Orecchiette with Cime di Rapa Recipe

We landed in Bari on a Saturday in September, past dinner time. We had spent the day – the week even – in anticipation, thinking about our first meal in Puglia, perhaps outside on a terrace, with the air still balmy and the white wine well chilled. We both needed this weekend away so desperately. Not because of London per se. The city had been particularly generous with us throughout the early fall – warm and sunny, with very little rain – and we loved how we could always pick and choose something different to do every weekend. But we were restless, and exhausted. We needed a few days of that lifestyle we both adore and miss so much: easy, inexpensive, next to the sea, and most of all, slow. A lifestyle that only belongs to holiday time now, and that we seem to find only in Mediterranean coastal areas – like Puglia.

When did it happen that Italy became the idyllic place to spend one’s holidays? When did I stop calling it home, or hoping it would be one anytime soon? When did I end bragging about how much better the (insert: lifestyle, food, wine, weather, landscape, culture…) is, and started realising that all these things are available to me only if I choose to spend my vacation time (and hard-earned money) there? I think I hadn’t completely realised it until the end of this trip.

 We booked a small apartment in Polignano for the whole length of our stay. The listing didn’t have any reviews yet, but it was very inexpensive and looked promising, clean and bright – we decided to go for it. Our host had even agreed to pick us up at the airport for a small fee, so that we could avoid renting a car in case we didn’t need one. We accepted, ready to drop any responsibility, any scheduling, any ‘must see’; ready to embrace the aimless wandering, the idle contemplation, the slow pace of whom have no clear plan. His name was Paolo. When I first saw him, waiting for us at the arrivals hall, I immediately thought he resembled my roommate Paolo from University: thirty-ish,  very tall, with short jeans above his bony knees, an almost-bold head, and a warming smile. For some reasons, this connection, this similarity with a person I love and trust made me like him at first sight. He was kind, and helped me with my little carry-on.

A fifty-minute drive separates Bari airport from the little, hidden, stunning gem of a town that is Polignano a Mare. Paolo was chatty enough to make the drive extremely pleasant, and quick. In his broken English, he asked us a lot of innocent yet personal questions, of the kind a stranger would never ask in London. “Ok, so let me ask you this – why Polignano?” he said at one point, accompanying his question with a very Italian, inquisitive hand gesture. It took us off guard. Why not Polignano? Wasn’t it the most beautiful corner of Eden on earth – peaceful, dramatic, with its beautiful sea and its panoramic views? We tried to give him some good reasons – we said that it all started when we stopped in Polignano during our Master’s study trip around Puglia, that we only had half-day to wonder and enjoy, and that we felt we needed to be back ever since. He nodded, but still didn’t quite understand – to him, it was probably just a boring, small, provincial town that held some fun only during the busiest summer months.

He escorted us inside the newly renovated apartment his family owned just outside the old town. A house on three floors, he explained – with steep stairs between them – like they used to build at the beginning of the last century. He showed us around, set up the wi-fi and checked on the clean towels, then headed to the kitchen, speaded a map of Polignano on the table, and started drawing points and arrows. “This spot is great for drinks, good Mojitos; this makes the best focaccia, it stays open until late; here you get good seafood, and here good pizza, but small, order antipasti as well; oh, and here they have great cornetti for breakfast, but go early ’cause they run out fast”. Then he picked up his stuff and left, promising to come back on the Tuesday at 6 to drive us back to the airport, leaving his contacts for any necessity. As he closed the door, I was invaded by these thoughts of gratitude, of empathy even, toward this young Italian man who was so generous with us, and so open. I love traveling this way, knowing the locals, getting the insider’s tips. I love meeting these people.

We couldn’t ask for more from our stay – it was everything we wanted and needed. Polignano was as stunning as we remembered it: the weather was sunny, albeit very windy. The food was unbelievably good – oh, the burrata… The apartment was lovely, with a sunny roof terrace for lazy late breakfasts and sunset-kissed glasses of Fiano. We had the quiet time we had been craving, simply wondering around or reading at the beach. J had a nice birthday filled with iodine, food and great wine. We even got to experience those bits and pieces of local folklore that make a stay a whole lot more real: a religious procession, advertised by every shop; ridiculous retail opening hours; old men spending their whole day sitting on the benches in the square, chatting lively, having an opinion about everything; a loud, lightly-trashy fashion show, to which the whole town assisted.

Tuesday came way too fast. Paolo was punctual, and waved at us from down the road. We descended the steep stairs slowly and a tad unwillingly, carry-on in hand. The ride seemed a bit slower, and words were fewer this time. The landscape of olive trees, prickly pear cactus and white houses had become a series of black outlines against the sky on fire – Puglia was giving us its very own farewell with the most breathtaking sunset. J broke the silence at one point, asking Paolo about himself this time.  He was reluctant. “Me? Well, how do I say this. I had a job in an office – it was an import-export company, food mainly. I was very happy about it, you know, ’cause it was in Polignano and I could live with my parents and save a bit of money, and still be independent with my expenses. But then the niece of the owner finished school and she needed a job, so they called me saying that they were going to give her mine, and if I wanted I could have a job in the fields, picking vegetables. I decided to decline. So I lost my job, but I was OK – I saw it as an opportunity. I had dropped my engineering degree for it because I couldn’t manage to pass exams and work full time at the same time. When I left, I thought I could go back to school and get my degree. I don’t like to depend on my parents, but at least I can help them with these things – renting out the apartment to tourists. We had a permanent tenant until a few months ago, but they bought a house and left, so we thought we could try this way. ”

How many stories like Paolo’s have I heard before hearing his? Dozens? Hundreds? How many did I read, on international newspapers or Facebook status? Did I really need to hear his to be awaken from my childish, hopeless dream of going back to Italy to set up a life in the next future? The lifestyle we love and cherish so much doesn’t even exist anymore, not for young generations anyway. What is left, for a handful of them, of us, is the hope of surviving the tempest, of making it to the end of the tunnel. Italy is a place to go back on holiday to, to enjoy the best of it and forget its unsolvable problems. Where to buy the best local food, drink the best wine, and fight the break of dawn and the next departure. There is so much waste, and so much beauty. It breaks your heart.

Orecchiette with Cime di Rapa

A pugliese classic, made in the cold months, when cime di rapa (turnip tops) grow. You can use both fresh or dry orecchiette here, simply adjust the cooking time accordingly. 
Serves 4
  • 1 bunch cime di rapa (about 400-500gr)
  • 4 tbsp virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Pinch of red chili flakes
  • 3 anchovy fillets in oil
  • 400g dry orecchiette
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Sea salt
  • Grated Pecorino cheese

Wash and chop the turnip tops, discarding the thickest part of the stalk. In a large pot of salted boiling water, blanch the leaves for two minutes, drain and set aside. In the same water, boil the orecchiette until they are al dente. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large frying pan. Add the crushed garlic, the anchovies and the chilli flakes. Cook over medium-low heat until the anchovies are melted. Add the turnip tops, season with freshly ground pepper and sea salt, and stir fry for a few minutes, until well seasoned and soft. Once the pasta is done, drain and add it to the skillet with the turnip tops. Stir well, letting it cook for one more minute so that the pasta can absorb some of the seasoning.

Serve, with a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkling of grated Pecorino cheese on top.

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