From the winding, coastal road along the Adriatic Sea in Puglia, a giant spider-like structure appears ahead. As we approach, an enormous net rises from the water, carrying with it a mass of wriggling fish. It is a trabucco, one of the traditional fishing contraptions that pepper the coast of the Gargano Peninsula.
Known as the spur on the heel of Italy’s boot, the Gargano Peninsula is a rocky promontory in northern Puglia, characterized by white limestone cliffs, crystal green seas, olive trees, medieval castles and picturesque white-washed villages. Unlike the rest of Puglia, here, steep mountains rise directly from the water, providing expansive views over the sea.
Throughout history, the region has attracted its share of conquerors including the Greeks, Normans and Frederick II of Prussia (who lived here for most of his reign). And let us not forget Hannibal, who fought the Romans at Cannae, a few miles from here.
Other foreign visitors (possibly the Phoenicians) are credited with introducing the trabucco to the region. The earliest references to these fishing devices date to the 1600s, although some sources say they existed already in the 15th century. Whatever their actual origins, along the 44-mile stretch of the Adriatic Sea, known as the Costa dei Trabucchi (the Coast of the Trabucchi) these intricate contraptions are a throw-back to ancient times.
The trabucchi consist of a wooden platform attached to the nearby rocks with wooden antennae-like arms that extend over the sea. The fishing net is attached. One or more giant capstans and pulley wheels, on a large, fixed pole, are used to drop the net into the water where the currents make it favorable for fishing. Also on the platform is a small weathered wooden hut that serves as a shelter for the fishermen.
Watching the fishermen at work is fascinating. A lookout sits on top of one of the antennae, sometimes for hours, waiting for the shoals of fish to approach. He alerts his companions who drop the net (known as a Trabocchetto) before stamping on the platform. One fisherman explains to us that the noise stuns the fish long enough for the net to capture them and then bring them to the surface.
Unfortunately, this age-old tradition of the Adriatic Sea is now endangered. Apart from the fact that the waters here have been overfished, recent studies show that the Mediterranean Sea is warming up at 2-3 times the rate of the rest of the world’s oceans. The impact on the fishing industry is dire.
Most of the people we speak with tell us that they can no longer earn a living from fishing. Increasingly they are turning to an alternative – using the trabucchi as rustic, open-air restaurants.
One of the most well known of these is the Trabucco di Mimi, (located on the hillside a few miles south of Peschici above the Bay of St. Nicola on the Gargano Peninsula). A winding, steep road leads down to a collection of wooden buildings, festooned with fishing nets, driftwood, and shells, presided over by the trabucco on which hangs an enormous portrait of Mimi, the patriarch of the Ottaviano family, who passed away a few years ago. His sons and grandsons (Mario, Carlo, Domenico, and Vincenzo) now continue the tradition.
Cable spool wooden tables line the terrace, flanked by wooden benches facing the sea. Bottles of white wine sit in ice buckets. Simple paper placemats line the table. A nearby enclosed area with tables and chairs offers shelter for cooler evenings.
A chalkboard near the entrance lists the menu. It changes daily depending on either what has been caught in the net or what is available at the local market.
You order your food at the counter and find a seat overlooking the crashing waves. Come late in the afternoon to secure one of the best tables and watch the sun settle into the sea while you sip your aperitivo. Then tuck into your al fresco meal.
The preparation is traditional and simple, similar to what fishing families might make for themselves – Oysters from Manfredonia, prawns, mussels, spaghetti alle vongole (clams), and our favorite – tiny sardines, fried in extra virgin olive oil. You eat them whole, spritzed with some lemon juice.
This rustic dining experience in one of Puglia’s trabucchi is probably one of the most unique that you will find in your travels in Italy. Don’t miss it!
IF YOU GO
If you are driving down the Adriatic Coast, take the A14 (Bologna to Taranto) and exit at Poggio Imperiale. Continue on the SP144 towards Peschici until you cross the SS89. The Trabucco di Mimi is located on the SP 52 less than 1 km south of the center of Peschici.
If you are coming from Vieste (south of Peschici), take the SS89, merging onto the SP 52 or directly from the SS89, taking the last exit on the right for the Bay of St. Nicola just before Peschici.
Reservations are required at the Trabucco di Mimi. Book online. The restaurant is open from April to October, seven days a week. Lunch is served between 1215 and 1400; Dinner is from 1900 to 2100.
For additional images visit the Italy/Puglia gallery at Allegria Photos.