It’s Sunday, our third day in Italy and a perfect day to sleep late and linger to enjoy the beautiful view from our little balcony, which is fifty feet or so directly above the Adriatic. As small fishing boats occupied by pairs of leathery Pulignano natives drift by, we can only imagine how wonderful it would be to stay here in the summer. Despite the chill in the January air, the sun is shining brightly and warms our little corner, the vibrant deep blue of the sky dissolving into the blue green of the calm sea that laps against the stone cliff from which the hotel is hewn.
Sundays in Italy are a challenge for tourists and we nearly always forget to plan for a day when cities will be partially closed. We decide to scratch our original plan to visit the ceramics town of Grottaglie, fearing that the long drive there will be rewarded only with closed shops. We opt, instead, to send the day in the city of Lecce.
Lecce is the largest city in southern Puglia and it is renowned as one of the great baroque masterpieces anywhere. It is slightly inland, and the coast is only 10 miles away. But lying 30 minutes south of Brindisi and over an hour south of Bari, it requires a commitment to visit. We arrive in the town centro early in the afternoon, glad that we did.
With our seemingly uncanny ability to manufacture good luck we drive straight to the middle of town and immediately find a parking space near the Roman amphitheater, the geographic and touristic center of town. In the middle of this classical piazza it is odd to see a perfectly preserved and excavated Roman theater, but there it is, 20 or so feet below street level, perfect in its semicircular design and in much better condition than the Coliseum in Rome. It was, like much of the Roman antiquity that is visible today, discovered by workmen digging a foundation for a new bank in 1901. Restored in 1930, it is used by the city for concerts and plays. Today it is hosting a nativity scene, complete with a running stream, cactus and the entire cast of characters made from papier mache, a local art form practiced by a number of Lecce artisans.
It is getting late, and Suzy is anxious to find a lunch spot before the restaurants all close. She promises to see all the sights that Lecce has to offer, including the amphitheater, as long as we eat first. We stop to take a few photos but Suzy is determined to find lunch so we head on. Everything (except the McDonalds in the piazza –we are not that hungry) seems to be closed. We wind our way through the city streets and pass the breathtaking Basilica of Santa Croce. It is outrageous baroque, the façade covered in swirls and curclicues, cherubs and grotesques climbing over one another, competing for the eye of passersby.
We pass from the touristic center to a more residential area and begin to resign ourselves to the thought that we might have to eat lunch at the Patria Palace Hotel which we passed a while back – surely it will be open on a Sunday. As we turn a corner we hear some noise and see a kitchen and dishroom and realize that there must be an open restaurant on the other side. Success! We have discovered Le Caveau degli Artisti, Via Rubichi, 6. With a beautiful white stone interior we join two families who are having a Sunday lunch. There are no menus and the waiter seems nervous that we are American, that we will be a lot of work for little payoff. He gamely offers to bring us a seafood antipasti and a bottle of the local white wine, which we accept. He returns a few moments later with a plate with a cold seafood salad with calamari, scampi and octopus and a piping hot plate of fried potato croquettes and fried mozzarella. As we start to dig in we don’t realize that another waiter has moved a second sort of half table next to ours, which they begin filling with more and more plates of seafood – marinated sardines, swordfish carpaccio with lemon, artichoke tart, grilled zucchini, eggplant and peppers, chicory greens and fried whole merluzzo, a local fish about the size of a snickers bar, lightly fried and served with its head on. As we are finishing our first round through all of these treats the waiter asks us about our next course. Housemade tubettini with fish for Bill and housemade spaghetti with frutti di mare for Suzy. It is very difficult for us not to clean our plates – both a matter of being respectful and because it tastes so damn good. Just as we have what we promise ourselves will be our last bite – the waiter returns and we order a whole grilled fish – something light to finish off the meal. When we are finally and completely finished, the waiter asks us about dessert and of course we simply order coffee and grappa. Not to be denied he brings us a slice of cake filled with cream and chocolate. When the waiter brings the bill he informs us that the restaurant is new – open only a few days and the credit card machine is not set up. Bill heads off to find a cash machine and Suzy has a few minutes to study the map of the city.
Filled to the seams, we are ready to enjoy this baroque city. In order to satisfy its seemingly insatiable appetite for baroque ornamentation, Lecce was fortunate to have an inexhaustible supply of the stone pietra di lecce – a soft sandstone that is easy to carve and hardens with exposure. Using this pietra di lecce, Antonio and Giuseppe Zimbalo, two local Leccese architects from the 1700s are responsible for many if not most of the baroque designs of Lecce’s buildings. Each façade has so much intricate detail it is a never ending adventure to explore the different features and stories.
As we head to the duomo we notice that the streets are filling up with people and the shops are starting to open. It is 5:00 in the evening and the town is coming alive. We arrive in the piazza del Duomo, unusual in that the cathedral is approachable only from one direction, in a closed square. The duomo, together with the other municipal buildings that line the square are all made from the same pietra di lecce, with its pale yellow color. Sitting in the stone-paved square, the entire scene appears to have been carved from a single block. It is peaceful (other than the child who is repeatedly kicking a soccer ball against the building) and beautiful.
We stop for a coffee and call our good friend Angelo Coluccia. He has been trying to reach all day to arrange a dinner meeting, but our phone has not been working. We make arrangements to meet Angelo in Gioia di Colle, his hometown, for dinner. We are surprised to hear that it will take a couple of hours to drive from Lecce to Gioia. With a homing pigeon-like sense of direction, we drive straight to Angelo’s family apartment, which we visited last February. We stop in and have a nice visit with Angelo’s mother and father.
Angelo suggests a new wine bar where we can sample the Primitivo wine of Gioia del Colle and have a light dinner of just a few small plates of food. Angelo is greeted warmly and we settle in to a comfortable table where we are greeted with an avalanche of small plates that keep appearing from the kitchen. Tarts filled with artichoke, peas and ham and tomatoes, foccacia with tomato, crackers with mascarpone drizzled with balsamico, plates of local salami, cheese with chilis, cheese with peppers served with honey, sheep’s cheese with blueberry preserves, truffle cheese sprinkled with chocolate and just when we have eaten our fill, a plate of warm lardo di collonado. We send away all of the small plates to make room for our coffee and grappa.
We bid our goodnights to Angelo, arranging to meet up with him in the morning for a new round of adventures in his native Puglia. Our drive back to Polignano, through small towns is itself an adventure, but one best left for our next report.