La Dolce Vita: Discovering Italy’s Majestic South

BY JEN MURPHY

IN-THE -KNOW travelers are always looking for the next Tuscany, and in recent years, Puglia has been whispered as the heir apparent. But during a five-day road trip around Basilicata, the arch of Italy’s foot, and Puglia, Italy’s heel, I find this “new Tuscany” to be very little like Tuscany at all.

Forget Tuscany’s iconic rolling hills lined with rows of tall cypress trees. My friend Val and I are instantly captivated by Puglia’s landscape, which alternates between sprawling ancient olive groves dotted with conical trulli houses, and dazzling sapphire blue coast. Instead of grand villas, we stay in masserias, gleaming white fortified farmhouses. And while Tuscany gets all of the attention for its culinary treasures—prosciutto, Brunello, and more—we fall in love with Puglia’s distinctive cuisine. Capicola, Puglia’s prosciutto, and taralli, addictive, ring-shaped bread snacks, are aperitivo staples, nibbled between sips of rosé made from the indigenous Susumaniello grape. And after one bite of creamy burrata, I swear I’ll never touch plain old mozzarella again.

“Puglians are born with olive oil in their veins,” Losito tells us with a wink.

CUCINAS + OLIVE OIL, PLEASE

Don’t be fooled by Puglia’s reputation as a place for simple indulgences. This agricultural area has plenty of riches. We enlist Antonello Losito, the Puglia-born owner of Southern Visions Travel, to help us uncover them. To foodies like Val and I, high-quality olive oil is liquid gold, which makes Puglia our jackpot. “Puglians are born with olive oil in their veins,” Losito tells us with a wink. On a tour of Masseria Brancati, an ancient estate just outside of the famed “white city” of Ostuni, we learn that Puglia is home to 50 million olive trees and produces 80 percent of Italy’s olive oil. The estate’s gnarled trees, spaced exactly 60 feet apart, date back three centuries, and their olives yield a strong, zesty oil which we taste during an al fresco lunch with estate owner Corrado Rodio.

The region’s cuisine, cucina povera, traces its roots back to a style of frugal peasant cooking that made do without former luxury items such as butter, eggs, and meat. Most dishes, Losito explains, rarely feature more than three ingredients. Our flavorful spread at Masseria Brancanti embodies Puglian simplicity: bean soup, then a classic casserole-like dish of oily fish and bread crumbs called scapece, and for dessert, freshly sliced persimmon served alongside a whipped ricotta that could double as a minimalist cheesecake.

MATERA

A road trip through southern Italy, Val and I decide, is the closest we’ll ever come to time travel. One minute we’re passing factories on the highway, the next, we’re driving along a narrow, cobbled-stone street in the shadows of the rock-cut cave dwellings of Matera, located in Basilicata. During WWII, its 15,000-some residents were forced to abandon the city. Today, those same caves have been transformed into five-star boutique hotels and restaurants and the city has been dubbed one of Europe’s two Cultural Capitals for 2019.

LECCE

In Lecce, each turn is like a portal between past and present. A street lined with gelato shops and artisan boutiques spits us out into Piazza Sant’Oronzo, where the excavated remains of a 2nd-century AD Roman Amphitheater are on full display. It’s not hard to imagine gladiators preparing to battle, but today the space is used for concerts.

The comparisons to Tuscany extend to Lecce, which has earned the nickname, the Florence of the South, thanks to its Baroque architectural monuments. After an afternoon strolling the city, Val and I both agree that Lecce is in a category of its own, as is the architecture. The area’s soft, creamy limestone allows for incredibly ornate carvings that have earned the city’s architectural style the distinction of Lecce Baroque. We marvel for a good 15 minutes at the best example—the impeccably detailed façade of Basilica di Santa Croce, which is believed to have taken 200 years to complete.

THE ADRIATIC COAST + BORGO EGNAZIA HOTEL

That level of design detail surrounds us at Borgo Egnazia, a five-star hotel in Fasano along the Adriatic Coast. Constructed entirely from the local tufa stone and modeled after a 15th- century Apulian village, the resort brilliantly melds past and present. The estate is divided into three sections: La Corte, or the main hotel; the labyrinth-like “Il Borgo,” or village, with rows of duplex townhouses; and the outlying villas, each with a private pool. Every design detail pays homage to local tradition, from the ubiquitous pumo, a flower-bud like ceramic sculpture that symbolize good luck, to the old farming tools that adorn the walls of the townhouses.

It’s easy to feel like you’re on a movie set, especially when guests include stars like Madonna and Justin Timberlake. But owner Aldo Melpignano has created a down-to-earth vibe that encourages guests to slow down and reconnect with themselves and the surrounding nature. To that end, each guest is appointed a “local friend” who can help tailor a truly authentic experience, including aromatherapy sessions at the hotel’s award-winning Vair Spa, cycling trips to the nearby coastal town of Monopoli, and a seafront lunch of crudo at the local gem, Pescharia 2 Mare.

Val and I have been keeping a Tuscany-versus-Puglia culinary scorecard along our journey, and though Tuscany is famous for good reason and always worth a return trip, the south impresses, too, when we see Borgo Egnazia’s breakfast room, which includes an entire station dedicated to cake. Lucky for us, the resort’s talented chef puts a healthful, Mediterranean-touch on his tasting menus at Due Camini, one of the six restaurants on property.

On our final day we head to Ostuni to shop for souvenirs. Val tries to buy a spoonc carved from olive wood but the artisan is so attached to the piece he decides it’s not for sale. I am turned away at a hat shop; it’s only 11 a.m. but the owner explains he’s already sold five hats that morning and so he’s going to the beach. Our money is no good here, we joke. The locals in this region care more about quality of life than becoming rich. And there within lies the magic of Puglia—la dolce vita here is all about life’s simple pleasures.

Top Tables

AVANT GARDE: 3 RANE, LECCE

After working in top restaurants around the globe, 37-year-old Piedmont native Maurizio Raselli has returned to Italy. He’s put down roots in a tiny space near the Lecce castle. Raselli cut back the number of tables to just five so he could have a bigger kitchen and ensure a personal dining experience. His food is rooted in Salento (horse filet is on the menu) but has a creative, international flare. Raselli hand delivers dishes like sous vide octopus with carrot and orange cream and matches them with wines from his all-organic cellar. A four-course meal with a glass of wine costs just 35 euros, making this one of the best deals in town.

OLD SCHOOL: OSTERIA CASALE, MATERA

Excellent cucina povera paired with local aglianico wines is the attraction of this simple, white-walled space with its terracotta floors and excellent, friendly service. Humble ingredients like turnip tops and breadcrumbs get transformed when added to orecchiette pasta spiked with anchovies. And though the pizza toppings may sound wacky, combinations like pumpkin cream, pork belly, stracciatella cheese and mozzarella, and mortadella and pistachio grain are irresistible. Save room for the house dessert—an airy whipped ricotta layered with fig and hazelnut mousse.


The Rhythm of Salento: A Revived Folk Music Tradition

In Salento, there’s a centuries-old legend that when a peasant woman was bitten by a tarantula while working in the fields she would become possessed by the creature. Itinerant musicians would be called to the victim’s home with their violins, guitars, flutes, and tambourines to play pizzica, a folk music that would start slowly and crescendo into a fast, hypnotic, tambourine-driven beat. The woman danced frenetically to the rhythm as she exorcised the spider, a metaphor for the devil, from her body. Today this wild dance, known as taranta, and folk music, pizzica, is celebrated with a summer festival known as La Notte della Taranta. During two weeks in August, musicians, DJs, and bands from around the world descend on farmhouses throughout Salento to host concerts and dance parties. The event culminates in the town of Melpignano. Past festivals have attracted big names like Buena Vista Social Club and Stewart Copeland.

Shopping GPS>Grotagglie

The small village of Grotagglie is a shrine to the historic craft of ceramics. Dozens of workshops and galleries line the streets. Here are two not-to-miss boutiques.

ENZA FASANO CERAMICHE

The daughter of one of Puglia’s most esteemed ceramics masters, Enza Fasano is known for breaking tradition and experimenting with bold colors and patterns. At her atelier, find modern twists on classic regional motifs like the cactus leaf, rooster, and artichoke.

BOTTEGA VESTITA

Part workshop, part gallery, visitors can watch artisans throw clay on a potter’s wheel as they browse shelves of brilliantly colored pumo. Locals believe the flower-bud shaped ceramic to be a good luck charm and place it on the balconies of their homes.

Shopping GPS>Lecce

For one-of-a-kind, handmade fashion and home goods, there’s no better place to shop. Here’s your blackbook.

ARTIGIANATO SALENTINO

Owner Valeria Inguscio handcrafts many of the pieces, like paintings and silk scarves. She also curates local finds like silk raffia handbags and sea-inspired ceramic pieces.

IJO DESIGN

Designer Annalisa Surace uses century-old, olive wood hand looms to craft gorgeous scarves and shawls. Her earthy jewelry showcases natural materials such as lava and agate.

TONDA DESIGN

Owner-designers Melinda Massaro and Tonio Pede showcase a quirky mix of contemporary furnishings and baroque corian jewelry at their gallery.


Dreaming about off-the-beaten path adventures?

Visit our website, enter OFFER EW16087, and discover Editor at Large Ignacio Maza’s list of Italy’s hidden gems.


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Cover Photo: Basilicata Country Landscape


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