Buon Pranzo—A Tavola!
In Martina Franca, the Sunday lunch experience begins with a flurry of activity. Family members and guests gather at the appointed hour, shedding coats, hats and scarves amidst an explosion of excited greetings and dual cheek kissing. It may have been only hours since some of these people have seen one another, but skipping the customary greeting is mal educato (poorly mannered) in the extreme. It’s also essential to be on time, typically 1:00 p.m or 1:15 p.m. at the latest. Unlike many other appointments in Italy, lateness at pranzo puts the offender at risk of making a brutta figura (bad impression). After all, the latecomer is standing between all the other guests and the pasta.
There are no hors d’oeuvres or aperitivi (before-lunch drinks), not even an olive. In fact, very little time is spent chatting before sitting down at the table. There is a barely contained excitement about this part of the lunch, even though the experience is as familiar as breathing. Still, everyone is hoping to see his or her favorite dish, prepared exactly the way it should be. Did nonna (grandma) add rabbit to the ragu’? Will there be carciofi fritti? Are cime di rape (broccoli tops) going to accompany the orecchiette? These are the burning issues of the day.
Sometimes there are antipasti served at the table, but never elsewhere in the house. More commonly, we dive right into the pasta, which is the first essential, irreplaceable element of the meal. Sunday lunch in Puglia is unthinkable without pasta, really not to be contemplated at all. And no one is ever unhappy if the pasta is orecchiette, Puglia’s little ear-shaped semolina pasta that most nonne still really do make by hand. If you want to try them yourself, here’s a step-by-step guide. And this video will give you a visual tutorial. Orecchiette will almost always be served with a ragu’ or sugo, which has its own rigid rules that vary from town to village all over Puglia. Ragu’, essentially, is a long-simmered tomato sauce with bits and pieces of lamb ribs, pork ribs, braciole (beef or pork fillets pounded thin and rolled into little bundles stuffed with parmigiano, parsley and garlic), polpette (little veal meatballs) and sometimes rabbit. The sauce is served with the orecchiette as a first course; the meats are served as the second course on their own.
At this point, Pugliese families always serve ice-cold pieces of fennel, chicory, carrots, and celery and in the spring and summer, a kind of sweet cucumber called cocomero. These crudités serve to cleanse the palate in preparation for what’s to come. They are a truly welcome respite and we’re always happy for a pause as we nibble. We learned early on to politely decline subsequent pasta servings, no matter how wonderful. There is SO MUCH MORE FOOD to come that rigorous pacing is required. The meal has really only just begun.