Thursday, August 27, 2015

SEASONAL FOOD: Watermelon

When I think of late summer, the dwindling heat of end-of-August, I think of lazy days by the pool, happliy exhausting days on the beach, and backyard barbeques in the 'burbs. All are heavenly. And what food best represents these languid last days of the hottest season of the year? For me, the answer is simple: watermelon.  

The watermelon is the edible fruit (botanically speaking it's a kind of berry called a pepo) from a vine-like flowering plant that hails from southern Africa. Its cultivation harks all the way back to the second millennium B.C., in the Nile Valley. Watermelon seeds were found at the tomb of King Tutankhamun, and the fruit is mentioned as a food eaten by the ancient Israelites while in bondage in Egypt. The fruit was cultivated on the Indian continent by the seventh century, and had spread to China by the tenth. China continues to be the world's largest watermelon producer, by a lot, today -- they account for about 50% of the world's production. It was the Moors who introduced watermelon (and a whole slew of other great things!) to Europe; evidence suggests that it was cultivated in southern Spain, in Cordoba and Sevilla, in 961 and 1158, respectively. From here its cultivation spread throughout Southern Europe, and by the 17th century, watermelon had become a fairly widespread garden crop on the European continent. We have the European colonists, and their slaves, to thank for the introduction of watermelon into the U.S. and the New World in general -- Spanish settlers in Florida in the late 16th century, on up to Massachusetts, and later Peru, Brazil, and Panama. Today, the fruit is grown in 44 U.S. states, with Georgia, Florida, Texas, California, and Arizona leading the charge. The largest melon on record, however, was grown in Tennessee in 2013, weighing in at a heaving 350.5 pounds!


Nutritionally speaking, watermelon isn't vitamin or nutrient-dense in the classic definition of the terms. But the beauty is this: it's 91% water, contains 6% sugars, and is low in fat and calories, so for the caloric intake, it's a decent source of fiber and vitamin C. But new evidence suggests that watermelon has several additional nutritional and health benefits. Watermelon flesh is quite high in carotenoid phytonutrients, specifically lycopene, and has been moved up to the front of the line, alongside tomatoes, in recent studies on high-lycopene foods. What does lycopene do? It's especially important for cardiovascular health. Bone health, too.
It's an antioxidant and contains anti-inflammatory properties, so it potentially fights off all kinds of disease and inflammation that is the breeding ground for disease and chronic illness. Recently, scientists have become interested in the high citrulline content of the fruit as well. Citrulline is an amino acid generally converted by our kidneys into arginine, another amino acid -- which helps improve blood flow and general cardiovascular health. There's also hopeful evidence that this amino acid conversion process might help to prevent fat buildup in fat cells by blocking a particular enzyme activity. Things are looking up for watermelon fanatics!


As for watermelon preparation and ways in which to enjoy the fruit, other than slices out of hand? It's actually incredibly versatile in both savory and sweet preparations. Watermelon "steaks" work well on the grill, even as served with grilled meats. One of my favorite summer dishes I've prepared in recent memory is a sort of riff on a Vietnamese pork chop dish. I marinate thinly-sliced pork chops in a fish sauce, soy, and rice wine-based marinade, then toss them on the grill and reduce the marinade for a sauce. I serve them on a bed of greens (watercress is my favorite) with fizzled shallots, cilantro, watermelon cubes, and pickled watermelon rind. The combination of flavors, textures, and temperatures is heaven! 
Of course, simple preparations like my watermelon-feta-mint skewers and "cocktail sandwiches" is an easy snack. And there's this snack in salad form -- a dish that's become somewhat ubiquitous on menus in urban centers and beach locales all over. But it's still delicious and refreshing, particularly on a hot August day. I like my watermelon salad with arugula and/or microgreens, salty feta (but not too much), and a kicky rice or sherry wine vinaigrette. Add some jalapenos and I'm even happier. Mint is a must, cilantro is a bonus. Sorrel is a nice variation. Watermelon pairs nicely with cucumber (technically another member of the melon family), and both take well to heat -- as in the spicy kind, from hot peppers. This is true even in cocktails. We all know the trick of a hollowed-out watermelon with vodka-soaked melon balls, or "tapping" the green rind and turning the watermelon shell into a keg for cocktails. These are fun ideas, no doubt. But fresh-pressed watermelon juice with your liquor of choice and additional goodies makes for a sophisticated cocktail, without being hokey. 
Ditto the pulverized flesh of the melon. And for dessert, or a drink, or a cocktail-dessert hybrid? Freeze the pureed watermelon pulp to make granita, the Sicilian shaved ice and the world's original slushie frozen treat. Just add a bit of simple syrup to the pureed melon -- equal parts sugar and water, heated and cooled -- if it needs a little added sweetness (though ripe melon should be plenty sweet on its own). Pour into a tray or pan and pop it in the freezer, periodically mashing it up with a fork when it starts to freeze. Scrape, and serve. Here, liquor is optional, but ooooh, is it a good choice! It's the quintessential summer food, in any of its forms. Enjoy the season!

And I couldn't resist: another use for the rind? Watermelon warrior costume for a toddler, of course!




Friday, August 21, 2015

ITALIAN CLASSIC + RECIPE: Vitello Tonnato


The name itself is a puzzling one. It roughly translates to "tuna-ed veal." It actually sounded full-on disgusting to me before I ever tasted the dish, back in my days as a college student studying abroad in Tuscany. Then I tried it. Let's just say it became an instant favorite. Now, if it's summertime, and it's too warm to eat a hot main course, I'll always go for the tonnato -- from Sant Ambroeus in Southampton to Trattoria Ponte Sisto in Rome, this is my hot weather order of choice. And sometimes, if I'm feeling ambitious, or I'm having guests, I'll make it myself. It's always best that way, isn't it?

Vitello tonnato is a dish that the north of Italy can lay claim to, specifically the Piemonte region. It can also be made with pork (as in the photo above) or turkey, but veal is the classic. It's served at room temperature or chilled, which makes it an excellent summertime main course.
It's traditionally prepared a day in advance, to let the flavors really combine well. The cut of veal used is generally the eye round (a cut from the hind leg), sliced thin once it's cooked and has "rested" for a day in the fridge. The meat is braised in water/white wine/vinegar with some herbs and spices, or stock, or if you're really going thorough and old-school, you add olive oil-packed Italian tuna to the cooking liquid, and this braising liquid then becomes the base of the sauce -- this way the flavors of the two star ingredients blend and meld into a tastier whole. A homemade mayonnaise is then prepared by whisking together egg yolks, vegetable and olive oils, and a touch of vinegar as the basic base, to which the tuna is added. There is some argument as to whether or not the sauce gets slathered over all slices so that they may marinate in the sauce for several hours, or it the cooked veal gets sliced and served alongside a slightly thicker sauce for you to dip into or spread on the slices as you like. There is no argument, however, that capers are a must when serving.

VITELLO TONNATO

For the veal:

  • 2 - 2 1/2 pounds lean veal roast, preferably top round, firmly trussed, or turkey breast or pork loin
  • 1 7-ounce container top-quality Italian tuna, shredded
  • 1 medium-size white onion, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 rib of celery, roughly chopped
  • 1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 sprigs parsley
  • 1 ½ cups dry white wine
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • ½ teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 10 black peppercorns

For the tuna sauce:

  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 12-ounce container top-quality Italian tuna in olive oil, finely chopped, with its oil
  • 2 anchovies, rinsed, dried and minced
  • 1 tablespoon caper brine
  • Lemon juice
  • veal broth (see above)
  • Kosher salt to taste

Preparation

  1. Truss the veal with cotton string, so that it resembles a roast. Place the meat in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven and cover with tuna, onion, celery, carrot, bay leaf, parsley, wine, broth, salt and pepper, then heat over a high flame until it comes to a boil. Immediately reduce heat to very low, cover and simmer for 45 minutes, or until the internal temperature of the veal reaches 130 degrees.
  2. Remove meat to a large, nonreactive bowl, strain the broth over it, cover and allow the meat to cool in the refrigerator, preferably overnight. (Discard the solids.)
  3. While the meat cools, put yolks in a medium bowl and beat with a wire whisk. Begin to add oil as you beat, a thin stream at first, adding more as each bit is incorporated. When a thick emulsion forms, you can add oil at a slightly faster rate.  The entire process should take 5 to 7 minutes, and you may not use all of the oil.
  4. Add tuna, anchovies and caper brine to a food processor, and pulse. Add the mayo and pulse to puree into a thick mixture. Add a few tablespoons of the veal broth to thin the sauce slightly. Add lemon juice to taste, and more broth if the sauce needs thinning. Taste for salt. The sauce should not taste overly mayonnaise-y but should be reminiscent of the best quality mayo.
  5. Remove the cooled veal from its broth, untie and cut across the grain into very thin slices. Smear the sauce on the bottom of the platter. Arrange the veal slices neatly on a platter with the edges of the slices overlapping, and spoon the tuna sauce over the top. You can place another layer of veal and repeat, but don't do more than two layers on one plate. Cover and return to refrigerator overnight or until ready to use. Garnish with capers or fried capers, lemon, hard-boiled eggs, or sprigs of parsley. Alternatively, you can slice the veal and serve the sauce in the center of the plate or on the side.
  6. Return to room temperature before serving.
 




Tuesday, August 11, 2015

POP-UP DINNER: Blu Aubergine and Filigree Suppers Celebrate Female Icons

It started out as an idea for a collaboration. I saw what the ladies at Filigree Suppers were doing, and that their dinners often propped up women, using female chefs, artisans (potters et al), designers, photographers...you get the picture. And then I saw their Moroccan-themed dinner just as I was planning a long vacation overseas which included my first trip to a bucket list locale for me: yes, Morocco. It seemed like fate.  
So I got in touch about wanting to do a collaborative dinner with them, and Brita and Elise were lovely and receptive. We discussed several possible themes, and they mentioned they'd wanted to do a female icons-themed dinner for a while. I immediately loved it! It was a great way to pay homage to the women who paved the way for us -- entrepreneurs, all, doing our own thing and able to do what we love, without risk or protest, without inhibition or second-guessing. And while we have many political figures and brave women in technology and medicine and business and human rights activism to thank for our enjoyed (mostly) equal status in today's modern age, we decided that for this dinner, for this fun theme, we'd honor female icons of style and the arts from the 20th century. And then I was able to turn on my creativity.

First thing was the menu. That was my job: to come up with a multi-course meal that reflected the season (full-on summer in mid-July), and my cooking style, while interpreting what these female muses of modern style contributed to us -- and it all had to taste delicious, of course. I thought about the categories I'd wanted represented. As a long-time ballerina, I had to have dance in there. Pavlova was a legendary ballerina, and already had a dessert named after her, which was the perfect light end to a summer meal. Dessert done. As a budding chef and a very young girl, I'd watched Julia Child cooking on television, like...well, like it would some day be my job. I had to honor her and the culinary arts in some way. I'd worked in fashion early in my professional career, and knew what a tough business it was, and how I admired those who were truly talented at the art of design, who had enormous personal style.Who better encapsulates that than Coco Chanel, a woman before her time? I have always loved the Jazz Age, the roaring '20s (and on to the '30s and '40s), particularly New York and France in that period...though it felt like a time dominated by men in the arts (Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald et al). The female figures representing that time? The fabulous Josephine Baker, of course, as well as personal favorite Dorothy Parker. A recent visit to Santa Fe and the museum celebrating the work of a favorite artist, Georgia O'Keeffe, had her top-of-mind for me. Jackie Kennedy Onassis is a no-brainer for any roundup of women of style. And finally, since we were having the dinner in the Hotel des Artistes, it made sense to pay tribute to one of its former inhabitants, modern dancer Isadora Duncan. The cast of icons was complete. Now, how to honor them and use their work as inspiration for my culinary creations?

While I took care of the menu development, a whole cast of women contributed to the success of the evening. Filigree Suppers (www.filigreesuppers.com) rounded everyone up, including lovely flowers by Peartree (http://peartreeflowers.com), paper goods by Fourteen-Forty (www.1440nyc.com), liquor for our cocktail donated by Brooklyn Gin (www.brooklyngin.com), and a wonderful photographer with City Love Photography (www.citylovephotography), contributing many of the photos you see here today. We had gorgeous ceramics on sale all evening from Red Raven Studios (www.redravenshop.com), and I contacted another fabulous female graphic designer, who'd created the lovely labels for our wine for the evening, Festival and Feast (www.festivalandfeast.com). Our dinner event took place in the gorgeous, colorful, and super-cool apartment of equally gorgeous (colorful, super-cool), chic Beatrix Ost, who is herself a fashion and art icon and pretty much the definition of a Renaissance woman. Her duplex apartment in the Hotel des Artistes on the Upper West Side was the perfect location for our celebration of female style, creativity, and power.

The evening began with a cocktail hour. And which female icon is better suited to a New York gin-based cocktail than Dorothy Parker herself? The drink, called the Ascerbic Mrs. Parker, was created in Brooklyn at a bar called the Shanty. It features gin, orange liqueur, hibiscus syrup, lemon juice, and soda, and goes down as smoothly as Parker's witty lines. To balance the rapier wit and cynicism of the cocktail's muse, we decided to pair it with some cocktail fare inspired by lovely, sophisticated Jackie O. I created two hors d'oeuvres in the former first lady's honor. One celebrates the Kennedy part of her: East Coast clam crostini were a nod to summer days spent with the Kennedy clan in Hyannis Port. Greek salad skewers represented the Onassis part of Jackie O, and were a perfect accompaniment to the cocktail and a refreshing light bite on a sweltering summer evening (the mercury rose well above 90 degrees that Sunday night!).

And so, after plenty of mingling and sipping and nibbling, the dinner part of the evening began. The ladies from Filigree made their introductions, and presented the hostess of the evening, and then I came out to introduce the actual food part of the event. I would explain each course before it was served, plated but buffet style on Ost's lapis-blue, oversized dining room table. We began with the amuse bouche, inspired by Coco Chanel. Since the designer is known as much as anything for her iconic bags, I created a "Cocoa" Chanel beggar's purse as a riff on a beggar's purse (classically, a crepe filled with creme fraiche and caviar, tied with a chive). I made a crepe with cabernet flour and cocoa, filled it with sour cream and smoked trout caviar, wrapped it in a bundle tied with a chive, and plated it with a spoonful of caviar and a fuchsia beet aioli double-C. The guests were treated to some wonderful lyrical opera music from singer Eva Glasmacher, singing from a balcony overhead, in truly dramatic fashion. Her performances were peppered throughout the evening, whenever inspiration struck her. I am always amazed at the powerful voice that can come out of such a petite frame. After the amuse bouche, we continued on to the salad. I created this course to celebrate the work of Georgia O'Keeffe, one of my favorite painters, and an artist who celebrated women and the female form throughout much of her work. Of course, she's known for her flower paintings, and her adopted home of Santa Fe, New Mexico is known for its gorgeous desert sunsets in colors ranging from ochre to burnt sienna -- something I tried to reflect in my Georgia O'Keeffe Southwestern Salad
This included mixed field greens and herbs, roasted corn off the cob, chile-candied bacon, micro cucumbers, and edible flowers in sunset colors, all tossed in a piquant chili pepper-lime vinaigrette with cumin. Again, as it turned out, a nice refreshing course in the midst of a hot summer night.

Next up? A tribute to the sultry American triple-threat (singer, dancer, actress), beloved in her adopted France, and a performer ahead of her time: Josephine Baker. Her fans comprised most everyone in the entertainment industry, as she played to rapt audiences around the globe.
In an era of black and white (photos, film, and how many people viewed the world), she was a groundbreaking artist who refused to perform for segregated audiences in the U.S, and the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. Hemingway dubbed her "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw." I needed to translate her into a dish, and so, I created a Seared Coquille St. Jacque on squid ink couscous with pickled cauliflower and Moroccan spiced citrus oil. The dish is a nod to her becoming a French citizen, the couscous a culinary translation of her nickname, "The Black Pearl," and along with the spiced oil, is a reference to her time spent in French Morocco.I think (hope!) the dish was an honorable tribute to a true talent.


The final main course was a fairly obvious choice for me, since I most definitely wanted to include a culinary legend in the mix of female icons, and one who actually had a great impact on me from a very young age. Little did I know, when I was a young girl, the interesting life Julia Child had led well before she turned her focus on food. Some have said she was a spy. She definitely worked for the OSS during World War II in its Secret Intelligence Division in Washington, then in postings in Sri Lanka, and after marrying her husband Paul, moved to Paris where he was posted in the foreign service. She didn't arrive at culinary school until she was 37, nor the idea of a profession in food until she was basically 40 years old. She is inspiring across the board! And what was one of her most well-known dishes? The classic Boeuf Bourguinon -- and my version was deconstructed. I used short ribs for the beef, slow-cooked them in a red wine sauce, and cooked the vegetables separately, each a little differently, from sauteeing the mushrooms in olive oil and rosemary and garlic, to glazing the carrots with butter and sherry vinegar, to making sweet-and-sour cippolini onions with balsamic. This was served on a bed of celeriac-potato puree, and finished with sea beans for a little pop of salinity and green in the dish. Served with some of the reduced red wine demi-glace, and topped with some purple opal basil, this lighter version of the classic was about as heavy as we could handle in the summer heat. As Julia would say, Bon Appetit!

Dessert was simple (an ode to ballerina Anna Pavlova), but challenging in the execution. I knew immediately that serving mini Pavlovas would be the perfect option from a diner's perspective: light, summery, fruity, refreshing. But from a chef's point of view...well, meringue can be tricky. Still, I managed to keep the meringue nests cool. Until the scorching, humid day of the event, that is. We tried to rescue the meringues from melting, and although we salvaged them to some degree, they would never be their formerly crisp, crunchy selves. Good thing we had lots of delicious organic whipped cream, berries, pineapple, and fresh mint to plop on top of the meringues, so all was not lost! We also put out a platter of goodies for our guests to take home, the final nod to our female icons theme: in black filigree-patterned cellophane bags, in honor of Isadora Duncan, we tucked in some almond-hazelnut biscotti for "duncan" in your coffee the next morning, wink-wink. 

The crowd seemed to enjoy it all, and as the evening wrapped up and we enjoyed our final vocal performance, a lot of connections, conversations, and friendships had been sparked among the guests. In coming together to honor iconic women in the arts and creative fields, we celebrate and appreciate the beautiful side of our existence, the little things that make everyday life a pleasure. Wonderful hostess in a wonderful home...great supper club hostesses...creators and thinkers and makers joining together for a fun midsummer night's meal. And that's really what these supper club evenings are all about, right? 

Special thanks to all of those who attended, and to Beatrix Ost and her lovely family, all of the other creative ladies who helped with each facet of the event. And to my fabulous Blu Aubergine team of gals: grazie mille! I couldn't have pulled it off without you!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

QUICK BITE: Pizza a Taglio a Roscioli

Ah, pizza. Real Italian pizza. There are several ways to enjoy pizza, particularly in Rome. I adore pizza bianca, but that's for another time. Probably the way I eat pizza in Italy most frequently, and the easiest and quickest way to enjoy this Italian fast food, is pizza a taglio: pizza by the slice. Or, technically, by cut. The Italian way to cut slices of pizza is not from a round pie, but rather from a long, rectangular slab of pizza, either made in a sheet pan tray, or cooked directly on the oven floor and hand-rolled out to a very oblong disc or an approximation of a rectangle. 

And it's often cut with scissors. That's right. It makes sense when you think about it. You point out how large or small a piece you'd like, and they literally cut you a piece to measure. It is then weighed and you pay by weight, so that pizzas that are loaded with lots of toppings, ranging from tuna and artichokes with mayo to chile pepper-parsley hot sauce to sausage and potatoes and porcini mushrooms...the more that is loaded on there, the more you pay per piece. Giusto, no?

But what most expert chefs -- and eaters -- know is that often times, the simplest iteration of something, the purest form of the ideal, is the best. Roscioli is a family-run business that's been around for decades. They've run what used to be a simple alimentari (specialty food store) since back in the '90s, when theirs was simply my local shop (that happened to carry Philadelphia cream cheese when none of the grocery stores did) -- an old reliable, if you will. With the new millenium, they ended up closing for a spell and completely remodeling to convert this into an upscale gastronomic temple to meats, cheeses, smoked fish, oils and vinegars...with an excellent restaurant and wine cellar added in for good measure. Their bread bakery is down the street from their 'headquarters' and main restaurant (they've now expanded to include a local pizzeria nearby, and it seems they're always moving on to a new venture). This bread bakery is always busy and they have a great selection of classic Italian biscotti and pastries as well as their renowned bread and pizze (that's plural for pizza, kids). Their selection varies form day to day, but it's always delicious, and they always have the basics, which to me -- here, at least -- are the best. That's right, a simple pizza margherita ("plain" in American parlance), and in Rome what's referred to as pizza rossa ("red pizza") -- otherwise known as alla marinara, hold the oregano -- just tomato sauce, no cheese. The simplest of the simple. And in this case, the pizza dough and the tomato sauce are the only two ingredients you have. So they'd better be stellar.

Here you can see the specimen: a very thin, crackly crust. Blistered bubbles in the surface of the pizza dough itself, owing to extremely high temperatures of the pizza oven. Just a slick of tomato sauce and a brushing of olive oil to make the overall presentation glisten (one of my sayings regarding good food's appearance: it really shouldn't be matte). A sprinkling of Italian sea salt. And when you bite into the pizza, it needs some chew. Real, authentic, delicious pizza needs gluten to get that chewiness activated in the dough. And that's it. It couldn't really be more simple, though from the end result that's available out there, you'd think it would be one of the Italian (or otherwise) kitchen's greatest challenges. Roscioli rises to it, as do several other spots around Rome. I was just lucky enough to have Roscioli be my local. And I was also lucky enough to call Rome home, where a walk along the Tiber, pizza rossa in hand, is all in an afternoon.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

ESCAPES: Puglia, ITALY, Part 2: The Southern Salento

The southern part of the Salento region in Puglia boasts some of the most dramatic and stunning landscape in southern Italy. Here, you can head to an eastern, rocky Adriatic coast beach in the morning, then head west to the mostly sandy Ionian coast for sunset and aperitivi. And this can all be done in an hour's time. The water is the gorgeous turquoise green of the Caribbean, and then gradually deepens to a royal blue found in the most pristine waters of the North Atlantic. From the eastern tip of Puglia, you can look across the Mediterranean on a clear day and see Albania. I know from experience that you can pick up their radio stations as you drive along the coast heading south.

And it's here that you hit the most easterly town in Italy, the beautiful coastal mini-city of Otranto (pronounced OH-tran-to), which abuts the water and boasts a charming harbor, the city having served as Italy's main port to the East for 1,000 years. The beautiful seaside port belies a brutal history in the sack of Otranto in 1480, when the Turks and Venetians rushed the city with 18,000 troops and basically massacred everyone there, including the 800 survivors who were marched up a hill and beheaded for refusal to renounce their Christian faith. Some of these martyrs' remains are contained in a chapel in the nearby Cathedral. The Aragonese Castle (attributed to the 16th century Spanish) is another landmark in town that towers over the landscape. It's open for touring. Beyond this checkered history, Otranto and the Salento are lovely locales, packed with (mostly Italian) tourists and former residents-come-home in the summertime. 

The beaches in this area are gorgeous and bustling, and the coastline is a dramatic and stunning scape. You can see how this was originally a Greek outpost, just from the visuals: the Cerulean waters and arid land covered with ancient, craggy olive trees as far as the eye can see. The drives along the coast to the north and south of Otranto offer some of the best beaches in Puglia -- and arguably in all of Italy. To the north, there is the Baia dei Turchi (Bay of Turks), where translucent turquoise waters from tourist posters comes to life. Heading south, towns like Santa Cesarea Terme (home of a renowned Moorish resort) and Castro, with a small marina much like Otranto's, are worthy of stops down to the very tip of the Pugliese peninsula. And, they're not on the typical tourist radar.
There are also grottoes to be visited -- including Grotta Zinzulusa, most famously -- offering a subterranean glimpse into the rich cave formations of the region and, where there's water, an otherworldly emerald glow. The very southern tip of Puglia is capped by Capo Santa Maria di Leuca, with its lighthouse at the very end of southeastern Italian land -- and where you're only 44 miles from Albania. 

As for lodging around Otranto, like in most of Puglia, the masserie reign supreme. These former working farmhouses for communal living that dot the Puglian landscape have been transformed into the area's signature B&B/hotel, most of which have a central courtyard with a pool, and a functioning restaurant on the property, which usually uses local ingredients often procured on the masseria's land, from its garden, etc. One such lovely spot is Masseria Montelauro, originally constructed in 1878. Since then it has been a monastery, an herbal pharmacy, a restaurant -- even a discotheque. It now houses 32 rooms and suites refurbished in whitewashed Mediterranean minimalist chic, with wrought-iron beds, arched stone ceilings, flowing white curtains, and bathrooms in stone and marble. The on-site restaurant serves three meals a day (including poolside and room service), and uses Montelauro's own olive oil, herbs, and vegetables in the cooking. The pool in the middle of it all is the perfect place to while away the morning or afternoon, and then you can take a short drive to one of the coasts for a few hours at the beach, after breakfast or post-lunch. Part of the charm of Puglia is that, though it's an ancient part of the Italian peninsula, it's not jam-packed with must-see tourist sites. There are those, of course, but it's also about getting into the Italian rhythm of life, and vacation, which is decidedly slow. You may very well finish that novel you pack.

Across the region, on the western (Ionian) coast, there is the area around Punta della Suina ("Pig's Point"), a beach in an area of nature reserve where you walk through a small pine forest to get to the waterline itself. (That's a view of Gallipoli in the distance, by the way -- we'll get there in a minute). Here at Punta della Suina, there are stabilimenti (beachside establishments that include bathrooms, bars, and often restaurants or sandwich and pizza bars, from completely informal shacks to sprawling, mod-design aperitivo magnets with full-on DJs). Here, you can rent lounge chairs and umbrellas, indulge in a salad or a panino and a glass of vino or a cocktail, if you like. It's one of the charms of the area. There are also plenty of seaside trattorie where they serve local seafood dished up in various preparations. And this being Puglia, there is always a wealth of vegetable sides alongside the seafood stars. In short: you will not go hungry at the beach if you don't bring a picnic lunch.

Drive just north up the Ionian coast and you hit the famed town on the Golf of Taranto, Gallipoli -- which, fittingly, means "beautiful town" in Greek. The ancient city center ia an island joined by a bridge from the more modern (and much less interesting) part of town. The historic quarter is relentlessly charming, extremely photogenic, and definitely a must-see on any trip to the southern Salento. The perimeter of the old city is lined with sea walls, on top of which are perched pastel and whitewashed stucco houses, hotels, restaurants, and shops. The cobblestones streets of the old city offer much of the same: charming vicoli and back alleys from which echo the patter of sandal-clad feet, reminiscent of those historic towns of the Greek islands of Mykonos or Paros. You can linger for a serious gelato or granita, particularly at the entrance to the old city, by the port, or at Caffe' Duomo. There are some very lovely and stylish retail stores, including a personal favorite, Blanc, which sells everything from furniture and home design to women's accessories -- basically what you'd want your ideal Puglian trullo to look like, with you in it. The large space also contains a super-chic cafe' and lounge within its fabulous stone walls, perfect for a coffee or cocktail post-beach. Another amazing shop is Salamastra, a store specializing in fun shoes, leather and suede wraps and skirts trimmed in what's made to look like Pugliese eyelet lace, and jewelry made from lizards skins and leather. They also feature home goods made out of local shells, nautical rope and the like, inspired by the Salentino beachy style. The three co-owners also have a store in South Beach Florida. They divide their time between the two places, which is certainly a best-of-all-worlds scenario!

As for the food, Gallipoli's port is its pride, and it's all about fresh seafood here. Fresh catches arrive in the morning and again in the late afternoon, and opposite the port on the other side of the bridge, a fish market is set up twice a day until they sell out of goods. As to be expected in these parts, there are booths set up for the sole purpose of selling ricci di mare, or sea urchin. Some are meant to be scooped out and eaten on the spot, but many sellers clean the ricci at their booth and plop the little orange sacks into seawater-filled jars to preserve them.
These are sold cheaply for about 8-10 euros per small jar. We bought a jar and I added the sea urchin at the last minute to that evening's pasta, spaghetti con le vongele (with clams) -- it was a particularly rich and delicious Pugliese version! But the fish market in general is a gorgeous spot. You can bargain for great prices on the famous local red shrimp, beautiful scampi, swordfish...on all kinds of whole fish like branzino, and for octopus, calamari, and every kind of sweet shellfish you could hope for. So much of this delicious seafood is edible without cooking -- and here in Puglia, it's often best simply sprinkled with a little sea salt and some buttery-green unfiltered Pugliese olive oil, possibly a spritz of lemon. And that's it. Simple enough to do without lighting a stove, casually sitting there on your patio or terrazza or poolside at the masseria (or ask the chef where you're staying to prep it for you!). Add a little local rose' wine, and you're set. Southern Salento style.

photo credit: M. Sweeney
For more information on locations, lodging, and activities around the region, check out:
http://www.charmingpuglia.com/en

Masseria Montelauro
Uggiano Localita Montelauro

Strada Provinciale 358, 73028 Otranto
+39 0836 806 203

Blanc
Via XXIV Maggio, 19
Gallipoli LE, Italy
+39 0833 26349

Salamastra
Via Antonietta De Pace 90
73014 Gallipoli (LE)
+39 0833 261577
info@salamastra.com