I had never eaten focaccia before. Back home, I’ve had the experience of purchasing a piece of cold bread with a few intermittent olive pieces baked into it. It was chewy and took the edge off my hunger. The label said ‘focaccia’, but after eating it, I couldn’t understand what the big deal was.
My moment of clarity arrived on Wednesday, September 28th 2016, at 19:02 Bari, Italy time.
Unbeknownst to me, the southern Italian port city of Bari is popular for its focaccia. So when Tricia and I arrived following a year of study in Malta and began to hear praise for focaccia wafting through streets of the city’s old town, the eyebrow-raised skeptic in me questioned the rumors. I shunned the suggestions of focaccia’s magnificence. Dismissively, I waved off each passing declarative that we must try a slice.
“It’s just a piece of bread with some tomatoes and a salty olive on top!”
As the sun began to set over the horizon, the white limestone walls of Bari began to glow like the embers of a wood-fired oven. The cruise ships and their passengers had set sail, and once again the locals reclaimed their city and filled the streets. The Italian ‘aperitivo’ hour had arrived, and the people of Bari were out for pre-dinner drinks and snacks.
Tricia and I ambled along the city’s cobbled streets, intoxicated by the beauty and novelty of this historic port. We waxed poetic about the history and culture of southern Italy and what made the people so friendly and welcoming.
All of a sudden, I was distracted by the crinkling of wax paper. A man briskly passed us, focused intently on walking and eating at the same time. I couldn’t make out what he was eating. All I can remember were his eyes. They were wide with ravenous determination – as if he hadn’t eaten for days.
Shaken, I reached out and held Tricia’s hand as we walked. The memory of the hungry man began to fade into my subconscious with the sight of new stone passageways and buildings around every corner. Then, without warning, my ears perked up at the sound of wax paper rustling again. I scanned the people around me – searching. She was easy to spot. Laughing with delight, the teenage girl skipped over the cobblestone as if dancing towards her destination. We stepped towards her, desperately trying to see what was being cradled in the wax paper in her hands.
“Focaccia?” I asked of Tricia.
She nodded reservedly. “Focaccia.”
We passed through the arch of an old stone gate, transitioning from section of the city to the next. It was then that I saw them, clustered around a potted palm tree and a stone doorway, each holding that revered delicacy in a crumpled fold of wax paper. They seemed to be standing guard to something sacred, while conducting a symphony of pleasureful moans. Curiosity pulled us forward, and we muscled our way through the crowd to see what was happening.
Inside, we found two police officers and a man in a white apron standing behind a counter. Well-armed, the two officers stood firm, watching us intently as we entered the room. Tricia and I hesitated, scanning our surroundings for more information.
Moments later, the man in the white apron handed the officers two massive wedges of what looked like a thick-crust pizza, wrapped in wax paper. Their demeanor instantly changed from suspicion to celebration. They laughed and bantered in Italian. One of the officers even resembled the American actor Bill Hader of Saturday Night Live fame, and I quickly looked around to see if I was in an episode of ‘Vinny Talks’.
Cautiously, Tricia and I inched closer to the bar. Behind the glass pane, the surface of the counter was completely barren, save for a single bright light hanging over a single round focaccia pie. The man in the white apron hovered over the focaccia protectively, a serrated knife held tightly in his hand.
I smiled timidly. “Focaccia?”
The aproned man nodded. “Focaccia.”
“Focaccia!” Exclaimed Officer Bill Hader with gesticulated enthusiasm. The second officer laughed.
Tricia grinned. “Focaccia!”
I laughed. “Focaccia, per favore!”
With a single swipe, the serrated knife hacked off a meal-sized portion of simmering focaccia. Rustling wax paper, folded with precision, quickly enveloped the wedge, and I reached out to commandeer my slice of this prized delicacy. Sliding my €1.50 across the counter, Tricia and I exchanged a round of smiles with everyone in the room. We then waved and said our arrivedercis before stepping out into the evening glow of Bari’s old town.
The moment had arrived. My eyes boggled. The warmth and oil of the glimmering focaccia radiated through the wax paper. Time slowed as I took a bite.
Crispy outer edges, baked golden brown by a wood-fired oven, gave way to the focaccia’s fluffy, steaming interior. A light dusting of sea salt and rosemary melted together with the tomatoes in my mouth, firing long-neglected neurons in my mind. Perhaps I possess the culinary gene of a distant ancestor from ancient Rome?
Olive oil, painted liberally over the focaccia’s surface and invariably pressed from the nearby olive groves that blanket the Puglia region, held all the flavors of the focaccia in suspended animation, allowing me to separate them – relish them.
I had never eaten focaccia before. I’m not sure if I will ever again. For to eat focaccia, Tricia and I will need to return to Italy’s Adriatic coast, and the old town of Bari. It is here that you will find focaccia.