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Old May 18th, 2011, 11:55 AM
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No sooner did we return home from our Puglia jaunt last fall then I began planning a return to this captivating region deep in Italy’s far south. The treasures of Puglia are spread over a wide area and it is impossible to see them all in only one week, or even in two weeks. My usual travel partner, who would also be the sole driver, and I would begin with a two-day stay in a masseria hotel near the food mecca of Montegrosso di Andria, not far from Trani. From there, we would penetrate a corner of the remote region of Basilicata to spend two nights in Matera. Finally, we would luxuriate for three nights during a return visit to Masseria Torre Maizza, near Savelletri di Fasano and within reach of the gleaming white towns and trulli landscapes of the Valle d’Itria.

Our flights were on Alitalia, which has improved greatly since the dark days of a few years back, from JFK to Bari with connection in Rome.

We rented an automatic car through the broker, AutoEurope, finding the lowest prices, by far, on their Italian website, www.autoeurope.it. The actual booking was done in a phone call to their US office, which granted me the price I found on the Italian site: 390 euro per week for a Mercedes B-180 automatic. This worked out to US$548 with all fees; the exchange rate at the time of our visit was very unfavorable to those with US dollars. Payment is in advance, but cancellations and changes are possible.

The flight from JFK to Rome was relatively painless, even in coach. I brought my own dinner (frittatas travel very well) but my partner found the food to be just fine. After an hour's layover in Rome (our flight arrived a few minutes late due to late takeoff from JFK) and second flight, which took about an hour, we landed in Bari at 10:20am. Since we had no checked luggage to wait for, it took no more than a few minutes before we were on the way in our white Mercedes, bound for our first masseria-hotel, outside the hamlet of Montegrosso di Andria, in the Upper Murge region of Puglia.

The hotel’s directions instructed us to take the autostrada from Bari to Andria. Since we remembered the roads in Puglia to be generally well marked, I neglected to study my map (no GPS for the two of us!), figuring that we would follow the signs from the airport to the autostrada. The folly of that plan became quickly apparent when we failed to find any signs directing us to the desired highway. No problem, this navigator cried!! Who wants the boring old autostrada when we can get there on smaller parallel roads!? Suffice to say that we soon found ourselves snarled in traffic in the midst of sprawling Bitonto. We finally found a sign for the autostrada, only to find that the Bitonto entrances were blocked by construction. After lots of wrong turns, and much help from kindly locals, we were finally on our way. We were not out of the airport more than 20 minutes when we began to pass open trucks piled with artichokes and fava beans for sale along the roadside. I broke out into a big smile! I was so happy to be back in Puglia!

A sight that I did not expect was the sequined, mini-skirted young woman, looking as if she had stepped out of one of Berlusconi’s television variety shows but standing, instead, at the edge of a olive grove. Very dressed up for a Sunday morning, I remarked to my companion. I did not realize that May 1 was such a celebratory holiday. Look, there’s another woman. She’s dressed up, too! Are they really picking olives in that getup? I began to regret my choice of casual clothing for this trip before I realized why these women, and many like them that we would see along the roads near Bari, were so bedazzlingly, and scantily, outfitted.

Sometime after noon, we finally arrived at the imposing iron gates of our destination, the Masseria Lama di Luna, 3.5 km from tiny Montegrosso. Lama di Luna, which means “blade of the moon,” began life in as a fortified farm in the late 18th Century, worked by entire families of sharecroppers who lived on the premises. The forest of chimneys sprouting from the low-rise building ringing the central courtyard attests to the original tenants of what are now the guest rooms. The rambling complex, set amidst olive groves, vineyards, plots of vegetables and cereals, and almond and cherry orchards, has been impeccably restored by the cultured and genteel owner, Pietro Petroni, who hails from nearby Canosa di Puglia and who bought the property in 1991. Pietro speaks English well and his love for his home region is readily apparent.

We had booked a Murgia room, the larger of the two room categories. The hotel houses 9 guest rooms and a couple of suites. An exquisite brass bed, embellished with bronze cupids, dominated our large room, which also had a massive fireplace. The vaulted ceiling was sheathed with pierced round terra cotta cylinders of a hundred different shades of pink, orange and rose, designed to allow air flow and ventilation for the cooking and heating fires of the families who once lived here. It is probably the most beautiful hotel ceiling I’ve ever slept beneath! There was an amply-sized bathroom, a mini-bar and a television with about a thousand channels in a hundred languages. A free-form swimming pool has an astounding view of the sweeping countryside but the weather during our stay was too chilly and cloudy to even contemplate a dip.


We had only an hour or so to relax before setting out for lunch. On previous trips, we have preferred to relax after our long trans-Atlantic flights, before setting out for late afternoon sightseeing and dinner. But this being not only a Sunday, but also a holiday, I had had difficulty finding a restaurant within a half-hour's drive that was open for dinner. I pored over the guides, but everyplace nearby was closed, or so it seemed. And I could not think of asking my partner to drive an hour in the dark on our first night, to the restaurant I found that would be open.

And so we decided to have lunch on that Sunday of arrival, instead of dinner. (For the long saga of how we settled on our first restaurant of the week, with the gracious assistance of Franco, to whom I will forever be indebted, see the entries beginning with the post of April 16, 2011, on this thread:


The immediate environs of Lama di Luna enjoy a reputation as a center for great eating, with no less than 5 highly esteem eateries (that I am aware of; there may well be more) located within a 10 minute drive of the hotel. Our goal on that afternoon was Masseria Barbera, where we arrived after a drive of about 10 minutes.

MASSERIA BARBERA (outside Minervino Murge)

A couple of kms south of the Canosa-Andria road, north of the town of Minervino Murge, Masseria Barbara encompasses a complex of farm buildings set amidst the rolling green farmland of the Upper Murge plateau. We expected to turn off the road and down a narrow lane to find a simple farmhouse. What we did not expect to find was a parking lot filled to the brim and manned by frenzied attendants waving their arms this way and that, attempting to squeeze the cars of stragglers like us into the last remaining centimeters of available parking space.

After depositing our rental car, we followed a pathway lined with massive terra cotta pots overflowing with flowers, to the rambling building housing the restaurant. Passing through the giant wooden doorway we entered into a festive celebration in full force. Long tables packed to the brim with chattering diners clad in their Sunday best, flotillas of baby carriages over which peered doting parents and grandparents, toddlers racing about underfoot, waiters pouring forth from the kitchen bearing aloft platters laden with enticements. This was Sunday lunch on the first of May, but our waiter later told us that this was the usual scene on Sundays.

We were shown to one of the smallest tables, where two lonely-looking diners were already seated. Together with our two dining companions, a Kiwi/UK couple, repeat visitors to Puglia like us, we looked to be the only other non-locals in the house on that day. In fact we saw no menu, just a printed sheet with a brief description of the courses that began to arrive soon after we sat down. (I suspect that during the week a regular menu is available) On the table already were water, a basket heaped with the ring-shaped Pugliese biscuits known as taralli, and slices of the superb bread for which this region is known throughout Italy, and a bottle of the house wine, Rubino di Murgia, a DOP red from nearby Castel del Monte.

This was our second trip to Puglia so we were already accustomed to the lavish display that constitutes the typical Pugliese antipasti spread. Nevertheless, we were astounded by the goodness and the plethora of courses served to us that afternoon.

Among the antipasti dishes were the following:

Fried fava beans

Pettole, the Pugliese spheres of fried dough mixed, in this case, with lampascioni, or Muscari racemosum, wild hyacinth bulbs

Fresh ricotta

Nodino, or knots, of mozzarella

Focaccia di grano arso (grano arso is the grain left in the fields after the seasonal burning and was a staple of the poor in this wheat-growing area of Puglia)

Cardoncelli mushrooms baked with bread crumbs

Baccala with tomato sauce and black olives

A platter of local Minervino sausage (salciccia di Minervino) accompanied by chunks of ricotta salata and aged ricotta

The quality was uniformly excellent. This was the southern Italian Sunday lunch of my dreams!

Once the (empty in most cases) antipasti dishes were cleared from the table, a pair of pasta dishes were brought out in succession:

The first: “Maritati in Crudiola di Melanzane con pesto di basilico,” (a mix, or “marriage” of white orechiette and cavatelli di grano arso, with eggplant cubes, cherry tomatoes and basil pesto

The second: “Troccoli alla Campagnola con Formaggio dei Poveri,” a long, thick pasta with oven-roasted tomatoes and bread crumb.

The two secondi were as follows: A platter of mixed meats—tiny baby lamb chops and char-grilled strips of donkey which was tender and sweeter than beef. I hestitated for about one second before digging in. The donkey was Incredibly delicious!

The second main course was Salciccia in Cartoccio, a paper parcel that opened to reveal sausage in a light meat broth with a spicy kick.

Along with the meats, we had Patate sotto Cenere, or roast potatoes cooked in the ashes of a fire.

Once the meat platters had been demolished, a plate of raw vegetables—carrots and baby fennel—took their place, as per local custom. Then came a bowl of mixed fresh fruits—melon, strawberries, and kiwi.

And finally: House-made cookies, glazed strips of orange rind, and candied almonds.

The total for this feast was 80 euro for two persons. Next year the owner, Sr. Barbera, plans to open rooms for overnight guests.

Closed Sunday night and Monday. No English spoken and no English menu. SlowFood pick. Highly recommended. Worth the detour.

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Old May 18th, 2011, 10:47 PM
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Greatly looking forward to the next installment.
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Old May 19th, 2011, 12:45 PM
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I forgot to mention, in the review above, that we spoke to Sr. Barbera, who told us that the masseria will begin to receive overnight guests next year. This would be an excellent place from which to cover the sights of the region. The property is beautiful. Were it not for the luggage restrictions, I would have bought a few bottles of their estate olive oil, and a few of the other products for sale in the front room.

I also forgot to mention that I was on the trail of the dried red peppers from Senise (Basilicata), which are the centerpiece of a favorite pasta dish and one that I make at home, when I can get the ingredients. I asked the waiter if they ever used similar peppers in their dishes and if so, where I could buy them. He told me that no one would buy them because people here grow them in their gardens and dry them on strings in their kitchens. With that, he disappeared for a minute and returned with a paper bag filled with gorgeous scarlet beauties. This is why I love Puglia!

We had an easy drive back to the masseria, and a great sleep on very comfortable beds.

The next morning the skies were grey; rain was in the forecast and we would, indeed, have some rain on and off for that day and the next, before the skies cleared. I quickly realized that my plans for a swim in the pool had been laughingly optimistic. Note for next time: For early May visits, pack something warmer than a cotton pullover and feather-light rain jacket.

The verandah of a stone outbuilding, overlooking the pastoral green landscape dotted with olive groves, with the low-rise sprawl of Andria in the distance, makes a film-worthy setting for the masseria’s breakfasts, included in the room rate. (The verandah is fitted with a giant stone hearth where pizza is made on summer evenings)

Simple breakfasts, began with peach nectar (alas, not fresh in early May) and continued with two types of pecorino from a neighbor’s farm; I had never considered myself a pecorino fancier until I tasted these cheeses, which were outstanding. Fresh ricotta was also divine, as was the freshly made yogurt, which we drizzled with local honey. (No plastic containers of supermarket yogurt at Lama di Luna!) To complete the spread: Bruschetta with chopped tomatoes; almond cake; and home-made crostata with fruit marmelade, and very good coffee. The city of Andria was the birthplace of burrata cheese (which came into local production as recently as the 1950s) and I was disappointed that there was none on the table, but the fact that the day before had been a Sunday holiday may have impacted the selection. In any case, we would have plenty of opportunity to sample burrata in the days ahead.

After breakfast, we set off for the 37 km drive to Trani, one of a string of medieval port towns that lines the coast north of Bari and dubbed by more than one guidebook, “The Pearl of Puglia.” We skirted the urban sprawl of Andria and headed south along the coast, passing what seems like dozens of stone yards announcing “Marmi di Trani.” The marble and stone of Trani is famous throughout Italy and beyond and we would behold its gorgeous application in the paving stones and facades of the charming seaport that gave it is name. Following the signs to “centro,” we passed a small bridge and entered the commercial center of town, where we followed signs to “Cattedrale,” before finding a spacious parking lot on the sea within site of the famous cathedral. The lot was free but, not being sure of correct etiquette, I gave a euro to the uniformed elderly “parking attendant” who guided us to a spot.

From there it was just a few steps to the famous Romanesque Cathedral of San Nicolas the Pilgrim which occupies a vast piazza at the water’s edge and attests to Trani’s importance as a merchant city in the early Medieval age. The gorgeous bronze doors, which now stand in a protected spot in the interior, are among the celebrated ecclesiastical relief panels crafted by Barisano da Trani in the 12th Century; others guard the entrances to the cathedrals of Ravello and Monreale. Sheathing the floor near the altar is a 12th-entury mosaic depicting Adam and Eve.


From the Cathedral, we wandered along the arc of the harbor, past colorful fishing boats displaying the day’s catch, old men mending nets, and a string of marine-goods shops, cafes, and seafood restaurants. Just behind the port, the gleaming white tangle of streets comprising the old city drew us next. We found the old Jewish ghetto, and two churches that had been synagogues until the Spaniards expelled the town’s Jewish residents in the 1500s.

Then it was on to the 19th-Century sector of town, where we peeked into a couple of food shops and latterias. In my pre-trip reading I had come across a number of foods that I had never sampled and was delighted to encounter one of these: Cicerchie, in a local alimentari and I promptly purchased a half kilo.

Cicerchie is an ancient type of pulse that will grow in conditions where other pulses and vegetables will not. Once common to Umbria, Campania, Le Marche, and northern Puglia and associated with the cuisine of poverty, its cultivation began to be abandoned with the areas’ increasing affluence. Like many heirloom foods verging on extinction, cicerchie have returned to favor with the advent of the SlowFood movement and the emphasis on heritage foods.

Trani is absolutely lovely and I would like to return for an overnight visit to enjoy the seafood restaurants and the evening passegiata.

From Trani, we headed for Castel del Monte but after missing the correct turnoff in the vicinity of Andria, we found ourselves passing the ocean of stands comprising the town's Monday market. We stopped briefly in the hopes of finding the food section but after walking what seemed like 2 kilometers past vendors hawking cheap sunglasses, sequined jeans, and garish tablecloths, we gave up and continued on our way in the car, eventually extricating ourselves from the clogged streets of lunch hour and heading out to the countryside once more, bound for one of the most celebrated sights of Puglia, Castel del Monte.
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Old May 19th, 2011, 12:58 PM
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oh no, not eating donkey! My "boys" would be very distressed.

great report, ek.

the lavishness and generosity of the italians when it comes to food is wonderful, isn't it?

looking forward to more!
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Old May 19th, 2011, 02:38 PM
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Ann, that is so true. And nowhere have I encountered this generosity more than in the deep south.

I am sorry about the donkey. My partner would not touch it and I was squeamish. I thought it would be tough and gamey but it was neither.

Now get back to your studies!
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Old May 19th, 2011, 03:12 PM
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I am so enjoying "travelling along with you", ekscrunchy. It is wonderful that you were able to return Puglia this spring.
Speaking of donkey, I had some meat one time while in Italy but I didn't know what the meat was as our Italian friends ordered the food. The meat was quite good, in fact I commented how good it was but I asked what it was. Uhm, it was donkey. I almost got ill at the table, lol. My husband gave me a teasing bad time afterwards as he reminded me I love venison and rabbit etc. But there was something about eating donkey meat as good as it was that made me rather squeamish even though I enjoyed it at the time. Thanks for sharing your delightful trip, I look forward to the next installment!
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Old May 19th, 2011, 05:05 PM
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How wonderful. Please go on.
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Old May 20th, 2011, 02:20 AM
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The N170 passes through gentle green agricultural lands as it ascends from the coastal plan to the Murge Plateau; we all but gasped with delight at our first glimpse of the famed silhouette of Castel del Monte looming at the edge of the plateau. Built in the 13th Century by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II who reportedly was inspired by castles he viewed during the Sixth Crusade, the Castel del Monte has probably perplexed visitors ever since due to its mysterious octagonal form, repetitive angles and proportions, and geometric alignment with other ancient temples, castles and towers. There is an entire literature devoted to the supposedly mystical symbolism of the octagonal design and the possible meaning of the number 8 which is repeated throughout th design: There are 8 sides;8 towers; 8 rooms on each of the two floors, etc etc. One of the multitude of theories posits that the castle marks the intersection between the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge, and between Jerusalem and Mont St.Michel. the original function of the building has never been determined, although many historians appear to have settled on the idea that it was built as a hunting lodge.

From the UNESCO World Heritage Centre:


One scholarly interpretation:


There is no parking at the base of the castle. Visitors can either park in a paid lot and take the shuttle (fee with parking ticket), or park in the free lot and walk to the site; most of the walk is along the roadside. We opted to take the shuttle; the charge for parking is 6 euro, which includes the shuttle but not the admission to the castle.

The admission to the site is 3 euro per person; there is no charge for seniors. I had hoped that there might be a guided tour but there was none at the time of our visit. A good thing to keep in mind is that the castle remains through the afternoon break, when many sights and shops in the area are closed.

We were astounded by the Castel del Monte’s severe beauty. The setting at the edge of the plateau also affords a sweeping vista over the plain below, which stretches beyond Andria to the Adriatic. I will not delve into a more detailed description here, but you can read the history, and see a few photos, on the official site:


As an added bonus (although the castle alone is more than enough to merit a long detour) a Giorgio de Chirico exhibition in the gallery will run through August, 2011:


After our visit to the castle, with the time inside lasting about an hour as the structure is not large, we treated ourselves to a bag of dragees (3 euro) chocolate spheres encasing a range of flavors from coconut to almond to coffee, from the tiny outpost of the famed Andria candy maker Mario Mucci that sits at the edge of the pay parking lot. Do not miss this little shop if you have a sweet tooth.


From the Castle we returned to the hotel for some relaxation; the weather had turned very windy, and it had begun to rain by the time we set out for our long-awaited dinner at one of the most well-known restaurants in the region.

ANTICHI SAPORI (Montegrosso di Andria)

Montegrosso is a tiny (two streets) hamlet. But it has garnered considerable fame in Italian food circles because of this restaurant. Bookings must be made weeks in advance. From the SlowFood guide: “Eating here, you’ll really appreciate the quality and freshness of the raw ingredients that are used.” Simply put, and completely accurate.

The first thing that greets diners upon entering the small, rustically appointed dining room, is a blackboard highlighting ingredients from the orchard of Owner Pietro Zito that will be used in the night’s menu.
There is a tasting menu, which I believe cost 35 euro, and a la carte options.

We chose the a la carte, opting to begin the meal with the house antipasti misti, and what followed was simply fabulous. The importance of impeccable materie prime, simply prepared, shone forth in a manner that I’ve rarely experienced before. I was especially glad to see both artichokes and cardoons featured prominently both in the antipasti and in the primi; I had never tasted cardoons, which have now joined artichokes at the top of my vegetable pantheon.

These were some of the dishes that arrived at our table; for 12 euro per person, this has to be one of the better restaurant values in Italy:

Bruschetta with mixed herbs

Salciccia di Minervino Murge, sausage from nearby Minervino

Mostarda di sedano=a sweet celery confection that was a standout; served with sheep’s milk ricotta (recipe can be found in the cookbook, Lidia’s Italy)

Riccotine di mucca=cow milk ricotta, and local mozzarella

Cardoons with shreds of goat cheese (cardi con formaggio di capra)

Fava beans with the house olive oil

Carciofi sotto olio-artichokes “under oil,” or preserved in olive oil

Carciofi sotto Cenere=artichokes cooked in the ashes of the fire

Cippolotti di Margherita=baked onion halves topped with oregano-spiked bread crumbs

Focaccia di grano arso, made from the “burned grain,” that I described in the report about Masseria Barbera.

Each of these dishes was outstanding in its simplicity and in the way the kitchen allowed the impeccable raw material to shine.

For primi (7 euro) I asked for the waiter’s recommendation and was served “Grano Duro del Tavoliere con piselli freschi, carciofi, and fave novelle e tanto amore,” which turned out to be a dish of semolina grains with fresh peas, fava beans, and artichokes. I had never tasted this grain before; it was shaped like orzo, but had a texture vaguely reminiscent of very soft farro.

My partner was in culinary heaven with mezzemaniche with a ragu of mixed meats, passata of tomato, “spices,” and pecorino canestrato.

We shared one second course (12 euro) but were actually sated long before the arrival of the tiny chops of Murge lamb, grilled over almond wood and served with a simple arugula salad and roast potatoes.

Next: complimentary limoncello and a liqueur made from walnuts, liquorice.

And to conclude this extraordinary feast, dessert:

Sugared almonds
Baba au Rhum
And a cassata encased in chocolate that was the single best dessert of the week and one I will be yearning for for a very long time.

Along with the dessert, a complimentary glass of Moscato di Trani, the sweet dessert wine from Trani.

We drank the house wine, a local IGT 2009 Castel del Monte from Conte Onofrio Spagnoletti Zeuli made from Bombino and Nero di Troia grapes.

The price, with water and wine, plus a bag of orechiette di grano arso from the small selection of house-brand food items on display: a very reasonable 60 euro.


A Slow Food restaurant worth a long detour. Closed Saturday dinner and Sunday. Highest recommendation.
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Old May 21st, 2011, 06:30 PM
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eks - Do you take/post any food photos?
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Old May 21st, 2011, 08:14 PM
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ek- I so love your trip reports. What a treat to hit upon this tonight! Can't wait to read the rest. I am living vicariously through you!
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Old May 22nd, 2011, 04:20 AM
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Ky: Let me see if I can post a few pics; they are truly pretty terrible, though.
I begin most trips assiduously documenting the food and this falls by the wayside by the second or third night.

I will try to write a bit more later today..next stop is Matera.
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Old May 22nd, 2011, 09:08 AM
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After another lovely alfresco breakfast at Lama di Luna, we set off about 10am on a cloudy Tuesday morning, bound for Matera. We planned a stop at Altamura en route: This small city of about 70,000 inhabitants, near the border of Puglia and Basilicata, is famous throughout Italy for its bread (which I first sampled at Rome’s legendary food shrine, Volpetti) which bears protected DOP status and in fact, was the first European foodstuff to be granted this coveted designation. Altamura is known as the Citta del Pane, or “city of bread,” although the DOP zone extends to include bread made from local durum “remilled” wheat, and produced by traditional methods in nearby towns including Minervino and Gravina de Puglia.


Altamura is also famous as the city that defeated McDonald’s; the fast food goliath pulled down its arches in 2002 after less than two years of operation, citing lack of profitability.


From Montegrosso, we took the highway towards Bari, where we turned south on the SS 96, which took us through undulating green landscapes and past olive groves, where quite a few minimally clad young women waited for clients at the roadside. The drive was easy, although a routing through Minervino, Spinazzola and Gravina might have afforded more pristine scenery.

My original quest to find a particular bakery in Altamura (diGesu) was quickly thwarted; I'm not sure if I should blame Google maps or a change of address, but after some backtracking and searching for a parking place, we found ourselves inside the Panaderia Bisco on the SS 96, or Via Bari as it is known inside the city, at #173.

The smells emanating from the bakery sent me into a swoon, and the folks inside appeared thrilled to have visitors who had traveled from New York to Altamura to sample the city’s most famous product. We bought far too many bags of taralli, the ring-shaped snacks popular in the region, which are studded with fennel seeds, red peppers, or sesame seeds to mention three of the most usual flavorings (1.80 euro each) and a loaf of the “pane alta,” or “high bread (4.20 euro) with its distinctive brioche-like shape; see the photo in the link below:


We had a quick peek at a busy neighborhood close to the historic center during our search for the bakery and I got an impression favorable enough to put Altamura on my list for a possible future visit. I certainly would recommend a stop for anyone with a serious interest in bread, or food in general. It certainly would have made a great lunch stop. (My research had turned up a well-regarded local restaurant (Pein Assutt on Corso Umberto.) ) I had even briefly toyed with the idea of an overnight stay but time constraints eventually nixed that idea.

From Altamura we drove on, reaching the first of several exits for Matera in about 25 minutes. Here I became a bit befuddled, as the (hopeless) directions and map on the hotel website had said nothing about which exit to take off SS96 from Bari/Altamura, and I had not, in fact, expected to be confronted with a choice of entrances to the city. I followed a hunch which, somewhat surprisingly, turned out to be correct.

After bypassing several highway exits, which led to driver protests that we had bypassed the town entirely and would soon be lost in the wilds of Basilicata, we came to one (very small) brown sign marked “sassi.” Veering off the highway, we soon found ourselves driving through a somewhat unremarkable area of a modern town where signposts indicated the directions for many hotels but not ours.

Happily, as we slowed the car at a tourist office where I intended to get out and seek directions, we were approached by one of Matera’s unofficial scooter-driving “entry guides.” I had read about these fellows and, although they are frowned upon by hoteliers and tourist officials, I was all too happy to part with a tip in order to be led to the doorstep of our hotel, in the sassi. No price was mentioned, I merely nodded and off we went, following our guide to the edge of the “new” city and down the steep cobbled lanes that skirts, and then pierces, the Barisano, one of Matera’s two sassi districts and the location of our next hotel, Locanda di San Martino.

We plunged, following our "guide" deeper and deeper into this other-wordly landscape colored in a thousand shades of gray, white and beige, along narrow paths hemmed in by the facades of dwellings that reached far back into the rocky canyon walls, until we halted at a small parking area, near a small sign indicating the back entrance to our hotel. After a quick chat about Osama and Obama, we tipped the “guide” 3 euro, which I considered money very well spent. Finding our hotel in Matera had brought me more anxiety than any other aspect of the trip and I was only too glad to be rid of the car for the next two days. (When we checked in, we were asked about our plans for the car; there is virtually no nearby parking space, but the hotel has an arrangement with the Demasco garage which charged us 25 euro for two nights, including pickup and delivery of the car from and to the hotel; Damasco also offers rental cars)

The Locanda di San Martino proved to be a lovely place to stay. Carved out of the sassi rock each of the individual rooms is distinct and most bear the names of the original function. Ours, for example, was “Chiesa,” for it had been a chapel in its original incarnation. The hotel is owned by an American Anthropologist and her Materan husband and they have created a truly remarkable hostelry uniting what were once disparate caverns into one rambling entity, using local furnishings and materials wherever possible.

The lamps in our room and in many of the public areas, for example, while they do not give off ideal light for reading, had been crafted in the ceramics town of Grottaglie and were so handsome that I wished we were headed for some ceramic shopping!

There is an elevator between levels but staying here requires careful selection of rooms (the staff are very responsive to e-mails) to ensure minimal stair-climbing and walking form the elevator.

While we are on the subject, I will also mention that a visit to Matera, regardless of hotel location, entails substantial traipsing along uneven stone street surfaces and climbing plenty of steps both within the sassi and between the sassi and the newer parts of town. Comfortable shoes are absolutely essential. I had packed only one pair of walking sandals and I quickly developed blisters but had no other appropriate footwear for the daily rambles we did during our two days in Matera.

The hotel site offers photos of each of the rooms and if you book early, as we did, you can select the one that you prefer. Our room, #8, in the cost 126 euro with breakfast buffet and taxes. We chose the Double Superior, which represents one of 5 room categories, ranging from standard to family suite and priced accordingly.

The Locanda also has a beautiful and romantic-looking thermal bath, glowing blue in a white cavern. Unfortunately, hours are limited (closed between 11:30am and 4:30pm, for example) and there is an extra charge of 10 per person for for use of the baths and an additional charge for rental of robes. (You have to walk through public areas to access the bath area).

You can see photos on the website; the hotel, and Matera itself, would make a fabulous honeymoon setting for an adventurous couple:


For more on the sassi of Matera, one of the oldest continually inhabited sites on earth, see this page from the UNESCO World Heritage Centre:


And this from the very good regional tourism site:


For preparatory reading, I recommend Carlo Levi’s seminal book, Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year, and the haunting 1979 film of the same name by Francesco Rosi, starring Gian Maria Volonte as Carlo Levi; the film is not available on Netflix but your public library may have a copy.



Here is a 2010 article on Basilicata from the NY Times that touches on Matera:


Although it is certainly possible to explore the sassi on one’s own, armed with either the Lonely Planet Puglia & Basilicata guidebook or Cadogan’s Bay of Naples and Southern Italy, we chose to hire a local guide who had been recommended by a poster on this forum. (Thank you, Ozlinz!) We had a few minutes after check-in to unpack and get settled before our 2pm rendezvous in the lobby with Nadia Garlatti.

We will begin our tour of Matera shortly! For now I will say only that my infatuation with the city was very quick to develop. This is one occasion where the overused and hackneyed exclamation "WOW!" is absolutely appropriate.
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Old May 23rd, 2011, 10:57 AM
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Guided private tour of Matera:

I had booked this tour with Nadia Garlatti a few weeks before our planned visit; she can be contacted by e-mail at:

[email protected]

Her phone number is: 0835-333214

The price for the tour for two people was 40 euro for three hours.

A native of Matera, Nadia’s strength is her ability to recount tales of what life was like in the sassi of Matera for those who lived there until the forcible evacuations beginning in the 1950s, when 20,000 inhabitants of the sassi were relocated to newly constructed housing blocks in the new city. Shamed by the outcry over the primitive conditions decried by Carlo Levi, who was remanded to internal exile in nearby Aliano by the Fascist government in the 1930s, and by his sister, also a medical doctor, the Italian government essentially banished occupancy of the caves that had sheltered families and their animals since the Neolithic era, exclaiming that conditions in Matera constituted a “shame for the entire nation. “E una vergogna per tutta la nazione!”

By the 1970s, however, the abandoned sassi had become a vast rubbish dump and conditions deteriorated further until the area was granted UNESCO status in 1993, spurring various renovation projects.

Today, realizing the potential tourist draw of the caves, the local government has instigated efforts to preserve the sassi and B&Bs, hotels, restaurants, and shops are sprouting where the contadini once lived in abject misery just a few decades ago.

Nadia told us that when her mother was a child, residents of the upper town rarely ventured into the sassi districts which were perceived dangerous and filled with superstition and territorial boundaries invisible to outsiders, a category that included residents of the upper town.

She explained the difference between the two sassi districts: Barisano, whose inhabitants often had jobs outside the sassi and therefore had access to money which propelled them to the top of the social order in the area, and Caveoso, where a barter system was in effect and whose residents were perceived to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy. None of the sassi districts had schools or hospitals, and medical care was almost non-existent. Levi’s sister recounted how, during her visits, sassi dwellers would beg not for coins but for quinine to counter the malaria which plagued the area until well into the last century.

Nadia first led us into a couple of many the painted churches tucked within the caves. Like the landscape itself, these reminded me of a long-ago visit to Cappadocia in Turkey. And while I had also visited cave homes in Matmata in Tunisia, and in Andalucia, in southern Spain, none of these prepared me for the wonder of Matera.

We wandered the labyrinth of narrow lanes while Nadia told stories of life in the sassi and in the region and explained how it was easier to construct lodging by digging into the calciferous rock than to find, cut, and shape wood for new construction.

We spent about 45 minutes inside the Casa Grotta del Casalnuovo, a multi-roomed cavern that was formerly the residence of a relatively well-to-do sassi family and is now preserved intact as a house museum. This was absolutely fascinating!


As we walked along the streets, we were often walking on the roofs of the facades that jutted out from the caves and formed the front room of residences. The entire landscape is a cubist fairyland and I was awestruck.

More information on the sassi, and on the rest of Matera:



As we continued out explorations in the Sassi Caveoso, the heavens opened up about this time and we were soon drenched in pounding rain which only added to the biblical atmosphere of this less gentrified of the two sassi districts.

We would return the following day to the viewpoint which allows a vista not only of the untouched caves on the other side of the Gravina river, but a cross-section of Materese development with the sassi at the bottom and the new apartment towers at the top level.

After which we ascended the staircase to the historic center, certainly among the most beautiful I've seen in southern Italy; we continued our wanderings with Nadia pointing out historic churches and palazzi including the Church of Purgatory, with its macabre skull-and-bones motifs embellishing the stone façade and the bronze doors.
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Old May 23rd, 2011, 01:53 PM
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By the end of our three-hour tour the rain was pounding down hard, so after leaving Nadia we headed back to the hotel, armed with a couple of great recipe ideas that she had given us including one that employs stale bread as its main component ( I had told her of my detour to Altamura for bread, and my plans to buy more in Matera).

Before I describe that evening’s dinner, I should discuss the Peperoni di Senise that I mention in the title of this report. These long, slender sweet red peppers are one of the staples of the Lucanian table and enjoy DOP protected status. (Lucania is the original name for the region of Basilicata and the one that the locals themselves tend to prefer). Grown in and around the town of Senise, they are harvested in summer and left to dry outside houses on long strings, to be used throughout the year as fried snacks, stuffed with meat or grain, and as an ingredient in local dishes.

The most famous of these dishes is Pasta with Peperoni Cruschi con Mollica di Pane, or Pasta with Fried Sweet Red Peppers with Bread Crumbs. I first read this recipe in Saveur, a US food magazine, and once I tried it, it became my favorite pasta to make at home. For a few years I was able to find the imported peppers in my local Italian market but last winter, the entire shipment had been held up at airport customs and I had to go without. My visit to Matera took the form of a quest—I knew I had to both sample the dish in its native incarnation, and buy a stash of the peppers to take back to my own kitchen. The recipe in Saveur originated at the Matera restaurant, Le Botteghe, and it was there that we booked a table for our dinner that first evening in the city.

This is the recipe:


LE BOTTEGHE (Matera, Basilicata)

A handsome white restaurant built into the rock in the sassi Barisano (one of two sassi districts in Matera), Le Botteghe is the source of the recipe that has since become my favorite pasta to make at home.

The restaurant’s location in the heart of the most “gentrified” of the two sassi districts, near many hotels, draws many tourists. While most of the tables were occupied by tourists at the somewhat early hour of our visit (8:30 dinner reservation) we did not get the feeling that this was actually a “tourist restaurant.” I do not recall seeing an English menu (although the website lists the menu in English.) LIkewise, I do not recall that English was spoken by the staff, or at least not by our waiter.

A massive wood-burning hearth dominates the front room. Beside it: A display of lamb. beef, and pork attests to the restaurant’s focus. For those interested in sampling the locally famed steaks of the Podolica breed, Le Botteghe would probably be an ideal place.

We began our meal with one order of the house vegetable antipasti mix, (13.50 euro) which included on that evening:

Pettole of eggplant and of lampascioni—these were highlights (for more on lampascioni, see the first report in this series)

Eggplant stuffed with fresh ricotta (melanzane ripieni). Another standout.

Caponata--excellent rendition of this Sicilian classic

Polpetti di pane (meatballs made from bread, bathed in a light tomato sauce) Like many other dishes in the Lucanian repertoire, this typifies the “cuisine of poverty” in a land where most families were too destitute to consume meat more than a couple of times a year. These were delicious, as were all of the dishes in the spread.

Tortino di zucchini con uova—a flan-like custard of zucchini and egg, this was a highlight for me

Carciofi Gratinata, or gratineed artichoke

Cardoncelli alla Griglia, meaty grilled cardoncelli mushrooms, a regional staple

My first course had been decided long in advance: “Fusilli mollica e crusco” (11 euro).
The difference between this original rendition and my adaptation is that here the toasted bread crumbs are ground very fine. The resulting dish here lacked the texture that my much more coarsely ground, fried in olive oil crumbs, offer. Nevertheless, the pasta was excellent.

My partner was more than happy with his orecchiette al tegamino (10 euro), in which the "little ears" of pasta had been bathed in a tomato and cheese and baked in a terra cotta casserole.

Too sated to sample the steaks, we opted to share an order of grilled cheeses (13.50 euro), Formaggio alla Piastra. This was comprised of Pecorino, caciocavallo, and scamorza, each drizzled with the fragrant local olive oil. Excellent !

We drank a bottle (6 euro) of the house Aglianico (the restaurant has an extensive list of Lucanian and Pugliese wines at reasonable prices)

Dinner for two at this SlowFood restaurant totalled 60 euro, with wine and water.

We had an excellent meal and while it did not, perhaps, ascend to the heights of our meals near Montegrosso on the previous two nights, I would recommend as a solid choice in Matera's sassi district.

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Old May 23rd, 2011, 08:57 PM
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EKS !!!! Welcome back. What a fabulous trip report you are posting. I am SO enjoying "going back" to some of the places we loved on our own trip several years ago, and reading about new places (for a possible return visit??).

Loved the diGesu bakery and Altamura, bought the same foodstuffs there as you relate!! Only spent one short day in Matera with no overnight. Looks like it will be on my next list for a several-days visit. Looking forward to more! Thanks
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Old May 24th, 2011, 03:06 AM
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Flame: So glad you are enjoying.

You are one of the "Puglia pioneers" on this site.
Believe me, I read your report quite a few times before the first trip!
I liked Matera so much and would go back there for the "new" city alone, not to mention the sassi. I hope that you are able to plan a return visit soon! You are a good driver, in and out of towns, so you could even use Matera as a base to explore the area..

I may have mentioned this on another thread, but there is a great article, with photos, about Matera in the May, 2009 issue of Saveur magazine.
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Old May 24th, 2011, 11:28 AM
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We devoted the next morning, our full day in Matera, to exploration of the historical center of the city, whose churches, municipal buildings and and palazzi represent architectural styles ranging from the 13th Century through the city’s golden age of the 16th and 17th Centuries.

One of my main goals, of course, was the purchase of Senise peppers and with that in mind, we headed to the market a few blocks from the stately Piazza Vittorio Veneto. Artichokes and favas were heaped high, along lampascioni, wild asparagus, and all of usual fruits and vegetables. For the first time since arriving in Italy I began to see piles of the round golden fruit labeled “nespole,” which in this season were imported from Spain but would be available locally in a few weeks. It would be a few days before my first sampling of this delicacy would give birth to a new culinary obsession with E. Japonica, known in English as loquat.

One thing I did not see, however, were strings of dried red peppers. I began to feel quite downcast when I was told, in answer to my query, that this was not the season for Senise peppers and they would not be harvested again until the heat of summer. The vendor must have noticed my disappointment, though, because he told me that my best chance for finding the dried peppers would be at an upmarket shop on the central square which I had noticed earlier that morning. And so after a round of photo taking, which included a snapshot of a dried bean vendor with one of the longest moustaches I’ve ever seen (the same fellow’s photo also appears in the Saveur issue on Basilicata), we headed back to Piazza Vittoria Veneto, to Il Buongustaio.

Enjoying a priviledged position at #1 Piazza v. Veneto, Il Buongustaio is a handsome shop stocked with every sort of epicurean treat from Bascilicata and beyond-from cheeses and salumi to wines and liqueurs to dried and fresh pastas to olive oils and jarred fruits, vegetables and preserves. Strung up on the wall opposite the entrance: A long strand of deep scarlet Senise peppers! I purchased half a strand (11.30 euro, priced at 25 euro per kilo) which should keep me stocked at least through the end of the year.

A couple of steps from Il Buongustaio at #22, the Casa di Pane di Martino Cosimo turns out excellent Matera breads, along with myriad other sweet and savory treats. A few bags of taralli and one of chocolate-chip-studded biscotti were added to the growing stash that was quickly filling up my carry-on bag.

After dropping our purchases off at the hotel, about a 5-minute walk from the piazza, we headed to Via Duni, near the Ridola Museum, where the cheese shop of Emmanuele Rizzi, occupies unassuming storefront at #2. Behind the cold cases of meats and cheeses that have gained Sr. Rizzi considerable fame and three SlowCheese awards, we entered a small room with about 10 tables. On this afternoon, many of these tables were occupied by members of a walking tour group from the US, along with a few locals.

We took a seat and were asked whether we wanted meats, cheeses, or both. (there is no menu, or at least I did not see one) We chose both meat and cheese, and within a few minutes, were presented with a sampling of local goat and sheep cheeses, along with smoked cow-milk scamorza and a platter of grilled canestrato di Moliterno, a renowned Lucanian DOP pecorino that was drizzled with honey.

Along with the cheeses: A salumi plate featuring two types of pancetta—one plain and one speckled with black peppercorns ( in Italy, pancetta is often sliced thin and served uncooked and unadorned, while back home I am used to using it only as an ingredient in a pasta or cooked vegetable recipe); capocollo; salami picante; and peppercorn-studded salami.

These were served with a fragrant olive oil from Frantoio Lacertosa that I would have liked to bring home.

We drank a quarter liter of the house Aglianico, and a bottle of water. Here again we were impressed with the quality of even the inexpensive local red house wines. With the wine, water, and a plate of biscotti, the total for both of us was 28 euro.

While you could probably put together a take-away sampling from the shop for quite a bit less, this makes a comfortable stop for a light lunch.

The front-room shop offers a wide selection of dried pastas, olive oils, wines, and other local products, along with the meats and cheeses. ( If you've not tried it before, this would be a good place to sample the extremely pungent ricotta forte that is a staple cheese of the Salento and the region around Matera) Via Duni, 2.
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Old May 24th, 2011, 08:28 PM
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Puglia Pioneer?? Thanks, I loved that. I am afraid my next trip to the area may take some time. I am next slated for Campania/Les Marches in October.

Am continuing to enjoy every entry of your trip report. Your details make the brain cells and salivary glands waiting for more!!!
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Old May 25th, 2011, 03:07 AM
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Flame: Campania/Le Marche? You caught my attention on that one! Please give us an outline of the trip!

I recently re-read Matthew Fort's book EATING UP ITALY and he write glowingly about food around Monti di Matese on the Campanian border.

Now we will have to amend your nickname because you surely will be treading some new territory with that trip!

Last night we dined out with a friend at an Italian restaurant here in NYC (Maialino, in the same stable as Union Square Cafe and Eleven Madison Park) that has a good reputation. Although the food was very good, I could not help comparing some of the dishes with similar ones we had had on this recent trip. Not even close! A mistake to eat Italian food at home so soon after returning from Italy, I think.

One of these days I may have to get myself to a cooking school in Italy. (I guess that will come AFTER the language lessons!)

I am still trying to decide how to explain the magnetism that these areas exerted. There is something I cannot put my finger on but that makes me, and my partner, too, want to return over and over again. It is so unlike me to repeat a destination so soon and here we've just returned from our second trip in 8 months! And dreaming of another! I would love to plunge deeper into Basilicata. And then there is the Gargano...
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Old May 25th, 2011, 05:41 AM
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Hoping to follow your tire tracks and footsteps someday, thanks for the detailed report!
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