The Best of Basilicata
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Traveling through the rugged, under-the-radar Basilicata region of southern Italy still provides the thrill of discovery.
Located above the “arch” of Italy’s boot, Basilicata (known locally as Lucania) may not have the glamour of the Amalfi Coast or the polish of Tuscany. But it does have a wild beauty that can seem otherworldly, even biblical: ancient buildings hewed from honey-colored limestone; black-sand beaches fringing a verdant coast; and a simple yet rich culinary tradition. In recent years, the area has undergone a renaissance thanks to an influx of talented chefs and hoteliers—including Francis Ford Coppola, who opened the nine-room Palazzo Margherita in his grandfather’s hometown of Bernalda.
This unique neighborhood in the town of Matera is a great introduction to the region. Famous for its centuries-old cave dwellings, the Sassi was once one of Italy’s poorest communities. But in 1993, the district was designated a unesco World Heritage site, encouraging a flurry of economic interest. Today, the steep, winding streets are brimming with energy, as many of the habitations are now authentic inns and artisanal workshops run by young craftspeople.
Swedish-Italian hotelier and preservationist Daniele Kihlgren was one of the first to give the Sassi’s spare aesthetic a luxe spin when he opened Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita ($$$) five years ago. The 18 candlelit rooms, spread out over a network of caverns, are simple but stylish, mixing unadorned walls with contemporary touches such as freestanding Agape bathtubs. Breakfast is a lavish buffet (burrata; foccacia with potatoes and tomatoes; house-made plum cakes) served in a dramatic deconsecrated grotto-church.
If you prefer something even more intimate, check in to Corte San Pietro ($), a series of 15th-century cave houses restored over the course of four years by owner Fernando Ponte. The five rooms have modern Cinova beds offset by wooden tables made of antique chestnut. On the horizon: a sleek subterranean spa.
For a casual sit-down lunch, La Latteria di Emanuele Rizzi (39-0835/312-058; $$) dishes out cheeses and charcuterie in the back of a grocery store. We devoured tangy caciocavallo podolico—made with milk from Basilicata’s gray-coated free-ranging cattle—served with caramelized figs and wild blackberries.
Dinner favorites include L’Abbondanza Lucana (39-0835/334-574; $$), in an elegant whitewashed grotto. The small-plate appetizers are the draw, a feast of Lucanian specialities such as carpaccio di melanzane, slices of red eggplant from Rotonda soaked in oil with garlic, mint, and chili pepper; and cialledda, a salad made with chunks of Matera’s crusty, durum-wheat loaves, tomatoes, cucumber, and onion. Chef Francesca Tambona puts her own twist on regional classics at the upscale Ristorante Francesca (39-0835/310-443; $$). Order the crêpes with chicken and apples in a brandy sauce, followed by cassata gelato, which comes with generous dollops of chocolate.
Visit the Sassi’s three main rupestrian churches—Santa Lucia delle Malve, Santa Maria de Idris, and San Pietro Barisano—all of which have frescoes dating from the 11th to the 17th centuries, and the Crypt of Original Sin (call 39-320/535-0910 to book a tour), six miles south of Matera. Discovered in 1963, and hailed as a ninth-century Sistine Chapel, it has impressive depictions of haloed saints and angels, surrounded by vibrant red poppies. For something more modern, stop by Museo della Scultura Contemporanea which highlights international and Italian artists, including Marino Marini and Giò Pomodoro.
Woodworker Massimo Casiello stocks his namesake shop with smoothly polished vases, pens, and lamps, but we’re partial to his bread stamps depicting bulls and towers. They were once used to mark loaves baked in Matera’s communal ovens. On the Piazza del Sedile, jewelry designers Elisa & Janna create gorgeous sculptural pieces from semiprecious stones and recycled materials. Two doors down at Geppetto (39-0835/331-857), ceramicist Marco Brunetti crafts traditional whistles shaped like chickens—they make ideal souvenirs for kids.
Stretching up a hillside, this southwestern Tyrrhenian village is a low-octane version of Positano or Amalfi. By day, you can explore the area’s 20 miles of coast, including black volcanic sand and pebble beaches, or take boat trips to swim in caves along the shore. In the evening, sip Campari-and-sodas in the compact main piazza; shop (most stores are open until 10 p.m. in summer); or stop by one of the many beautiful churches, with their bright ceramic-tiled floors.
Set in an 18th-century former convent at the top of the village, Locanda delle Donne Monache ($$$) is a quiet haven with hidden reading rooms and a delightful rooftop pool. Seventeen of the 27 streamlined, light-filled rooms overlook the historic district’s terra-cotta-tiled houses.
In Maratea’s historic center, the low-key La Merenderia (39-349/147-1918; $$) has a few wooden tables scattered around a tiny piazza. Locals go for an aperocena—a glass of wine served with small bites, such as smoked goat cheese or ’nduja, a spicy sausage spread from neighboring Calabria. As for the wine, choose the fruity white Malvasia di Ginestra or a full-bodied red Aglianico del Vulture.
Overlooking the scenic port, two miles from the town center, rustic Il Clubbino (39-328/282-2159; $$$) is perfect for a lunchtime snack of freselle, Basilicata’s water-soaked bread rolls, topped with fresh basil and tomato. Three generations of the Mazzeo-Avigliano family have prepared just-caught fish at Ristorante Za’Mariuccia (39-0973/876-163; $$$), in a former fisherman’s house. For dinner, request one of the seven tables on the sea-facing terrace and order the paccheri pasta from Gragnano with rockfish and whisker-thin strands of bell pepper.
Maratea’s best beach is laid-back La Secca di Castrocucco, a strip of black sand with blue and yellow umbrellas, loungers, and a reed-thatched bar. Other options: Acquafredda, a wide, expansive stretch six miles outside town, or Spiaggia Nera, a pebbly cove reached via a steep staircase, closer to the village.
Tour operator Marvin Escursioni (39-0973/870-013; half-day trips from $35) organizes outings in a converted lifeboat from the port to secluded spots reachable only by water. Our charismatic guide, Giovanni Lagatta (who speaks a bit of English), peppered his historical-cultural-gossip-laden narrative with his favorite recipes (like grilled pecorino on toast drizzled with chestnut honey). The itinerary included the Grotta Azzurra, a cavern illuminated by natural light, where the sea is a beautiful translucent blue.
La Farmacia dei Sani (39-0973/876-148) displays delicious treats (leaf-wrapped figs; bars of bergamot-scented chocolate from Calabria) on its well-curated shelves. At Antica Casa del Tessuto (39-0973/876-520), Giuseppe Brando sells hemp and linen tablecloths, tea towels, sheets, and bedcovers, all woven in Basilicata with traditional motifs that include chili peppers and lemons.
Lined with white and pink flat-roofed houses, this tiny hilltop town resembles a neorealist movie set. Laundry flutters above pots of white hibiscus and basil, pensioners sit beside trays of red capsicum peppers drying in the sun, and toddlers enjoy dessert at the gelateria while their mothers chat. At any moment, it feels as if Federico Fellini could appear from around the corner—but you’re more likely to bump into director Francis Ford Coppola, who often visits with his family.
It’s easy to miss Palazzo Margherita’s ($$$$) discreet entranceway on Corso Umberto, Bernalda’s main thoroughfare. Once inside, there’s no mistaking that Francis Ford Coppola’s only Italian hotel is a special place. The celebrated French decorator Jacques Grange designed the 19th-century villa’s nine spacious, colorful suites, blending Italian Baroque, Moroccan, and Tunisian influences. Also on site: loaner bikes, a shaded, black-tiled pool, and three restaurants, including a buzzy pizzeria facing the main square.
Ten miles south you’ll find eastern Basilicata’s other noteworthy property: Hotel Torre Fiore Masseria ($$), housed in a blazing-white masseria close to the town of Pisticci. The 13 rooms all have a polished, country-chic look (blond-wood furniture; delicate floral fabrics; exposed beams). The poolside restaurant serves an excellent grilled porterhouse steak—finish with a digestivo of Pisticci’s own herbal Amaro Lucano.
La Locandiera ($$$), in Bernalda, was recently named one of Italy’s top 20 trattorias by foodie association Gambero Rosso—the first time a Basilicata restaurant has made the cut. Owner Francesco Russo works with his mother and aunt in the retro sala to produce hearty but creative dishes such as frittata with potatoes, white onions, and nettles. Next door to the Palazzo Margherita, Il Vecchio Frantoio (39-0835/543-546; $$$$) is a no-frills local haunt with cheerful yellow tablecloths. Highlights include the handmade pasta with squid and fresh chili peppers, and sweet-almond semifreddo gelato. Don’t leave without tasting the lemon granita made daily at Azimut Café ($$), a tiny, wood-paneled watering hole that looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1960’s.
Bernalda is about the relaxed, simple pleasures of small-town Italian life—but it also makes a great base for excursions. The Coppolas often go to Riva dei Ginepri (day passes from $28), an exclusive, reservation-only beach club a half-hour’s drive west, near Pisticci. Here, thatched umbrellas shelter giant white circular sofas that face a stretch of silvery sand and the turquoise Ionian Sea. Or head for Spiaggia 48, a public beach with calm, shallow waters, frequented by locals.
Make an appointment at Cantine del Notaio Winery, located 90 miles north in Rionero in Vulture, where producer Gerardo Giuratrabocchetti will take you through his barrel-filled, vaulted cellars. Afterward, taste the award-winning Il Rosito, a crystalline rosé.
Finding your way to the abandoned village of Craco (call 39-0835/459-214 to book a tour), past the area’s craggy clay hills and up a bumpy dirt road, isn’t easy. But the first sight of this hamlet, perched on a 1,280-foot hilltop, makes the hour’s drive worthwhile. After a landslide in 1963, the 2,000 inhabitants were relocated. Our guide, Pasquale Ragone, a former resident, accompanied us on a hard-hat tour past abandoned houses, a cinema, and even a pasticceria that once belonged to his family. They all testify to a Pompeii-like disaster, yet there is still the magical aura of a fairy tale. Note: you cannot visit Craco on your own. For reasons of safety, you must be accompanied by one of the town’s licensed guides—none of whom, unfortunately, speak English. However, T+L A-List travel agent Joyce Falcone (guide fees from $166 per half-day) can arrange for a translator, such as Matera-based Enzo Montemurro, to accompany you.
“The food we ate as children included traditions that had been handed down from ‘Bernalda bella,’ and were usually things we hated. But I now have come to love them.”
Lampascioni: “These little vegetables look like onions, but are in fact the wild bulb of the hyacinth flower; they are bitter, but taste appealing, like a wild potato. My basic preparation is to parboil the lampascioni, fry them with garlic in olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and paprika.”
Capuzzelle: “Always more in the ‘weird’ category: an entire lamb’s head split down the middle, revealing the brains, tongue, jaws, and teeth. It is usually baked in the oven oreganato style, with bread crumbs, oregano, red pepper, and salt, making it an unexpected delight. I first learned to eat the brains, because I wanted to be smart—and found they are delicious. The taste is hard to describe.”
Fegatelli: “Little masterpieces: pork liver with bay leaf, rolled in a lacy web of caul fat. They are barbecued and, with a squeeze of lemon, are unbelievably wonderful.”
Fly to Bari Airport in Puglia, where you can rent a car for the 90-minute drive to Matera. Local trains run regularly from Bari’s Ferrovie Appulo Lucane Station to Matera on weekdays and Saturdays.
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Valerie Waterhouse is T+L’s Italy correspondent.