What a lovely find! We suffered miserably from Michelin’s bum steers in Japan, but it seems the stodgy old French critics rarely make mistakes in their own backyard. A few years ago in Sicily, we drove for half an hour from our villa many times to find a classy delicious lunch in some out-of-the-way little place that Michelin had named. This experience was very similar.
There were some detours and other problems finding our way south from Otranto to this old fishing village on the southeast Puglia coast. We parked and entered the restaurant at about 2:15 to find a big Italian family and a middle-aged couple occupying about a third of the maybe 30 seats in a clean white-painted irregular room off the little town’s main drag. We sat at a table with rough tablecloth covered with paper and equipped with paper napkins. A thirtyish polite guy approached and spoke passable English.
Once established that we were there for lunch, he returned and showed us a supermarket basket-sized plastic container full of small fresh fish. He pointed them out, and explained that his father and brothers had caught them in the morning and that his mother would prepare them for us in a variety of ways. We said fine, and chose the “antipasto” – which turned out to be a lot more than the usual tray of savoury this and that – and a shared seafood pasta.
I took pictures of the antipasto to remember them. Octopus salad of celery, radishes, and herbs seasoned with vinegar simple and fresh. Cooked (not sure how exactly) white fish pieces infused with lemon and sprinkled with parsley, delicate and tasty. Deep fried oily fish again simply but perfectly cooked and just delectable with its flavour of virgin-fresh vegetable oil, benefiting from salt that was happily provided. Eggplant-flavoured parmesan linguine-style item cut into small three-bite squares that had incorporated fish into one of the layers so the flavours blended magnificently. Warm octopus salad with gnocci and herbs and a hint of bacon. Another linguine square incorporating zucchini with fish flavour. Everything fresh and understated, but full of comfort and great taste. Good Lord. We could have stopped at the end of that little festival but were looking forward to the pasta.
This was again deceptively simple-appearing, exactly al dente spaghetti with beautifully soft discrete chunks of white fish, parsley, and fresh tomatoes exploding with garden sunshine. There was a fish stock adornment to this, but it stayed in the background while enriching the texture and aroma.
There were about 10 wines offered, six of them white, and we took the server’s advice and enjoyed a apple- and tropical fruit-fragrant verdeca (the grape) from a local manufacturer called Menhir: €14.
The father was a grizzled gently bombastic big man who spoke Italian and brought some of the dishes. We could see an apparent sister and the mum in the kitchen through a window. The Italian family at another table, three generations obviously celebrating something, were (for some reason not offensively) noisy.
We asked the young fellow server if his mum was the chef, and he answered proudly, “She is the mother and wife of fishermen.” We had no problem based on the lunch we had enjoyed appreciating that this little restaurant is a serious family enterprise, and a real gem. The bill of €65 was a little more than we were dreaming it would be, but an honest bargain both for the food and for the experience. For geographical reasons I don’t think we’ll make it back but if you’re ever in South Puglia don’t miss it.
Food 9.4, service 9.0, ambience 9.2, value 8.9, peace and quiet (maybe not literally but for the overall effect) 9.0.