Retro Gusto. Otranto (Italy), May 2017.

May 2017.

This little place was Michelin-named and about a block and a half from our villa in Otranto. So we had to give it a try and did so for lunch on a sunny Saturday in May. We were on their enclosed patio with two other couples (one from Switzerland and one from Texas) at about 2 PM. On the day after we visited wonderful Anime Sante, the performance here was a solid cut above tourist pizzerias, but was following a tough act.

The thirtyish server was a nice tall boy with halting adequate English and a little bit of a high-pressure delivery, one he said of about a dozen brothers who own the restaurant. His veiled up-sell presented us with a plate of live lobsters, a dead crab, and a lot of dead fish, and the story appeared to be that these were the ingredients represented in the menu. Our server told us later that the Texas couple at the next table were not happy with the bill, and we had sympathy with them because main-course prices on the menu were in the range of €10-€18, but the lobster pasta we (and they) ended up ordering ka-chonged in at €54. There was some rationale for this lobster add-on, but we couldn’t understand it and although we are semi-retired people used to paying serious money for good food, we could understand apparent newlyweds thinking they had been overcharged.

Anyway, we went for a €30 multiple-course antipasto shared between two, similar in concept to what we had enjoyed at Anime Sante. It wasn’t bad, but there were about as many misses as hits, and it seemed to all arrive at once. An octopus salad was pleasant and fresh, deep-fried zucchini flowers stuffed with a very gentle cheese paste and nicely seasoned was probably the pinnacle, a flavourless pastry cup with boiled cephalopod on top sitting in an equally-flavourless cheese goo wasn’t interesting, mussels steamed in a tomato sauce with tiny croutons floating on top exhibited nothing beyond mussel and tomato sauce, and everything else was pretty forgettable.

So far we had hoovered up quite a whack of volume and we were getting to the end of our bottle of verdeca and chardonnay white (€15), but the server was understandably reluctant to cancel the lobster pasta we had ordered. Feeling sorry for him and sheepish that our eyes had been bigger than our stomachs we agreed to some sort of compromise, which he eventually delivered.

When the lobster pasta arrived it was a classy-on-paper deal but fundamentally a flat-falling expensive pain in the ass. The pasta was perfectly-cooked fat spaghetti (I think you get badly-cooked pasta in Italy about as often as you get a badly-fried egg in North America, like you get a bad cup of coffee here about often as you get a bad pot of tea in England) in a very straightforward tomato sauce with fresh tomatoes. Curled alongside it was the sawed-in-half crustacean, with a couple of surgical-looking implements close beside designed to crack the exoskeleton and release the meat. With Robin as OR nurse I eventually succeeded in delivering a couple or three bites of not-badly-cooked lobster from the splatter, but it didn’t particularly join hands with the tomato pasta which had started to get cold.

The bill was about €100 including €54 (around C$65) split two ways for the lobster pasta. Spoiled by the last couple of meals, I had pictured a soft succulent pasta joyously married to perfectly-cooked lobster parts in some sort of gently viscous fish stock. No such fun.

We chatted in French with a gregarious older-middle-aged Swiss couple adjacent, who had their little doggie with them and were travelling in Italy in a camper. I think we agreed on the value of our lunch, but weren’t scandalized like the poor Austin Texas guy nearby, fresh into Europe for the first time with his young wife, who I guess was expecting heaven-on-earth for about US$60. It’s all in the point of view isn’t it. We won’t be going back. For the money I think there are better options in this town and elsewhere nearby.

Food 7.8, service 8.5, ambience 7.9, value 7.2, peace and quiet 8.9.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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