Dream of Italy

portallogoSubscribers to Kathy McCabe’s award-winning Italy travel newsletter Dream of Italy will see Sharon’s work in the November 2009 issue. She penned a profile of “Stile Mediterraneo Cooking and Wine School” owners Cinzia and Marika Rascazzo and also a feature “Sisters Share Their Private Puglia” with the siblings’ travel recommendations for their region on the heel of Italy.

If you don’t subscribe to Dream of Italy, there’s no better holiday gift for your Inner Italian. Check it out here.

Bed & Breakfast Cavallino


By Walter Sanders

Sharon and I wanted to explore Lecce, the spectacular capital city of Puglia — often referred to as the “Florence of the South.”

We needed to find a place to stay that would position us near Lecce, yet keep us within easy striking distance of nearby attractions and points south. Plus, we didn’t want the hassles of city parking.

It was my turn to choose a place so I perused booking.com for accommodations near Lecce.

The B&B Cavallino looked perfect: an intimate property (3 suites), outside of Lecce, reasonably priced and boasting some of the highest customer ratings of any lodging establishment in the area. We e-mailed and were able to procure a room.

B&B Cavallino proprietor Paola Danielli (right) and her husband Paolo Mercurio.

B&B Cavallino proprietor Paola Danielli (right) and her husband Paolo Mercurio.

Upon arrival, we met the luminous proprietor Paola Danielli. Efficient, lovely, charming (and fluent in English), she showed us to our “room.” What an exciting surprise! We had a spacious apartment with two floors, two terraces, a kitchen, and a huge bedroom overlooking a quiet green campo.

The apartment really felt like our home away from home for the next few days. Every morning before we set out, we brewed our own coffee and feasted on a lavish tray of local pastries that Paola had purchased for us. As Sharon always says, “You have to love a country where they eat cookies for breakfast.”

cavallinocolazione The only minor glitch during our stay    turned out to be the source of more joking   than frustration. Due to local street repairs,   access to and from the southern route to the Salento peninsula ran through an AGIP gas station. It was so well trafficked, we took to calling it the AGIP autostrada.

We couldn’t have been more fortunate in finding this jewel of a B&B. It’s easiest to reach by car, however, with proper advisal the hosts will provide transfers to and from the Lecce train station.

B&B Cavallino is the perfect starting point to explore the many attractions of the Salento peninsula south of Lecce.

Antinori’s Tormaresca in Puglia

Adriatic coastal vineyard at Masseria Maime.

Tormaresca vines planted on the Adriatic coast at Masseria Maime in Puglia.

After 26 generations and more than 600 years in the wine business, the Antinori family of Tuscany has expanded its involvement in Puglia. This is a big deal. It certainly got my wine juices going as we received confirmation to visit the new Tormaresca operation at Masseria Maìme in the Salento DOC.

In 1971, Marchese Piero Antinori, helped light the dawn of the super-Tuscan blends with a Sangiovese/Cabernet sauvignon blend called Tignanello. (Piero’s uncle, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rochetta of Sassicaia, first commercially released his fabled super-Tuscan Sassicaia in 1968.)

In the 1990s, the Antinori family invested in Puglia, the heel of Italy, a region that has traditionally been recognized more for the quantity, than the quality, of its wine grapes. A number of economic and terroir factors helped drive the decision. Land prices (especially compared to Tuscany) were inexpensive. Soil conditions and climate were conducive to expanding production of native grape types and some international varieties as well.

Maria Tolentino De Bellis, Tormaresca’s marketing and PR representative, suggested we meet at the San Pietro Vernotico train station. I thought it was odd that we couldn’t just connect at the winery. It didn’t take long to realize that the Antinori presence in Puglia was large – but subtle. Maria drove us up a gravel road marked only by a modest, hand-painted sign that read Vigneti del Sud, “Southern Vineyards,” with no mention of the super-star Antinori name.

The sun is a powerful prescence on the Salento Peninsula.

The sun is a powerful prescence on the Salento Peninsula.

At the cantina, she introduced us to Giuseppe “Peppino” Palumbo, the CEO of Tormaresca. He was dressed in work clothes and had the sun-drenched, weathered look of an executive who spends more time in the vineyards then he does in the board room.

I asked Peppino about the branding strategy behind the Puglian venture.

“Tormaresca is a fantasy name, a play on the Puglian dialect, and means Tower by the Sea,” he explained. “It’s also an extension of the Antinori philosophy to respect local tradition and original vines, while leveraging technology to improve the results. We respect the past, but we never stop innovating.”

We jumped into his SUV, and bumped out on rough trails alongside the vineyards. Peppino pointed out some Negroamaro grapes planted with a cordon trained system, as well as some older vines still in the traditional Alberello system — without support.

We headed east until we reached the beach grass and dunes of the Adriatic shore. “The terroir and growing conditions are perfect,” he said.

Back at the cantina, Peppino raved about indigenous Puglian grapes. “Negroamaro is wonderful. Primitivo (identified by enologists at U Cal Davis as the genetic clone of California Zinfandel) is well suited for this climate. And Aglianco, the red grape we grow further north at our Bocca Di Lupo vineyard, earned a 91 from Parker.”

I asked Peppino about two ancient Puglian grape types, Sussumaniello and Ottavianello I had learned about from Cinzia Rascazzo of Stile Mediterraneo.

Peppino looked pleased about the question and smiled. “Yes, we found some growing here and will preserve and cultivate them. We are experimenting with them now to complement Negroamaro and add a little color.”

The time was running late, and I asked Peppino if I could use a phone to call our next stop to let them know I’d be a little tardy.

“Who are you visiting next?” he asked.

“Candido” I answered.

“I have them in my cell phone.” He noticed that I looked a little surprised. “We’re not rivals. We both flow together in the same current of wine, and the trip is easier if we run together, not against each other.”

For a sampling of Tormaresca here in the U.S., pour these two.

Neprica IGT (Negroamaro, Primitivo and Cabernet grapes) I love this super-Puglian which is every bit as intriguing as a more expensive super-Tuscan.

Neprica is an I.G.T. blend of Negroamaro, Primitivo, and Cabernet grapes.

Neprica is an IGT blend of Negroamaro, Primitivo, and Cabernet grapes.

Masseria Maìme IGT (Negroamaro grapes) is spectacular with grilled meats and fish.

Maime is 100 percent Negroamaro grapes.

Masseria Maime is 100 percent Negroamaro grapes.

Coming next: Our visit to Candido Wines.

Ciceri e tria

Ciceri e tria, chickpeas and tagliatelle, from Lecce in Puglia.

Ciceri e tria, chickpeas with both fresh and fried tagliatelle, is a specialty from Lecce in Puglia.

Ciceri are chickpeas. Tria are tagliatelle, in the dialect of Puglia. Combined, they make Ciceri e tria a distinctive dish from the baroque city of Lecce.

Like the ‘Ncapriata in Two Cooks in Puglia, this recipe comes from Cinzia and Marika Rascazzo, sisters and proprietors of the Stile Mediterraneo cooking program.

“The recipes are the real traditional ones from Lecce,” Cinzia says in a recent e-mail. “We inherited them from my nonna and we teach them at our school.” Nonna ‘Nzina, short for Vincenza turned 95 in May, looks like she’s 70, and cooks every day.

She is super well,” says Cinzia. “For her, the most important thing is food. She gets mad if my mother does not buy her the best ingredients. She spends the whole day cooking-maybe just four hours for a minestrone!”

Cinzia, who holds an MBA from Harvard University and Marika, a practicing cardiologist, are passionate about passing on their nonna’s culinary legacy and the culture that it represents. “Our cooking is based on which town you are in, which season it is, and peoples’ taste. In general, we never cover ingredients’ flavors,” Cinzia says.

Dried chickpeas soak overnight before being simmered with aromatics.

Dried chickpeas soak overnight before being simmered with aromatics.

In preparing Ciceri e tria, the first ingredient required is time. Dried chickpeas are soaked overnight and then simmered until tender with aromatic vegetables. The tagliatelle noodles are prepared from scratch by combining water and salt into golden durum wheat, the hardest type of wheat, which is also high in gluten. Durum is a major agricultural product of the Tavoliere plain in northern Puglia.

After the noodles are rolled and cut, a portion, about one-quarter, of them are deep-fried in olive oil. (These fried noodles make an irresistible pre-dinner nosh sprinkled with salt and Parmesan cheese!)


The remaining tagliatelle are cooked with the chickpeas. (When I tested the recipe, my first batch of tagliatelle turned gummy when I added them to the chickpeas. I had better luck boiling the noodles separately and then draining them before adding them to the chickpeas but this is NOT Nonna “Nzina’s method.) The three elements are stirred together just before serving and garnished with fresh parsley and hot red pepper to taste.

Read more about ciceri e tria

Two Cooks in Puglia

Sharon (center) with Rosalba De Carlo (left) and Cinzia Rascazzo at Alle due Corti ristorante in Lecce.

Sharon (center) with Rosalba De Carlo (left) and Cinzia Rascazzo at Alle due Corti ristorante in Lecce.

In the baroque town of Lecce, Walter and I meet two dynamic women who are fighting for their lives. Not literally for physical survival-although it may come to that-but for the endurance of their culinary tradition. They may be of different generations but their focus is the same: To preserve the traditions of Pugliese cooking.

If you think this sounds melodramtic, consider this: A McDonald’s sits in the historic Piazza San Oronzo in Lecce, a town that up until a few decades ago was a relatively remote outpost in southern Italy. The food of this area was the now much-lauded ‘Mediterranean diet.’ But, back to our heroines. . .

Thirty-something Cinzia Rascazzo, with her sister Marika Rascazzo, operates Stile Mediterraneo, a custom tour business that focuses on Pugliese culture, cooking, olive oil and wine.

alleduecortisignRosalba De Carlo is a generation older. She’s the proprietor of the esteemed Alle due Corti ristorante where we are lunching with Cinzia on a cloudy Saturday afternoon. We are honored to be eating here and meeting Rosalba. In 2008, she was recognized as an exemplar of the gastronomic culture of Salento, the southern tip of the Italian “heel” during an Economic Sustainability Conference in conjunction with UNESCO and ISNART (the national institute of tourism research).

Seated in the cozy backroom, we ask Cinzia to choose dishes for us. She explains that we will be eating mostly vegetables because Lecce sits inland, away from the coast. (I smile to myself because the distance to the Adriatic Sea is probably no more than 10 miles, practically beachfront property by U.S. standards.) “There is a Spanish influence, similar to Catalan, here in Lecce,” Cinzia says.

Dishes are served in locally crafted terra cotta plates. The peperoni agrodolce are slowly cooked in olive oil and a bit of sugar until they almost melt. Vinegar and bread crumbs complete the preparation. “The Pugliese put breadcrumbs on everthing,” Cinzia explains, laughing. And with good reason. Pugliese bread is renowned because it is made with the superior hard durum wheat that is cultivated in the northern part of the region.

Local pastas are also made from durum wheat mixed with water. We sample orecchiette (shaped like little ears) in a green vegetable puree and strascinate (ragged curled strands) in a tomato sauce.

Polpettone (balls) prepared from eggplant were a revelation. So light, so flavorful. The eggplant is peeled and cooked then passed through a food mill. It’s mixed with grated aged pecorino cheese, breadcrumbs, and egg, shaped into balls and deep fried in olive oil. (Full disclosure: After returning home, I asked Cinzia to share a recipe via e-mail. I tried but I couldn’t replicate the taste and texture. Some dishes must be eaten in their place of origin and I think this is one of them.)

Probably the most amazing tasting that day was ‘ncapriata. Made from only three ingredients-fava beans, chicory and extra-virgin olive oil-this is the poster child of Puglia’s cucina povera. Just beans, greens, and oil but when the base ingredients are so distinctive, and the cooks know how work magic, the results are spectacular.

ncapriataCinzia shares her recipe and gives this advice for enjoying ‘ncapriata. “The chicory and fava beans are meant to be eaten together! You can also serve them with small pieces of traditional durum wheat bread. You can add more extra virgin olive oil at the table.”

‘Ncapriata  (fava bean puree and wild chicory)

Makes 5 servings

1 pound dried peeled fava beans


2 pounds wild chicory or cooking greens such as dandelion, mustard or curly endive

1 whole garlic clove

Red pepper flakes

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus extra for garnish

Place the beans in a large bowl and cover generously with cold water. Soak for at least 8 hours.

Drain and rinse the beans. Place them in a large heavy pot and cover with fresh water. Place over low heat. When the water starts boiling, skim the foam from the surface with a spoon. Discard the foam. Continue skimming and discarding the foam as long as it appears. Cook, stirring occasionally, over low heat for about 2 hours. The beans will gradually dissolve into a puree. If the mixture is too thick, add water from time to time if needed.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Wash the greens. Chop them coarsely. Add to the boiling water. Stir and cover. Cook for about 5 minutes or until al dente. Drain the greens.

Return the same cooking pot to medium-low heat. Add 2 tablespoons oil, the garlic and pepper flakes to taste. Cook over low heat for about two minutes. Add the greens, stir and cover. Cook on low heat for 5-10 minutes, or until tender. Season to taste with salt. Remove the garlic and discard.

When the fava beans are completely dissolved, remove from the heat and add 3 tablespoons of oil (or more if you like) while stirring with a wooden spoon. Season to taste with salt. Thin with some water if needed to create a very thick puree.

Ladle the fava puree into one side of a pasta bowl. Place some greens next to the puree. Drizzle with a bit more oil at the table if desired.

Coming next: More about Stile Mediterraneo plus a recipe for ciceri e tria (chickpeas with tagliatelle).