Saturday, March 23, 2013

Falco Grillaio in Matera, Italy

I have just returned from 2 very good weeks traveling in Italy.   Since it was not yet tourist season, everywhere we went we enjoyed the lack of crowds, especially in Forence. The first week was spent with my wife, CKay: our daughter, Jess: and our son, Caleb, and his fiancee, Jackie.We took a car trip from Rome down to Puglia and Basilicata--a part of Italy that we have never visited before.

The first 2 nights we stayed in the seaside town of Maratea.  We did not arrive at our hotel until midnite, and then Caleb suggested we open a bottle of wine.  We lifted our glasses to toast the beginning of our trip together to discover it was a pretense to announce that he had proposed to Jackie 2 days earlier on top of the Duomo in Florence.  She showed us the ring that was made for her by a friend of Caleb's.  It made for a dramatic beginning to our family trip.

We had stunning views of the Tyrrhenian Sea from our hotel.  We hiked further up into the hills for even more panoramic looks, and also walked along a black sand beach for a bit including a quick dip into the sea by our son.  We had wanted to eat at one of the area's premier restaurants--Taverna Rovita--but it unfortunately was still closed for the winter.  Instead we stopped at a little place recommended by a local where we were the only people having dinner.  It proved to be quite simple but very good.  The pastas were all quite nice, and the highlight was the perfectly grilled spigola.


On day 3 we made the drive from Maratea to Lecce with a stop in Martina Franca to eat at La Tana.  We arrived about 12:30 and proceeded to thoroughly enjoy ourselves for the next  2 plus hours. There were many delightful dishes consumed including a puree of fava beans with grilled peppers and sauteed greens; a handmade ravioli called nocche stuffed with smoky scamorza cheese; a salt crusted branzino; and the capper was the maialino cooked with prunes and finished in the oven with a pastry crust topping.


After the richness of the pork dish that we all shared, we managed to finish up the meal with the best rendition of a chocolate lava cake that I have ever had.  The wine of the day was a blend of negro amaro and sangiovese from the 2003 vintage.


We then drove on to Lecce where we spent the next 2 nights.  Other than a very fine wine bar, and some of the best Napoli style pizza I have eaten, our food experience was sub par for Italy while staying in Lecce.  It also rained most of the full day we had to walk the old town.  As a result, on day 5 after a nice sunny hour spent at a beach just north of Brindisi, we stopped at La Tana again for lunch on our way to Matera.  The meal was just as good as our first visit with CKay's dish of astice in a tomato sauce with tagliolini being the stand out.

We especially wanted to visit Matera because of the unusual history of the city.  It is located along a large gorge with a river at the bottom.  Hundreds of natural caves dot the cliff sides where for centuries people have lived in the caves.  In one of the smaller side ravines over time the caves have been built into homes using masonry to augment the cave space.  The room we stayed in at Locanda San Martino was part natural rock and part masonry.  Walking thru the town/city including down into the gorge was how we spent most of a bright sunny day 6.  While checking out the buildings, I noticed signs that explained how by making nest sites on top of the buildings, the city had helped the lesser kestrel--falco grillaio--recover from a sharp decline in numbers.  It was fun to see many of them flying around over the city being harassed by jackdaws.

We were made an early start on day 7 in order to be back in Rome in time for Jackie to catch her flight home to NYC.  The rest of us caught the train to Florence to visit friends, and old haunts we have come to love after living in the city for a year back in 2003-4.  Caleb and Jess were with us for a couple of days before they took off for Amsterdam and Berlin.

One of our favorite spots is Fuori Porta, a wine bar just outside one of the huge wooden gates of the wall around Florence.  CKay always orders the buratta and veggies plate at Fuori Porta. We ate 2 lunches there this trip, and one day I stopped at the market to pick up vongole veraci so that the chef could make us clams with spaghetti for our lunch that we shared with 2 Italian friends--Giulia and Elena.  Giulia had a baby boy, Anea, last November, so we were glad to be able to meet him.


The final destination for this trip was our first ever visit to the Piemonte area where barolo and barbaresco wines are made.  We took the train up to Milan where we picked up a rental car to make the 200 KM drive to Annunziata in the heart of the wine region.  We stayed at Cascina del Monastero--a winery/agriturismo owned by the same family since 1926.  Velda was our hostess, and she made our visit most enjoyable.  Our experience of traveling in Italy is that the Italians rarely eat a big breakfast opting for a small pastry and cappuccino.  Velda made a huge spread for us each morning including several local cheeses, sliced meats, yogurt, homemade croissants, juice, coffee, tea and eggs to order.  As a result, we skipped lunch and opted for a big dinner at a local restaurant.

Our first night we went up the hill to eat at Osteria Veglio which had just reopened after being closed for over a month.  Our meal was oh so good.  CKay started with a quick fried 1/2 artichoke with sauteed greens and ceci puree with a light fonduta.  I had a local specialty--ravioli al plin.  It was served without any sauce in a cloth napkin with fresh grated parmesan.  It had me almost falling out of my chair it was so delectable.  Our second course dishes were a pasta with broccoli, and a bollito of chicken and truffles.  We drank a bottle of pinot bianco from Toros followed by a 1999 Roero Ampej from Correggia.



The next day we spent wandering around the towns of La Morra and Barolo.  We enjoyed an exhibit on cavatappi--corkscrews--in Barolo.  Our dinner was in Cherasco at Osteria La Torre.  Again the meal was superb.  The highlights were the meat stuffed ravioli dish shown just above, a feather light gnocchi with cheese sauce, and veal tail braised in barolo with some kind of sauteed green that we could not identify.  We started with one of our favorite wines--the Vieris '08 sauvignon blanc from Vie di Romans.  Then we had what I thought was the wine of the trip--the '07 ginestra casa mate from Elio Grasso--as good a barolo as I can remember.
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Our last full day spent in Piemonte started very well with a walk thru the vineyards under cold but sunny skies that took us up to Castiglione Falletto.  We were surprised to find a climbing wall in one of the small piazzas. We returned to the cascina to get in our car to visit some more distant towns when we discovered we had a flat tire.  Beppe, Velda's husband, tried to take me to a place that could fix the flat, but because it was Saturday, nothing was open.  It was also supposed to snow later that evening and again on Sunday.  We were not feeling too good about the spare "mini" tire, so we opted to not go eat 30 minutes away in Canale that night, and also cancelled our lunch date for the next day.

Instead we had dinner in Barolo at La Cantinetta di Maurilio e Paolo.  Large servings of local dishes that included a risotto with radicchio and barolo; another version of ravioli al plin with sage and butter; baby lamb chops with a puree of potatoes, some lentils and zucchini; and 2 grilled quail with the potatoes and zucchini.  We drank a fine bottle of Renato Ratti's '07 barolo Marcenasco.  We finished up with a tasting plate of desserts.  We were the only non-Italians in the place.

We made it back to the airport on Sunday, driving no more than 50 MPH because of the spare tire until we got our tire fixed once we got on the autostrada.  We had some snow enroute, and then it snowed steadily once we were checked into our hotel. Our flights home on Monday were uneventful.  My next post will be about making a quick one day trip this past Thursday to Chincoteague to see a black-tailed godwit.  Stay tuned!

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