Italy's Mezzogiorno: Savoring Basilicata And Puglia
Feature by: Dalia Miller
Photos: Kip Miller

“Expect delays,” says our tour leader Chiara as we approach Messina, Sicily’s busy northeastern port, a 20-minute journey across narrow straits to the mainland. Our bus pulls into the noisy harbor and Chiara ups the volume on Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, but the music is obliterated by the din. Nothing to do now but wait for our scheduled ferry to arrive. I sit back and survey the scene from my window. The glistening straits bring to mind the legend of fata morgana, the optical illusion that reflects an elongated view of Messina in the sea. It was here that Morgan le Fay, King Arthur’s wicked sorceress and a denizen of Mount Etna, created mirages, luring sailors off course to their death. “No, that won’t happen to us,” I tell myself.

Few straits are as fraught with dread as Messina’s, the site of Homer’s ferocious Scylla and Charybdis, two rival monsters that made it nearly impossible for Odysseus to pass through. Circe advised Odysseus to sail closer to the rock of Scylla, the lesser of two evils. Several of his men were devoured by the six-headed Scylla, but his ship survived. Alas, the long awaited 8.2 billion Euro suspension bridge project to connect the mainland to Sicily was scrapped in 2012, leading many to believe it will never be built, and the legends that haunt this passage will surely live on.

Finally, our Caronte & Tourist ferry gets underway. Ahead of us stretches the Calabrian coastline, “the toe of the boot,” famed for pristine white beaches and rugged mountains, yet virtually unknown by tourists. From here many thousands of immigrants journeyed to America for a better life. Here, too, is the home of the infamous ‘ndrangeta, a crime syndicate akin to Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, a name deriving from a Greek word for an association of heroic and defiant men. Yet Reggio Calabria, the largest city in the region, houses many treasures, among them two magnificent fifth century BC bronzes of naked Greek warriors. “They were rescued from the sea,” explains Chiara, who knows everything there is to know about Italy, “shedding light on this important outpost of Magna Graecia.”

Our bus climbs the Aspromonte Massif that divides the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas, entering a series of long tunnels, crossing old growth pine forests and deep ravines. As we head for lunch at a designated highway autogrill, Caruso is belting out his famous Pagliacci aria. “This was the first recording to sell over a million in Italy,” notes Chiara. “The story takes place right here in Calabria.” The grill is a pleasant surprise. “American road stops can learn a thing or two from this place,” says my husband, surveying an array of luscious produce, just-baked country bread, and local cheese. “We Italians expect our food to be come to the table garden fresh and fully ripe,” Chiara beams. A good omen, I think, as we continue to Basilicata and Puglia, Italy’s up-and-coming foodie destinations.

Matera, an ancient cave town carved out of limestone cliffs in Basilicata,
has just been named Italy’s European Capital of Culture for 2019.

Matera, an ancient troglodyte town known as the “sassi,” is situated deep in Basilicata, the instep of Italy’s boot. Its honeycomb of caves lines a ridge of soft limestone cliffs high above the Gravina gorge. Once considered the shame of Italy, Matera is currently undergoing a spectacular renaissance. For millennia people led a primitive existence inside these dank and dark holes. As the centuries wore on, they expanded their living space, burrowing deeper into the limestone, adding workshops and churches. But there was no running water and sanitation was crude. “Everything changed after Carlo Levi, a writer exiled by the Fascists in 1935, came here,” Chiara explains. “In his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, Levi brought the pitiful condition of the sassi to national exposure. In painful detail, he described the children, eyes red and swollen, and wretched old men yellow with malaria, their bodies reduced to skeletons.” The rest of Italy was outraged and the entire population was relocated to new housing.

We stop a vantage point overlooking the two sassi districts where the renewal is taking place. First to arrive were hippie squatters who created artisan studios, followed by opportunists who recognized the touristic potential of the sassi, but it was really the filming of Mel Gibson’s controversial “The Passion of the Christ,” that put Matera on the map. The town’s supposed resemblance to ancient Jerusalem has brought other filmmakers here. “They are just finishing a new version of ‘Ben Hur’ and other films are in the planning,” Chiara announces. Recently, Matera, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was designated as Italy’s European Capital of Culture for 2019.

At Locanda di San Martino, a unique cave hotel in Matera,
patrons luxuriate in 30 degree centigrade Roman thermae.

Time-worn stairs descend to Barisano, the atmospheric old town where our hotel, the rambling Locanda di San Martino, offers a bevy of fully equipped cave rooms plus an underground pool and spa, or thermae, dating back to the Roman era. There are other luxury hotels, such as Le Grotte, with fittings and furniture salvaged from the past, the brainchild of two Swedish-Italians who head a growing movement to rescue some of Italy’s 17,000 villages abandoned by emigration. Even director Francis Ford Coppola has gotten into the act, restoring Palazzo Margherita in the nearby town of Bernalda, and many wealthy Italians are buying renovated caves for getaways. Steps away from the hotel, Nadi Ristorante regales us with some of their specialties: Tagliatelle with truffle oil, herbed barley salad and a savory parmigiana of eggplant and zucchini. “You are sitting right over an ancient wine cellar,” Chiara divulges.

The morning sky is overcast, but intermittent rain doesn’t impede our exploration of the sassi led by a knowledgeable local guide, Nadia. It’s easy to get lost here and no two buildings are aligned. We wander through a bewildering maze of dead ends, staircases and twisting alleys, past spooky doorways of still-abandoned caves. “When the government first stepped in, sassi dwellers were sleeping with their farm animals under their beds. They were given new housing complete with bathrooms, but these people did not understand washing and were unwilling to change,” Nadia discloses. “They used their new bathrooms to cultivate plants.” There are many incentives for developers here. “The government is giving 80% funding to convert houses into hotels and B&Bs, and 50% for house rehabs,” she explains. We enter an art studio with a miniature of the entire town carved in tufa. “Benvenuti, tutti,” the owner greets us with an impish smile, pausing for photos behind a scale model of ancient Matera, a labor of love that undoubtedly took years to complete.

Sasso Caveoso means “toward the quarry,” the deep ravine cut by the Gravina River and overlooked by a steep cliff, the site of Gibson’s crucifixion scene. Nearby stands the old rock church of Madonna d’Idriss, a paleo Christian site dating from the 3rd century, one of many rupestrian churches here. At Casa Grotta Vico Solitario, a series of connecting caves that operate as a mini folk museum, Nadia points to a cistern for rain water and an ancient olive press. There is a loom, a mattress filled with corn husks, a brazier and other assorted furnishings collected for display from caves throughout the sassi. “This was a more prosperous house,” Nadia says. “They had several rooms and three horses and one donkey.” She confides that sassi peasants would usually disappear for days at a time when they worked their fields. “Children under seven were left alone at home and were drugged with opium while their parents were gone. Many of these children did not survive,” Nadia admits. “Today all pink poppies in Matera are destroyed to prevent this ancient practice from continuing.”

“I hope you are good and hungry,” says Chiara we all gather at Le Botteghe, a stylish restaurant with white-washed, vaulted rooms and a cellar offering 120 varieties of wine. We dive into a bevy of antipasti: from stuffed zucchini flowers and a delicate carrot flan to cardoncelli mushrooms and caponata. I could quit now, but our servers just begun. A heaping bowl of cavatelli with chickpeas arrives, followed by a platter of sausages and lamb chops hot off the grill, and crusty rolls that are lusciously salty inside. We are totally stuffed, but then the desserts appear: pistachio biscotti and spumante meringues sprinkled with toasted almonds. Our waiter Paulo is enthusiastic about their regional wines, especially the DOP Matera Primitivo and a Pietrapenta. “Too much food!” whines Eric as we stumble back to our cozy cave nooks, all four of us vowing to up the walking and cut back on the feasting.

A morning chill hangs in the air as we start out for Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot and its fecund orchard, where high-quality durum wheat is grown and half of the country’s finest olive oil is produced, not to mention exceptional red wines. Here the landscape is dotted with numerous masserie, fortified farms surrounded by stone walls and towers, born of necessity in a land continuously overrun by conquerors and pirates. Today many masserie also operate as agriturismi, country hotels that showcase local food specialties. As we approach the Valle d’Itria, the central part of Puglia, I point to a profusion of stone walls that appear to be loosely stacked, one row atop the other. “Bravo!” says Chiara, “You’ve noticed something important! We are about to enter Alberobello, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the home of the trulli.” Ahead of us stretches a town unlike any other, a mass of tiny white stone huts capped with conical grey roofs. “Is this for real?” I ask. The place could be plucked from a Disney movie set. I can almost visualize singing dwarfs come barreling out the doors.

The unique fairytale architecture of Alberobello, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, brings an endless
stream of visitors to Italy’s Mezzogiorno, the southern part of the country.

“Let me tell you the story of the trulli,” Chiara begins. “Centuries ago, the ruling kings of Naples wanted to build up their treasury by taxing every structure in the realm. The locals resented the greed of these despots so they were ordered by the local counts to build their houses without mortar and include a keystone that could be easily removed if there was a royal inspection, collapsing the entire house instantly. After the inspectors left, the peasants could quickly reassemble their houses.” All told, Alberbello has more than 1400 trulli clustered in two hilly neighborhoods. “Shall we see what a trullo is all about?” asks Chiara as we enter Trullo Sovrano, a multi-room house serving as Alberbello’s museum. “This two-story trullo has 12 rooms made of local chiancarella stone and eight cones,” explains Giuseppina, a local guide who leads us through several alcoves serving as bedrooms, a sitting room, a kitchen and a cold room where cheese, peppers and other provisions are stored. “It was first built in the 18th century by a wealthy priest to use as a church,” she adds. “The children slept upstairs and the parents would sleep in the front where they could easily kill any unwelcome people!”

From a lookout in the middle of town, the Monti district stretches as far as the eye can see, a cascade of 1000 densely packed trulli descending the hill. We meander through the Aia Piccola neighborhood where 400 trulli date from the 16th century. I am intrigued by a variety of whitewashed symbols painted on their roofs. Some are religious: a Jewish star and a menorah, Greek and Latin crosses, the Jesus symbol. Others are secret talismans to ward off the evil eye. “Very few of these trulli are actually homes. The majority are shops and inns,” Giuseppina admits. “Tourism is the economic engine here in Alberobello.” The charm of the town is undeniable and we explore a bustling market area where stalls are overflowing with mounds of nuts and dried fruits. They are tempting, but we head for lunch at one of Alberobello’s top restaurants, the Michelin-starred Il Poeta Contadino.

A converted stable, Il Poeta is an airy, elegant establishment with stained glass windows and fine antiques. Here patrons enjoy a refined level of service that pays attention to every detail. Franco Palaschino, pops out to say hello. He is one of two sous chefs under the watchful eye of Leonardo Marco who sets a very high bar. The cooking does not disappoint: from a puree of artichokes with burrata, caramelized onions and tomato coulis to delicate local sausages strascicate and an almond and hazelnut semifreddo, this is a meal to remember, all the more so paired with a very drinkable Salento Malvasia.

High above the Adriatic the beautiful town of Ostuni is shimmering. Known as “La Citta Bianca,” its maze of whitewashed medieval buildings and terra cotta tiles has a discernable Moorish air. I gaze at its white expanse and find it all the more dazzling set against the cobalt blue of the Adriatic. “Ostuni has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years,” says Chiara as we stop at the central piazza with a huge obelisk of Sant’Oronzo, a bishop who in 1632 helped eliminate a plague that had decimated the population. We wind through the sleepy old town, past shady cafes and souvenir stalls. Tiny flights of stairs lead to lookout spots, revealing snippets of blue sea and crumbling walls overgrown with caper plants. At the summit sits Ostuni’s cathedral, built in the 14th century in late Gothic style and distinguished by an enormous rose window. “This town deserves a long, leisurely stay,” I sigh as we walk past a table of French tourists lingering over their cappuccinos.

We are now in the heart of the Salento, the sunny tip of Italy’s heel where the very air seems to sparkle, a fertile region bordered by two seas, the limpid Ionian and the bluer Adriatic, possessing some of the finest beaches and seafood in all of Italy. This is also the heart of the Italian Magna Graecia, where Griko, a dialect of ancient Doric, can still be heard. The Salento is the domain of millions of olive trees, where even gnarled specimens hundreds of years old continue to bear exceptional fruit. Here, too, luxuriant vineyards proliferate and modernized masserie are now producing internationally competitive wines. Yet even with all its recent advances, the Salento remains unspoiled and slow-paced, adhering to old traditions and reveling in its bounty. As we race on the highway toward Lecce, its largest city, I feel especially at home. “It must be all those trips to Greece,” I explain to Kathy and Eric.

Lecce is the famed “Florence of the Baroque,” a title that is immediately validated as we enter the city center. In all directions honey-colored churches, convents and palaces are adorned with exuberant Baroque flourishes: gargoyles, cherubs, animals, and jungle-dense foliage. “Lecce has a wealth of soft limestone deposits,” explains Chiara, “and this material is almost as easy to carve as wood.” Our home for the next three nights is Lecce’s historic Patria Palace, centrally located on Piazzetta Riccardi, a grand hotel in the European tradition. There is time for a quick stroll before dinner, and we stop to admire some shops displaying cartapesta, (papier-mâché), a popular art form in Puglia dating from the 17th century. At one workshop, Mario Di Donfrancesco’s artistry is remarkable: a collection of life-sized angels, Madonnas, saints and other religious scenes. Mario divulges that cartapesta even adorns some of Lecce’s church ceilings. At the hotel’s art deco dining room, we join our traveling group for a gala welcome dinner culminating with Lecce’s signature tart, a pasticciotto oozing with lemon cream.

The Cathedral of Santa Croce is considered the Lecce’s finest example of exuberant Baroque architecture,
a style that has earned it the title of “The Florence of the Baroque.”

“We’re only a few quick steps from the Basilica of Santa Croce,” says Daniela, our energetic local guide, bright and early the next morning. “In this city of 40 churches, it is considered our greatest masterpiece.” Daniela points to a magnificent rose dominating a façade packed with cherubs and floral fantasies, the work of the sculptor Zimbalo who utilized the pliable pietra leccese to full advantage. “He wanted to sign his work, so he inserted a side view of his big nose, like Jimmy Durante’s, on the left side of the rose near the nine o’clock position. Can you see it?” All around us, dozens of buildings beg for attention, like over-the-top wedding cakes. I stare at one building with grotesque corbels and nearly crash into a group of children enjoying their morning gelato. We continue to Piazza Sant’Oronzo where the bishop who saved Ostuni also reigns as the patron saint of Lecce, balanced precariously on an ancient column that once marked the terminus of the Appian Way. “About half of the piazza was cleared out during the Mussolini era,” explains Daniela. “The Fascists wanted to emphasize Italy’s connection to ancient Rome, and a large portion of this 2nd century amphitheater was exposed for public view.”

Lecce is a pedestrian friendly city, and we blend effortlessly into a stream of locals on crowded Via Vittorio Emmanuel: men in suits with fat briefcases (lawyers, I am sure), a gaggle of teenaged girls comparing nail polish colors, uniformed children on school tours. Set back off Via Libertini is Piazza del Duomo, a grand square housing Lecce’s main cathedral and five-story bell tower, a bishop’s palace and a seminary. “Notice how the exteriors seem to glow,” says Daniela. Indeed, the intense white light coming off the Adriatic dazzles the eye as it bounces off the ornamentation on the buildings. As we end our tour, Daniela makes recommendations for lunch. She is especially fond of Doppiozero, a popular deli around the corner known for artisan cheese. We spot a Greek salad with an enormous chunk of feta slathered in olive oil being carried on a tray. “Three of us will each take one of those,” says my hungry husband to the waiter as we get seated. It’s a great choice! The portions are huge, and the luscious cheese, olives and tomatoes would make any Athenian swoon. “I will remember this lunch for a long time,” smiles Eric.

A scrumptious Greek salad is served at Doppiozero, a popular deli near Lecce’s Piazza del Duomo. Puglia and are Italy’s up and coming foodie destinations, producing world-class wines, olive oil and pasta.

Chiara has promised to take a few of us to the Faggiano Archaeological Museum, a small family-owned establishment originally purchased to house a trattoria. Andrea Faggiano, the family’s middle son, greets us warmly. “Let me give you the background on our museum,” he says. Apparently, when the property was first purchased by his father in 1980, it was rented out. One day a tenant complained about a leaky toilet and when digging began to find the offending pipe, a treasure trove of antiquities was discovered. “The archaeologists came and took all the really good stuff to a museum. We were left with all the shards and the immovable pieces,” he tells us. Under the floor layer upon layer of history was revealed, from a Messapian tomb, some Etruscan pottery, a Roman granary and a cistern, to a basement where Franciscan nuns drained blood from the bodies of the dead to prepare them for burial. “We are an independent museum today,” Andrea adds as we descend a spiral stairway to view the underground chambers. “What about the trattoria? Does your father still want one?” I ask him as we leave. “Yes, of course,” he smiles. “My father never gives up, but he will probably have to settle for a visitors’ café, like the one in the British Museum.”

Early in the evening we gather for a private party at the 15th century Palazzo Morisco, originally built during the Renaissance for the Flemish Countess Maria d’ Enghien. Our elegant host, Count Francesco Galantini, ushers us into a double living room filled with old photographs, sharing some family history. In his palm-fringed garden, I catch a glimpse of a Roman theater next door. Under the dining room family coat of arms, a very long table is spread with Leccese specialties. Alessandra, the sommelier, stands behind a row of local wines. “Come, please taste,” she urges us. No urging needed. We sample a memorable Leverano from a nearby coastal winery; a soft, mellow Primitivo, resembling a California’s Zinfandel; and Puglia’s famous Negroamaro, a red with dark berry overtones. “You will also love the food,” Chiara interjects as we pile our plates with rustico, a puff pastry blend of mozzarella and béchamel, tagliatelle with chickpeas and fried breadcrumbs, and pasta maritata with tiny tomatoes. We can barely make it back for dessert.

“Criamu,” a popular Salentine folk ensemble, delivers a high energy rendition of “Pizzica”
at a private dinner party in Lecce’s 15th century Palazzo Morisco.

The party continues in the living room where there is space for dancing. Criamu, a spirited ensemble of local musicians and dancers, belts out selections from their latest CD. Several songs are haunting and melodic, accompanied by accordion and guitar, and lead singer Cosimo Giagnotti, has a powerful voice that transports me to some faraway place. But most memorable are several renditions of Pizzica, a dance form originating in the Greek villages of the Salento. According to tradition, this women’s dance is meant to exorcise the pain and twitching of spider bites common in spring. Played with non-stop ferocity, it can lift dancers and audience into a kind of hypnotic trance. ”I really think this dance is a way for women who spend all day in the kitchen to meet men. Today the dance is somewhat sexual,” says Chiara as she joins four girls with tambourines on the dance floor. Several of our group jump into the fray for a minute to two, but find it more rewarding to sit back and watch. What fun! Walking back to the hotel, we gaze anew at Lecce’s floodlit buildings, soaking up this Florence of the Baroque.

An hour south of Lecce on the Adriatic, Otranto’s 16th century castle is situated on a bay surrounded by sheltered coves. Like a ginormous old barnacle, it clings to the edge of the city, its empty moat a playing field for children and bikers. We pass through a massive outer gate and climb to the town cathedral. Dating from 1088, Santa Maria Annunciata is a tasteful blend of several architectural styles, but it is most renowned for its “Tree of Life” mosaic floor. “This huge floor was designed by Pantaleone, a monk who had a very benevolent view of the world,” explains Daniela as we survey its well-maintained expanse. There are images from the Old and New Testaments, ancient emperors, heroes from medieval legends, African animals and mythological creatures. “It is easy to understand why so many cultures are represented here,” says Daniela. “Otranto was a meeting place of East and West and people came here from all over the world.” But this feel-good, ecumenical floor is belied by the adjoining crypts, where stacked skulls of martyrs beheaded by the Turks in 1480 are displayed behind glass. “Eight hundred Otranto soldiers refused to convert to Islam,” she divulges. “The people here have a long memory.”

We head toward Cutrofiano, one of 11 villages that still maintain their Greek heritage. Nearby, L’Astore is a tastefully restored masseria nestled amid 100 hectares of olives groves and vineyards. Here, Paolo and Claudia Benegiamo like to welcome guests to showcase their highly rated DOP wines. We arrive just in time for a country lunch laid out under the breezeway of their elegant farm residence. First founded in the 1960s by Achille Benegiamo, a Lecce professor, L’Astore is now operated by Paolo and his brothers who have adapted methods used by Italy’s Slow Food movement to produce organic wines and olive oil. “What a spread,” says Kathy, her eyes widening. We sample a sauté of fava beans with wild greens and focaccia with herbed tomatoes. They uncork three of their award-winning wines: a Malvasia Bianca (white), a Massaro Rosa (rosé) and sun-drenched blend of Negroamaro and Cabernet (red). ”Buon appetito,” says Claudia as we dive into polpettone of ham with spinach plus fresh zucchini pasta with scamorza cheese. “Now you must come to see the kitchen where we give cooking classes.” Paolo takes us on a tour of their underground wine cellars, pausing at a vaulted crushing room dating from the 17th century. “Imagine mules and a donkey tethered to this granite wheel. Can you smell the pungent aroma from the first crushing of the olives?” he asks. “I can imagine living here,” I tell my husband as we leave.

Minutes from our hotel, Alle Due Corti is a family-run trattoria known for its Salentine peasant cooking. ”A great choice for our last night in Puglia!” says Eric. We stare at the menu, but find it impossible to decipher, and I suddenly realize that it is written in dialect. “Is no problem,” says Rosalba di Carlo, the matriarch-owner, “I explain.” In her musical voice, she enumerates some of their specialties. “Signori, I recommend for you our bruschetta with burrata cheese and our crispy fried eggplant balls. After, you must taste our fava puree with wild chicory. And please, you must try three versions of our octopus. And bread from our oven, yes?” She brings her hand to her mouth and smacks it, signifying the deliciousness of the food. “When I see you have clean plates, I bring you sweet tarts to try from our oven! Is good?” How could we say no? Our meal is everything she promised, uncomplicated and flavorful, validating the old maxim: Use quality ingredients in simple preparations and stir in lots of love.

Polignano a Mare’s favorite rendezvous spot is the statue of native son and renowned singer Domenico Modugno.
His song, “Volare,” sparked a revolution in Italian pop music.

The sky over Puglia is streaked with clouds as we set out on the long ride to Campania and the Amalfi Coast. Our final encore is a stop at Polignano a Mare, located on the Adriatic just below Bari. The town sits atop time-worn rocks known as Grotta Palazzese, sustaining itself through fishing, farming, and summer tourists who come to swim in its crystalline sea. “I want to teach you a song made famous by Domenico Modugno, a native of Polignano and one of Italy’s important singers,” Chiara announces as we close in on the town. “I am sure you’ve heard of Volare. That song transformed popular music here.” We belt out a few rounds of Volare in preparation for a photo op in front of his iconic statue near the old town. I spot him from afar, a towering superstar cast in bronze, his arms outstretched to an admiring circle of students. At a rustic trattoria named Neuro, we relish our salmon crudo, grilled sea bass and cavatelli with frutta di mare. Patrons at an adjoining table are devouring an octopus with gusto. Steps away, secluded sea coves beckon, and walls covered with poems by Carbarelli, a local graffiti artist, make me want to seriously study Italian.

We’ve just experienced one of the best food trips of our lives,” says my husband. “Who would have predicted it?”