Chef Raffaella De Vita’s Guide to an Authentic Puglian Food Experience

Seafood is the signature fare in Puglia
Seafood is the signature fare in Puglia | © Claudio Morelli / Culture Trip
Photo of Cajsa Carlson
Architecture & Design Editor5 November 2019

Chef Raffaella De Vita lives and works in Tokyo, but her childhood home of Puglia, Italy, still has her heart. She knows exactly where to go for the best Italian food, cocktails and coffee – and fresh fish for her Mediterranean sushi.

Traditionally, to make sushi in Japan, you have to be a Japanese man. “I’m an Italian woman, so I’m doing things my own way,” says chef Raffaella De Vita, who hails from Puglia on Italy’s southern heel.

Chef Raffaella De Vita grew up on the Puglian Coast | © Claudio Morelli / Culture Trip

She swapped tagliatelle for udon in 2017, and is now based in Tokyo. The move was the culmination of a long infatuation with Japanese cooking. “I started working with a Japanese chef when I was still in Italy, and learned how to cook the basics from him – the rice, the fish, tempura, soba, udon…” she says. “After that I continued studying on my own, to learn how to make everything.” Her Italian cooking skills needed no such training. “The Italian cooking I learned from my mum and my grandmother, as well as my dad who also cooks everything, down to cake.”

Chef Raffaella De Vita combines Japanese and Italian flavours and techniques in her dishes | © Claudio Morelli / Culture Trip

The restaurant where she now works in Tokyo focusses on Italian gourmet cuisine, and De Vita enjoys the fusion of working with Japanese ingredients. “Obviously, when requested, I also prepare my sushi,” she says. Though the two cuisines might at first seem very different, De Vita points out they are more similar than you might think: in both Japanese cooking and Puglian cuisine the focus is on raw fish, prepared in the most natural way.

Both Italian and Japanese cooking have a focus on raw fish, fresh from the ocean | © Claudio Morelli / Culture Trip

When she’s at home with her family in Puglia, De Vita enjoys the food she grew up with. “I define Pugliese food as authentic and genuine because even today, all traditional dishes are made following traditional recipes.”

If you’re visiting the area and want to get a taste of true Puglian cooking, De Vita says the Grottone restaurant in Polignano a Mare is the place to go. “It preserves authenticity and has good food, attentive service and a splendid location,” she says.

Puglia is on Italy’s southern heel and is a great destination for a foodie trip | © Claudio Morelli / Culture Trip

Eating in the area is all about trying the local produce. “When a person goes to Puglia they should definitely try our raw seafood, focaccia, panzerotti [savoury pastry] and la tiella barese [a local dish of mussels, potatoes and rice]. Our fruit and vegetables are also very good,” says De Vita. She cooks ‘Mediterranean sushi’ with fresh fish when she’s back in Puglia, combining the Italian and Japanese cuisines in dishes such as locally sourced fresh octopus with yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit) or Barese sushi with potatoes and mussels.

De Vita sources the seafood for her recipes from local markets | © Claudio Morelli / Culture Trip

For anyone who wants to eat and cook like a local while visiting, De Vita has a useful tip. “To get good seafood you have to go to the open markets of Manfredonia, Mola di Bari, Gallipoli, Taranto – the markets of the seaside cities. If I want to buy fresh and good-quality ingredients, I always go to the various open markets, like the one in Foggia, my city, where I find people I trust with products that are always fresh.” She also uses her time in her home country to hang out with her close-knit family, eating at her mum’s house (“she cooks divinely,” De Vita says,) or going to their beach house near Manfredonia.

Recipes are passed down through the generations in De Vita’s family | © Claudio Morelli / Culture Trip

De Vita isn’t the only family member in the restaurant business. She made a name for herself making sushi, in what was typically considered to be a man’s domain, and that rebel spirit is equally evident in her sister Veronica. De Vita says they’ve always had a special relationship, and Veronica is also breaking convention with what has previously been considered to be a ‘man’s job’, but in Italy rather than Japan. She runs a pizzeria. “My sister’s pizzeria is located in Foggia and called Capriccio all’Italiana,” De Vita says. “In addition to the classic pizza margherita, customers try a little bit of everything, as there is so much choice [from] the rotisserie.”

De Vita grew up in a pretty town in Puglia | © Claudio Morelli / Culture Trip

When the blazing Italian sun beats down on the streets of Puglia, you might need to escape somewhere cooler. De Vita recommends La Terrazza, her favourite bar in Polignano a Mare, for a good coffee or an ice cream. And she knows where to spend the long Mediterranean summer evenings, too. “If I want a very high-level cocktail, I go to the Moonshine, a beautiful place in Polignano a Mare whose owner is a very good bartender named Antonella Benedetto,” she says.

Sun and sea add to the Mediterranean charm in Puglia | © Claudio Morelli / Culture Trip

Hungry for more? Here are the spots Culture Trip loves

Sotto le Cummerse, Puglia

Boutique Hotel
Map View
The dreamy bedrooms are light and bright
The dreamy bedrooms are light and bright | Courtesy of Sotto le Cummerse, Puglia

Scattered throughout the historic centre of Locorotondo, Sotto le Cummerse’s apartment-style suites are surrounded by maze-like cobbled streets and whitewashed stone buildings. A stay here is the best way to immerse yourself in the region and its culinary traditions. Wander out to sip local prickly-pear liqueur on a café terrace or dine on regional specialities like orecchiette at the nearby trattorias and osterias.

Furnirussi Tenuta, Puglia

Boutique Hotel
Map View
Suites are surrounded by fragrant camphor trees
Suites are surrounded by fragrant camphor trees | Courtesy of Furnirussi Tenuta

Furnirussi Tenuta’s get-away-from-it-all approach to luxury is a breath of fresh air in Italy’s tourist hub. Bathed in the coconut scent of fig leaves from the groves that surround it, the hotel takes a contemporary approach to Puglian traditions, especially when it comes to food. Its restaurant, Il Ficheto, crafts traditional Salento cuisine with a twist, created from local, seasonal produce, much of which is organic and grown on-site. For breakfast, linger over a buffet of cold meats, cheese, cereals, yoghurts and freshly picked figs while sitting beside the rippling, lagoon-style pool.

Bari Street Food Walking Tour

Bakery, Deli, Ice Cream Parlour, Italian
Map View
Experience another side of Italian culture and cuisine on a Bari Street Food Walking Tour | Courtesy of Get Your Guide

Check out the rest of the thriving food scene in Puglia on this Bari Street Food Tour. Explore the city’s streets and stop along the way at a bakery and a deli before tucking into the local speciality of deep-fried polenta fritters. You’ll also get to sample home-made gelato and enjoy a glass of local wine as your tour winds up by the sea.

A Handmade Pasta Cooking Class

Restaurant, Italian
Map View
Learn first-hand how to make fresh pasta the Italian way | Courtesy of Get Your Guide

For a more traditional Italian experience, head to this authentic pasta-making workshop. You’ll get schooled in traditions that have been passed down through the generations and learn how to transform fresh, local ingredients into a delicious bowl of pasta.

Explore some of the world’s most vibrant cities through local chefs and unique food with the full series of Hungerlust.