Please see also a wine and food lover’s weekend in Rome, our guide to half a dozen restaurants and things to do.
Rolle: Al Monastero di Rolle, Via Enotria. Tel: 0438 975423
Rolle is a village in the heart of Prosecco country, 60 kilometres north of Venice. Vine-clad terraces cling to near-vertical slopes all around, and this tiny town of 70 inhabitants, dominated by a grand church tower, somehow manages to sustain two very good restaurants. The Monastero is a converted monastery, now a series of low-beamed, characterful rooms hung with pots and pans, and opening to a busy but efficient kitchen where chef Fabrizio cooks up fantastic traditional cuisine of the region with the minimum of fuss and maximum of fresh, local ingredients. This is a slow-food kind of place, where on each night of the week a different set menu is offered: everyone eats the same, and there are no menus and no formalities. We ate on a Thursday, which is Adriatic fish and seafood night (on a Friday, for example, the meal is built around a whole roast pig, slow cooked on the spit for six hours). A series of eight courses appeared, beginning with local clams deep fried with polenta and green salad and a seafood risotto, made quite clean and earthy with plenty of seafood. A wonderful fish soup with chunks of fish, crab and squid was terrific, and a main course of a whole turbot, carved at the table and served with roasted potatoes saturated with fruity olive oil and local herbs. Simple home made desserts and excellent espresso rounded off a really, really good meal that was typically Italian, and cooked with honesty and a certain passion.Closed Monday and Tuesday. (2005)
Cison di Valmarino: Castel Brando, “Sansovino”. Tel: 0438 976093
Opulence and spectacle are both in abundance in the jaw-dropping Castel Brando hotel complex, a total restoration of a 6th Century fortification that towers above the pretty town of Follina on the Prosecco wine route. The formal, very elegant Sansovino restaurant is richly decorated with original frescoes and Murano chandeliers, and the views from this hilltop setting really are breathtaking. My lunch started with a softly-yielding Carpaccio of turkey breast, smoked in-house and served with marinated summer vegetables. A plate of homemade egg linguine came with a ladle of Porcini (Slovenian as it was too early for local mushrooms). This was a beautiful, simple dish, doused only with good olive oil and herbs. Medallions of venison came in a rich wild-berry sauce that coated the meat with sweetness and sharpness, accompanied by crisply roasted zucchini and olive-oil roasted potatoes. Pudding was a vanilla semi-freddo, topped with an amaretti and pistachio crust. The wine list is excellent and pretty much all-encompassing, including Bordeaux 1st growths, Yquem, and the stars of every region of Italy. The restaurant is expensive, but taking the little funicular railway up, lunching and walking it off round the castle makes for a lovely afternoon.Lunch around 40Euro, excluding wines and coffees. Closed Mondays. (2005)
Follina: Al Milani, Enoteca con Cucini. Tel: 0438 971412
Not far from Castel Brando, this lovely old wine bar and simple restaurant sits on one corner of the main square of the charming medieval village of Follina at the foot of the 12th Century Abbey – a must see in the area. Inside the dark wood panelled U-shaped bar has cosy booths, but the sunny terrace is perfect for a glass of wine and some snacks mid afternoon. This place takes its wines seriously, with a weekly by-the-glass selection of 25 wines, plus hundreds more inside, with the best of every Italian region represented. A lovely place to take the weight off your feet. Inexpensive. (2005)
Miane: Da Gigetto, Via A. de Gasperi. Tel: 0438 960020
The final recommendation on the Prosecco wine route, this is an absolute must. Gigetto, with his wife, son and daughter, run one of the best restaurants in the whole of the Veneto in this unremarkable little town a few miles east of Valdobbiadene. Gigetto has spent 40 years indulging his passion for wines, and has realised his fantasy with a huge underground cellar, crammed with precious bottles (over 1300 different bins) and nooks and crannies filled with maturing hams, little tasting areas, and an astonishing collection of rare single malt whiskies. A winner of Wine Spectator’s award for excellence, the list here really is phenomenal. I have to say, so is the food. There are various beautiful dining rooms spread throughout the old house, all extremely comfortable. We ate a tasting menu of 8 smaller courses, including a wonderful dish of courgette flowers from Gigetto’s garden, stuffed with foie-gras on a bed of silky polenta. Risotto con Finferli was an unctuous, creamy risotto liberally layered with local mushrooms. Carved at the table, a slow-roasted haunch of veal literally melted in the mouth, and came with grilled zucchini and aubergine. With admirable fortitude, I finished with a very fine apple tart – really just layer upon layer of paper-thin apple slices – served with an intense green apple sorbet. The local digestif sounds like a time-bomb, but in fact worked wonderfully well: a Scropino is a blended drink of lemon sorbet, vodka and Prosecco. It tastes like the best and most innocent of milk-shakes, yet must pack a kick like a mule. Whatever magic it works, after one small glass I slept like log and woke without a hint of a hangover.Around 40 Euros for four courses. Closed Monday dinner and Tuesday. (2005)
Venice: Hotel Europa & Regina. Tel: +39 041 240 0001
Of all the luxury Palazzo hotels that line the Grand Canal, the Danieli with it’s 4th floor dining room overlooking the lagoon is perhaps the ultimate experience. But the Europa & Regina, just 150 yards along the canal, has a broad waterside terrace with stunning views. I ate there at a special gala dinner to celebrate the feast of the Redentore, with prime position for the most spectacular firework extravaganza included in the hefty price. Perhaps it is unfair to judge the kitchen on an occasion like this, but I found the cooking in an elaborate 10 course banquet to have the hallmarks of smart but ultimately rather soulless cuisine that could have been anywhere in the world. A dish of fillets of sea bass stuffed with local peaches was one success, whilst a simplelobster salad was plentiful and very good. Otherwise, a procession of dishes including slightly stodgy cannelloni and over-cooked duck breast in a too sweet fruit sauce, were far less satisfying. So the verdict? Well this is a stunning location, and as the sun goes down and Venice takes on a magical stillness in the moonlight, perhaps ultimate quality and expense is not the most important factor. That’s one for you to decide. (2005)
Venice: Vina di Gigio’s, Fondamenta San Felice. Tel: +39 041 528 5140
On my first night in Venice I wandered round from my nearby hotel (The Abadessa – see below) to this restaurant which had been highly recommended. Unfortunately, being a Sunday it was closed, so I tried the Ristorante Al Fontego dei Pescatore just across the canal. The seafood there was perfectly good, served in their pretty courtyard dining room, but I was absolutely delighted that I made the effort to return to Gigio’s the next evening. Gigio’s immediately impresses as an honest place that takes its food, wine and satisfaction of its customers very seriously in a city full of tourist traps. The wine list is astonishing, and contains many bargains. I chose Querciabella’s 1998 “Batar” at 45 Euros a bottle (cheaper than retail back home). There is world-wide strength too, with a fine selection of Burgundies in particular. Onto the food: everything here was a complete success. I started with a carpaccio of beef, which was plentifully layered over a pungent rocket salad and topped with lots of shaved parmesan. My dish of three large, stuffed raviolis was deliciously rich and savoury. For a secundo platti, I choose Gnochi, simply dressed with a pesto sauce and liberally infiltrated by perfectly tender squat lobsters. After a truly excellent cheese course shared between two and served with a dark bitter-orange chutney, we also shared a chocolate mousse cake infused with enough rum to send one toddling off very happily. Before that however, I thoroughly recommend Gigio’s Scropino – which translates as “untie the knot” – as a digestif. A wonderful place and moderately priced. (2005)
Venice: Osteria alla Zucca, Ponte del Megio, Santa Croce. Tel: +39 041 5241570
La Zucca isn’t much of a well-kept secret any more (it was recommended to me by wine-pages columnist Stuart Walton, but in fact everyone in the know whom I spoke to in Italy nodded approvingly when I said I’d booked). It is slightly tucked away and hard to find without a map, but easy if you take the Vaporetto to San Stae, walk straight down the passage in front of you towards the San Giacomo square, and keep your eyes peeled. La Zucca is run by four enthusiastic and talented women who have taken a traditional Venetian Osteria formula and turned it on its head quite brilliantly. With an emphasis on vegetarian food, some oriental influences, and a formula of a cheap, flexible menu and wine list that emphasises freshness and simplicity, it is like a breath of fresh air. I had a bountiful bowl of a thick-textured, beautifully fiery gazpacho, served with some crisp peppers as garnish and a bowl of good breads. To follow, a plate of chicken and pork with marinated peppers and rice pilaf was basically a Chinese-style stir-fry, with plenty of sliced ginger and soy sauce. My partner’s braised rabbit in a mustard and olive sauce was very tasty, if a bit fiddly as the rabbit had been jointed and served on the bone. For dessert, a fine looking ricotta cheesecake had just run out, so I opted for a vanilla semi-freddo with a streusel topping, that was creamy and tasty. With water, a bottle of Planteta’s La Segreta at 18 Euros, and coffee, the bill for two was very modest, and many people were knocking back carafes of the house red or white quite contentedly. The youthful staff were utterly charming and helpful, if a bit disorganised at times. (2005)
Venice: alla Vedova, Ramo Ca’ d’Oro. Tel: +39 041 5285324
This is a terrific little traditional bar that would be so easy to miss. Tucked at the end of the ally immediately opposite the passageway to the Ca’ d’Oro vaporetto stop, this is a fine, fine example of Venice’s traditional osteria, where cheap drinks and little tapas-like servings of good food are served at the bar, or cheap and cheerful meals served in the informal restaurant. At the bar order an Ombra – a small glass of Prosecco – and a selection of Cichichi – meatballs in breadcrumbs, sautéed peppers, olive-oil roast potatoes, deep-fried whitebait, squid in olive oil. Great food, atmosphere and the chance to make like a local for a while at the cost of just a few euros. Highly recommended. (2005)
Venice: Palazzo Abadessa, 30131 Cannaregio, Calle Priuli 4011. Tel: +39 041 5212236.
Typing this review has taken a bit of moral fortitude: the Abadessa is a little slice of Heaven that any self-respecting traveller wants both to share with the world, and keep as a personal secret. With only 12 stunning rooms and suites, this painstakingly conserved and restored Palace is on a quiet canal in an excellent strategic position. It has a secret garden courtyard where breakfast is served, and charming staff. Expensive at 200Euros per night and up in high season. (2005)
Trento: Scrigno del Duomo, 29 Piazza Duomo
Telephone +39 461 22 00 30. Right in the heart of the bustling main square, this is Trento’s best restaurant, housed in a beautiful, historic old building. You pass first through a lovely enclosed courtyard for summer dining, with one section of the floor paved with glass to look down onto the Roman foundations. Inside there is a more casual winebar area on the ground floor, where meals can be taken, and downstairs the formal (though not too formal) restaurant, which is where I ate on this ocassion. It is a wonderfully atmospheric dining room, with a glass-walled wine cellar within the Roman part of the building. After some antipasti nibbles, we started with a fillet of tuna, seared and served on a salad of aubergine and cress. Next came a wonderful bowl of creamy Fregola (a tiny pasta) with char-grilled langoustine. The main course was a fine Turbot steak, cut thick and small, and cooked a pointe, served on a robust base of potato, olive and pepperoni. Some fragrant melon and basil sorbet preceded a grand dessert of miniature fruit and chocolate pastries, rounding off a seriously good meal (2004). Closed Mondays and all of August. About 150€ for dinner for two.
Faedo: Agriturismo Faedo, about 20 kilometres north of Trento
Tel: +39 461 23 53 23. A bigger contrast would be hard to imagine than this wonderful, newly-restored farmhouse 500 metres up into the mountains, offering sweeping views of the valley. The airy dining room, or terrace (too hot on our visit) are comfortable and simple, with plain wooden tables and tiled floors. The food here is a celebration of local ingredients and wines, with really high quality home cooking. An antipasti of Grana Trentino cheese and Salt beef stuffed with smoked ricotta cheese was absolutely brilliant, with decisive tangy flavours. A fine second dish featured local ham (Speck) with little Farina dumplings in a rocket and olive oil dressing. Next came a dish of Strangolapreti, which translates literally as “priest stranglers”, but is in fact a typical regional dish of delicious spinach gnocchi served with a sage butter. The main course was a toothsome mixed grill featuring dense, grainy sausage, lamb cutlets, pork loin and fried potatoes. Exceptional food in a glorious setting. (2004). The agritourismo is inexpensive, and is open Wednesday to Sunday only, for lunch and dinner (between 18:30 and 21:30).
Bergamo: Colleoni dell’ Angelo, Piazza Vecchia. Tel +39 35 232 596
Bergamo is served by budget airline Ryan Air from all over the UK, and is seen by most who fly the route as a gateway to Milan, about an hour’s drive west. But they are missing out on a jewel of the Italian Alps, the beautiful city of Bergamo itslef, ringed by the Alps and full of interest. The newer, cosmopolitain (though by no means modern) coty with its palatial boulevards, galleries and shops, and high above, the Citta Alta, Bergamo’s ancient walled city, a fascinating maze of cobbled streets filled with bijou shops, restaurants and fasicinating galleries and museums. This up-market and quite expensive restaurant sits proudly in the Citta Alta’s main square, and was really good, especially since my November visit caught the last week of their very seasonal white truffle menu. The dining room is spacious and elegant, with a beautiful ceiling of stone arches and vaults, and a marble floor. A great deal of truffle was shaved ceremoniously over a variety of excellent dishes in a special six-course menu for 130 Euros, highlights probably being a foie-gras escalope served with fig marmalade and a coffee sauce, and simple gnocchi served with poached egg, each with lots of truffle. The wine list is as expensive as you wish it to be, but we drank Valpolicella 1993 from Quintarelli for around 50 Euros. A special occasion sort of place, with menus from around 55 Euros per person. (2006)
Bergamo: L’Osteria di via Solata, 8 via Solata. Tel: +39 35 271993
Tucked away up an alleyway close to the Funicular station, it’s best to ask directions for this tiny street where the one Michelin star Osteria plies its trade from a semi-basement dining room. I was not altogether convinced by my meal here I must say, finding the service a little chaotic, some irritating small faults with the cuisine, and an overall feeling that I either caught the chef on a bad night, or his night off. All the right ingredients were there – the truffles and the fresh pasta, good quality lamb and foie gras, but a lot of the cooking seemed indecisive and rather passed by without much notice. (2006)
Bergamo: Da Vittorio, 17 Via Cantalupa, Brusaporto. Tel: +39 35 681024
The great name of Bergamo, Da Vittorio is no longer in the city centre, but moved in 2005 to a brand new, super-luxurious Relais & Chateaux hotel and restaurant complex a couple of miles from town. Da Vittorio has two Michelin stars, and its busy, somewhat frenetic restaurant serves a variety of set menus and a la carte. We opted for the all fish and seafood menu, which is something of a speciality, and comprises around six main dishes with several little amuses on top. A Frito Misto dish was fabulously fresh and flavourful, and ‘risotto avec coquilles en carpaccio de scampi’ was my personal highlight in a meal that wasn’t without fault (including some over-enthusiastic attempts at up-selling by our sommelier) but was still a great experience. We drank a couple of bottles of Gravner’s Ribolla at around 60 Euros, and the meal for four came in at just under £500. (2006)
Bergamo: Baretto di San Viglio, 1 Via Castello. Tel +39 35 253191
This is a must if you visit Bergamo. Walk (if you feel very fit) to the highest station of the funicular system, way above the Citta Alta, or take the cable car and you will find the Baretto immediately opposite. Casual, bustling, yet very comfortable, this crowded restaurant has terrific views from its terrace (dining there is confined to summer) and serves really good homemade Bergamesque cooking using fine local ingredients, with little fuss but lots of style and quality. There’s a serious wine list too, and one of the best humidors in northern Italy if you like that sort of thing (the owner’s passion). I ate a really beautiful slow-braised beef stew, rich with herbs and braised vegetables and lots of crusty bread for mopping up sauce, followed by a big dish of marron glacés with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. This is not haute cuisine by any means, but is delightful and authentic, and a hike up the hill followed by a long lunch here is one of the nicest days out in the city. (2006)
San Casciano: Osteria CaffÃ¨ del Popolano, 34 Via N. Machiavelli.
Tel: + 39 (0)55 8228405. This wonderful restaurant and Enoteca serving traditional Tuscan cuisine with a modern twist, is in a quiet side street in the centre of San Casciano, just 15 kilometres or so south of Florence. Family owned and operated, the dining room is adorned with 50’s memorablia of the Chianti wine industry, and bustling staff in the open kitchens send out plates of terrific food celebrating local ingredients. My starter of three large, paper-thin raviolis filled with a local ricotta came doused in a butter and deep fried sage sauce. This delicious dish had just enough bite and salty tang in the cheese to match with the sauce and was as simple as it was magical. A flattened breast of chicken in a pungent lemony sauce came with a delicate lemon and courgette mousse and a side plate of breaded, crisply fried vegetables. Finally, I Tre Cioccolati consisted of a dense, sliceable little bitter chocolate ganache, a superb milk chocolate cake and a white chocolate ice cream. Served with fresh strawberries, it was a delicate composition of bite-sized portions. Coffee, Vin Santo and Biscotti rounded off a genuine, honest and masterful meal, which at around 40 Euros per person, was good value. A 23 Euro menu degustazione, consisting of six smaller courses, is also offered. Closed Mondays. (2005)
San Casciano: Restorante Nello, 4 Via Novembre.
Tel: + 39 (0)55 820163. Popolano (above) closes on a Monday, so a good alternative is this large, traditional restaurant decorated with hunting memorabilia, and serving hearty Tuscan cooking in ample portions. I really enoyed a selection of antipasti one lunch time, with fennel-scented sausage, ham, chorizo, marinated vegetables and fine breads, followed by Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a glorious hunk of barbecued steak for two to share, carved at the table and filled with flavour. This was beautiful meat, charry outside and just bloody inside, served with a mound of crisp fried potatoes. Prices are similar to Poplano, maybe a few Euros cheaper, and there is a good selection of Tuscan wines. Wine shop next door. (2005)
Greve in Chianti: Castello Vicchiomaggio, 4 Via Vicchiomaggio.
Tel: + 39 (0)55 854079. This restaurant is part of a wine estate, and is within a stunning hilltop castle, with glorious views of the vine-layered countryside. Vicchiomaggio also has an 11-room guesthouse, with an infinity pool built into the hillside, which looked extremely inviting on my lunchtime visit. The restaurant is within a great frescoed hall with vaulted celing. The food here is rustic and solid (estate owner John Matta has no truck with nouvelle cuisine). I started with one of their specialities, a delicious risotto made with red wine, and drizzled with a sweet balsamic reduction. Lamb for my main course was char-grilled and well-flavoured, and wholesome puddings rounded off a very good, and substantial meal in a stunning setting. (2005)
Gaiole in Chianti: Badia a Coltibuono.
Tel + 39 (0)557 749031. Part of a famous wine estate, and housed in a beautiful, thousand year old Benedictine abbey, Badia a Coltibuono sits on a hill top with beautiful views over the Chianti vineyards. This is the celebrated restaurant of a very foodie estate – the day and residential cookery courses held here are world-renowned. I ate on the shady outdoor terrace looking over the vines, and had an extremely good meal based around very solid, traditional cooking using estate-grown herbs and vegetables, and with recipes revolving around home-made pastas, locally-caught game, and prime Tuscan produce. To start a risotto of stewed octopus was textured with layers of sautéed red chard. My main course of locally hunted baby wild boar came as two, thick slices of lean, succulent saddle meat, in a pool of rich, dark sauce and accompanied by bittersweet roasted cherries and a potato pie. The estate’s wines are served with little mark-up and are a natural and suitable accompaniment. Don’t miss a tour of the old cellars and stunningly beautiful walled gardens if you have the chance, which operate each afternoon through the summer. The restaurant is open March to November, and prices are moderate at around 35 Euro per person. (2005)
Sorrento: La Lanterna, 23 via San Cesareo
Tel: +39 818 78 13 55. Sorrento is a bustling town, jam-packed in the summer with tourists, especially thronging the narrow old-town streets arond the Piazza Tasso. Off of one, via San Cesaro, is this little haven of a place, serving tourists and locals alike with much, much better food than many of the restaurants around the square, in lovely surroundings. There is a shady courtyard ideal for summer lunches, whilst the simply decorated but very comfortable dining room has the secret treasure of Roman house in the basement, its mosaics and carvings visible through glass panels. Food is excellent: copious fresh salads, and terrifically creamy lemon-scented risotto groaning with fresh seafood. Breads and pizzas are excellent too, from the kitchen’s wood-fired ovens. The long, impressive wine list is well priced, and I enjoyed a bottle of Feudi san Gregorio’s Greco di Tufo on more than one occasion. An excellent choice when Sorrento’s crowds get too much – or at any time! (2009) Closed Wednesdays, around 70€ for lunch for two.
Ravello: Hotel Rufolo, Via S. Francesco
Tel: +39 089 85 71 33. The restaurant of the hotel Rufolo might not be the best in town – although it was extremely good on my visit – but its setting is unbeatable, and it offers a welcome haven from the tourist chaos of the hilltop town of Ravello. Whilst inexpensive cafés and pizzerias crowd the main square, walk round to the Rufolo and look up to its elegant dining room on the second floor, which almost hangs over the stunning Amalfi coastline and gardens of the Villa Rufolo. Lunching on the terrace here is an absolutely magical experience. Our salad Caprese was fresh and full of flavour; dark-fleshed ripe tomatoes and really good quality Mozarella, liberally doused in pungent olive oil and basil. As a main course I had a simple plate of grilled crayfish, served whole with slices of lemon. Their smoky, char-grilled flavours and melting flesh made a terrific lunch. We had a bottle of Mastroberardino’s fine Fiano, and strong espressos to finish (2009). Open every day, about 80€ for lunch for two.
These reviews date from 2010-2012, but as of spring 2023 all restaurants are stull trading and receiving good reviews.
An abundance of low-cost flights landing at Puglia’s two main cities, Bari and Brindisi, has put this seldom-visited region that forms the heel of Italy’s ‘boot’ firmly on the tourist trail. This dining guide includes many of the region’s top restaurants, as well as more casual places.
Puglia’s cuisine is some of the best and most distinctive in Italy. After all, this is the place the provides Italy with the bulk of its olives, olive oil, fish and wine. But the cuisine is based on poverty food in an area that was also Italy’s poorest. So olive oil, pasta (made without eggs), bread and fresh vegetables take centre stage, though fish is also ubiquitous. Some of the specialities to look out for are ‘lampascione’, little bulbs related to garlic but intensely bitter, ‘orecchiette’, or ‘little ears’ pasta and ‘burrata’, a particularly creamy and unctuous cousin of mozzarella cheese. The reviews are presented in order from north to south of the Puglian region.
Polignano a Mare: Il Bastione, 1 Via Conversano. Tel: +33 080 4241177
The historic centre of Polignano a Mare is one of the most beautiful towns in Puglia, with its neatly preserved white-washed houses tumbling down through a maze of narrow passageways, arches and squares to the sheer cliff face above the Adriatic. Most meandering routes will take you to a viewpoint where you can look out to sea and along the coast. But do not miss a trip for lunch to Il Bastione, set on a promontory above the cliffs and small shingle beach below, where there are fantastic views back into the edge of the old town as it merges into the cliff face, and the happy sounds of the beach float up from the distance. The food here is actually very good too, based around fish and seafood and served efficiently. I had mussels baked with a breadcrumb and cheese topping, richly doused in hot, herby olive oil that was great for mopping up with crusty bread, followed by a plate of very good raviolis stuffed with ricotta and spinach, in a rich, strongly flavoured pesto sauce. We passed on dessert for once, but enjoyed a lovely bottle of Fiano Minutolo ‘Rampone’ 2008 from I Pastini.
Polignano a Mare: Ristorante da Tuccino, 69 Via Santa Catarina. Tel: +33 080 4241560
An upmarket but unpretentious harbour-side restaurant near the port of Polignano a Mare, da Tuccino specialises in fish of course. Bright and spacious, we had a table by the window for dinner, and kicked off with some delicious raviolis of seabass, in an olive oil sauce rich with herbs and little chunks of octopus. Next up was a visit to the fish counter, with a fine display of the day’s catch from which you select and specify how you would like it cooked. The fish is priced at 60 – 70 Euros per kilo. The chef was dismissive of my attempt to select some red mullet “but you can find this anywhere,” he chided me, holding up instead a brace of squat little fish around six inches long, which he said where the only exclusively Puglian fish on the counter. We accepted these, and delicious they were too (40 Euros for two). Served very simply from the grill, the meat was white and moistly flaky, cooked beautifully, with a wedge of lemon the only other item adorning the plate. A little bowl of ice cream rounded off a light and very good meal. The wine list is good, and almost all Italian.
Conversano: Pashà, 5-7 Piazza Castello. +33 080 4951079
One of my most memorable meals was in Pasha in the lovely inland town of Conversano, where the first floor of a cafe right on the main square opposite the glorious Norman castle has been transformed into an elegant fine dining restaurant. The evening lives vividly in my memory as we secured a fabulous little table for two on its own private balcony, where the lively sounds of Conversano’s citizens on their nightly passeggiata added an evocative extra flavour to every dish. A little amuse bouche of a soaked bread and zucchini dumpling served with pesto and cracked pepper was tangy and got the appetite racing, along with a selection of homemade breads – olive, tomato and plain. I started with ‘Rediscovery of parmesan’, which transpired to be a sort of terrine of ricotta and parmesan baked in a domed mould of grilled aubergine slices, served blood warm in a comforting fashion with a little tomato sauce. My partner’s breaded anchovies, stuffed with ricotta and raisins with a watercress and orange salad were also pronounced delicious and moreish, though I have to confess we both chose the same main course, and were both disappointed in it. A large veal chop had been sliced open and stuffed with a creamy cheese, then coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried. Served with a salad of overcooked green beans, mint and cherry tomato, the veal was seriously under-cooked, but the whole effect of the deep-fried chop was not pleasing, being difficult to distinguish bone from meat as you sliced through the rather large chop and the meat lacking flavour. Things looked up sharply with a pre-dessert of a coffee mousse with nibbed beans and bitter dark chocolate chunks, before a competent twice-baked almond and orange soufflé with a chocolate sauce. By the glass we drank a good Fiano/Greco from A Mano, and a sturdy Salice Salentino. That main course was a real spoiler, but assuming it was a blip, the rest of the meal, service and the magical setting would certainly be enough for me to pay a return visit.
Monopoli: Il Melograno, 345 Contrada Torricella. Tel +39 080 690 9054
Il Melograno is an utterly charming and expensive Relais & Châteaux hotel, a series of low-set white-washed buildings that sprawl amongst the most fragrant gardens. I have to say the dinner experience was rather disappointing. A confusing tone was set when we ordered a half bottle of the superb Franciacorta Brut from Ferghetina (18 Euros) to sip whilst studying the wine list to see what else we’d have with dinner. Raising a quizzical eyebrow, the waiter questioned my choice “but this is only a half bottle Signor?” he said, clearly implying we were being too abstemious. The food that followed was good, but not great. Four langoustines, grilled in a sweet and sticky ginger and honey sauce, came with crisp fried red onion, salad and some little baked aubergine rolls. The langoustine were tasty, and this was the best dish of the night. A risotto with pancetta and asparagus (not a local dish of course, but one from the north) was too creamy and slightly rice pudding-like, then my main course of sea bream came flaked beneath chunks of mozzarella and tomato, between thin layers of filo. The icy cold cheese, tomato and pastry was just a little odd against the hot fish. The restaurant, a bit like the hotel itself, is a curate’s egg. (2010)
Monopoli: L’Arco del Porto, Piazza Garibaldi. Tel: +39 080 410 7816
This spacious and beautiful restaurant struck me as unpretentious and good value on my lunch-time visit, especially as we sat out on the pavement under a parasol to eat an informal meal of a couple of courses. The waiter recommended the house wine, and who was I to complain at a cheap and cheerful but quaffable white when the half litre was charged at just three Euros? My tagliolini with porcini was delicious and filling, whilst my partner’s linguini with clams was a hit too, and we followed this up with double espressos and a couple of slices of ricotta pie. Modestly priced, honest, good food.
Alberobello: Il Poeta Contadino, 21 Via Indipendenza. Tel: +39 080 4321917
Il Poeta Contadino holds one Michelin star and on this evidence deserves it – despite the fact that on a Saturday evening in June a total of six people ate dinner in a restaurant that probably seats 80. Maybe it was a little off season, or maybe some other factor caused it, but the staff certainly outnumbered the diners on my visit. The restaurant has a lovely, if slightly old-fashioned and over-stuffed glamour with its high vaulted ceilings, enormous Venetian glass chandeliers and heavy, tapestry-covered chairs. Black-suited young staff conversed easily in English and offer a glass of mimosa cocktail whilst we nibbled on little pizzas and slices of ham and perused the menu. A six-course tasting menu is offered, either “traditional”, “fish” or “fish and mountain” variants, with matching wine flight. We chose to dine a la carte however, and I kicked off with a delightful creamed courgette soup with langoustine and wild rice. The soup was delicious, with lots of herb flavours and thickly creamy rather than heavy with dairy cream. Slices of lightly poached langoustine were wrapped in little slices of pasta, and the nutty rice scattered throughout. For my ‘Primi’ course, one of the real highlights here: raviolis of broccoli, butter and sage, served with little spoonfuls of punchy quince marmalade and liberally doused with slices of shaved black truffle. This was fabulous, the buttery, yielding raviolis set against the earthy truffle, little spikes of rosemary and the sweet marmalade. My main course of guinea fowl, stuffed with ‘duck ham’ and truffles was also delicious, but along with a creamy, cheesy layered potato accompaniment, perhaps a little too heavy to end the meal. I subsequently passed on dessert, only to find that coffee is served with the most enormous and enticing tray of petit fours: ice cream bombs, chocolate-covered orange slices, cakes, caramelised nuts, and on and on. I was tempted into having a desserts worth I’m sure, though in fact my partner’s dessert – a warm almond cake served in a mango soup with citrus marmalade ice cream was apparently a food highlight. A word too for the wine list here. We drank a half of Mastroberardino’s Fiano 2008 and an absolutely superb half of Guidalberto 1999, a Bordeaux/Sangiovese blend made by the Sassicaia team, that was gloriously sweet-fruited and gamy. But the list is extraordinary, with dozens of vintages of Lafite, Petrus, Yquem and the rest as well as the best of Italy of course. Il Poeta Contadino may be a little old-fashioned perhaps, but I wouldn’t hesitate to return. (2010)
Ostuni: Porta Nova, 28 via Gaspare Petrarolo. Tel: +39 083 133 8983
This lovely old restaurant built into one of the gateways into the old walled town of Ostuni affords fine views over the Puglian landscape to the coast. Inside it is traditional yet smart and modern, and the large, curved wall of windows in the upper level of the dining room is the best place to sit. Traditional Puglian cuisine is given quite a modern, fine-dining twist, with some unexpected flavour combinations. I started with a delicious tart of ricotta with a thin, carpaccio of swordfish, puree of fava beans and a thin, crisp slice of tomato bread. This was excellent, with the ricotta comforting and warm, but the slices of delicate fish adding lovely bursts of salty flavour. For my main course, I chose a filet of Orata (bream) in a potato crust with a julienne of fennel and an orange jus. This simple, light dish was perhaps slightly less inspiring than it sounded on paper, the fish a touch overpowered by the jus, but I enjoyed it along with the Chardonnay we’d ordered from Poderi Angelini. Finishing off a fine meal, I drank a double espresso along with a Valrhona chocolate soufflé, served with a delicious orange sorbet. Very good, modern cooking this with a bit of style, and moderate prices.
Ceglie Messapica: Al Fornello Da Ricci, 71 Contrada Montevicoli. Tel: +39 083 137 7104
N.B. The Michelin-starred chef here, Antonella Ricci, appears to now be offering at home dining with the restaurant closed – perhaps temporarily. See antonellariccivinodsookar.it. This review may not longer be valid. The food here is a sophisticated take on very traditional recipes, and the formula really worked on my visit. Kicking things off were some canapés consisting of little stacks of mushroom, courgette and eggplant, with fava bean sauce and courgette flower stuffed with ricotta and also some breaded aubergine turnovers filled with local cheese. To start I had a small portion of a stew of porcini and tiny escargot, which was delicate and yet earthy in a beautiful olive oil-enriched stock. My Primi Piatti was ravioli, stuffed with a lightly spiced pork, slivers of pancetta and pepper in a creamy potato sauce. The sauce was starchy and thick, but not gloopy, and the ravioli had plenty of flavour. My main course of lamb came sliced into stir-fry strips with rich red wine reduction and courgette cream, with little studs of intense sun dried tomato. Mopping up the sauce with some of the homemade bread was irresistible. Finally, a sweetened vanilla ricotta cheesecake came on a chocolate base, with an eggy vanilla custard cream drizzled over it.
Carovigno: Gia Sotto l’Arco, 71 Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. Tel: +39 083 199 6286
Easily the most enchanting room and one of the most chic in Puglia too, Gia Sotto L’Arco sits, literally, under the arches on the second floor of an 18th-century palazzo in the main square of this small town. Cool and very grown-up in ambiance, soaring vaulted ceilings and an almost all-white decor lend lots of glamour to the cooking of Teresa Buongiorno, whilst husband Teodosio looks after front of house. The cooking here is simple but sophisticated, letting Puglia’s prime, seasonal ingredients take centre stage. There’s also a very fine, 500-bottle wine list, concentrated on Puglia, but within a broader Italian selection (other than for some Champagnes and dessert wines from other places). Now, very strangely, this was the only restaurant in which I dined twice (once as the guest of the Radici Festival and once under my own steam), and yet I cannot find my detailed notes from either visit. It is frustrating, because I recall the style and quality of the food being excellent, particularly some roast loin of lamb stuffed with chicory and spinach, but in terms of detailed descriptions, you will have to discover those for yourself when you visit – which I can thoroughly recommend you do.
Lecce: Cucina Casareccia, 19 Via Colonnello Costadura. Tel:+39 083 224 5178
N.B. As of 2023 reviews are very mixed for this restaurant in Lecce, home of fantastical baroque architecture and a jewel of the south. When I ate there I thought it was fabulous, but some years have passed… Casareccia is a tiny restaurant with no menus: set in an old house in the town, with various inter-connecting little dining rooms. There’s a real sense of theatre when you need to knock the door to gain entry, and a feeling of stepping into a most traditional family home. This is a Slow Food sort of place where deeply traditional food is served, and house wine is drunk from chunky tumblers. A basket of terrific crusty sourdough bread was served, along with Pittule – little beignets filled with olives and a fava bean puree with chicory and croutons. There is no menu, and the dishes just keep coming: next, a stew of broad beans and artichokes, followed by a big plate of mussels served with beautifully waxy potato and courgette fried in oil with garlic, and piled into dishes to share. Though rustic and plentiful, somehow the appetite keeps up with the pace, and a dish of wholemeal pasta was a simple interlude, doused simply in olive oil with a few chick peas and little strips of deep fried pasta adding crunch. The main course was horse (common in Puglia’s more rustic places, and ‘Cavallo’ if you are looking to avoid it), slow braised in a tomato sauce with some bay leaves and spice. This is not much of a secret destination now, but it remains an exceptional one and has to be on any foodie’s ‘must do’ list. Booking is essential.