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Bellini Travel’s Guide to the Salento

Exploring the Salento

Welcome to the edge of Italy – the Salento. Stretching from Brindisi to Taranto, and all the way down to Santa Maria di Leuca, this is Puglia south. The lush greenery of Valle d’Itria flows into a plain of endless olive groves. A predominantly flat landscape, the Salento is a hot, dry and remote area, with the occasional yesteryear town and medieval outpost, and flavoured with its ancient Greek past. Emily Fitzroy of Bellini Travel shares her favourite towns, restaurants, sites and boutiques.

Carovigno

Located just five kilometers from the Adriatic sea and just north of Brindisi where the upper Salento meets the Valle d’Itria is the magical town of Carovigno. A former Roman seaside outpost, Carovigno’s charm is the old town with its Dentice di Frasso castle, Castle of Serranova and watchtowers Santa Sabina and Guaceto.

Dentice di Frasso Castle in Carovigno.

Carovigno is also home to one Puglia’s top restaurants Gia’ Sotto l’Arco, a traditional osteria from the Buongiorno family. The interior is jazzily elegant, the cuisine is adventurous but still faithful to local tradition in dishes such as pasta with ricotta and wild fennel on a base of sour tomato sauce and pigeon with redcurrant sauce. The desserts, too, are a treat, and the final bill is gratifyingly light.

Lecce

Shortlisted for European Cultural City 2018, Lecce is on the up. Described for years as the Florence of the South, we think it is so much more. Founded before the time of the ancient Greeks, Lecce is best known for its baroque architecture, fairytale-looking churches, arches and palaces of fine-grain yellow limestone (also known as “lecce stone”). But don’t let its pretty ornament fool you. Lecce’s Ancient Rome origins hide in plain view – an ancient Roman amphitheater sits in the main piazza of the historical center, just to remind you where it all began (almost).

Ancient Roman Amphittheater in Lecce.

Today’s Lecce has traces of the past, both architecturally and socially. The Leccese love their siestas and the entire city shuts down daily from 2-5pm, however it bursts into life in the evening and with a shot or two of caffe leccese, the well-heeled locals stay up well past midnight. 

Lecce has some superb shops in the centro storico: our favourite recent discovery is IJO’ Design on Via Palmieri which produces beautiful linen clothes on looms made from olive trees.  They also have some charming homeware and a children’s collection. Libreria del Sole is a lovely, dusty old book shop in Via Rubichi Francesco 14, and just across the street, a very cool vintage clothes shop Biba in Via Matteotti. Video Café in Via Trinchese is a source for local designers. Llelalluna Ceramiche, onVia Petronelli 12, sells jewellery by the hugely talented Monica Righi alongside ceramics produced within the city walls.  Do not miss the Tipografia del Commercio, in Via dei Peroni. Utterly brilliant printing press, with posters still being made on the original machine. Sadly the opera posters from the 50’s are not for sale, we’ve tried many many times. 

Make sure to head to Via Stampacchia 44 for the studio of Antonio Malecore, one of the last great cartapesta artisans, specialising in the Leccese style of religious statues made out of papier mache. Malecore’s presepi Christmas Nativity figures are extraordinarily beautiful.

Dining at La Fiermontina.

Lecce has until fairly recently been strangely bereft of good restaurants. However the arrival of La Fiermontina and Blue Notte  have changed that.  Blue Notte is all about spanking fresh fish including a divine octopus salad and daily arrivals from local fishing boats. The service is fantastic as is the wine list which has some superb local wines that score high with Wine Spectator but are still fantastic value.   Meanwhile at La Fiermontina, it’s all about asking the kitchen to order for you but don’t miss the orecchiette with cima di rape and fresh prawns from Gallipoli. If you can, visit La Fiermontina’s hotel with private art collection and modernist furnishings by Charlotte Perriand, plus a blissful walled garden of ancient olive trees.

Freshly caught octopus to be found at Blue Notte.

For a little fun and a buzz (caffeine or otherwise), head to ‘00’ Doppiozero with its long trestle tables, lights made out of green wine bottles, and baskets of organic breads where you’ll find trendy local Leccese chatting over their breakfast. Try the caffe in ghiaccio con latte di mandorla (a local brew of coffee and almond milk) and expect to huddle up next to Brazilian singer and Lecce resident Rosalia de Souza. 00 organises a very good picnic if you’re heading to the beach or taking the train to Rome. PS Owner Cristian runs the bar at the contemporary art museum MUST next door. Great respite if the Baroque is overwhelming.

Home cooking at its very best is, of course, family run.  Le Zie Trattoria Cucina Casareccia is run by three sisters known as the “zie” and who are as small as the tiny bustling kitchen they work their magic in. Classic fava bean puree with wild chicory followed by la taiedda, a weird but delicious baked dish of sliced potatoes, courgettes and mussels and if you’re really lucky pittule (deep-fried balls of sweetness made in November for the feast of San Martino).

The Salentine Peninsula

Head 20 minutes south of Lecce, where the landscape flattens and the sky opens out, to Galatina. Visit the Basilica di Santa Caterina, a gorgeous early Renaissance cathedral and make sure to nibble a traditional pasticiotto from Ascalone. If open, visit the Casa Museo del Tarantismo, a tiny museum dedicated to the rites of Tarantismo and the pizzica, the wild dance accompanied by tambourine that supposedly purged you of snake poison. Nearby is the Chiesa of San Paolo where the tarantolati went to drink the holy water.

Interior frescoes at Basilica di Santa Caterina.

CAPTION: Interior frescoes at Basilica di Santa Caterina

Foodies, drive south for another 20 minutes to Maglie, a foodies paradise. Home for over a century to the artisan pasta factory Pastificio Benedetto Cavalieri which many Italians think is the best pasta in Italy. Down the road is Pippi Toma who with his wife Anna Rita and his son Salvatore produce the most divine chocolates and pastries.

Keep going south and you’re at Tricase where famed bar Farmacia Balboa (owned by Helen Mirren)sits in the stunning Piazza Giuseppe Pisanelli. Head to the port for supper at one of the very relaxed, informal restaurants by the sea like Ristorante Lo Scalo, a smart clapperboard restaurant located in a little bay with gin clear water. You can swim from the rocks, sunbathe under blue umbrellas before tucking into a seriously good lunch of fresh fresh fish. If you know and love Ristorante Lo Scoglio on the Amalfi Coast, then this is the Puglian version.

Shoppers, it’s worth the twenty-minute detour to the shop Tulsishop in Diso/Marina di Marittima for colourful, chic kaftans and dresses, and antique textiles all expertly sourced by English owner Deborah. Her clientele is made up of the super chic Milanese and Romans who have holiday homes nearby. Mention you know us!

Deborah Nolan in one of the gorgeous kaftans you can find in her shop, Tulsishop in Diso/Marina di Marittima.

The nearby village of Surano is a quiet one horse town far off the beaten track and home to Trattoria La Bersagliera, a wonderfully romantic discovery. Owner Raffaele has stuffed his restaurant with curiosities from his antique shop across the street.  Weather permitting you can sit in the courtyard but the interior is equally charming and cosy if the evening is chilly.

A thirty-minute drive due east to Adriatic and you’ll find Otranto, a gorgeous fortress on the seaside. Despite the crowds, do try and see the stunning Otranto cathedral with its 2th-century mosaic floor depicting the tree of life, intertwining Norman, Greek and Byzantine ideas of fate.

Mosaic at Otranto Cathedral featuring Alexander the Great.

Overlooking the town’s castle (also worth a visit), LaltroBaffo, is the most exciting addition to the Pugliese restaurant scene of recent years, chef Cristina Conte has put an elegant and delicious spin on local dishes.  Local marinated anchovies balanced on chicory shoots with almond powder and bitter orange marmalade are wonderful to start and the carbonara ai ricci di mare is sensational – the classic carbonara dish with sea urchins in place of pancetta. We suggest sitting on the wooden deck on the street rather than upstairs on the terrace.

Ionic Coast

Gallipoli is St Tropez and Capri before they were discovered. The old town is achingly pretty and sits on its own island away from the ugly new town (where the brilliant night fish market takes place –the red prawns are famous). Head there in the evening for an aperitivo by the candlelit city walls.   Avoid and ignore the ugly old town and park near the bridge which joins old and new towns.

The old town of Gallipoli.

Il Bastione overlooks the city walls and has the best roof terrace on the island and gets booked up weeks in advance in the summer. Expect spanking fresh fish, pasta with ricci sea urchins and make sure to leave room for the Spumone Gallipolino, the locally made gelato. 

The smart yet unpretentious Trattoria la Puritate is refreshening uncomplicated in design and dishes – white linen tablecloths, wood paneled dining room, and a menu based entirely around what is fresh in the harbor that morning. The spaghetti al limone with tiny local shrimps and linguine alla vongole were recent highlights along with totani fritti, deep fried local fish. The gamberoni al sale shouldn’t be missed but remember to rinse off the salt before eating.  Protip: Ask the owner for a sneaky entrance to the outrageously Baroque, wonderfully over-the-top Chiesa della Puritate next door.

For drinks, head to the super cool, architect owned Blanc.

Puglia in Print

Christine Smallwood

Desmond Seward

Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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