Italy’s heel rebooted
Puglia’s newest village resort has some of the best food in the country
A JESUS look-alike is sitting in his shop sanding poplar wood. Handmade wooden marionettes and tambourines hang from the ceiling. He has covered his walls with leftist newspaper cuttings. ‘‘This street’s full of fascists,’’ he confides. ‘‘I’m the only true communist here.’’ His shop doesn’t have a name, though it has been here 36 years.
I’m in the city of Ostuni, Puglia, in Italy’s stiletto heel. Across the road is a junk shop packed with Madonna statuettes and 19th-century olive jars. I’d love the owner to email me some photos of his stock. He looks bemused. No, he doesn’t have internet access. ‘‘ Io antico,’’ he declares. (I’m an antique.)
Puglia is a huge region with an 805km coastline. On arrival, my first impressions aren’t great. From Bari it’s a 45-minute drab, flat drive southeast along the coast to my destination of Borgo Egnazia, near the fishing village of Savelletri. En route, I drive past endless light-industrial buildings and a flat-roofed breezeblock suburban sprawl.
Puglia looks poor, and it is. It’s also a place where traditions run deep, where socialist bureaucracy and communism are still entrenched. It’s still unpolished, reasonably undiscovered and where people from Rome and Milan spend their holidays, setting up chairs on rocky beaches to bake themselves a carcinogenic mahogany.
Puglia’s charms become more evident as I get closer to Borgo Egnazia. Suddenly the air is scented with figs and oregano. Fields are encircled by drystone walls and burst with tomatoes, aubergines and centuries-old olive trees.
If you decide to hug an olive tree here, you’ll need to hold hands with three men, so thick are the beautiful gnarled trunks. For a while there was a brisk black market (about $12,000 each) as trees were smuggled out for fashionable gardens in northern Italy.
‘‘We’re Italy’s largest manufacturer of olive oil,’’ a local waiter proudly tells me later. ‘‘There are three million olive trees, nearly one for each inhabitant of Puglia.’’ A goodly number of these trees stand like ranks of sentries looking after Borgo Egnazia, which lies in 16 organic hectares within a 101ha private estate beside the Adriatic.
Borgo Egnazia is not quite one of the seven wonders of the world, but it’s close to it in resort terms. Borgo means village in Italian and it’s modelled on traditional Puglian ones. It looks as if it has been here for centuries, but it opened fully only last (northern) spring. There’s also a creamy, dreamy Moorish palace, actually based on a fortified masseria but with a striking contemporary interior.
I wander down paved alleyways, under arches and past the piazza to the townhouses made of vanilla-coloured local sandstone. There are also private villas, like ambassadorial residences on the town’s edge. The whole thing cost $185 million, took 10 years to develop and six to construct.
It’s the brainchild of Aldo Melpignano, a former investment banker. He owns Borgo Egnazia with his family, who come from nearby Fasano. I take my sunhat off to anyone who builds a village. But especially one that showcases architecture influenced by Puglia’s multiple invaders, uses only local materials and artisans, and provides the backdrop for French Vogue fashion shoots. Aldo has reinvented the heel — it’s Puglia rebooted.
If a place could speak, Puglia would say: ‘‘Write about my incredibly warm people and the best food in Italy.’’ Certainly the friendliness of the locals epitomises everything I love about this country. It’s also a hot destination for gourmet travellers, with fertile land that produces some of the best vegetables in the world, plus fresh seafood drawn from the Adriatic. Its cuisine comes from a recipe book written over the centuries by the region’s conquerors — Greeks, Romans, Goths, Normans and Spaniards — but it’s all based on peasant food.
They’re big on fish and olive oil here, even baking and frying with the extra-virgin variety. I go to beach-shack restaurants such as La Cambusa in Savelletri, a short bike ride from Borgo Egnazia. It has huge displays of the morning’s catch, and lobsters on beds of ice planning their escape. At Pescheria 2 Mari restaurant, also in Savelletri, I’m plied with platters of raw octopus, squid, clams and slivers of swordfish — sashimi requiring nothing more than lemon and a greedy mouth.
Masseria Cimino is an agriturismo (a farmhouse where you can stay and eat) and is a quick walk across the golf course from Borgo Egnazia. Here, acres of homecooked food are on the tables — taralli (like delicious olive oil shortbread), freshly made orecchiette pasta (the region’s specialty) and fresh, baked sea bream.
Mario Musoni, the Michelin-starred executive chef of Borgo Egnazia, is also big here. To try Mario’s delicate summer truffle risotto is to understand why the Italian press dubs him the ‘‘king of risotto’’.
I don’t just dedicate myself to widening my girth. I also cycle to the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Egnazia, visit Alberobello, ‘‘the capital of trulli’’, those rustic houses with conical roofs, and Ostuni, or the White Town, where my unkempt shopkeeper crafts his wooden puppets. I visit the Byzantine-style cathedral and marvel at the citadel. But, frankly, I spend just as much time in its specialist food shops. Aside from the wonders of Borgo Egnazia, it’s the culinary offerings that impress me most. Puglia, the heel of Italy? Mouth, more like it. borgoegnazia.com pescheria2mari.it masseriacimino.com