Published: April 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
Whether your taste runs to 15th-century convents or 21st-century resorts, there's pure beauty in unspoiled Puglia. Not to mention some of Italy's best food
Being able to identify the unspoiled destination is a useful talent—as far as it goes. The real trick is catching the unspoiled destination at just the right moment, when rumblings of interest have given rise to a comfortable infrastructure for knowing travelers, but the crowds are at least a few years off. That's Puglia right now.
The heel of the Italian boot, Puglia humbly holds out its rich and varied portfolio of assets. Five hundred miles of Adriatic and Ionian coastline front landscapes—plains in the south, mountains in the north—with a stark, primal, almost troubling beauty. Brilliantly whitewashed towns, their cubic houses locked together like pieces in a puzzle, are a reminder that North Africa is a near neighbor. Aristocratic cities celebrate the delirious excesses of Baroque architecture.
New hotels so swooningly stylish that they're often destinations in their own right are imaginatively folded into masserie, ancient fortified farmhouses. Puglia is also home to Italy's most uncorrupted, brawniest, least known vernacular cuisine. It's a cuisine of the sun, drawing energy from one of the most punishing summer climates on the continent.
Remember Tuscany in the eighties?Umbria in the nineties?This is Puglia's moment. It's a place on the verge.
The news arrived last spring on heavy card stock, cream with solemn sang de boeuf lettering. No, it wasn't a royal birth notice.
"Athena McAlpine is happy to announce the opening of Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, a very special bed & breakfast in the southernmost tip of Italy."
It wasn't just the Smythson announcement that caused those who received it to stop in their tracks and call their best girlfriends. There was also the name. If you read Harpers & Queen and those sorts of publications, you know that two years ago Alistair McAlpine—sexagenarian lord, treasurer of the British Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher, and one of the world's great collectors—married a vivacious Greek beauty who had trained as an actress and was some 30 years his junior. Could this be she?It could.
From Annabel's to the House of Commons to the nail salon at Harvey Nick's, London was gripped by the idea that the McAlpines had opened nine rooms in their 15th-century convent to paying guests. Some just figured it could only mean that Lord McAlpine had lost his considerable fortune (not the case). Others could not understand why the couple had chosen Puglia. Tuscany would have made sense—at least there's a big English community. But a B&B in the deepest, darkest south?
Calling Santa Maria a B&B is like calling Amandari an inn. Located 30 minutes south of Lecce and a half-mile back from the Adriatic, the convent is a dramatic repository for Lord McAlpine's collections of tribal textiles, Moroccan carpets, Nigerian carvings, Aboriginal art, Zulu ceramics, Madrasi paintings on glass, and terra-cotta statuettes of yogis. Much of what you as a guest find yourself casually holding or looking at or sitting on is museum quality. Other connoisseurs turned hoteliers might have held back the best things for themselves in some roped-off wing of the house, but not the McAlpines, who saw no reason to have even their own sitting room. No space is off-limits. Ask Lord McAlpine to walk you through the library. You won't have access to a private one like it anytime soon. There are 14 tons of books.
Wags assume that Santa Maria's potent cross-cultural magic is all the work of its celebrated and unlikely master. Not true. Athena McAlpine is one of the new wave of domestic goddesses you've been hearing about. Her husband knows a prize lot of Ethiopian pilgrim staffs when he sees one, but it's Athena who gives them decorative purpose, massing the bony Y-form sticks against the creamy rendered walls of the cloister.
The convent's mistress also knows how to run a house, ordering in reserves of his (Castile) and hers (Artemisia) toiletries from Penhaligon's, choosing the books that go on the night tables (The Collected Dorothy Parker, say, plus biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt and Bruce Chatwin), and making sure the cook arrives on time with the savory portion of your breakfast (béchamel and tomatoes enclosed in flaky pastry, from the Marittima bakery). At lunch and dinner Pugliese classics are sidelined in favor of exciting salads (shredded carrots with grapefruit juice and almonds) and off-the-map risottos (with cabbage-wrapped shrimp).
With lunch—and laundry service!—included in the $300 room rate, some guests have whispered that Santa Maria may be underselling itself. "What they don't understand is that this is Puglia, not the Amalfi Coast," says Athena McAlpine. In any case, she is not interested in shortcuts. "Some of our beds are so big and elaborate, it takes three people to make them up, and I don't mind if one of those is me. The sheets are ironed twice: first on a board, then finished directly on the bed. It's the only way. The sheets are from Rossella Casa, this amazing shop in Lecce. We didn't have to toss in wine with lunch, but we've built up an incredible cellar, so...as Alistair says, we're not going to let bookkeeping get in the way."
Via Convento, Marittima di Diso; 44-7736/362-328; doubles from $300, including breakfast, lunch, wine, and laundry service.
Because I like antiques and old-fashioned service, and because I have a fear of molded- plastic pod chairs, I'll always choose an old hotel over a new one. So imagine my surprise when I checked into the barely two-year-old Torre Coccaro to find trendy graphics and a hip concept that had not meant an abandonment of tradition.
You can tell there are marketing minds at work here. With masseria hotels opening in Puglia more quickly than the regional tourist board can pump out press releases trumpeting them, the owners of Coccaro know that success lies in a sharply delineated property that nobody would confuse with any other. While the 33-room resort is much younger and far more laissez-faire than the San Domenico (see page 163) and definitely livelier than Il Melograno (page 122) it offers a bit more structure and diversion than Borgo San Marco (page 162).
Indeed, filling the day is no hardship at Coccaro, which has a well-designed cooking program and a sensational one-of-a-kind Aveda spa dazzlingly inserted in a grotto. You can conk out under a palapaon the "beach" (a pool with one of those gimmicky but amusing "shorelines"), or in a hammock strung across a path between an almond and a pomegranate tree in the vast fruit and vegetable garden. Or settle into the pastel petit four of an 18th-century chapel and say a little prayer that the heat will let up. Local girls still dream of getting married in this tiny pink-and-blue confection.
If all that sounds too much like work, you can simply collapse in your room—which resembles the home of a very stylish, visually aware farmer—and admire the decoration. Nos. 21 and 22 are the most desirable doubles, 19 and 24 the best junior suites. They all have nearly double-height tray-vaulted ceilings; glassy, deliciously cold stone floors; and bathrooms that wed charm to function. The furnishings are ratcheted-up, idealized versions of things that have been kicking around the Italian countryside forever, from painted wardrobes to bobbin-pedestal tables. Headboards borrow their design from shutters, the sheets are crisp hemstitched linen (the only way to survive summer in Puglia), and the crunchy cotton coverlets are by Blanc d'Ivoire. Starched white organdy curtains roll up rather than pull to the side, and giltwood mirrors are draped by the thoughtful housekeeper with olive branches. Whoever the farmer is, he certainly knows about color. As soon as I have a minute I'm going to redo my New York bedroom in straw, cream, gray-blue, and oxblood.
I'll also be making the aperitivo nibble I learned to prepare one morning when I wandered into the hotel kitchen. The chef called me over to the stove, where he was frying unrehydrated dried fava beans in very hot olive oil. He served them that evening, salted, with a brittle white wine, and they were as fantastically crunchy and satisfying as you would imagine a fried unrehydrated dried fava bean to be. The chef acquitted himself again the next day with a dish of tender cavatelli, white beans, and sweet thumbnail-sized mussels, all in a bonus puddle of wonderfully starchy broth.
Of course, there aren't a dozen new hotels in Italy as fresh and original as Torre Coccaro. But it is exciting to imagine what it might beget.
8 Contrada Coccaro; 39-080/482-9310; www.masseriatorrecoccaro.com; doubles from $320.
Before the San Domenico swaggered onto the scene, Il Melograno was the only status option if you had your heart set on staying in a masseria in Puglia. People still perk up when you mention it, partly because Il Melograno is such a legend (it bowed in 1987) and partly because it's a member of Relais & Châteaux. The property's owners were indeed brave pioneers, but they seem dangerously slow to react to competing hotels that have opened since they first led the way.
And yet you can't count Il Melograno out. It has a devoted constituency, from rich Greeks over for a quick weekend, to lean and mean signore of a certain age (with their puppy-dog husbands), to fortyish couples from England with vague Hollywood connections (lots of nail-biting lunch talk of Jeremy Irons and whether he'll be signing with HBO).
Of course, Il Melograno didn't become famous just by being first. The hotel is a spectacular labyrinth. Until you get the hang of it, you don't always know where you are or where you're going, which lends your acquaintanceship with the place a beguiling element of mystery. The main courtyard is as big as a public piazza and veiled in the erotic, sugary scent of jasmine. Only birdsong and a gardener scratching around in his flower boxes interrupt the silence.
The gaze of diners in the sunken poolside loggia is on the same level as the water, a lovely conceit. The breakfast buffet is so elaborate, so copious, that two enormous tables are needed to display all the flatbreads, platters of fragrant white peaches and baseball-sized figs, and flaky sour-cherry turnovers. The restaurant features silver chargers, tuxedoed waiters, breathtakingly high prices, and good if unsensational versions of local specialties: panzotti, plate-sized ravioli, is here filled with ricotta and walnuts and topped with chopped fresh tomatoes. Sprinkled throughout the hotel are old maps, engravings, and a dotty assortment of pugliese antiques, some of which you might kill for, and some of which are for sale. I'm sure I should have struck a deal for that giant marquetry urn in the salon.
With so much to recommend it, where is Il Melograno going wrong?Like dowagers who neglect to refresh their face powder, the 37 rooms are looking tired. And you know something's up when the front-desk manager snaps at you over the phone, "I'm alone at the moment. Can you call back?"
When Il Melograno started, it had the field to itself. Now it's time to play catch-up.
345 Contrada Torricella; 39-080/690-9030; www.melograno.com; doubles from $387.
I was checked into Borgo San Marco and shown around for an hour by an excitable wild-haired man whom I assumed was the owner but who turned out to be...the gardener.
"How long has the masseria been in your family?" I asked as we toured the chapel, where touch-up work was being carried out on a magnificent 17th-century fresco.
"Mia famiglia?" the gardener laughed, pointing through the chapel door at the immense courtyard. There stood a patrician man in his late forties, Alessandro Amati. You didn't have to be a genius to figure out he was San Marco's owner. It was late evening, and he was wrapping up a cell-phone conversation about the price carobs had brought that day. Amati grows carobs, figs, and almonds, but he is best known as an olive-oil baron. Staying known among Puglia's crowded stable of producers of first-quality, ever more specialized olive oils is no part-time job. A museum devoted to the subject, created by Amati at neighboring Masseria Sant'Angelo de' Graecis, helps keep his Borgo San Marco oil out front.
"Built by the Knights of Malta in the fifteenth century, San Marco was uninhabitable when I inherited it in 1981, but it took me until now to figure out what to do with the place," says Amati. "I already had enough houses, so there was no point in restoring it for me and my small family. Besides, I wanted the property to pay for itself." Transforming San Marco into a 15-room hotel gave Amati the reason he needed to rehabilitate it. The hotel offers everything you want in the masseria experience—the monumental foursquare architecture, the piquant air of exoticism—but with a difference. San Marco is the bohemian masseria alternativa. Guest rooms surrounding the former farmyard are done in sheer embroidered-patchwork textiles from Egypt and in rich man-poor man combinations of baby-blue silk grosgrain and tobacco-colored linen burlap. Mattress platforms and headboards (crowned with finials modeled on San Marco's roof ornaments) are of plastered masonry and, this being Puglia, slathered in whitewash. Canal tiles fashioned into wall lights and amber beads strung into curtains that chatter in the breeze dot the i's of a look that's bright, fresh, and just a tad enigmatic. Knowing that some people would find traditional furnishings less of a challenge, Amati has appointed rooms in the main house with painted iron beds, night tables with blousy pom-pom-fringed skirts, and antique walnut armoires.
As at all masseria hotels, eating is a central part of the experience. Amati says his most important hire for the property was Peppino Palmisano, who ran a popular restaurant in Fasano and rose to local celebrity on the wings of his eggplant Parmesan, a dish with roots in Puglia, and oven-roasted sea bream with black olives. If they're not on the menu, he'll happily make them for you the next day. The San Marco is that kind of hotel.
33 Contrada Sant'Angelo; 39-080/439-5757; www.borgosanmarco.it; doubles from $193.
Of all of Puglia's masseria properties, San Domenico is the one that feels most like a destination resort—make that a luxury destination resort. While the competition pretends to luxury, only the San Domenico, which opened in 1996, truly delivers. Before going to Puglia I assumed it was too much of a backwater to have a slickly run, you-want-it-you-got-it-style hotel. I don't like to be proven wrong, but the San Domenico can hold its own, and more.
With a dead straight, magnificently groomed 1,600-foot drive leading to a pair of electronic gates, you know the P&S (privileged and special) factor is going to be pretty high even before the 15th-century masseria looms into sight. On the way to your room, you can't help remarking on the grandiose sense of space. Each courtyard seems more massive than the one before it, and the sea is teasingly glimpsed over the treetops. The other thing you notice is the obsessive tidiness. There's not a blade of grass out of place. Wow, you think, am I going to be happy here or what?
Wealthy northern Italians are. Historically, as everyone knows, many Italians from the north have a complex relationship with the south. Their attraction to it is tempered by wariness and—how else to say it?—feelings of superiority. What they like about the San Domenico is the slightly whitewashed version of the masseria hotel experience the place offers. It's Puglia without tears. Everyone dresses for dinner and exudes an air of bourgeois self-satisfaction. Children not yet in their teens have their own cell phones, the men all sport Panerai watches, and some of the women have big hair. No one shouts "Ciao, bella!" across the bar or minds that a Negroni costs $16 (it's a very good Negroni). There's a perfume war going on, and Fendissime seems to be winning.
While the 50 guest rooms play to the San Domenico's core clientele, who place comfort above looks, I have to say they were a bit on the plain side for my taste. A touch of decorative provocation would go a long way here. Those offering the best value are the 14 junior suites, whose patios give glamorously onto ancient olive groves that seem to stretch to infinity. With just a bit of tweaking, by the way, those cute little patios could fulfill their promise of privacy.
Not that anyone spends much time hanging around their rooms. In the great tradition of upscale Italian resorts, many guests are content to park themselves beside the saltwater pool, oil up (skipping the sunblock, certo), and stay put the entire day. The free-form pool, landscaped with boulders and palms and spiky vegetation, is somebody's improbable idea of an oasis. It's hokey, but it works.
Only when the sun is at less than maximum tanning strength do you see anyone on the new 18-hole golf course or at the spa, the best in the region. The 2,220-square-foot knockout facility has an encyclopedic menu of treatments, many of them using hydrotherapy or La Prairie products. It would take weeks and many thousands of euros to work through them all. Guests do manage to unstick themselves from the pool for perfectly okay plates of fresh egg noodles with tomato sauce, green beans, and grated ricotta. Personally, I found the food at the San Domenico too fancy. But I'm sure I was the only one.
379 Strada Litoranea; 39-080/482-7769; www.masseriasandomenico.com; doubles from $425.
Christopher Petkanas is a special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.
Osteria Perricci, Monopoli
Puglia has a more evolved antipasto culture than perhaps any other region in Italy. At proto-rustic Perricci, you can't get away with less than salt-cod fritters, boiled octopus, anchovies, tomato bruschetta, and raw cuttlefish. For full-blown antipasto, multiply the number of dishes by two—then follow with a buttery grilled sarago.
1 Via Orazio Comes; 39-080/937-2208; dinner for two $48.
Ristorante ai Portici, Martina Franca
The custom of having crudités for dessert never made the crossing to the United States. Neither did gnomarelli—bits of liver, lung, heart, or spleen bound in intestines. They're for fans of organ meats but also for thosewho've sworn never to eat them. At Portici, on one of the most romantic piazze in Puglia, the brochettes are part of an arrosto misto that includes sausage and baby kid chops. If you want to look like you belong, finish with raw vegetables and dip them in salt. If you want to look like you just got off the plane, dip them in olive oil.
6 Piazza Maria Immacolata; 39-080/480-1702; dinner for two $72.
Al Fornello da Ricci, Ceglie Messapica
So many people hammered away at me about this being one of Puglia's best restaurants, I finally gave in—despite my history of overwrought meals in Italy at any place with a Michelin star (Ricci has one). As throughout the region, ordering the antipasto is fun because you don't know how many dishes you'll be getting, or even what they're going to be. In brisk succession come deep-fried veal balls, which taste like gunshot; adorable mint omelettes; zucchini- and ricotta-plumped fritters; and breaded and fried balls of ricotta forte. Antonella Ricci is a talented chef, but a conflicted one, offering cucumber mousse for the Michelin inspectors and farro in rabbit-flecked tomato sauce for disciples of cucina povera.
Contrada Montevicoli; 39-0831/377-104; dinner for two $120.
Il Frantoio, Ostuni
If you like excess, you'll love this storybook masseria, whose10-course dinner makes it a must-stop for collectors of Eating Experiences. Like many degustation menus, Il Frantoio's goes on too long, with authoritative dishes (chickpea soup with fresh borage pasta) jumbled in with lesser ones (green beans in cheese baskets). Still, the goodwill is palpable, and it's hard to argue with an all-women kitchen. Nine homely guest rooms are several notches above those of other agriturismo masserie.
S.S. 16, km 874; 39-0831/330-276; dinner for two, with wine, $119.
Macelleria Demola Vincenzo and Arrosteria del Vicoletto, Cisternino
This town's butchers don't merely sell meat—they roast it and serve it, whether right in their shops or, as at Demola, in a neighboring arrosteria. The drill's the same for housewives shopping for dinner as for those who continue on to Vicoletto: step up to the counter, chat with the butcher about what's best, and make your choice. People headed for the arrosteria mix it up with a pork chop, an escallop of veal with a bread crumb-parsley-Parmesan filling, a couple of sausages, and a handful of gnomarelli. Mamma threads them all onto skewers, then walks them up to Vicoletto, where you take a seat on a hard bench at a bare table while your order sputters in the wood-burning oven.
2 (macelleria) and 6 (arrosteria) Via Giulio II; 39-080/444-8063; dinner for two $48.
Ristorante Alberosole, Bari
Alberosole exudes prosperity, with bankers in Brioni suits dining on pea pod-shaped pasta with anchovies, pine nuts, and mint. The dining room has a contemporary feel that marries handsomely with the old stone floor and cathedral ceiling.
13 Corso Vittorio Emanuele; 39-080/523-5446; lunch for two $96.
Alle Due Corti, Lecce
The menu is in a dialect most Italians find impenetrable, which tells you everything you need to know about this restaurant's commitment to pugliese culinary traditions. Loud, bright, and frill-less, this is the place for real-deal tajeddha (layered potatoes, rice, and mussels) and ciceri e tria (boiled and crisp-fried pasta with chickpeas).
1 Corte dei Giugni; 39-0832/242-223; dinner for two $58.
Trattoria Cucina Casareccia, Lecce
Casareccia's version of that most emblematic of pugliese dishes—braised wild chicory with a purée of (boiled) dried fava beans—is epic. The trattoria used to be a private house, and it still feels like one, with patterned cement floor tiles, paneling, and a desk piled with bills and letters. I've lived in France for 22 years, but it took traveling to Puglia to hook me on horsemeat, which is sweeter than beef and is done here in a salsa piccante.
19 Via Colonnello Costadura; 39-0832/245-178; dinner for two $60.
Aria Corte Sapori Antichi, Marittima di Diso
With bridles and yokes supplying the decoration, this village restaurant is an unprepossessing monument to down-home pugliese cooking. Antipasti swing from silky fried peppers with capers and mint to timbales of fresh anchovies with tomatoes and bread crumbs. Athena and Alistair McAlpine ate here almost daily for months while restoring their convent.
32 Via Roma; 39-0836/920-272; dinner for two $48.
Travelers wanting proof that Bari, the capital of Puglia, is no longer also the region's purse-snatching and car-break-in capital should talk to Roberta Guerra Watkins. In 1998, Watkins—the well-born part owner of the hotel Il Melograno—moved to the city with her Canadian husband and their two children to participate in Bari's great civic renaissance. In the years before that, she says, she wouldn't have set foot in the place without a bodyguard.
"Thanks to our mayor, who envisions Bari as a kind of Italian Barcelona, everything has changed," notes Watkins. "The Old Town, where I live, used to be a ghetto, like the Bronx or Naples, only worse. If you dared go in, you were doomed to be robbed. But after an ambitious cleanup campaign, and commercial initiatives that gave breaks to young people starting small businesses, the CittÀ Vecchia is now full of restaurants, shops, and cafés. It's unrecognizable."
The Cattedrale di San Sabino and Basilica di San Nicolaare two of the most important examples of Romanesque architecture in Italy. The Old Town is a warren of immaculate cobblestoned alleyways like those in a Moroccan medina. The street life is rich, not to mention entertaining. The good women of the CittÀ Vecchia think nothing of doing their ironing, rolling their pasta, and plucking their mustaches outside their front doors.
Bari makes a perfect day trip from Monopoli, Fasano, or Savelletri di Fasano. (It's also where you fly to from Milan, Rome, or London.) None of the city's hotels match the thrill of staying in a masseria, but if you want to spend the night, look no further than the Palace Hotel Bari (13 Via Lombardi; 39-080/521-6551; www.palacehotelbari.it; doubles from $248).
Lecce is famous for some of the most rapturous and energetic Baroque architecture in Italy, but what nobody tells you about the city is how young it is. I drove in on a hot steamy night in late June, and every café, every storefront was draped with the supple, preening form of a languorous ragazzo or ragazza practicing the twin arts of far niente and la dolce vita.
For first-time visitors, Lecce is a revelation. Beginning in the 1500's, dozens of churches and palazzi were erected in local honey-colored stone in a cutthroat spirit of ornamental one-upmanship. The softness of the stone encouraged the carving of voluptuous scampering putti, caryatids, portal crests, masks, garlands, fruit, corbels hoisted by grotesques, and lyrical scrolls. For anyone strolling the city's golden pedestrian streets today, the buildings are pure eye candy.
Don't agonize over where to stay: Starwood's Patria Palace Hotel (Piazzetta Gabriele Riccardi; 39-0832/245-111; www.starwood.com; doubles from $193) is the only game in town. The renovation of the old, distinguished palace is sadly clunky, but the service is expert, and though you'd never guess it from the hard look of Atenze, the hotel's restaurant, the food is amazing, according to Athena McAlpine. The second-floor rooms with little Juliet balconies and bang-on views of the rose window of the Basilica di Santa Croce are the ones to snag.