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Like every Italian town, Lecce loves coffee. Caffe, caffe macchiato, caffe latte, you know the drill. But the real specialty in Lecce is the caffe in ghiacco or the caffe in ghiacco with latte di mandorla. These sweet, cold drinks are particular to the Salento region of Puglia and are said to have originated in this charming, baroque city.

Caffe in ghiaccio—a short espresso over ice with a healthy amount of sugar—is perfect for a hot afternoon. Caffè in ghiaccio con latte di mandorla features that same iced espresso with a frothy sweet almond cream poured over top. Both will get you fired up real quick. In addition to beautiful coffee drinks, Lecce itself is magical.

photo of a female saint statue carved of white stone in a church
This sweet angel of suffering had thee most enchanting light up halo.

Lecce is the perfect landing spot for exploring the northern region of Salento. For the visually-minded, Salento is best known as the heel of Italy’s boot. From Lecce’s vantage point you can quickly reach gorgeous beaches on the Adriatic and Ionian coasts, plus explore the interior of this stunning olive- and wine-producing region. Beyond strategic positioning, Lecce the city shines. The centro storico has ruins dating back to the 3rd century B.C. and the city reflects the range of cultures that have held power since then. Narrow cobblestone streets, medieval and baroque architecture, painfully cute piazzas and squares and a whole boatload of beautiful churches to rival Florence and Rome. The walled-in original old town was constructed from pietra leccese, a local soft, yellow limestone that causes the entire old town to glow as the sun sets. All in all, Lecce is the perfect place to stay awhile.

Perhaps most importantly is the really, really yummy coffee. (I never cared too much for coffee, but my very clever wife changed that when we met, thank god. Now I cannot imagine wanting to start my day without it.) Lecce’s local pastries—my newly acquired passion—will make you weep. The pasticciotto, reported to have been born here, is a small bun-shaped morning dessert (let’s call them what they are, people) filled with a creamy, oh so subtly lemon custard. Sometimes there’s a variation on the filling (nutella or pistachio cream) but lemony vanilla is the norm. The texture of the pastry is closer to a cookie than a cake. It almost reminds me of the texture of cornbread. Did I mention it’s delicious? It’s not too sweet, it’s smaller than the palm of my hand, tastes great with une caffe, and is totally legit to eat before 10am.

 

close up of a cappuccino and pasticciotto
Pasticciotto with some nutella for good measure

Where you drink coffee in Lecce (in all of Italy, really) depends on how you want to drink your coffee. If you prefer a leisurely beverage and newspaper moment, you’ll pay for ‘servizio.’ This means that in addition to the cost of your order, you’re paying the waiter to take your order and bring it to you. Sitting at a table can take a long time so if you are in a hurry don’t opt for this. Seated service is fun only if you’re not in a rush. If you want caffeine inside you, quick, or if you are in a hurry, you must order at the counter. Personally, there is nothing more satisfying than an espresso knocked back while standing at the bar and then chased with wee glass of bubbly water. Perhaps this is a holdover from my booze drinking days, but I adore the experience. It provides all the perks of taking a shot on the go (like a bar crawl!) without any of the booze-y impairment—just wonderful coffee superpowers. The counters are for standing only, so don’t get any airs about asking for a barstool. You order directly from the barista, then pay after you drink. Oh how I imagine that my limited Italian sings when I say, “une caffe macchiato, per favore!”

Here are my favorite places for drinking coffee, and the ways in which to drink them, and some hot tips on the best pastries in Lecce:

Cappuccino and pasticciotto on a lazy Sunday: Caffe Alvino:

close up of a capucchino

Word on the street is Caffe Alvino prescribes to the traditional pasticciotto recipe, which contains shortening. So beware if you’re a veggie. The shortening does make the dessert damn fine and super moist. The Caffe Alvino cappuccino is creamy and smooth and the patio seating in front of the cafe provides an ideal spot to overlook the ruins of the Roman amphitheater built (NBD) in the second century, B.C. Enjoy your morning respite while tourists and locals come and go on the Piazza Sant’Oronzo. Inside are miles of marble and chandeliers and mountains of cakes and ornately pastel pastries that will boggle your eyes. Their rustica (a mozzarella and tomato filled phyllo dough savory pastry) is a good alternative to sweet. Cost for two cappuccino, two pasticciotto and a table: 5 euros.

 

Coffee at the counter: Bar Rosso e Nero Internet Cafe:

close up of an espresso shot in a white espresso cup

Despite their headline as an internet cafe, these guys don’t have a website. Searching ‘Rosso e Nero’ won’t do the trick easily, either, as Rosso e Nero is as ubiquitous as Caffe Valentina or Quattro Cafe…it’s a shout out to the type of coffee they use. In any case, follow this google maps link to this local spot. It’s only open until ~6pm. The baristas were so darling when we were there (which was almost each morning for a week) and the macchiato just right, at approximately 80 cents. Their pasticciotto had a healthy amount of cream and came in two sizes. I also loved their cornetto cioccolato (aka chocolate croissant). A few guys also ordered caffe correctos, which is morning drinking in the way that only Italians can make elegant: espresso with a shot of grappa slipped in to correct things.

Classic caffe in ghiacco with almond syrup: Bar Alvino  

close up of a local specialty coffee in a clear glass

A short trek from the main city center but worth the experience, Caffe Alvino is famous for this sweet almond drink. It’s counter service inside the cafe, so belly up and don’t be shy. The bartender specially froths the almond cream to order and puts on a whole show of layering the ingredients, which of course makes the experience fun and playful.

Wherever you go in Lecce you’re bound to find tasty coffee and tasty pastiocciotto. We tried a pistachio one so you don’t have to. It wasn’t bad, but hot damn those vanilla ones are good. Beyond just caffeinated beverages Lecce has delightful regional cuisine (like orecchiette with parsnip green pesto), fascinating museums and a wonderful contemporary art museum called MUST. I learned the hard way while using the ladies room at MUST that what I thought was a pull for flushing the toilet was actually a 911 bathroom alarm that reverberated through the entire museum complex, so we certainly made some friends that day. I’ll write more on our September 2018 Puglia trip soon. Until then, here are some more Lecce photos.

Italian produce stand
Roasted chicken for 5 euros good enough to make us weep
woman in a purple dress walking through an art gallery
Immediately prior to accidentally pulling the museum bathroom alarm
like the class act that I am
close up photo of turnip green pasta, a regional specialty
Orecchiette with parsnip greens. Crisp flavor and chewy pasta and holy mackerel so good
close up photo of pistachio pasticiotto
Pistachio pastiocciotto. Pretty good, but vanilla is way better.

Nashville, land of honky tonk dreams.

This small town big city is like Austin, Texas and Butte, Montana had a steel guitar baby. All the wee bricky homes of Butte, with the rolling green, mid-city river, rhythmic soul of Austin.

We’ve been eating, tour-nerding, and exploring neighborhoods. Neon signs, BBQ grills, deep fryers, and Southern greens are all around. Getting acquainted with the Ryman Auditorium had me reeling. Bluegrass was born on its stage and every single sequin-suited country singer worth their boots has rocked there, while the star-making Grand Ole Opry lived there from 1943 – 1974. Then, walking out the Ryman’s door and stepping onto the Broadway strip, hearing the honky tonk angels at iconic joints like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge just sealed the deal. Maybe everybody’s a star in Nashville.

It’s so damn charming here. The cozy boutiques and neighborhoody vibes, country music and street art had my heart singing. On top of that, we came to visit family, so that had a sweetness all its own. Nashville is completely new to me, and we did a lot in five days, most of it revolving around food. But—if for some reason—you’re teleported here and only have one day to explore, I’ll share this snapshot of East Nashville (plus a sprinkle of other fun) for your adventuresome soul.

East Nashville

We geared up for the afternoon at Pinewood Social with food, libations, and locally roasted Crema Coffee. My lady can be a cranky shopper so I like to give her a little booze before we mosey into uncharted waters. I don’t drink, so I loved their creamy latte with the special coconut and almond milk blend. Their low-key, upscale menu (shaved brussel salad with grilled salmon for me) fits the industrial chic vibe of the large warehouse. It’s been converted to house a cozy sitting zone, coffee shop, big central bar, tufted booths, and an indoor bowling alley, swimming pool out back, airstream bar, and bocce ball. Heaven? Yes.

Afterwards, we headed straight to 5 Points—at the intersection of Woodland, Clearview, and North 11th—and began the Country Christmas shopping experience at the badass collective called the Idea Hatchery.

A handful of local businesses incubate in the low rent, minimal overhead, community setting of the hatchery. I loved Walker Creek Confections‘ Sea Salt Carmels and am gifting a bag to my mama if I manage not to eat them on the plane. I also adored Haulin’ Oats and their mason jars full of oatmeal magic. I got so damn figgy with it this morning.

Next, we popped over to Art and Invention. We got a sweet Joan of Arc hot pink savior of wall art chain metal thing. You know the kind. Made by local artist Wynn Smith, the shop is full of Nashville artists’ paintings, jewelry, metalworks, and  more. It’s sweet.

We paused the shopping bonanza and took in some dancing bears and muraled ladies rising up by artist Leah Tumerman. Street art shines all over in this city.

When the buzz started to run low, we headed over to the converted garage turned coffee mecca that is Barista Parlor. Caffeine dreams really do come true. Shot of espresso, side of dark chocolate, soda water. So grown up.

Coffee not doing it? Nothing like sugar to save the day. We hit up local legend Five Daughters Bakery for a fix. My wife thinks gluten free donuts suck booty, but I feel real fancy free when I get to indulge. To that end, I loved their Paleo Crushers. I had both the orange chocolate and gingerbread. They were both dense and sweet and not reaaaalllly donuts but they tasted good. (P.S. The gingerbread dominated.) The 100 layer donut is their claim to fame. The vibe inside the bakery is hot pink neon and super fun. We also liked the charming 12 South neighborhood spot.

12 South

We clearly led this trip with our stomachs. The 12 South neighborhood was also really cute. I am in LOVE with Frothy Monkey coffee and their seasonal specialty, the Golden Monkey. Steamed milk, espresso, turmeric, ginger, and a lil sweet syrup. So dreamy and right.

12 South has its share of murals, too.

The ‘hood also has a slew of fancy/pricey boutiques and fabulous eateries like Edley’s BBQ. The 1/2 chicken was damn fine and the BBQ sauce just the right combo of heat and sweet. Local studio Liberation Yoga had a Christmas Eve class taught by Raquel Bueno that was so sweet and special and centering before diving into the tornado of wrapping paper and whirling dervish that is a four year old nephew opening gifts.

There’s so much more to do and see here. Next time I’m touring the new site of the Grand Ole Opry and will venture out into the Smokey Mountains. And maybe hang out with Dolly Parton.