Dining in southern Italy

By John Wion
This item appears on page 23 of the February 2017 issue.

Monte Calvario, near the ghost town of Pentedattilo in Calabria, Italy. Photo by Victoria Wion

My wife, Victoria, and I have been visiting Italy for more than 50 years, but very rarely have we gone south of Rome. We decided that we really had to add the “toe and heel.”

We had never used a travel agent or tour guide before but did so this time. Through the online, luxury-travel-referral service Zicasso (www.zicasso.com), we found WAC Travel (Nyack, NY; 845/535-1300, italygreece.com), which specializes in travel to Italy and Greece.

In a chat with the agency’s Hilary Brooke-Wavel in mid-February to define our interests and parameters, we decided on a 2-week tour around the regions of Puglia (Apulia), Basilicata and Calabria and that staying two or three nights at each hotel was better than moving every day. Also, we figured we could handle a rental car.

After adjustments, the package price for our trip was set. We paid $6,800 for our 16-day, 14-night trip, April 26-May 11, 2016, which included lodging, breakfasts, three dinners, 13 days’ car rental and, on five days, private guides.

We flew Alitalia via Rome to Brindisi, where we picked up our car and learned our first lesson. When a travel agency uses its own funds to pay for your rental in advance, you’re not covered for any extra insurance offered by your credit card company. For us, this meant an additional fee of $357 to remove the large deductibles.

Using the first of the route maps provided by WAC, we drove 45 minutes south down Italy’s east coast to the very pretty city of Lecce for a 3-night stay at the excellent Risorgimento Resort (Via Augusto Imperatore, 19, Lecce; www.risorgimentoresort.it).

The hotel was in a “restricted traffic” area, but we were assured that the hotel had given our license number to the police so we would avoid any tickets. A hotel employee took our car and parked it nearby on the street. The same was done each time we used the car, and there was no charge. 

The hotel’s Le Quattro Spezierie Gourmet Restaurant & Roof Garden was a great choice for our first night’s dining, where we paid a total of $126, including wine.

We felt that, with jet lag, our having a guide in Lecce would be a good idea, which it proved to be. Our guide traveled in our car and provided much information. After walking around the interesting Centro Storico, we broke for lunch, reassembling for an afternoon in the seaside town of Otranto. 

Our second night’s dinner was at the family-run Trattoria Cucina Casareccia – Le Zie  (Via Archimede Costadura, 19, Lecce; phone +39 0832 245178). It served excellent traditional food — simple and inexpensive — but was not something we would repeat.

On our third day we drove to the seaport of Gallipoli to wander around. We had a superb seafood lunch at Trattoria La Puritate (Via S. Elia, 18, 73014, Gallipoli; phone +39 0833 264205), where entrĂ©es cost 15 each. We had a big lunch and paid a total of 62 (near $70). 

Afterward, we drove inland to Galatina, where a highlight was the frescoed Basilica di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria.

Our next adventure, part of our package, was near the pretty town of Ostuni. On the farm Masseria Il Frantoio (Strada Statale, 16, km 874), we were welcomed with a glass of white wine, then taken through olive groves that had many 2,000-year-old trees. Dinner was an 8-course feast in which everything was special, but we ate too much of the early courses and could barely taste the latter ones. (The price of this dinner, including the wine, was included in our package.)

Driving (through rain at times) on to Monopoli, on the east coast, we stayed at the Don Ferrante Dimore di Charme (Via San Vito, 27, Monopoli; www.charmingpuglia.com/en/don-ferrante-dimore-di-charme), a charming boutique inn next to the ocean. Old Monopoli was traffic-restricted, but the staff parked our car for us. 

We ate very well in this town, where everything is from the sea. The best was Il Guazzetto (Via dell’Erba, 39), where we spent $55, but Ristorante Piazza Palmieri (Largo Palmieri, 3) was first class, and Osteria Perricci (Via Orazio Comes, 1), though simple, had well-prepared food. At Piazza Palmieri, we paid a total of $91 for our meals, including wine.

We made a side trip to Alberobello, a touristy town famous for its trulli, cylindrical whitewashed houses with domed stone roofs. We also enjoyed a (rain-free) visit to the hillside town of Locorotondo, wandering through its siesta-time deserted streets. This was followed by a visit to the fascinating ruins of the coastal Roman city of Egnazia.

Heading off from Monopoli after our 3-night stay, we made a long detour to see the Castel del Monte, the most visited site in Puglia. It was well worth it — a huge octagonal castle built on a hilltop in the 13th century by Emperor Frederick II. Astonishingly, our agent had not proposed this; it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was quite a walk back to our car, though there was shuttle service.

We drove on to the city of Matera for a 2-night stay at Hotel Residence San Giorgio Matera (Via Fiorentini, 259). Much of old Matera consists of sassi, cliffside cave dwellings that were populated for thousands of years. Our hotel had its rooms in these caves, but we were upgraded to a large apartment (with a tiny bathroom) above the freestanding office. 

Parking wasn’t possible, so we followed our host’s car back up to the new town and found a spot on the street.

We had requested a guide to help us explore the sassi and were glad we did. The experience was fascinating. Both of our dinners there were in caves, including a great pizza at Oi Mari’ (Via Fiorentini, 66), where we spent $50.

We continued to Cosenza in Calabria, with two nights at the Royal Hotel (Viale delle Medaglie d’Oro, 1) in the central area of the new town, just a block from the main pedestrian street with shops, eateries and interesting contemporary sculptures. Parking was free in the hotel’s underground parking garage.

A guide went with us to Sila National Park and was invaluable in directing us to the highlights of this enormous, spectacular wooded area.

Our final two nights in Calabria were on the west coast, at the Residenza Il Duomo (Via Boiano, 3), in the center of the pretty seaside resort of Tropea. Unfortunately, the hotel had no resident staff and was on the top floor of an old building with no elevator. We had been advised to park a 15-minute walk from the hotel and had to negotiate our bags to the “residence.”

En route to Tropea, we stopped at Pizzo, famous for its tartufo (chocolate/hazelnut truffle gelato), which was very good but, for us, not really worth the detour. Nor was the Chiesetta di Piedigrotto, a cave next to the sea.

Once we settled into the hotel, we did enjoy walking around the Old Town and ate very well, first at Il Convivio (Via Boiano, 10), where we paid $63 for our meals, and then at Osteria del Pescatore (Via del Monte, 7). Both had the freshest of fish.

We used a guide to get the most from our single day in the toe of Italy. Unfortunately, because most museums in Italy are closed on Mondays, we weren’t able to see the Riace bronzes at Reggio Calabria, the town just across the Strait of Messina from Sicily. This had been highlighted in our itinerary yet was scheduled for a Monday.

So we walked around a bit and had an excellent pizza at Cafferia Gelateria Sireneuse (Corso Vittorio Emanuele III, 65/67) before visiting the picturesque fishing village of Scilla.

It had been suggested that we take an early flight from Lamezia Terme (an hour north of Tropea) to transfer to our Rome-New York flight later in the morning. Instead, we chose to take a later flight to Rome, where we stayed overnight at the Hilton Rome Airport (Via Arturo Ferrarin, 2).

This hotel offered free shuttle rides to central Rome, so we were able to enjoy a nice walk in the city before having a special dinner at Salumeria Roscioli (Via dei Giubbonari, 21; www.salumeriaroscioli.com), near Campo de’ Fiori. For dinner and wine, we paid $100.

Our southern Italy trip was fascinating and educational. We ate and drank extremely well at a fraction of New York prices. Next up, Piemonte!

JOHN WION
New York, NY