PUGLIA--four dinners in and around Martina Franca and Fasano
Here is the first report, with more to follow. (The companion report about eating further south has been posted: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/737062?tag=boards;topic-737062
IL RITROVO DEGLI AMICI Martina Franca (Corso Messapia, 8, in the town center)
After two nights outside Otranto, we relocated to a countryside masseria hotel near Cisternino. I had planned to dine that evening at Trattoria Le Ruote, which had been recommended on a couple of online sites and by CHer JeremyM, who was very helpful with suggestions on this forum. But when I mentioned the idea to the proprietress of our hotel, she suggested that a better option would be Il Ritrovo degli Amici, the SlowFood-listed restaurant in the center of Martina Franca. And so, off we went. (As I mentioned in the thread accompanying this one, we found that hotel staff often steered us to more upscale places than we might have chosen on our own)
After a few hair-raising minutes, we found parking near the center of MF a few blocks from our destination, and found our way to this well-reviewed restaurant, which comprises two tiny dining areas on two different levels. Chef-Owner Anna Ancona has created an enchanting all-white setting where every glance reveals another gorgeous visual vignette. Massive silvery mirrors, dramatic arrangements of white-painted branches, wine and spirits bottles artfully displayed on a burnished walnut table, , chunky white ceramic pieces, ..the place is worthy of a design magazine. We normally shun decorated-to-the nines spots in Italy, fearing that the artistry will not be replicated on the plate, but this was not the case here.
There was only one other table of diners on that evening—a table of visitors from Germany. There was no written menu. The amibale young woman who comprised the entire front-of-the-house staff recited a very brief list of choices, in English.
We chose to skip the antipasti, but if you have not sampled the famous capocollo from Martina, made from pigs who feed largely on acorns, this would probably be a good place to do so. (We had had this luscious meat earlier in the trip and would have it again as it appears on many antipasti spreads throughout the area).
We both selected the same primi: Pasta (I forget which type) with eggplant, basil, tomatoes, and smoked scamorza. Superb! Perfectly textured pasta with just a sprinkling of cubed eggplants and tiny tomatoes. Feathery light. Not in the last bit oily (in other words, not in the least bit like the pasta/eggplant dishes made in the erica household).
For secondi, we were offered a choice of beef, lamb, or pork. My partner chose the tagliata di manzo, served over arugula with parmesan shavings (15 euro) I had what just may have been the best baby lamb rib chops I’ve ever eaten (15euro) (The lamb is usually offered for two persons; they accommodated me with the rib chops, scotaditto di agnello, because my dining partner does not like lamb).
For dessert: An order of an incredibly rich and incredibly delicious molten chocolate cake infused with orange.
Service was charming, the restaurant is beautiful, and the bill for two of us with water and two glasses of wine for me (none for the driver, alas) amounted to 65 euro.
Highly recommended. Closed Sunday dinner and Monday.
IL RIFUGIO DEI GHIOTTONI Fasano
Not wanting to venture too far from our hotel, we selected this casual eatery for our next dinner. This meant negotiating the busy town center of Fasano in the dark which was a little anxiety provoking for me.
I had read about this place during my research; it is listed in the Michelin Italy guide. The staff at my hotel concurred that it was a good place for antipasti. It is a very casual place that seems to attract local families. A multi-tiered antipasti spread greets diners near the entrance. I now realize that I should have selected my dishes for the antipasti course, instead of having the waiter bring us an assemblage of mixed antipasti, because there were several dishes that looked good but which were not included in the antipasti misti spread.
As noted, this is a very casual place; at least two televisions were turned to high volume throughout our meal.
The antipasti misti was good; included were an excellent dish of farro with carrots in a light brothy sauce; a cold dish of mushrooms and celery; fresh ricotta; fried anchovies; fried fiore di zucca; zucchini and tomatoes sott’ olio; and scamorza-stuffed pancetta strips. One of the two best dishes was, surprisingly, strips of white meat chicken (?) with grated carrots. The other was breaded mussels. Mussels have been farmed in Puglia (around Taranto) for centuries and enjoy a reputation that is very well deserved, if these were any indication. (Nearby Savelletri is also mecca for lovers of mussels and ricci, sea urchin.) I cannot get too excited about the mussels back home in New York since most lack any kindn of character, but the depth of flavor of these was just outstanding and I was sorry that I had not sampled other mussel dishes earlier in the week.
The antipasti were the highlight of the dinner. The primi, which we had as main courses, which followed were disappointing. Before leaving home, I had read reams about the quintessential Pugliese speciality of fave e ciccoria and decided to finally try it on that evening. At some places this dish is served with toasted, oiled bread while spicy marinated peppers are another traditional accompaniment. I was given a dish of peppers and instructed by the waiter to mix them into the fave beans. In my opinion, this dish needed a lot more than piquant peppers to liven up a rather stodgy and bland puree. I am sure it is quite healthy, though.
My partner slogged through a bowl of paparadelle alla Ghiottoni, a preparation that included a Bolognese-type sauce with porcini mushrooms. It fell far short of the pastas we had enjoyed earlier in the week.
They also serve pizza.
With house wine and water, the total was 37euro. Closed Wednesday.
LAMIOLA PICCOLA, an agriturismo located between Ostuni and Fasano in the hamlet of Montealbano
On the SS 16 in the direction of Ostuni, in the hamlet of Montelbano, a sign indicates the turnoff for Masseria Lamiola Piccola, an inn with attached restaurant. We had high hopes, which were heightened by the long and dramatic drive on a gravel road squeezed between stone walls and vast tracts of gnarled olive trees. The road rises and twists before the white walls of the masseria come into view. There is plenty of onsite parking; follow the directions to the lot which is at the rear of the restaurant.
Since we arrived a bit before our 8pm opening time, we were shown to cozy sofas in front of the tv in the front living area. We passed a few minutes here before being led by the chatty proprietress (who speaks English well) into the dining room. We were the only diners on arrival but the place soon filled up with what I assume were local people out on the town on a Saturday night.
The meal began very well with a succession of mixed antipasti that included a dish of gloriously creamy stracciatella cheese and another of burrata. The obligatory platter of capicola from Martina Franca made a brief appearance before being devoured, as did a plate of pettole. A dish of pressed fowl drizzled with balsamic vinegar was excellent, as was a carpaccio of zucchini with shaved pecorino. To complete the spread: Grilled eggplant and a dish of trippa di agnello with potatoes and celery. To say that I found the trippa unappealing would be to understate the case.
We should have called it a night then and there because the pastas that followed were poor. I chose the cheese ravioli in tomato sauce which was probably not the best choice. The edges of the ravioli were hard and the dish was bland and disappointing. My partner fared little better with overcooked orecchiette topped with meatballs that were probably much more bread than meat and had almost no taste.
We passed on the second courses, which were either sausage, lamb or beef. The bill with two glasses of wine, and water, was 40 euro. Perhaps we hit the place on an off night but I cannot recommend the restaurant. The location, however, is a good one for exploring the surrounding area, where there is much to savor.
MASSERIA DI PARCO DI CASTRO near Fasano in Speziale
This SlowFood masseria sits on a slight rise in the midst of olive groves and down a long, unpaved road off the SS 16 near the hamlet of Speziale.
(The farm was mentioned in a papal bull as far back as the 12th Century, according to their brochure).
The dining room is encased by stone walls and a vaulted stone ceiling and the atmosphere is cozy and welcoming, with a massive hearth for winter evenings. There is a short written menu but we were taken in hand by our amiable server, Vito, a most chow-ish young man with an unbridled enthusiasm for the food of the region and much knowledge to impart. If only my Italian skills were better!
We began with complimentary tomato bruschetta and the ubiquitous “Pettola,” the fried balls of dough that we sampled in many incarnations. These were dough mixed with cheese and mint and were addictive. Parco di Castro also served the best bread of the trip—small ciabatta from a bakery in nearby Montealbano (I did not get the name, unfortunately)
Although we did not select the pasta of the house, the laganari (long, thick square-cut chitarra pasta) with lightly cooked cherry tomatoes and basil, Vito brought us a complimentary order. Excellent. All pastas are, of course, made in house.
We then moved on to to more shared pasta dishes:
I had the capelacci with red peppers and mint, and was warned by Vito that I should NEVER add grated pecorino to this dish but, instead, should use the grated cacioricotta that was also on the table. A long explanation of this followed but I was not able to understand much of it. (Pecorino was too strong, was the gist). This dish was also excellent, featuring the red peppers that are a sensation in the region. (I had the best peppers of my life two nights before in Lecce; see report on the Salento)
My partner chose a pasta dish with tomatoes, pancetta and potatoes and immediately stated a wish to return the following night for a repeat. (I wish we had done this; more details later).
We were too full to attempt secondi, even though the house special rabbit is on my radar for the future. (I believe this was described as boned out and grilled—mmmm). Beef, chicken, and a mixed arrosto completed the list of secondi on that night)
After a trio (!) of complimentary digestifs: red wine/sherry; limoncello; and laurel, we reluctantly bid goodnight. The total bill, with local red wine and water, was 40 euro.
Highly recommended. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
When you are in the area:
In the hamlet of Speziale di Fasano, on the main road, Caseificio Crovace Oronzo is among the best cheese shops in the area, according to Vito. (We returned here on our last night to stock up on scamorza to bring home and I highly recommend a visit in the morning if you want to watch the cheese-making process; they also have an olive oil frantoio and the owners are warm, welcoming, and happy to impart information and the prices are gentle. They are open until 9pm so you can visit en route to dinner.)