The sea urchin merchants of Gallipoli

Sea urchin stand

2nd day in Salento – it was the briny smell of salt air that first welcomed me. There we were heading towards the historical center of Gallipoli, half-attentive to what the GPS navigator was saying, when out of the corner of my eye I see a small gathering of men standing next to what looked like to be a food stall. What in the? No way, it couldn’t be. Sea urchins? Just like that out in the open? And they’re eating them at 10:30 in the morning??? I couldn’t tell MotH to stop the car. In that moment it was a mess of vehicles moving at a steady pace, and he was taking care not to run over any slow pedestrians.

Known as riccio di mare (REE-choh dee MAH-reh), uni in Japan, and ha’uke’uke in Hawaii, along with the more venomous wana that is best to avoid, sea urchin is an acquired taste. I grew up eating the helmet or shingle urchin types as a child, so for me this was 100% comfort food. The ones served in Italy are of the paracentrotus lividus species – Black Sea Urchin – and its eggs, or gonads, are what makes for exquisite consumption. The best way to eat them in this country is fresh on a plate of spaghetti. It is gustatory nirvana. Delicately sweet, rich, silky with a hint of iodine, forbidden… We each ordered a plate to enjoy all to our own, as there was not going to be any food sharing at the table that night.

Gallipoli is a beautiful old town to wander in and you’ll want to head to the little island at the end that is attached to the mainland by way of a short bridge. Unfortunately I never got a better look at the urchin stands, only that shot above as we sped by to the next destination.

Would you eat this?
Osteria del Pozzo Vecchio, via M. Silvestro 16, Cavallino LECCE – listed in the Slow Food restaurant guide. Traditional cuisine and pizzas made in a wood-burning stove.

Walking the narrow streets in the old historical center.


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