Summer seemed to fly by in Puglia this year, and not only because of the weather. Along with partner Nancy Harmon Jenkins, we’ve been busy planning AmorOlio in Puglia, our food-focused tours that start this fall. We were almost too focused to notice the late spring rains and capricious thunderstorms that blew into Italy in June, effectively putting summer on hold. When it finally arrived in mid-August, the southern heat settled in as if to make up for lost time. So we took a time out and did our best to maximize the long, sunny days and balmy nights here. Aperitivi on the roof terrace, lunch at the beach and as many bike rides as we could manage, but only when the thermometer stayed on the cooler side of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. And we dove deeply into the sea of summer produce that swells the markets in late summer. We’re still making all our favorite fair weather dishes as often as possible before the gorgeous fruits and vegetables disappeared for another nine months.
On one steamy August morning, we headed south to the coastline just east of Ostuni. A new friend, author and Pugliese food marketing maven Rossella Speranza, had invited us to learn her mother’s secrets in making a classic first course from nearby Bari. The dish, called variously tiella barese, tieddh and riso, patate e cozze, is almost mythic here. Everyone gets a little misty-eyed just talking about it.
Whatever you call it, tiella can be described as a layered casserole with a gastronomic link to Spanish paella, although this provenance is hotly disputed. We discovered it on our first trip to Puglia and the memory of our first bite is indelible. Years ago, when dining in a restaurant not far from Bari, we asked a fellow diner where to find the best tiella barese. He responded quickly “ . . . a casa mia . . . dalla mamma” (At my house the way my mom makes it.). So that’s how you do it. You have go to someone’s mother’s house to learn a dish as iconic and well loved as this one.
Rossella, whose book “Olive Oil: Sense and Sensibility,” is one of the most visually beautiful odes to Pugliese olive oil I’ve found, fairly crackled with energy as we gathered around her mother’s kitchen table to decode tiella and its nuanced mystery. As we watched, Rossella interviewed her mother to tease out tips mastered during a lifetime of tiella making, sparking a spirited back and forth about ingredients, measurements, method, cooking time, serving temperature . . . pretty much everything. We watched in awe, our heads bobbing back and forth between mother and daughter to follow the thread. And when the final layer of the tiella was lovingly patted into place and settled in the oven, we headed out to the beach.
Later, over lunch, Barese friends and a local Martinese food producer, Stefano Caroli, joined us. Stefano has built upon his family’s olive oil milling business to develop a locally-sourced—and especially high quality—line of traditional foods from this part of Puglia now exported throughout Europe. And recently, with colleagues in the artisanal olive mill world, Stefano has formed an association of like-minded olive millers to develop a set of rigorous standards for all artisanal Italian extra virgin olive oil production designed to ensure quality in the marketplace. There was so much to talk about, so that’s what we did all afternoon between mouthfuls of heavenly tiella and local vino rosato.
There are few moments more convivial than those spent eating genuine, perfectly prepared traditional foods in the company of passionate supporters of those foods’ integrity. And with Mamma Speranza in the mix, this particular moment was unforgettable. As we learn more about what pulls us to Puglia, we find that these are the experiences that resonate long after they have passed. But isn’t that true of most indelible moments? Passion, warmth and a deep desire to share are the hallmarks of human experience worth keeping alive. We just hope that there’s always some tiella at the table, too.
Tiella is a snap to put together, but there is little room for deviation (according to Mrs. Speranza). She told me that there are two distinct camps in tiella making, and never the twain shall meet. Some people add a layer of thinly sliced zucchini to the mix; others consider this blasphemy of the first order and would never even entertain the notion. You can experiment as you see fit, but know that Mrs. Speranza is watching and she doesn’t use zucchini. Ever.
Tiella alla Barese—Rice, Potatoes and Mussels, Bari-Style
2/3 cup Italian Arborio or Canaroli (short-grained) rice
1 lb. fresh mussels
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small or medium white or yellow onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
½ cup peeled, seeded and chopped Italian tomatoes (canned are fine, too, but use a great imported brand and make sure the tomatoes really are from Italy)
2 lbs. (about 4-5 small to medium) yellow-fleshed potatoes, peeled, sliced and reserved in a bowl of cold water; Yukon Golds are a good choice
¾ cup freshly grated parmigiano cheese
¼ cup freshly grated pecorino cheese
¾ cup fresh bread crumbs (make these yourself by putting fresh, country-style bread in a food processor or blender and processing until fine)
1/3 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1 clove garlic, minced
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Cover the rice with cold water and set aside. Clean and de-beard the mussels, discarding any mussels with cracked or widely opened shells. Place the mussels in large pot with ½ cup of water, cover and steam over medium-high heat just until the mussels open. Discard any mussels that haven’t opened of their own accord. Remove one of the two mussel shells, leaving the mussel itself on the half shell; discard the removed shell. Put the opened mussels on the half shell in a bowl in the refrigerator until you’re ready to assemble the tiella, but don’t prepare them too much in advance of making the dish. Strain the mussel steaming liquid to remove sand and grit; reserve the strained liquid.
Mix the cheese, breadcrumbs, Italian parsley and minced garlic in a bowl. Set aside.
Use a terracotta or oven-safe ceramic dish for the tiella, with sides no higher than 4 or 5 inches, perhaps about 10 to 12 inches in diameter. Drizzle a generous quantity of extra virgin olive oil over the bottom of the dish, sprinkle some sea salt (bigger crystals are best, but any good, quality sea salt will do) then scatter all of the thinly sliced onions over the bottom.
Next, sprinkle a few of the diced tomatoes on top of the onions—no more than 10 pieces at the most. Drain the potatoes, then follow the previous layer with a layer of potatoes, lapping them slightly over one another, in a circular pattern, until you reach the center and the onion and tomato layer is completely covered.
Next, sprinkle one third of the cheese and breadcrumb mixture over the potato later. Dot with about 10 tomato pieces, a sprinkling of salt and a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Place the mussels on the half shell on top of the potato layer, covering the potatoes completely. Yes, you are actually putting mussels on the half shell into the casserole. The shells provide an unmistakable imprint of the ocean and are essential to the success of the dish. Don’t stack the mussels on top of one another, but fit them in tightly to include as many as possible.
Drain the rice. Sprinkle small fistfuls of the rice randomly on top of the mussels. This will seem like a very small amount of rice, but don’t be tempted to add more. Too much rice makes the tiella starchy, even less flavorful, so resist the impulse. Dot with another 10 tomato pieces.
Sprinkle another third of the cheese and breadcrumb mixture along with a little sprinkle of sea salt on top of the mussels and rice layer, followed by another generous pour of extra virgin olive oil.
The next layer is composed of the remaining potato slices; use only enough to cover the rice and mussels and layer in the circular pattern you used on the first layer. Sprinkle the tops of the potato slices with the last third of the cheese and breadcrumb mixture along with a little sea salt. Dot the potatoes with 10 more tomato pieces and pour over the last generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Fill a large measuring cup with boiling water and pour the water carefully down the several sides of the tiella, stopping when the water is almost all of the way up the side but still well under the top layer of the tiella ingredients. Pour the strained, reserved mussel steaming liquid down the side of the tiella in the same way. Make sure the boiling water and reserved steaming liquid are about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch below the top potato layer of the tiella.
Place the tiella in the preheated oven, leaving it uncovered during baking. Bake for approximately 45 minutes to an hour. Test one of the potatoes with a fork to make sure it falls apart easily; bite into a grain of rice to make sure it is soft. Remove the tiella from the oven. Let rest for at least 10-15 minutes, or, on a hot day, serve the tiella a little warmer than room temperature.
Serves about 6.
Note: If you were to add zucchini to the tiella, add it with the potato layer, substituting sliced zucchini for half of the potatoes. Alternate one slice of potato and one slice of potato in a circular pattern in the way you layered the potatoes. For many Barese, the addition of zucchini would be deeply troubling, so proceed at your own risk.