THE ART OF ITALIAN DINING
Few places on this earth have the power to mesmerise you from afar… without having set foot on them. In most cases…once you get there they are a disappointment. Your fantasy is a very powerful dream-machine… one that most “actual” places find it impossible to compete with. Your fantasy is based on your perception of perfection and no place can be perfect. No place can be better than the ultimate paradise you have conjured up in your mind. That is of course as long as your mind can conjure up arguably the most incredible visual display of raw nature on this planet.
This is where Salento, Puglia, comes into place. The real will always be better than your imagination… and this is where the magic spell begins. Your eyes capture the images… they send them to your brain, which… after an initial denial period, carefully files the images away…. only to retrieve them regularly when you need to experience “mental escape”.
Sun, sea, wind. Nature strikes in the first place, when one gets to this land stretch in balance between two seas. With the Adriatic on its east coast, and the Ionian on its western shores Salento enjoys over 250 km of coastline, for which it is famous. The western coastline has some spectacular stretches of sweeping, golden sand beach. It is here that the city of Gallipoli, (whose name is taken from the Greek Kallipolis, meaning beautiful city), is built on an island and connected to the mainland by a bridge. On the east coast, especially around the Otranto and Santa Maria di Leuca areas, cliffs give way to tiny rocky coves and pretty little bays. The churches in its principal town, Lecce (often called the Florence of the south), pay tribute to the barocco leccese style, many being entirely covered with ornate carvings, whilst the piazza in Nard is said to be the most beautiful in the all Salento.
I have the luck to be here with four of my long-time friends (we have been knowing each other since we were 2 years old) and this makes it even more special. Our boat approaches the coast. I see a little restaurant reachable only via sea. We pull in. I tell my friend to quickly take out the anchor and throw it in the water. I turn off the engine and jump in the water.
Half wet, I am now sitting at a seaside table watching what is probably one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. Sipping on a glass of Primitivo during this end of a summer-perfect, late-July day the sun is warming my face. Waves are lapping, breeze is blowing, cucina italiana aromas are wafting. All seems blissfully promising on one of those days you thank the Lord you are alive. That would be enough but as the waiter sets the plates of antipasto in front of us, I feel the happy curiosity of discovering a new dish. We had ordered a regional specialty called friselle pugliesi. It is a round, rock hard bread a little bigger than an English muffin. Each serving comes with side dishes of toppings of fresh ‘Pachino tomatoes, basil, capers and grated cheese,’ and with an individual bowl of water, and metal tongs.
Spotting the last two, my eagerness ebbed an inch or so. The young man points at the bread and the tongs and the bowl of water:
“But only leave the bread in for about half a minute or it will become too wet and fall apart,” he added, with a suspiciously high level of enthusiasm. He moved away quickly.
I place the bread in the bowl of water and mentally count off thirty seconds. Putting it back on my plate, I hear a clear clunk. I dunk it back in the water. I wait another thirty seconds, then another. I surrender and piled the tomatoes on top of it. It is a big mess yet the most simple and delicious thing I have ever eaten: bread, tomatoes and olive oil.
Some time later, an elegant and charming woman comes along with the waiter to our table. Seeing the ragged-edged chunks of bread littering my antipasto plate, she smiles down at me with a kind of pitying wisdom.
“I think it takes some experience,” I said meekly.
“Yes,” she nodded, picking up the plate.
“Then, why don’t you bring one more out? I don’t give up easly.”
I hear her laughing softly as she walks away.
A boat is gliding through the sparkling waves…. floating on a blue liquid she knows to be sea water but this is somehow different. The color of the water is iridescent and the sunlight reflection makes it look like liquid sapphire. The air… that too feels different… the light is luminous and the evening breeze feels like silk running over her skin.
I think it is time to raise our glasses and make a toast to life.