Blessed with the Adriatic Sea’s most accommodating natural harbour, Bríndisi has long seen the coming and going of the world’s ships – from ancient Greek triremes to the sleek modern yachts of Arab millionaires. In between, a million steamers and ferries have linked this south-eastern tip of Italy to the world. A map from 1872 shows dotted lines radiating out from the port to ‘Costantinopoli’, ‘Indie’, ‘Egitto’ and ‘Giappone’. No wonder then, that the food in this lively and much underrated Italian city shows more than a hint of the exotic. Foreign spices and culinary ideas have passed through so often that they’ve inevitably become part of the local tradition. The Brindisini don’t bat an eyelid when their restaurant antipasti include a scoop of curried prawn risotto and a clutch of anchovies marinated with star anise and juniper.
The same intricate harbour that brings the wider world to Bríndisi has, of course, also always bestowed it with superlative fish and seafood. Innumerable fishing boats of every size jostle amongst the mighty battleships, stout white ferries and snazzy yachts that romantically glide in and out of Bríndisi’s calm and sheltered water. They land their glistening catch on the pale cobbles of the harbourside promenade, and the silver bounty is quickly whisked away to local pescherie and ristoranti. Excellent fish is obviously a big feature on restaurant menus in Bríndisi. Domestic cooks, meanwhile, churn out gallons of tasty ciambotto (fish soup) and mounds of tiella – a traditional dish of rice, potatoes and mussels whose similarity to Spanish paella (even in name) is a legacy of Iberian contact with this venerable port city.
But just as much as the sharp, fresh taste of the sea, the rustic taste of the land is a central characteristic of Bríndisi’s cuisine. For all its bustle and prosperity, Bríndisi is still a very small city – with only 90,000 inhabitants – and it quickly melts at its edges into lushly fertile countryside, full of growing foodstuffs lapping up the sunshine. Some of Puglia’s most appealing rural landscapes surround Bríndisi, and the area sprouts a high proportion of Puglia’s estimated fifty million olive trees. ‘Collina di Bríndisi’ oil has DOP status, and is wonderfully fruity with a hint of spice and just enough bitterness.
You’ll be wowed by the brightly coloured bounty of giant, glossy fruit and vegetables piled high outside Bríndisi’s food shops, courtesy of the supreme climate and rich soil around the city. They seem to inspire a particular creativity in antipasti and desserts – the former cramming in all sorts of vegetables, the latter piling in every kind of fruit. Puglia excels in antipasti, with most meals beginning with a staggering array of delicious, vegetable-rich starter dishes. You might meet with ten or more separate little items before moving on to the pasta course and meat course. Dessert is an explosion of fruit, and likely to be presented antipasti-style with lots of different delicacies on offer. It makes for some visually arresting meals, full of vivid green, red, orange and purple.
You wouldn’t guess it from looking at an average Bríndisi meal, but the Puglian expertise with fruit and vegetables comes from its history of poverty. These are ‘poor’ foodstuffs compared to meat, available to even the most impoverished people. The Pugliese fashioned wonderful dishes out of their ‘humble’ ingredients, and even though the region is now the most prosperous in southern Italy there’s no temptation to abandon recipes born of penury for an orgy of meat. Typical starters in Bríndisi might include courgette pieces filled with nutmeg cream, aubergine stuffed with garlic, peppers baked in pastry threads, mussels with onion and tomato, pumpkin mousse, orange slices in vin cotto, huge marinated olives, and of course the wonderful favé – a smooth puree of broad beans which looks like a kind of Puglian houmous.
Countless other starters are built around fish or seafood, and of course there’s always a basket of taralli or tarallini on the Bríndisi table – tiny, ring-shaped savoury biscuits cooked with oil and butter and sometimes flavoured with fennel. Or pucchette, which look like chocolate chip cookies but are fried soft savoury biscuits studded with olives. Puglian bread is very good, and the region produces some of Italy’s most highly rated pasta. Orecchiete are the key pasta shape down here – ‘little ears’, traditionally dressed with soft green turnip-tops (rape), or with tomato or seafood sauce.
So superbly stocked from the sea and the surrounding cropfields, the Bríndisi diet isn’t particularly strong on meat. It’s very rare to find chicken on a restaurant menu here, though there’s usually beef and often horsemeat. Reflecting the region’s former poverty, several offal dishes are traditional, such as the strong-flavoured turcinieddi – little bundles of lamb’s liver, heart and lung, roasted and skewered. If that sounds off-putting, you might try the similar but offal-free bombette – skewered bundles of roasted beef and ham wrapped tightly round each other in wafer-thin slices.
One feature of the Bríndisi table that shows no legacy of local poverty is wine. Viticulture has been practised here for more than 3,000 years, and the produce has always been good (legend has it that King Herod sought out Bríndisi wines for his cellar). But over the last decade, Bríndisi’s countless local winemakers have enthusiastically embraced new agricultural and production technologies, bumping up the standard of local wines from good to excellent. In 2007 a Bríndisi winemaker, Due Palme, even won ‘Best Winery in Italy’ at the prestigious annual VinItaly event in Verona. Seek out the fantastically rich, fruity reds from local grapes Negroamaro, Malvasia Nero or Primitivo. And when you raise your glasses in salute before drinking, 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 very strong tradition of street food. Innumerable takeaway vendors round the city sell high-quality variations on a pizza theme for laughably little cost. Join the queue and try a succulent fritta – a folded, fried pizza (called a panzerotto elsewhere in Puglia). It’s a sort of pitta-bread pocket full of molten mozzarella and intensely flavoursome tomatoes. Or try a focaccia – an oblong, deep-pan pizza slice on light, fluffy bread. This is fast-food, Bríndisi-style. You could also grab a rustico – a pastry traditional to Bríndisi and Lecce further south, filled with cheese, tomatoes, spinach and so on.Savour one while walking along in Brindisi’s teeming evening passaggiata – perhaps the liveliest and most populous evening stroll in all of southern Italy.
However you choose to eat in Bríndisi, whether seated in one of the city’s many superb restaurants or munching 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 into a tumbler of crushed ice and almond milk. Naturally sweetening the coffee and doing away with any need for sugar, the almond milk is a legacy of Bríndisi’s contact with the Arabic world. As so often with this 3,000-year-old port city, the final taste left in your mouth is one of delightful, subtle exotica.
Via Salita Ripalta, 1-3
+39 0831 560605
Recommended by the Slow Food Society and listed in the prestigious Osteria d'Italia guide, this relaxed and comfortable restaurant serves excellent local dishes at very reasonable prices. Owner Armando Bienda has been running the place for twenty years. The menu offers a fairly extensive choice of traditional seafood and meat dishes. Choose the house antipasti for a showcase of the exotic foreign influences that streak through the cuisine of this venerable port-city. The wine selection is huge, with hundreds of bottles glittering in various nooks round the room.
Meal for two about €60
RISTORANTE L’ARABA FENICE
Corso Roma, 31
+39 0831 590009
This grand yet relaxed restaurant is surely one of Bríndisi’s very best. You can’t fail to be immediately impressed when you step inside. The high vaulted ceiling of meticulous Puglian stonework makes the place feel like a small cathedral. The atmosphere is refined but very welcoming, with muted and tasteful décor in warm earth tones. The lavish, seafood-leaning food is an absolute delight to the eye and mouth. Particular creativity is 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
ROUGE ET NOIR / ROSSO E NERO
Via Santi 15, next to Teatro Verdi
+39 0831 521939
This classic Italian café has rightfully been declared Puglia’s best bar for three years running by the Slow Food Society. Charming old-fashioned artisan Romolo Specchia runs the place, and his food-and-drink standards are sky-high. His handmade ice cream is likely to be the best you’ve tasted in your life. He whips it by hand rather than use a machine, and only produces flavours which are in season. (There’s nodisplay cabinet, and you must choose from a tiny menu.) Every drink and small snack is perfection. Sit indoors or outside and savour the absolute excellence of everything on offer.
Drinks and snacks for two about €12
Via San Francesco, 1
+39 0831 563013
One of the very best places to eat in central Bríndisi, with stunning food and beautiful surroundings, Ristorante Penny is a classy and relaxing place – owned and run by the stylish, friendly Mario Schina for almost thirty years. It spoils you with choice right from the start. Where will you sit? Inside, beneath the spectacular, wide-vaulted ceiling picked out in bold stripes? Or outside on the leafy, comfortable terrace? Both are so inviting. Then there’s the menu – long and interesting, with myriad classic and creative dishes. But it’s not all they have on offer. Ask the waiter what unlisted dish the chef’s experimenting with tonight.
Meal for two about €65
Lungomare Regina Margherita, 33-36
+39 0831 590892
This is a beautiful venue with a lovely location. Set right in the heart of the youthful bustle on Bríndisi’s seafront, this large and elegant place looks like an exclusive eatery but is in fact a very welcoming pizzeria-cum-restaurant. Inside, the décor is chic and uplifting, with warm colours and abundant light. Outside, a leafy courtyard links a series of white-balustraded terraces where white tablecloths lie beneath stylish white canvas umbrellas. The atmosphere somehow manages to be ideal for an intimate dinner, a pizza with friends, or just evening drinks. The food is great, the prices reasonable, and the surroundings delightful.
Meal for two about €45
Via S. Lucia, corner of Via Pozzo Traiano
+39 0831 590496
A Bríndisi institution for the past sixty years, this small, tiled pizzeria is the place to come if you want to sample one of the city’s traditional fritte. Called panzerotti elsewhere in Puglia, fritte are folded, fried pizzas ideal for a fast food treat or for munching on the move. A sort of pitta bread pocket filled with red-hot molten mozzarella and succulent, flavoursome tomatoes, the quality of Romanelli’s fritte is superb, and they’re just €1 each! While you’re waiting in the queue, enjoy the photographs of old Bríndisi which line Romanelli’s walls, and check out the framed poem written in the bizarre-looking local dialect.
Fritte and drinks for two about €4
Corso Roma, 35-37
+39 0831 529962
This tiny pizzeria is a Bríndisi favourite, and it's heavingly popular on Saturday and Sunday nights. Essentially a takeaway, there are also a handful of tables. Il Botteghino is a great place to sample foccacia - Bríndisi’s deep-pan pizza made with centimetre-thick, foccacia-style bread. Despite being just €1per slice, the quality is excellent, with rich tomato sauce and good toppings. the bread is crisp on the outside but light and fluffy on the inside. More familiar pizza shapes are also available, of course. Join the lively crowd at the tables, or take your snack out into the throng of the passeggiata.
Foccacia and drinks for two about €4
S.S. 7 Exit Latiano Est, Contrada Moreno, Mesagne
+39 0831 721457 / 721487
If you’re able to travel a few miles out of Bríndisi, treat yourself to an evening at this sumptuous hotel and restaurant with its infinite land, pools and facilities. It’s essentially a sprawling stately home set amidst acres of olive groves. Dining is on an exquisite candlelit patio or inside one of several high-vaulted rooms. Try to come on a Saturday when a wedding party is likely to be in glittering progress around you. Surprisingly for such a chic and refined venue, the food tends towards la cucina della nonna – comforting, high-calorie, and indulgent. The house favé is particularly good.
Meal for two about €70
LA CANTINA TI L’ARTISTI
Via dè Terribile, 11
+39 0831 529036
This informal, well-attended eatery attracts a lively young crowd. The walls are plastered in photographs of happy customers having a great time – especially on Thursday evenings when they put on live music played by local bands. It’s a cosy, cheerful place with a warm atmosphere, even if you come earlier in the evening before it fills up with twentysomethings. The food is strongly traditional, with pasta, sausages, steaks, horsemeat, swordfish, a mixed grill, and so on. Try the local offal speciality turcinieddi here, or the similar bombette. Prices are extremely reasonable, and the good-quality house wine is a real bargain.
Meal for two about €35
BRACI E ABBRACCI
Via Pozzo Traiano, 9-11
+39 0831 521035
If you should tire of Bríndisi’s fish-biased cuisine and crave a plate of red meat, you can satisfy your carnivorous longings at this lively little place just off buzzy Corso Garibaldi, which specializes in grilled meats. The dark, vaulted interior warmed by red tablecloths feels just right for a meat-fest, and there’s always the sound of sizzling in the background and the mouthwatering smell of grilled meat in the air. It draws a young, amiable crowd, and the atmosphere is always friendly. Prices are very reasonable. They also offer pizzas and pasta dishes.
Meal for two about €40
Bríndisi is a compact, small-sized city that’s easy to navigate and a pleasure to stroll around shopping for food. There’s no excess of road traffic to dodge, and even the pavements and street surfaces are attractive – usually made of pale, smooth flagstones that shine in the sun. The recent pedestrianization of the long, palm-tree-lined Corso Garibaldi that slices through the centre of town adds to the sense of urban freedom, and you can always head for the pretty harbourside for a sit-down when you need to rest those aching feet and cool off in the sea-air.
The market – fruit, veg and fish
Bríndisi’s daily food market is a vivid spectacle of bright fruit and vegetables, piled high on closely cramped little stalls in the tiny Piazza Mercato (near Piazza Vittoria). It runs every day (except Sunday) till 2pm, but note that traders start packing away from about 1pm. A series of doorways surround the central market stalls, beyond which lie cool, super-clean fish shops piled high with glistening seafood and the fresh silvery catch of the day. The market is the obvious place to start your day’s food shopping in Bríndisi, and the produce couldn’t be fresher or healthier.
Bread and cheese
For bread there can be nowhere better than the Panificio Toraldo Oranza (Via Passante, 33), the only remaining traditional wood-fired bakery in Bríndisi. The old-fashioned technique they use makes lovely dense bread with a thick, crunchy crust, which they sell to local restaurants as well as the general public. If you’re feeling bold, ask if you can nip downstairs to admire the spectacle of the baking, and watch golden, puppy-soft rolls being spooled in and out of the heat on a broad-ended oar.
For cheese, you mustn’t miss the treasure trove of La Casa del Parmigiano at Piazza Vittoria 2 (+39 0831 528178). It’s been going for nearly fifty years, and is packed to the rafters with Italian cheeses of every kind. There are other high-quality foodstuffs on offer here too, but it will be the tidy mountains of formaggio that linger in your memory.
Meat, deli goods and pasta
The butcher’s shop Macelleria Massimo Fischetto is highly recommended (Via Fornari 23, +39 0831 526482). Massimo always has a good selection and can get in any meat requested. He also prepares local specialities like turcinieddi and bombette, and supplies them to local restaurants such as La Cantina ti L’Artisti.
Bríndisi abounds in excellent little foodshops where you can pick up salami, cheese, pasta, wine and general groceries. Visit La Gastronomia del Duomo at Via Duomo 29, or the well-stocked Enoteca Fedele at Via Porta Lecce 6 (+39 0831 521834). Two very jolly young women, Lisa and Grazia, own and run La Graziosa at Via Mazzini 15 (+39 0831 204405) – a charming, narrow shop with high vaulted ceiling. They sell good food and deli items and they even make hot lunches to take away. Il Salu… Mino at Via Carmine 96 (+39 0831 525157) is especially good for seafood antipasti. And for high-quality organic foodstuffs, wheat-free pastas and the like, visit the rather lovely La Piccola Bottega di Naturalia at Via Giordano Bruno 34 (+39 0831 568485).
Sweets and ice cream
Wonderful sweets, chocolates and sugary gifts can be bought at the bright paradise of the Enoteca Delizie at Via F. Consiglio 6 (+39 0831 563507). Upstairs it’s a lavish sweetshop where you can buy by the kilo or snap up stylish confectionary tins, boxes and giftpacks. Downstairs it’s an extensive enoteca with all sorts of wine, spirits and liqueurs – some in novelty bottles.
And if you fancy a sweet cool-down after a hard day’s food-shopping, there’s really only one place to come. Bríndisi’s very best ice cream (and it must be some of the best in all Italy) is sold at the bar which variously calls itself Rouge et Noir or Rosso e Nero at Via Santi 15 (+39 0831 521939). Handmade in small quantities, owner Romolo Specchia’s ice cream is supernaturally smooth and flavoursome, and it leaves no sugary residue in your mouth after you’ve eaten it. A real gourmet gelato!
Bríndisi has no shortage of fine enoteche, but it’s especially enjoyable to go straight to an actual winemaker to sample and purchase your vino. Visit the charming Botrugno cantina at Via Ammiraglio Cagni 2 (+39 0831 555587), and savour the especially delicious things they’ve done with the malvasia grape. Owner Sergio Botrugno is a likeable and erudite man who speaks excellent English. Got access to your own transport? Journey the few miles out of town to the gleaming cantina of Due Palme at Cellino San Marco (+39 0831 617909). 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.