Once upon a time were two Marias, a Nunzia and a tiny street where women make pasta all day and night. Though this sounds like the beginning of one of Italo Calvinos’ Italian Fables by Italo Calvino (incredulous stories of mean men with no noses, clever old witches, picky young women, persistent princes, outrageous problems, and even more outrageous endings), it’s true tale that I’ve lived and keep living every time I visit the coastal town of Bari, Puglia’s largest port city on the Adriatic Coast. Bar is a delicious and living food fable.
Arco Basso, Bari’s historic center
My story starts in the centro storico, a meandering historic center of medieval buildings and a massive cathedral. The road to follow is via dell’Arco Basso. Like any street in Bari’s centro, Via dell’Arco Basso is a winding serpentine of low and attached palazzi. Day and night, the narrow street is busy with passerbys peeking in ground floor windows to glimpse into a home kitchen where women of all ages are mixing, rolling, cutting, and drying orecchiette all day and late until the night.
Orecchiette are ear-shaped pasta, and Bari’s bounty. The women of Arco Basso are ceremonious handmaking pasta of all kinds. Orecchiette, cavatelli, flour pasta, chick pea flour pasta, which will go into my mouth and on the tables of houses and restaurants throughout the province. I can’t help but feel like one of Calvino’s capricious characters, maybe the girl from “And Seven!” (the fifth story in the Italian Fables collection)as I peek through windows and doors.
Good Ol’ Saint Nick
Around the corner is Basilica of San Nicola, a Romanesque church and reliquary of Bari’s patron saint – San Nicola. Yes, good ol’ Saint Nick, Santa Claus, protector of children and sailors, and patron saint of unmarried women.
According to legend, St. Nick brought the “miraculous” column to the church, which effectively guaranteed marriage proposals for all the single ladies. Backstory: Nick was born in the late third century in Patara,Turkiye. He allegedly gave away his wealth to travel the countryside helping the poor and sick, and quite possibly saved three sisters from being sold into slavery or prostitution by providing them with a dowry for marriage. A moment at the “miraculous column” which can add a boost to the love life.
St. Nick gets two shout-outs in Bari every year, with celebrations from May 7-9 and on December 6. Bari’s pasta ladies make a local sweet called cartellate, wheel-shaped Christmas cookies for the celebration and for the Christmas season, which the city whole-heartedly celebrates. On December 6, single women dance three times around the lucky column for a love life pick-me-up. I look around for “Silver Nose” (story #9), but don’t see him.
Bari’s Street food
With a quick salute to Kris Kringle, I’m out the door, following the smell of fried something down another narrow side street to via dell’Arco di San Nicola. I meet Maria throwing squares of sgagliozze into what looks like a boiling cauldron in her ground-level kitchen.
Imagine an edible square of polenta. Now you are thinking of sgagliozze. Unique to Bari, sgagliozze are a year-round street food tradition, found throughout the historic center like Via dell’Arco di San Nicola, Piazza del Ferrarese, Piazza Mercantile and Piazza Prefettura. Nothing quite like a salty, fried sgagliozza on a late August night.
Maria is exactly whom I envisioned when listening to the tale of Calvino’s Prezzemolina, a no-nonsense strega-nonna, bosomed, aproned, and armed with a pair of tongs. Maria has been deep-frying sgagliozze since the 1970s. She throws some salt on them (they look “Dear as Salt,” I tell myself – story #54) and hands me a bag of six for 1 euro. I am bewitched.
~ a version of this article was published on Fathom in July 2014.