Nancy Harmon Jenkins finds big flavors in little dishes.
One day last spring I found myself counting the items on the antipasto menu at Al Fornello-da Ricci, a restaurant in Apulia, which many people (including me) regard as one of Italy's finest. I was counting not because I was bored with the food or the company but because a list that long invites attention.
Chef Dora Ricci, who owns Al Fornello with her husband, Angelo, calls this part of her menu rusticherie cegliesi, one of those untranslatable Italian phrases that comes out best as "little rustic things from Ceglie." There were 25 of them, everything from the predictable, but first-rate, prosciutto and melon to snails roasted in their shells with wine and a little tomato sauce. And that didn't count several unlisted items that were on the table before us because something unusual in the market that morning had caught Dora's eye.
Apulia, or Puglia in Italian, in the heel of the Italian boot, is the land of antipasti. Like pizza in Naples, or risotto in Venice, the antipasto course in Apulia is a glorious summation of all the fantasy and ingenuity of generations of
Playful and ingenious as it is, however, Apulia's cuisine is also one of poverty. Great value is placed on modest ingredients like dried fava beans, greens and roots foraged from the wild and humble gifts from the sea: mussels, squid and octopus-- all of which can be found in profusion in markets like the daily one in Monopoli. In the harbor off this little Adriatic port town, octopus fishing is the agreeably serene occupation of retired fishermen who row their blue-painted boats out beyond the harbor bar to jig for the pale little cephalopod, then tenderize their catch by bashing it against the rocks.
I spent last winter among the olive groves in the hills above Monopoli, where nets spread below the great trees trap the ripe black fruit destined to make a golden colored oil lit with flashes of green. And I learned to admire the happy abandon with which Pugliese cooks use that rich, full-flavored oil to exalt the humblest of dishes, like the baby squid that Nicla Granozio, a handsome young woman from Triggiano near Bari, stuffs with bread crumbs and herbs and sautés with garlic, onions and parsley in plenty of fresh oil.
The olive trees, the stony limestone soil and the hovering presence of the sea reminded me of Greece. Especially under the harsh brilliance of il solleone, the lion sun of August, you sense the connection, which is also a historic one: Greeks have been here since Homeric times, and in some villages of the interior, dialects of Byzantine Greek are spoken to this day. So it's not surprising that the food shares traits with a Greek model: the array of vegetables and products of the sea, a penchant for wild and pungent aromatic herbs and that lavish hand with olive oil.
Like a Greek meze, the antipasto course is a whole series of little dishes meant to go with fresh, young, lightly chilled wines and to give diners something to contemplate while they wait for more serious matters to come. Antipasto literally means "before the meal," though it's also called, a bit more crudely, apristomaco, "the stomach-opener," intended to prepare the stomach and the palate for what will follow.
Almost any dish except sweets can be part of an antipasto, and traditional Pugliese restaurants pride themselves on the scope and variety of what they present. In Pugliese homes, the antipasto course is more restrained, not more than three or four little dishes, carefully chosen to balance flavors and textures: simple with complex, raw with cooked. But whether there are 25 dishes or three, my resolve is always tested. I know that I shouldn't fill up on antipasti, but the inviting bowls and plates and platters tempt me to do just that.
NOTE: Any of these recipes will be fine for four if served solo or up to eight if accompanied with other antipasti.