Postcard from Lecce, Italy: Sampling seafood and pasta served Apulia-style

lecce seafood ravioli radici

Seafood Ravioli at Radici – Market, Food & Caffetteria

With only skimpy sandwiches for lunch, we were ready for a sit-down meal after arriving in Lecce well after nightfall. We walked out the door of our apartment and crossed the street upon the recommendation of our landlord and entered what became our favorite restaurant in Lecce, Osteria 203.

The intimate restaurant had us hooked with the contorni, a varying trio of seasonal vegetables. Unlike in Naples, vegetable sides and antipasti were easy to come by in Lecce. But Osteria 203 also provided the Mister with his favorite dish of the entire trip, stinco di maiale. The enormous braised pork shank was falling-off-the-bone tender and was served in a pool of a rich red wine sauce. The fried young artichokes were highly addictive, and how can one resist trying purple gnocchi. Our only disappointment with the Osteria 203 is that it closed during our final week to repaint the interior, depriving the Mister of his third order of stinco.

Il Rifugio della Buona Stella is an unpretentious family-run restaurant with generous antipasto plates and regional pasta dishes, such as pasta with rape, turnip tops, all offered at resident-friendly prices. On our second visit there, we were accompanied by our daughter and fidanzato, and it proved a most pleasant experience.

Next to us was a family birthday celebration, a table of about 16 from multiple generations. The group was not rowdy at all, just enjoying exchanging family stories. We lingered sharing multiple courses, as did they. When it came time for them to cut into a luscious cake, they sent the youngest girl over with plates for us. And then they poured glasses of prosecco for us to share in toasting the young woman who was their guest of honor. There was something so warm and touching, and we felt so flattered to be embraced by locals instead of being dismissed as just tourists at the next table. It helped our standing that the Mister was able to go to the other room and ask the owner for a simple birthday toast and thank you he offered to them in Italian.

Other spots we visited represented by photos above:

  • Crianza – If you are pining to sample some of Italy’s prized Chianina beef, the Mister swears his was about the best hamburger he has ever eaten.
  • I Latini  – This spot felt touristy, but it was always open when others failed us. Despite that initial feeling, we must admit the seafood dishes, such as linguini, pistachio-crusted tuna and clam and chickpea soup, were delicious.
  • La Cantina delle Streghe – A good spot for wine and bruschetta
  • La Cucina di Mamma Elvira – Great vegetables and pasta, but do not fail to order the eggplant polpette.
  • L’Ostrica Ubriaca – We trekked to the one way outside the walls. It was a little spartan, but the seafood was always fresh. A new more upscale version recently had opened right outside the old city gate, but we did not try that location.
  • Radici – Market, Food & Caffetteria – Contemporary and casual, attracting a host of locals. The fidanzato highly recommends the seafood ravioli in the featured photo.

Hopefully, all of these restaurants made it through quarantine times and are beginning to welcome diners back.

Postcard from Caserta, Italy: When keeping up with the neighbors means Versailles

Reggia di Caserta

Foolish me. I thought the Royal Palace we visited earlier in Naples was lavish enough to suit the needs of the royal court, but Charles III (his later Spanish title) (1716-1788) had yet more grandiose ideas. He desired a new site for his capital, one farther removed from the coast to prevent invasions by sea and, most importantly, one with a palace to rival Versailles.

In 1752, Charles commissioned architect Luigi Vanvitelli (1700-1773) for the massive project, Reggia di Caserta, on land to the east of Naples. The result: 1,200 rooms on five floors making the palace 118 feet tall. Almost 500,000 square feet occupying 11 acres. The architect was able to employ the finest materials – travertine from Bellona; bricks from Capua; gray marble from Mondragone; white marble from Carrara. Immense single blocks of lava stone from Trapani were used for each step of the grand stairway that divides into two parallel flights of stairs of 116 steps guarded by two white marble lions.

But Charles as King of Naples never got to reside in his dream palace because he had to move on to a bigger role as King of Spain. So the incredible digs were left for his son, Ferdinand (1751-1825), and his wife, Maria Carolina of Austria (1752-1814), to finish. If sibling rivalry existed, Maria Carolina should have been more than pleased with the palace. Her sister, Maria Antoinette (1755-1793), spent much of her time at Versailles with her husband, King Louis XVI of France (1754-1793).

Maria Carolina was a proponent of enlightened absolutism until she became alarmed by the revolutionary ideas spreading through France. She began work in earnest to transform Naples into a police state. The abrupt end to her sister’s life intensified and helped justify those efforts. Needless to say, this did not enhance her popularity, but no matter. The monarchs soon had to flee as Napoleon conquered their kingdom; although Ferdinand would return later with assistance from Austria.

Enough politics.

In addition to keeping Vanvitelli occupied until the end of his life with finishing out the royal palace, Ferdinand and Maria Carolina enlisted him to design a Royal Park worthy of such a palace. The queen’s English garden covers 30 acres. The king’s mile-long fish pond provided a stage for him to float elaborate mock naval battles for the entertainment of his guests. A grand cascade of water was installed on the summit of a hill opposite the palace. Oh, and a 24-mile aqueduct, a hydraulic architectural feat, was built to keep the water flowing.

UNESCO/NHK Video

Walking a couple of miles exploring all the secret gardens filled with sculpture and fountains had been our plan when we hopped aboard for the short train ride from Naples. But, alas, the beauty of the palace and grounds of Caserta had attracted the attention of another. A film production company.

Not only were crew members scurrying around installing special lighting, rearranging furniture and adding props (see the sculpture of the man brandishing his sword astride a bear with a double-headed eagle crest on the door behind him) inside the palace, but they were filming a scene on the grounds. Meaning we were not invited. The scene we saw filmed involved a huge cast gathered to greet the important occupants of an arriving coach (no photos allowed). There are several photos above of cast members scurrying through a courtyard of the palace to prepare for their next scenes.

The film? The crest indicates a period piece focusing on Russian royalty. But the production is hardly the first to take advantage of the sumptuous palace. Think Queen Amidala’s royal palace on Naboo in Star Wars Attack of the Clones and The Phantom Palace. Angels and Demons directed by Ron Howard in 2009 and Mission Impossible 3 with Tom Cruise in 2006. And then Richard Dreyfus portrayed architect Vanvitelli himself in Caserta Palace Dream.

 Caserta Palace Dream, 2014

In 2017, Stephen Spielberg found the grand stairway ideal for a parade of cardinals for his film, still in production, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.

And one need not starve. We dropped in Osteria da Miducci and ordered eggplant and pasta before the table of locals next to us began receiving their heaping platters of seafood. Our freshly made pasta was perfect, but envy surfaced. Not sure I could have cleaned it down to the bones the way the presiding gentleman with the Godfather voice did, but I would have ordered his whole fried fish, which arrived plated perched upright on its fins as though it swam there voluntarily, for the snapshot alone.

May 14, 2020, Update: And the filming was for Hulu’s “The Great” premiering on May 15.

Postcard from Naples, Italy: Seconds on that seafood platter, per piacere

“Leftovers” from a crudo platter at Pesheria Mattiucci

Maybe that photo is not appetizing, but it does represent how incredibly good and fresh the platters of raw fish served at Pesheria Mattiucci are. The freshness is key for the fishmongers who run this small place that still resembles more a fish market than a dining spot. Each type of fish on the platter is paired thoughtfully with an appropriate fruit, light sauce, herb or fresh flower to compliment its individual delicate flavor.

By all appearances, the Pesheria is not our kind of place. Only a handful of no-backed stools awkwardly perched at metal counters with no leg room. And no red wine (The Neapolitans worked hard to reform us on the importance of pairing their dry white wines with raw seafood, and we must admit they are right.). But despite the humble surroundings, the seafood was so amazing we went twice. Oh, and the fishmongers can cook fish perfectly, too.

The other “best raw seafood” spot for us during our stay was in the Vomero neighborhood. Panamar was only marginally more formal, part of the trend of chefs who want to focus on food – tablecloths and tableside service be damned. Sandwiches are their specialty, and they begin with large firm  buns.

Our favorites? The fuoritonno with cubes of red tuna, smoked burratina cheese, sundried tomatoes, smoked eggplant cream and fried arugula; and the mezzosalmone with cubes of salmon, buffalo mozzarella, grilled zucchini and a sauce of honey and red peppers.

Since those first two restaurants were seafood-centric, I pulled out most of the other seafood photos from our stay in Naples. Several of these places will be mentioned again later.

We had gotten hooked on fried anchovies in Spain, and found them abundant in Campania as well where they are called alicci fritte. With a squeeze of fresh lemon, pretty addictive. The pasta most associated with Naples is paccheri, sort of like giant rigatoni.

Perched at hightop tables on a fairly busy street, we loved the casual neighborhood vibe of Re Lazzarone downtown near the Archaeology Museum. Anonymous Trattoria Gourmet is tucked away on a lower street downtown in a location that helps keep it anonymous from tourists. The inside is spartan but packed with locals.

Godot, up in the Vomero neighborhood, is pricier and still well off the tourist track. Loved the gnocchi with peas and calamari. And the surprising find at the end of the trip was on the fringe of Vomero, Trattoria Scugnizzi. An inexpensive place popular with neighbors that seems way off the visitor radar. The only photo included with this post is a sample of the chef’s daily seafood pasta special, a sample because he was disappointed we already had over-ordered.

The others lumped into this seafood post were in more high-profile locations, but they still managed to keep some loyal Neapolitan diners: Anticchi Sapori; Ristorante L’Ostricaio; and Stritt Stritt.

More food later.