Sounds seem muffled among these narrow lanes, as maze-like as an Arab medina, and overlooked by a cathedral belltower that might pass as a minaret. Overhead, swallows chatter and cry. In the streets closest to Bari’s austere castle, rows of women sit outside their houses, working on wooden tables, drying racks spread around them. They make a rhythmic tap-tap-tapping noise as they work. They are forming pasta by hand, as their mothers and grandmothers have done before them. This particular shape is called orecchiette, meaning ‘little ears’.
Angela Lastella takes a worn wooden scoop and pours out a pile of golden semolina flour. She mixes it with water, knowing the quantities by the touch – she has been making this pasta for more than 50 years. ‘I learned as a child,’ she says. ‘If you learn later, it’s harder – as with everything in life.’
Angela’s neighbour Rosa has already worked the golden dough and is rolling it with her hands into a sausage shape.
‘We make it for the family, but also for restaurants,’ she says. She deftly cuts the sausage and with an almost indiscernible movement pulls the knife she is holding flat over the pasta, turning out a perfect little curl. ‘Look, you push the knife over the pasta to do it. See? It looks easy, but it’s very difficult. To learn takes time.’
There is an art to pairing sauces with the right kind of pasta. Angela has also made cavatelli, shaped like tiny hotdog buns, which she explains ‘you may eat with seafood’. In southern Puglia, orechiette is served with tomato sauce or ragu, but the Barese enjoy eating it with cime di rapa (broccoli rabe). This local dish is particularly good eaten under the domed ceiling of La Locanda di Federico. At this atmospheric restaurant in the old town, the tender, slightly bitter shoots are cooked in olive oil, garlic and anchovies to make a sauce that works its way into every crevice of the pasta, creating little parcels of flavour.
The preparations go on all morning, the city gradually getting louder as it comes to life. Televisions blare from lace-curtained parlours, and Barese dialect is shouted across the street. Father-and-son waiter crews lure the first diners, and cooking aromas float from open kitchen windows. Finally, the fish market closes and the women cover their drying racks with cloths and go indoors. The hour approaches. The big one: Sunday lunch, after which the city will snooze until late afternoon.
Bari is a big city by Pugliese standards – head down the coast to see archetypal small-town life in Polignano (about 40 minutes by car) and equally laid-back Monopoli, five miles further on.
Palace Hotel :Just outside the old town and a short walk from the fish market, guests at the Palace are welcomed by gilded cherubs in the grand lobby. Staff are super helpful, and rooms have more of an old-world feel than the hotel’s modern exterior would suggest, with high ceilings and small balconies. There are some excellent restaurants within striking distance, and you can also dine in-house at the sixth-floor Murat, which has an outdoor terrace with lovely views over Bari.
Osteria Le Arpie is on Vico Arco del Carmine between Bari’s cathedral and its basilica.
Head to La Locanda di Federico to try orecchiette.