When South African-Italian travel marketing consultant Mikaela Bandini moved to the semi-abandoned neighbourhood of Sassi di Matera in the city of Matera, located in southern Italy’s Basilicata region, 23 years ago, she never imagined owning one of the most frequented bars in Italy. But that’s exactly what happened when she opened Area 8, a tiny café in her office, in summer 2014.
Within a week, the staff had swelled from three to ten, and she had to lock out potential revellers. Then, she had to expand. After 7 p.m., the café takes over her nearly 6,000-square-foot working space (a production house for travel videos, Can’t Forget Italy), as well as the spacious private piazza beyond the edifice.
In the decades that Bandini has lived here, Sassi di Matera has transformed. A network of dwellings in ancient caves carved from honey-coloured tufa rock, the quarter was evacuated in the 1950s. But in 1993, UNESCO recognised it as a World Heritage site. Then, around 2003, Mel Gibson filmed his biblical biopic, The Passion of Christ, in the zone. A number of trend-setting hotels opened up, including Francis Ford Coppola’s Palazzo Margherita in the authentically neo-realist town of Bernalda, a 45-minute drive away. The entire city of Matera will be a “European Capital of Culture,” a profile-raising initiative of the EU, in 2019.
Not long after Area 8 debuted, Bandini walked in to find Grand Budapest Hotel director Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola (Francis’s film director son) sipping cocktails with their families. In early 2015, members of the cast of Ben-Hur (due for release in 2016) spent most of their evenings at Area 8 while filming in the neighbourhood. Yet another evening, Bandini found herself throwing together a salad—and attempting a pas de deux—with international ballet star Roberto Bolle, who happened to drop by when the bar was closed.
The impromptu bar owner isn’t exactly sure what lures these luminaries to Area 8. It might be the serendipitous location. It might be the look. Built around one of the Sassi’s famous caves, it’s furnished with vintage 1960s and 1970s pieces, like designer armchairs by Poltrona Frau and Cassina, antique wooden Pinocchio toys, and a 1950s Piaggio ape car.
It could be the playful local food dreamt up by Bandini with her chef (popular dishes include slices of crusty Matera bread rolled and baked in the oven, drizzled with olive oil, served with creamy stracciatella cheese, gazpacho and sundried tomato paste, wittily known as ‘Tschips’). Or it may be the creative cocktails—the Murgia 75 blends vodka, lime juice and syrup made from wild thyme that the bartender collects in the surrounding national park.
What’s certain is that at Area 8, nothing is ever predictable. “The space is named after a narrow piece of the brain, identified by German anatomist Korbinian Brodmann in 1909, which is responsible for dealing with uncertainty,” Bandini says. “It’s those unpredictable events which lead to the best experiences of our lives. We’re never quite sure what will happen next.”
Valerie Waterhouse covers Italy for Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter at @val_in_italy.