PUGLIA'S SALENTO--Report of 2 dinners near Otranto and one in Lecce
Here is the first in a section of three brief dining reports following a late September week in Puglia. It was my first visit to the region and hopefully will not be the last. I will follow this section with reports on 4 dinners further north, near Cisternino/Fasano.
MASSERIA GATTAMORA, Uggiano la Chiesa
On the outskirts of the stately Salentine town of Uggiano la Chiesa, about a 15 minute drive from Otranto, Masseria Gattamora was the scene of one of the finest meals of a week in Puglia. The masseria is a bit tricky to find—follow the signs along a somewhat circuitous route from the town center to the area near the campo sportivo, and you eventually will come upon this hotel/restaurant, housed in a converted masseria and listed in the SlowFood Osterie guide. The restaurant occupies a vast stone-arched dining room—the former stables— and adjacent outdoor terrace. The welcome is warm, the service is excellent, and the food is superb.
We began our first Pugliese meal with a spread of mixed antipasti that included thin slices of the vaunted capicollo from Martina Franca; stratiacella cheese that was so creamy and so flavorful that I was reduced to swoons; carpaccio of tuna topped with puree of borlotti beans and shreds of red cabbage; wedges of smokey eggplant parmesan, sans tomato; rather ordinary green beans; speidini of fried alici (anchovy) with mixed red peppers; a croquette of potato and swordfish; and the classic Pugliese pairing of pureed fava beans and boiled chicory—fave e ciccoria--a dish that I could not learn to love although I sampled it several times during the week.
Completing the assemblage were addictive balls of fried dough known as “pettole” which would appear in various guises at almost every meal in the coming week.
Pastas here were the finest of the week: My partner ordered the orichiette with a ragu of goat meat and melted caciocavallo cheese. Curious about the region’s “ricotta forte” cheese, I ordered the maccheroncini with ricotta forte, sun dried tomatoes, and meatballs (polpettine). Both were outstanding in flavor and mix of textures and were probably the two finest pastas of the week, along with those we enjoyed at Cucina Cassareccia in Lecce (report to follow). I now understand why this ricotta is known as "forte!" I loved the flavor. The fragrance? Not so much!
Unable to continue after these riches, we closed the meal with the excellent complimentary almond and chocolate cookies and a glass of house-made liqueur made from myrtle berries, grown nearby in Porto Badisco.
With a half bottle of the house red, Campirossi primitivo, and water the bill totalled 66 euro. Highly recommended. Closed Monday. The location of the masseria would make it an excellent base from which to explore the Salento peninsula and the idyllic nearby beaches.
OSTERIA DEGLI AMICI, Giurdignano (near Otranto)
Since all of the usual suspects were closed on Monday evening, our second night outside Otranto, we relied on the hotel staff to make a recommendation for us. (We had walked through Otranto the day before and noticed at least one appealing restaurant; the staff at our hotel confirmed that L’Altro Baffo was among their favorite venues in that town. But alas, it was closed on Mondays)
Osteria degli Amici occupies part of an imposing Cinquecento palace on the Piazza Municipio of this handsome small town about 20 minutes from Otranto and down the street from a mysterious 16th Century menhir.
The dramatic vaulted dining room is cozy, with worn wood tables and chairs and a pizza oven in the rear. We had high hopes but I am afraid that we were somewhat disappointed. Or perhaps our expectations were too high, based on the reputation of the food in the region and on the success of last’s night’s dinner.
We began with a pizza margherita which suffered from a rather tasteless crust. (3 euro)
Parmigiano di melanzane was outstanding, with a smokey tinge and crispy edges. (This dish was excellent everywhere we sampled it) (7.50)
My partner ordered the orichiette with salsa di pomodoro which was only fair, lacking a textural component. (6 euro)
I had initially ordered a pasta dish with mussels but the server mentioned that they had clams that day so I switched to a zuppa di vongole, bathed in a tomato sauce and served with very good toasted bread. Very good.
With a carafe of house wine, and water, the check was 34 Euro. Service was warm and welcoming.
re: jen kalb
Jen: I fell in love with Puglia! If you have not been yet..............
Also, please pardon the spelling above: the cheese is "stracciatella" and the ham from Martina Franca is "capocollo."
Here is the last section of this report; I will do another one on the places near Martina Franca/Fasano:
CUCINA CASERECCIA, Lecce
A 10 minutes walk from the Piazza St. Oronzo, the main square of Lecce, a tiny open kitchen and two small front rooms comprise one of the most celebrated eateries in Puglia—Cucina Casereccia, also know as Le Zie (“the aunts”). I had booked by e-mail weeks ahead and it was with very high hopes that we walked from our centrally located hotel, past the public park, to the non-descript building marked with a large neon sign announcing “trattoria.”
Upon ringing the doorbell, we were ushered into a small, windowless main dining room, papered with magazine articles in various languages lauding the glories of this family run restaurant. There is a paper menu but we let ourselves be guided by our congenial male host. We were not disappointed.
Highlighting the array of mixed antipasti was a plate of marinated red and yellow peppers that were THE sweetest peppers I had ever tasted. I just cannot tell you how good these were, not am I certain if the sweetness was from the peppers or from the addition of sugar in the marinade. These alone were worth the price of the meal. Other dishes in the spread included marinated white beans; a large platter of fresh anchovies beautifully arranged and saturated with olive oil, and a dish of verza (“cabbage”) affogata that was superb.
From our table in the center of the room I had a great view of the miniscule kitchen where Proprietress Sra Anna Carmela Perrone and two other women were toiling away. The kitchen may have been tiny but I had never seen pots that sparkled so brightly. (I was interested to see that the signora was using a three step process to prepare eggplant for melanzane parmesan—salting and resting in a colander; grilling to achieve deep dark marks across the thin slices; and then heating again by frying with only the tiniest amount of oil, continually pressing down the slices in the pan. Here and elsewhere, the completed dishes were notable for both freshness and lack of oil.)
My partner chose sagne with veal sauce; sagne incanulate are long flat lengths of pasta that look like lengths of ribbon that had been tightly curled around a pencil and then released. He pronounced his dish divine.
Wanting to try a signature Leccese dish, I selected the cicerie e tria, long pasta similar to tagliatelle in a sauce of pureed and whole chickpeas. This dish is notable because some strands of the pasta are fried after being boiled, contributing a terrific textural component.
By this time we were quite full, but after watching the chef’s labors over the eggplant, I could not leave before sampling the eggplant parmigiana. This was spectacular.
Unfortunately, we had no room for the second course; these are largely meat and included, on that night, a special of horsemeat which is quite popular in this region.
With a half carafe of house wine, and water, the bill totalled 47 euro.
Very highly recommended. Essential, in fact.
After dinner, we stopped for luscious gelato at Pasticceria/Gelateria Natale. Not only was the gelato out of this world, but the prices are notably moderate. This is an ideal spot to sample pasticciotto, a custard-filled (and sometimes preserve filled) shortbread-dough pastry that is to Lecce what sfogliatelle is to Naples. Essential.
re: Jeremy M
Thanks--I will write about the time further north soon. One thing I do want to mention is that we found it difficult to get good advice about eating from the staff at our hotels. The hotels were mostly staffed by young people and I got the feeling that they were not as enamored of the type of masseria/non-frills dining that we were looking for. One young woman (at an upscale masseria-hotel) when I asked her about a rural masseria near Savelletri, responded that she does not go to "those kinds of places!" I guess they prefer the more trendy in-town spots.... So I think it is really important to do the research beforehand and not depend on getting great recs upon arrival. Another option is to stay in a masseria with a reputation for great food!