A historical but youthful town with its high student population lending it a cool vibe, Bari the capital of the Apulia region is a typical maritime and market city. The historic buildings, art work, fascinating town centre with its grand boulevards, opera house, and the beautiful surrounding beaches make Bari a popular tourist town, with plenty of unfussy trattorias that serve the delicious cucina barese better than anywhere else in Apulia.
The second stop on our Italian food journey teleported us to the warmth and festivities of summers in Bari, the second largest city in southern Italy, which is also the hometown of Chef Giuseppe Lioce, the head chef at Bene, the Italian restaurant at Sheraton Grand, Bangalore. Along with our charming Italian food guides Carmen and Angelo, we had Akshay Baboo too for company. Akshay is an Indian winemaker based in Europe, and he used his expertise to help us pair every dinner course with the perfect wine.
The table was set for a traditional Italian feast with the family, with beautiful flower arrangements, candles, and the most interesting moon baskets! These were reminiscent of Chef’s childhood. His mother would give him a small basket to go buy bread from the bakery, and he would finish most of it on his way back home. The evening started with sparkling chutes of peach Bellini. The drink was delicious and summery and according to Carmen, it was just like the best Bellini she has had at the Café Florian at Piazza St. Marco in Venice.
For our traditional Italian food journey, Chef Giuseppe had baked an assortment of fresh, homemade Italian breads and rosemary focaccia to eat with Italian cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil from Bari, and 20 years aged Modena Balsamic. He told us stories of how he grew up watching his mother and aunts rolling dough, and baking fresh fragrant bread that was crunchy on the outside, but soft inside, to preserve the humidity and moisture within.
The Frittata di Asparagi were like the ones Chef’s mother used to pack for his school lunch, enriched with asparagus. For the meat-lovers, there was Prosciutto e Melone – 24 months aged Parma ham with melon. Pettole Pugliesi, the pizza dough fritters made of extra fermented dough, sundried tomato, and rosemary, and fried, and served with Pappa al Pomodoro, a thick Tuscan bread-soup, is a popular street food across Italy. Piadina Romagnola, Italian flat bread common in Romagna and usually made with pork fat, was instead stuffed with rucola, and aged shaved parmesan, and bocconcini mozzarella, to suit Indian tastes.
Food is like a universal language that brings cultures together. In the two Italian dinners so far, I have had the good fortune to learn so much about the warm Italian people and their culture. And there are so many similarities with Indians. For instance, in India we believe in ‘Atithidevo Bhava’ meaning ‘the guest is equivalent to God’. Italians, especially those in the south believe in the same philosophy, and if you ever visit their home, they are most likely to feed you everything they have in the kitchen!
Akshay chose a white, Sicilia Doc Anthilia Donnafugata to go with our crispy calamari, and cod fillets. The fresh, Mediterranean fruity and floral sensations made it a perfect combination with seafood. Made from the Catarratto grapes that grow so well in the very hot Sicilian climates, the tartness of this wine makes it ideal for summer meals. Frittura di Pesce con Zucchini in Scapece was very refreshing, with the calamari crumbled in semolina flour and fried, and the cod fillets cooked very minimally, and served with zucchini marinated with white wine vinegar and mint. Everything on the plate was so light and fresh. The soft and delicate cod with truffles contrasted with the wine, cutting through the taste and refreshing the palate.
For vegetarians, Chef served Peperonata di Mamma, meaning peppers cooked in mother’s style. He cooked traditional bell peppers and potato stew using herbs from his kitchen garden at Bene, and served it on Sgagliozze, or fried polenta, with Italian goat cheese. Interestingly, polenta is only eaten by northerners. Sgagliozze from Bari, is the only polenta dish eaten in the southern regions, where they serve it with the wide variety of vegetables that visiting friends and families always bring along.
It is amusing how some food get their names. The orecchiete, a homemade pasta typical of the Apulia region, literally means ‘small ears’. It got its interesting name because ladies would get together in the evenings to make the pasta and share gossip! The Orecchiete Contadina is a beautiful summer dish, slow cooked in San Marzano tomatoes, and finished with salted ricotta cheese, crispy garlic panatura, taggiasche olives, and wild rucola.
We had glasses of Zonin Valpolicella from Gambellara with our pasta. This light wine, had been oaked for some time, giving it a retro nasal tobacco aroma. It complimented the pasta perfectly, cleansing the strong garlic aftertaste, readying the palate for the next dish.
Music plays a crucial role in creating the perfect atmosphere. The Italian love songs from the 1950s, playing softly in the background created a beautiful romantic atmosphere in the restaurant, and cast its spell over our dinner. Chef introduced a lot of these songs when he first came here, and these have been a part of the regular playlist ever since.
We were surprised with a refreshing melon and orange sorbetto, which is typically served before the main course to clear the palate. The sweet flavour of cantaloupe was lovely together with the freshness of citrusy orange.
While most of the meal so far consisted of popular southern delicacies, the main course was a treat from the northern regions. Stracotto di Agnello, New Zealand lamb shank, slow braised for 24 hours with Barolo jus, and served on a bed of mashed potatoes with truffle, was without doubt, the best lamb I have ever had. It was flavourful, and so tender it melted in the mouth! Paired with Soledoro Sangiovese Rubicone, the main course rendered us speechless. The smooth red wine with its delicate aroma and unbelievable flavours, was the perfect combination with our lamb dish.
Chef brought out a huge pan of risotto from the kitchen to show us how he cooked the delicious Risotto Cacio e Pepe. This Roman dish is cooked entirely in butter. Good quantities of black pepper and pecorino cheese imported from Rome, are added on top, and it is finally garnished with Cerignola dry olives. Featuring flavours of the region, the dish was simple but sumptuous.
When Chef Giuseppe said he was taking us down memory lane, he meant every word. As a child, his mother would tell him to eat his fruits before he could get any ice cream. Chef would imagine the cone and finish up his serving of fruits. These nostalgic childhood memories inspired Chef to create our next dish, of fruits scooped and flavoured with liqueur and served in a homemade ice cream cone.
The Tortino Siciliano was another heavenly dish with vanilla sponge soaked in Limoncello, stuffed with ricotta and orange, and covered with sugar fondant and amaretto liquors. Sicilians are sugar masters, they don’t just make desserts, they create presents.
Getting to know Chef Giuseppe
Chef strongly believes in using his imagination, good quality ingredients, and inspiration from his childhood memories, to make good food. He says it need not be molecular gastronomy to leave an impact on the diner.
He knew he was going to be a Chef from the time his teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, at 8 years of age. Being from a family of construction engineers, his father didn’t approve. But he was so inspired watching his mother and grandmother, cooking homemade pasta, baking bread. He would hide under the table, and watch them cook, and eat the raw pasta, instead of playing football with friends. Eventually it became like an obsession, and he would be the only male member of the family to help out in the kitchen. At 16, he went to a small town on the Adriatic coast, where he trained under an 85-year-old woman. Ladies of all ages have influenced Chef Giuseppe a lot over his career, and he has learnt to make traditional Italian food from them.
Everything on the menu revolved around recreating Chef’s childhood food memories from Bari. With his special touch, Chef Giuseppe gave us a beautiful glimpse of the dreamy summers of southern Italy - the joy of sitting with your big Italian family and enjoying a traditional feast, the tantalising smell of freshly baked bread, the delicious cheese served with marmalade, the soft music wafting through the restaurant, the friendly servers, all helped set the perfect atmosphere. The final surprise was the mesmerising ‘Flavours of Italy’, an aroma bowl with lemon, basil, and oranges, and dry ice to infuse the citrusy smells and flavours of southern Italy during summer.
Writers weave magic with their words and transport us to other worlds, but that night, Chef Giuseppe transported us all to his hometown in south Italy with his magical culinary storytelling!