|Italy's Mezzogiorno: Savoring Basilicata And Puglia|
by: Dalia Miller
Photos: Kip Miller
Expect delays, says our tour leader Chiara as we approach Messina, Sicilys 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 Mascagnis 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 Arthurs wicked sorceress and a denizen of Mount Etna, created mirages, luring sailors off course to their death. No, that wont happen to us, I tell myself.
Few straits are as fraught with dread as Messinas, the site of Homers 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 Sicilys 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, Italys up-and-coming foodie
Matera, an ancient cave town carved out of limestone cliffs in Basilicata,
has just been named Italys European Capital of Culture for 2019.
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 Gibsons controversial
The Passion of the Christ, that put Matera on the map. The
towns 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 Italys
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.
The morning sky is overcast, but intermittent rain doesnt impede our exploration of the sassi led by a knowledgeable local guide, Nadia. Its 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 Gibsons crucifixion scene. Nearby stands the old rock church of Madonna dIdriss, 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.
chill hangs in the air as we start out for Puglia, the heel of Italys
boot and its fecund orchard, where high-quality durum wheat is grown and
half of the countrys 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 dItria, 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, Youve 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 Italys Mezzogiorno, the southern part of the country.
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 Alberobellos 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 SantOronzo, 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 Ostunis 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 Italys 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.
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 Lecces 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 Donfrancescos
artistry is remarkable: a collection of life-sized angels, Madonnas, saints
and other religious scenes. Mario divulges that cartapesta even adorns
some of Lecces church ceilings. At the hotels art deco dining
room, we join our traveling group for a gala welcome dinner culminating
with Lecces signature tart, a pasticciotto oozing with lemon cream.
The Cathedral of Santa Croce is considered the Lecces finest example of exuberant Baroque architecture,
a style that has earned it the title of The Florence of the Baroque.
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 Lecces main cathedral
and five-story bell tower, a bishops 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. Its 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,
A scrumptious Greek salad is served at Doppiozero, a popular deli near Lecces Piazza del Duomo. Puglia and are Italys up and coming foodie destinations, producing world-class wines, olive oil and pasta.
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 Californias Zinfandel;
and Puglias 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 Lecces 15th century Palazzo Morisco.
An hour south of Lecce on the Adriatic, Otrantos 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, LAstore 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, LAstore is now operated by Paolo and his brothers who have adapted methods used by Italys 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.
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 Mares favorite rendezvous spot is the statue of native son and renowned singer Domenico Modugno.
His song, Volare, sparked a revolution in Italian pop music.
Weve just experienced one of the best food trips of our lives, says my husband. Who would have predicted it?