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This summer, Washington, D.C.-based chef Nick Stefanelli wandered his way through Puglia and Rome, looking for great food. Here's what he found.
Nick Stefanelli is the chef and owner of Masseria in DC.
Italy has always been a part of my life—my grandfather is from Puglia and my grandmother Sicily—but my first journey to the peninsula was to learn the fashion trade. During that trip, I had an epiphany, and the restaurants, cafés, markets, bars and coffee shops were at the epicenter of it. Now every visit reconfirms what I found in Italy, and what I bring to the kitchen at my restaurant, Masseria in DC: Simplicity and wanting the first course to last forever.
My wife Romie and I took a late August holiday to visit Puglia, saving some time for Rome on our return. We made our home base in the towns of Gallipoli and Fasano while we explored the countryside and all the small towns in the region. And it was in those little moments—sitting in an olive grove or breathing in the salty seaside air while eating fresh langoustines and burrata—that I fell in love with Italy all over again.
I usually have some sort of game plan when I travel. This trip was not like that. We spent the late afternoons getting lost in the city streets, exploring where we would spend our evenings dining.
Our first night, it was on the outdoor patio right on the water at Il Bastione, where the menu boasts the bounty of the Ionian Sea and a view to which a photo cannot do justice. The next evening, we found a true gem in Pescheria Cucina Silocco at the edge of the old city, where you select your fish from the morning's catch and they turn it into octopus meatballs or pittule with squid, an airy fennel cake with a generous coating of herbs and salt.
Some of the country’s up-and-coming producers are in Puglia, like the meticulously maintained vineyards of Masseria Li Veli in the Salentino region, right above Lecce. This family winery is known for producing native varietals, some of which had been lost and forgotten. Primitivio, Verdeca, Susumaniello ("little Donkey") and Negramaro are some of the wines produced there, in rustic, elegant and timeless facilities surrounded by sunny fields. When I arrived, they were busy preparing for the harvest, which was only three days away. I was able to squeeze in an afternoon with them and spent it tasting and talking about what has been happening and what is to come.
Fasano had been the source of inspiration for the design and setting of my restaurant, so we spent the day at the beach, then rode hotel bikes along the coast to L’Oasi del Riccio, which means “oasis of sea urchin.” You can watch as your sea urchin is plucked out of the water and delicately prepared with fresh pasta at this charming restaurant.
Following the rich, sprawling fishing grounds along the coast, we came to the ancient city of Ostuni. Girded by white walls, it is commonly referred to as La Citta Bianca, “White Town,” and here we spent the early evening strolling and sipping an apertivo before heading to Osteria Sotto L’Arco in Carovigno, the next town over. This Michelin-starred restaurant came highly recommended by the folks at Masseria Li Veli.
The next day we took a ride through the Valle d’Itria (Itria Valley). This area provides a distinct contrast to the Puglian coast. It has the quiet atmosphere of a town in an old engraving, with whitewashed buildings, cave-like interiors and inviting churches. The trulli, ancient dry-stone round huts, are preserved under UNESCO for their cultural significance. We stopped for walk and lunch in the town of Cisternino, which we chose for its celebrated butcher shops (maccelleria) where you can choose your meats from the counter loaded with Puglian specialties.
Rome is my favorite city in the world, and I make a point of spending a day or two there whenever I travel to Italy. We popped into Pizzerium Bonci for Roman pizza. In true Italian style, you order and pay by the weight of the pizza, not by the slice. Along with our pizza, we tried three different versions of supplì, typical Roman snacks consisting of balled rice—usually risotto—with tomato sauce and cheese.
On our last day, we went to Roscioli for lunch. It’s made up of a bakery and a gourmet deli with a sit-down restaurant. From the bakery, we had some pizza, and then from the deli, stocked with cheese, caviar, wine and other items sold to-go, we had burrata with zucchini, bottarga and marinated artichokes, and a Roman pasta staple, cacio e pepe.
The six-day escapade throughout Puglia and Rome recharged our batteries and left us eager to discover more of the rich history and beauty of the Italian Peninsula.