Ostuni, 36km from Brindisi
Otherwise known as The White City (Minas Tirith anyone??), the town of Ostuni is perched atop a hill a little ways from the sea, its white buildings gleaming under the Mediterranean sun. Which sounds nice in the guidebooks.
To me, it looks just like Locorotondo in the Valle d’Itria, only bigger and filled with more elderly germanic tour groups. Evan and I walk around aimlessly through the touristic city center, and I take a good picture or two.
The really good pictures are not yet available, but are forthcoming in an issue of Conde Nast Traveller. No kidding. An Italian photographer, who has worked for Conde Nast for years, uses us as models in a shoot he is doing about Pugliese food and travel.
We happen to come across him at a modern, bright little deli called Mozzarella & Co., where our mouths begin to water—we see his modeled food laid out on the table. Small braids of mozzarella, burrata whose exposed center oozes onto a small wooden board, coils of pale pink prosciutto and slices of blood red salami, plump cherry tomatoes drizzled in golden olive oil aside a loaf of crusty bread, and a full glass of rich, red wine. The photographer looks over at us curiously and asks us if we wouldn’t mind partaking in this meal. With a wave of his hand, a second glass of wine is brought over to the table and we are urged to sit and be comfortable, to not mind the camera.
I’m not sure what I’ve done in life to deserve a free meal and a photo shoot, but I must be on the right track.
We say our goodbyes, then head to Il Frantoio, a luxurious masseria just outside of Ostuni. Upon our arrival, the owner immediately has someone serve us an afternoon cocktail, ostensibly on the very generous house. “I don’t do business,” he contends. “I do hospitality. Please make yourselves at home.”
After sipping our cocktails, we take a stroll around the compounds. Just off the little piazza at the entrance of the masseria, an arch opens up into a yard of 400-year-old olive trees.
We only manage to take a few photographs before someone calls out to inform us that this area is for the hotel guests only (though it was clear the hotel guests seem to favor the main little piazza where we were first greeted… my guess is that the wifi signal is stronger there).
Little do we know, the owner is surreptitiously tabulating how much it would cost us to stay the night, throwing in a “special discount” on the room rate and on dinner.
Meanwhile, we are shopping in the cellar of Il Frantoio—where non-guests are definitely welcome—and we buy three different kinds of olive oil produced on the masseria, a decorative plate that an artist hand-painted in ‘09, and some pickled olives.
We drop about $150, when the owner of Il Frantoio propositions that we stay here for the evening instead of sticking to our itinerary. When we decline the offer, he slashes the rate even more. (“I don’t do business,” he’d said earlier…) Both of us like a good deal on a quality product as much as any jew or Korean, but we are satisfied with our haul of goods and bid the owner good day.
Moral of the story is that if you come to Il Frantoio after the high season, pretend that you have other plans so that you can negotiate the price down to something crazy cheap. But that’s only if you want to stay on a masseria that sort of feels like a creepy utopian commune filled with english-speaking “artists.”
I don’t really know why I felt that way, because it was a really nice masseria. Maybe it was the pet peacocks locked up in a pen, birds that seemed to serve no purpose other than to act as living ornaments, though all the guests seemed too plugged into their electronic devices to notice the scenery.
Ceglie Messapica, 12km from Ostuni
After escaping the strangely utopian compounds of Il Frantoio, Evan and I drive south to Ceglie Messapica, another town painted white in the Valle d’Itria. Gianfranco, the chef at Gaonas, had recommended a restaurant in Ceglie Messapica called Cibus, so we decide we will stopover for lunch on our way to Gallipoli.
I order orecchiette in a tomato sauce with fresh basil. It only consists of those three elements, from what I can tell, yet the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.
I can’t manage to remember anything else from the meal, other than a sublime cheese plate at the end, because although we’ve only ordered a bottle of wine, the owner of the restaurant inexplicably lavishes upon us glasses of primativo, a bottle of sauternes, a couple doses of grappa—and then, for good measure, a table of friendly, drunken Italian men call us over for some cognac.
The big guy on the left is the owner.
For the first time in my life, my dormant “Asian flush” gene is activated by the obscene amount of alcohol that is now adulterating my bloodstream. I don’t feel that drunk, owing a little sobriety to the amount of food that we’ve just consumed, and yet my face, neck, and chest have turned purple.
I finally feel at one with my Korean ancestors.
Overall, the best meal yet. And our bill is magically only about $100.
Porto Cesareo, 33km up the coast from Gallipoli
A dip in the warm Ionian sea; a shiver in the cold Ionian air.