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.