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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, 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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