Lecce dreaming: the Rustico and the magic of Pugliese pastry

rustico pastry lecce pugliaAbove: The supplì (left) and rustico at the Caffè Alvino in the heart of downtown Lecce.

Maybe because it’s that time of year when the weather cools down and the holiday season gives me an excuse to take a break from my rigorous diet of tuna fish for lunch and spaghetti al pomodoro for dinner.

Or maybe it’s because it’s the time of year when things slow down and I remember to remember all the good things in life.

I’m not sure why but this morning I woke up with a hankering for a rustico, the classic savory pastry of Lecce, Puglia, stuffed with béchamel and mozzarella.

That’s the rustico, above, at the Caffè Alvino in the center of the town, a sine qua non stop for me whenever I visit and a favorite late-morning snack place for Paolo Cantele, who’s taken me there many times (here’s the Google map).

To its left, you will see a classic supplì alla romana, a tomato-spiked rice log stuffed with mozzarella. It’s not a “classic” dish of Lecce or Puglia but the Pugliesi are experts at crafting the savory nuggets — at once a hangover cure and solace for a broken heart.

stuffing for rustico savory pastryAbove: The rustico is comfort food in the extreme. I know that sounds like an oxymoron but somehow it’s true. But then again, that’s part of the magic of Pugliese pastry.

Even though I didn’t visit Puglia on my last trip to Italy this fall, I was reminded of why Pugliese pastry — savory and sweet — stands apart from the rest when I dined at one of my favorite restaurants in the world, Dispensa Pani e Vini in Franciacorta (in north).

After I raved about how delicious and wholesome it was, the owner, Chef Fusari, insisted that I take home a bag of his favorite dried pasta, Cavalieri. As a discussion on the pros and cons of wholewheat and refined-wheat pasta ensued (Cavalieri is refined wheat), Chef Fusari launched into an eloquent discourse on how refined wheat can actually be superior in terms of taste.

“When the quality of the materia prima is impeccable,” he explained, “you don’t compromise wholesomeness for flavor.”

It’s not surprising that he would sing the praises of Pugliese wheat and the food products derived thereof. In the minds of many (including mine), the wheat of Puglia is unsurpassed in terms of its quality and flavor.

And my piping hot memory of the last rustico I ate in Lecce is testimony.

Jeremy Parzen

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