Italian cuisine is heavily regionalized, meaning that unless you find yourself sitting before a red and white checkered tablecloth reading from a conveniently multi-lingual "tourist menu," you'll be hard-pressed to find the same dishes in one city as you would in another. (Yes, that's right. For an authentic Italian experience, do not eat at a restaurant with a tourist menu. Or red and white checkered tablecloths, for that matter.)
Although Italy's food is well-represented around the world, many of the country's regional specialties remain relatively unknown outside their places of origin. Among them, a range of traditional dishes from Lecce that I've come to know and love. Though the city, located in the southern region of Puglia, is highly frequented by vacationing Italians, it has remained largely under the radar for American travelers. For this reason, Leccese dishes aren't easy to find on tourist-oriented menus or at Italian restaurants abroad.
Southern Italian cuisine generally differs from its northern counterpart in its use of olive oil instead of butter, the prominence of vegetable- versus meat-based dishes, and a greater emphasis on sweets and pastries. In Lecce, even the most unassuming of cafes serves impeccable homemade pastries, the most famous of which are pasticciotti—cream filled pasta frolla served warm for breakfast or as a snack. The most popular savory option takes the form of rustico, a croissant-like dough oozing with gooey béchamel, mozzarella, and tomato sauce. The abundance of almond trees in Puglia means that almond cookies, amaretto gelato, and iced espresso with sweet latte di mandorla are all popular treats. Later in the day, sandwiches called puccia make for a quick lunch, and by the time 8 o'clock rolls around, eggplant parmesan and orecchiette pasta dominate the dinner table.
Some eateries stand out more than others, like La Puccia, a small chain that takes its name from the sandwiches it serves, Gelateria Natale for homemade gelato, Cafe Alvino for pastries and coffee, and Angiulino's for authentic leccese fare. That being said, a deeply-rooted culinary history and a strong emphasis on la bella vita makes it difficult to find bad food in Lecce.
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