Last week we took my father-in-law to A16 for dinner, here in San Francisco for his birthday. We had a wonderful meal, and thankfully we elected to eat family style, as I got to sample to my heart’s content. While everything we consumed was amazing, one of the appetizers we ordered, really struck me, and not least because of it simple preparation: mozzarella burrata with olive oil, sea salt and crostini. It was so good, you blinked and it disappeared – poof. Magic!
“What is burrata?” you ask, and I am so glad you did.
Burrata is a type of mozzarella from southern Italy, Puglia to be exact. Janet Fletcher, author of several cheese books, describes burrata as mozzarella with stuffing. A whole burrata looks like a mozzarella ball with a topknot. But like a box of Cracker Jacks, a surprise lurks inside, for while the outside “skin” has the consistency and appearance of regular mozzarella, the inside is all creamy, buttery deliciousness, that spills onto the plate, as you slice through it with a knife. So, its no surprise that burrata gets its name from the Italian work burro = butter. This mozzarella is made either with cow’s milk or water buffalo’s milk. As a final note, it can be served either fresh or smoked.
The cheese makers create a pouch from the stretched mozzarella curds and fill it with a stuffing of mozzarella curds coupled with cream, which they seal with that traditional knot. For a final step, they briefly brine this cheese, and some producers wrap it in the leaves of the asphodel plant. The cheese I saw was in a plastic container soaking in watery brine – no leaf to be found.
This cheese is meant for immediate consumption, typically less than forty-eight hours – within twenty-four hours is ideal. Unfortunately the cheese that we get in the States exceeds this limit. So I recommend that if you have a trip to Italy in your future, you sample the real McCoy, as it was meant to be eaten.
Access to Burrata in the United States
Cheese importers are starting to fly burrata in from Italy, but it can still be a struggle to find. I found some at $16/pound at Cow Girl Creamery in the Ferry Building. (What a life saver – I imagined a weekly pilgrimage to A16, which also would not be a bad thing.)
A16 is justly famous for its food, so we were lucky to get in. If you want to try those famous meatballs, they have Meatball Mondays; the only day they are featured on the menu. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the other dishes we ordered included:
- Bruschette with roasted sardines, minted english peas, pickled red onions
Pizza salsiccia – fennel sausage, roasted spring onions, mozzarella, grana padano, garlic, chilies
- Squid ink tornarelli with house cured baccala, cherry tomatoes, green olives, chilies and garlic
- Roasted beef coulotte with salsa verde, fried senise peppers and lemon
- Roasted half-chicken with willed escarole, pine nuts and currants
- Romain and chicory salad with lemon and olive oil
- Roasted carrots and turnips with green garlic, mint and chilies
- Chocolate budino tart with sea salt and extra virgin olive oil
- Trio of gelato and sorbetto (strawberry and cream, lemon thyme, and chocolate ganache)
A16’s Meatballs (recipe NOT for 200 people)
- 2.5 lbs. ground pork, lamb, or beef
- 4 oz. grated Parmesan
- 1 lb. stale bread, cubed (crust removed)
- 1 small cooking onion, finely diced
- 1.5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1/2 bunch parsley, finely chopped
- 1/2 lb. ricotta
- Milk, as needed
- 4-5 eggs
1. Season the meat generously with salt, chile flakes, fennel seed, and oregano. Add the onions, garlic, parsley, and Parmesan. Mix by hand.
2. Put the bread cubes in a food processor; process until finely crumbled.
3. Add the bread and ricotta to the meat; mix by hand. Add milk to achieve a moist, soft texture.
4. Add eggs; continue to mix by hand until eggs are barely incorporated. (Don’t overmix).
5. Form into balls; place in an oiled roasting pan and roast at 400° until browned.
6. Remove from roasting pan, discard remaining fat, and place the meatballs in a heavy saucepot.
7. Braise meatballs in any combination of pureed tomatoes, wine, stock, and aromatics.
8. Cook at 300° for 2-3 hours; allow to cool in the braising liquid.
9. Reheat the meatballs in the braising liquid. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan and extra virgin olive oil and serve.
Puglia, or Apulia in Italian, is the region of Italy, that is least visited by English speaking tourists, despite the fact that it has some of the brightest seas, most diverse art and architecture, and most mouthwatering peasant cuisine. Puglia is the “heel” of the Italian boot. Apulia borders the Adriatic Sea in the east, the Ionian Sea to the southeast, and the Strait of Òtranto and Gulf of Taranto in the south. The region comprises 19,345 km² (7,469 square miles), and its population of about 4 million. It is bordered by the Italian regions of Molise to the north, Campania to the west, and Basilicata to the southwest and comprisesd of the provinces of Bari, Barletta-Andria-Trani, Brindisi, Foggia, Lecce, and Taranto. The northern third of the region is centered on the Puglia highland, flanked on the north by the limestone massif of Gargano Promontory (the “spur” of the peninsula) and on the west by the Neapolitan Apennines. International neighbors include Greece and Albania, across the Ionian and Adriatic Seas, respectively. The region extends as far north as Monte Gargano. Just to whet the appetite, five hundred miles of spectacular beaches along two seas account for some of that border as well.
Puglia is an arid region covering broad plains and low-lying hills. The only mountainous areas, the Gargano promontory and the Monti Dauni, are less than 1,150 m and found in the north of Pgulia, which is the least mountainous region in Italy. Given its climate, it is one of the largest and agriculturally most productive plains in Italy. Rainwater permeates the limestone bedrock to form underground rivers that emerge near the coast. Groundwater is abundant, and consequently so are caves and potholes. The caves at Castellana Grotte are particularly spectacular, and a major tourist attraction.
In ancient times only the northern part of the region was called Apulia; the southern peninsula was known as Calabria, a name later given to the “toe” of the Italian “boot.” This area is one of the richest archeological areas in Italy first settled in the 1st millennium BC. Later, the Greeks expanded until reaching the area of Taranto and the Salento, and in the fifth and fourth centuries produced a distinctive style of pottery (Apulian vase painting).
Puglia was ruled in the early Middle Ages by Goths, Lombards, and Byzantines and knew its greatest glory under the Hohenstaufen emperors. It was a favourite of the 13th-century Holy Roman emperor Frederick II. Unfortunately that was the peak, and a long period of decline set in, due to neglectful distant rulers (French, Spanish, Austrian, Neapolitan, Bourbon) and by Arab slave raids along the coast. In 1860 Puglia became part of the Italian kingdom.
Apulia was important for the ancient Romans, who conquered it in the 4th century BC but later suffered a crushing defeat here in the battle of Cannae against Hannibal. However, after the Carthaginians left the region, the Romans captured the ports of Brindisi and Taranto, and established dominance over the region. During the Imperial age Apulia was a flourishing area for production of grain and oil, becoming the chief exporter to the Eastern provinces.
Trullos, the small rural homes consisting of small limestone slabs stacked without mortar, topped with cones surmounted by pagan or religious symbols, are a sure sign you are in Puglia – they are only found in this area, and are scattered among olive groves and huge prickly pear cacti in the Valle d’Itria, inland in a triangle between Bari, Taranto and Brindisi. Of unknown origin and unique to Puglia, they date at least from the Middle Ages. Most are still inhabited and a large concentration can be found around Alberobello.
Farther inland is the Murge, scorched highlands grooved by canyons where, in the Middle Ages, people built cave dwellings as homes and churches when they fled from pirates.
Towns in Puglia
In the Gargano, visit the old cities of Lucera, Manfredonia, and San Severo, and the Padre Pio sanctuary of San Giovanni Rotondo. Vieste is near to Italy’s newest national park, the Foresta Umbra, and is the holiday capital of the Gargano.
Trani, along the coast, features an old settlement right around the harbor with seafront Cathedral dedicated to San Nicola Pellegrino. 18th century palaces like the Caccetta, the Quercia end the Bianchi provide insight into Puglia’s Romanesque period. The Swabian castle of Trani was built by Federico II between 1223 and 1249.
Bari is an austere, medieval port city, centered on the Basilica di San Nicola, built between the 10th and 12th centuries to honor its patron saint (yes, that St. Nicholas, “Santa Claus”).
Trulli country starts in Alberobello, where there are more than 1500 of the conical houses, you can rent one if you are inclined during a stay.
Locorotondo is a village where everything is white except for the vibrant splashes of red flowers that envelope its wrought-iron balconies. Ostuni is even more blinding, and you can hike its steep inclines and marvel at the sculpted baroque portals on its whitewashed houses.
Lecce is blessed with a soft limestone, making it the place for architectural ornamentation, called the barocco leccese, or Leccese Baroque. It is a great town to walk around in, with its theatrical excess of wreaths of fruit and pinup women sculpted on the gold limestone churches and palaces.
Gallipoli is a fishing village with a very nice port area. Another nice sea town is Otranto, known for its beautiful coast. Otranto was an important centre of the Byzantine dominion in Italy, and had a Greek bishop.
Santa Maria di Leuca is the end of the world, you might want to visit il Ciolo, a deep canyon scoured by the sea.
The town of Matera, in the Basilicata region, claims the most famous dwellings of the region, the sassi in Matera. Below the modern town and built on the side of a steep ravine, two neighborhoods of single-room cave dwellings and rock-hewn, frescoed churches were inhabited first by hermits and then by families until the 1960s. While some are now trendy hotels and restaurants, they still look so authentically ancient that Mel Gibson filmed scenes here for “The Passion of the Christ.” If you go in early July, be sure to catch the Festa della Madonna Bruna.
Food of the Region
“La cucina pugliese nasce come cucina povera,” so says Paola Pettini who for twenty-five years has directed a cooking school in her native Bari: The cuisine of Puglia was born as the cuisine of poverty. What this means, she explains, is pasta made without eggs, bread made from the hard-grain durum wheat flour that flourishes locally, and a diet based on vegetables, including many wild vegetables like cicorielle, wild chicory, and lampascione, the bulb of a wild tassel hyacinth, foods that are foraged from stony fields and abandoned terraces. Meat is not common on the menus, and beef until a few years ago, was almost unknown on Pugliese tables, with horsemeat being preferred. For Christmas and Easter, weddings and baptisms, Pugliese cooks look to farmyard animals, especially chickens, lambs and rabbits.
Puglia food equals homestyle cooking. This is a cucina delle donne, created by women cooking at home. It is a cuisine with no rules, based solely on what is available, which is then stretched to accommodate anyone who may arrive unexpectedly.
It also means that recipes change from one village to another, even from one household to the next, without the cooks themselves always being aware of it. It’s almost impossible to speak of authenticity when a word like ciambotta describes two entirely different dishes – a mixture of vegetables in Monopoli, or a mixture of fish in Bari, just a short distance to the north. And while some cooks insist that the only way to make a dried fava bean puree is with a cooked potato mixed in to give it smoothness, others are shocked at the very thought.
Pugliese cuisine is based on olive oil, one of the great products of the region. In any given year, Puglia produces as much as 2/3 of all the olive oil in Italy. Butter is rarely used in the traditional cuisine, and even some sweets are made with olive oil and are often fried. Sweets, here, are not an everyday occurrence but associated only with holidays.
In this culture of sparsity, nothing is wasted. Stale bread is cubed or crumbled and toasted in oil to make a garnish for pasta and vegetable dishes. Vegetables are dried, pickled, or preserved in oil to eke out the larder in the lean months of the year. Figs are dried or boiled down to make a syrup, and grape juice, after the first pressing, is boiled to make a thick molasses called mosto cotto, to be served at Christmas poured over the fried sweets called cartellate.
Three dishes strongly identify Pugliese cooking, linked by their ingredients as much as their deep roots in the culinary culture of Puglia are:
1. Ncapriata or fave e cicoria: A puree made from dried peeled fava beans (potato may be added), dressed with a thread of olive oil and eaten with steamed bitter greens, preferably wild chicory. The presentation becomes more elaborate with the addition of chopped red onions marinated in vinegar, fried or pickled green peppers, steamed lampascioni, fried black or green olives, and other condiments.
2. Ciceri e tria: Homemade durum wheat pasta (no eggs) in the form of flat tagliatelle or noodles (tria), cooked with chick-peas (ciceri) and mixed with about a third of the pasta that has been kept apart and fried in olive oil until it is crisp and brown, with a surprisingly meatlike flavor.
3. Orecchiette con cime di rape: Homemade durum wheat pasta, shaped in the form of “little ears,” cooked with broccoli rabe or rapini, and dressed with oil, garlic, an-chovies, and perhaps a little hot peperoncino.
Grains and greens or grains and beans, are a basic part of the cuisine. They are what poor home cooks have relied on to sustain their families through the centuries. Fava (or broad beans) are throughout the Mediterranean la carne dei pover – the meat of the poor. Along with chick-peas, they are among the oldest legumes in Mediterranean cooking. Wild chicories and similar greens have sprung up in this dry, bleached landscape, and were duly incorporated into the food. Olives have been cultivated at least since the earliest Greeks brought trees to southern Italy. And hard durum wheat has been one of the great products of Puglia’s upland plains for centuries.
The dishes found on the Pugliese table might be the same as those found five hundred years ago. With one exception – the tomato. Puglia’s tomatoes are sweet and acid, dense with flesh and bursting with juice, and while they may not be native, they fit right in. They are available year-round, fresh from the garden, sun-dried and packed in oil, put up simply in jars, whether whole or in a sauce, or strung in brilliant red clusters that, astonishingly, if hung in a cool, dry place, will keep from harvest until well into the following spring.
Source, Nancy Jenkins, from her book Flavors of Puglia, Broadway Books