-566009
Pasticceria Nobile: Pasticciotti are served hot out of the oven at this cafe near the sea in San Cataldo. Via Marco Polo 9, San Cataldo, +39-0832-650595
Café Parisi: Come for its large aperitivo snack spread and stay for its prime position in Nardo’s elegant historic centre. Piazza Antonio Salandra 38, Nardo, +39-0833-182-3223
Here are some more pics of Puglia, Italy: