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Orecchiette Lane, Bari Vecchia

Viktorija Todorovska (Vik)

Many visitors to Puglia avoid Bari. They prefer the tranquil landscapes of olive trees and vines of rural Puglia or the breath-taking beauty of the coast. They might have heard that Bari is dangerous, that no one should ever go into the old part of town, Bari Vecchia. After experiencing Bari on several visits, I wonder if this myth persists so those in the know can enjoy this magnificent city without the tourists that would inevitably descend upon it if they only knew of its many treasures.

Bari is a large city and, like any large city, it has a lot of traffic and parts that are not safe, especially after dark and if you don not know your way. But, Bari is also the home of some of the best food and the most artisanal orecchiette, the trademark pasta of Puglia.

Bari Vecchia, perched on a limestone promontory, reveals rich layers of history and conquest, hardship and triumph. The spider web of narrow alleys hides real treasures for those patient enough to explore the labyrinth that is Bari Vecchia. The most famous cultural treasure of Bari Vecchia, the Basilicata di San Nicola, a Norman church built on the remains of a Byzantine palace dominates one end of the old town, welcoming both the visitors who want to admire the sculptures and architecture of the church and those who want to people-watch during weddings and baptisms.

But the Basilicata di San Nicola and the dozens of other churches hidden around every corner in Bari Vecchia are only part of the charm. It is the energy of the old town and its people that make visiting this place an unforgettable experience. The narrow limestone houses squeezed tightly in the ancient alleys and the life that spills out from the kitchens and living rooms eloquently tell the story of deep-rooted traditions, culinary and cultural.

For food lover, the most enchanting part of Bari Vecchia is the 'Quartiere delle Orecchiette.' To call it 'quartiere'(quarter) is an exaggeration. It is two short alleys lined with women seated outside their houses, making orecchiette, cavatelli, and orecchioni by hand, the way their mothers and grandmothers did. And it's not to be missed.

Orecchiette Puglia

To find Orecchiette Lane, approach Bari Vecchia from the Castello Svevo side. Standing in front of the entrance of the Castello, turn your back to the castle, and you are facing the Arco Alto and Arco Basso. Don not expect grand arcs: the first time I looked for Orecchiette Lane, I didn not recognize the arcs. I asked a passer-by and he pointed what was right in front of me - two arched entrances to narrow alleys, one higher than the other. Once you pass through the arcs, you enter an enchanting world: women of all ages sit in the street, turning out orecchiette at a speed you can barely follow while rapidly exchanging news in dialect, never even looking at what their hands are doing. The sight is the envy of anyone who has ever tried to make orecchiette by hand. The little ears need to be just right: small and curled, with a rough texture on the outside to soak up the sauce. The orecchiette ladies make it seem easy; it is anything but. And when they get tired of making orecchiette, they change their technique a tiny bit and make cavatelli: even smaller and more perfect, as if made by a precise machine.

Orecchiette seem to have a well-established technique, recognized more or less by all the women making them, but cavatelli are the source of a heated controversy. Some believe they can be made by turning orecchiette inside out. Others consider that cheating and insist on a special method of rolling the pasta. And if you stop and ask about the technique, the pasta makers will gladly explain and demonstrate it, giving disparaging looks to those they consider inferior for a tiny variation in technique, shape, or size. These women take their pasta seriously. This is not just pasta, this is their pride, the work they have been doing for decades and the source of culinary pleasure at their tables every day.

Orecchiette PugliaStrolling down Orecchiette Lane, your senses are seduced by the sight of the fresh pasta and the delicious aromas wafting from the small kitchens whose doors open right into the alley. If you ask what's cooking, the cooks will gladly chat, telling you about their mothers' and grandmothers' recipes and describing the sauce and how it should gently envelop the pasta without overpowering it. They might even invite you in, showing you pictures of their families and sharing with you, the curious traveler, their stories of travel and adventure or family and food.

As the children run around and the rare tourist walks by with a camera, the women of Orecchiette Lane do their work, work that honors the deep-rooted traditions of this land and feeds their families every day. In Orecchiette Lane, tradition is safe. The orecchiette for many restaurants in Bari and beyond are made here, venturing forth from the narrow lanes to spread the story of Puglia's culinary traditions. So, next time you are close to Bari, stop by Orecchiette Lane and witness tradition. And if you have a kitchen where you can boil water, buy some orecchiette or cavatelli and prepare them simply with some broccoli, extra virgin olive oil and garlic. It will be the best pasta you ever tasted.

Viktorija teaches Italian cooking and wine courses in Chicago and enjoys travel and learning about food and wine. Her first book, The Puglian Cookbook: Bringing the Flavors of Puglia Home, will be published by Surrey Books in April 2011. Since 2008, Viktorija has traveled to Puglia several times a year, gathering recipes and learning about the rich culinary tradition of this region. You can learn more about Viktorija's food and wine adventures on Oliva Cooking and My Wine Smarts.

© Viktorija Todorovska, 2011

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