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.
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.
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:
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:
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
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.