Sometimes food can taste so shockingly good that you have to glance away, hoping your tablemates won't notice the look on your face. Or so it is with me. Recently a spoonful of whole-wheat noodles and chickpeas in broth had that effect. The noodles were handmade by a woman who had been rolling pasta all her life, with flour made from wheat grown in the same region of Italy where I had the soup—Apulia, the heel of the Italian boot, and long the country's breadbasket. But it was the chickpeas that provoked my sybaritic moment. They made the canned version seem like salty pellets. These had the texture of milk-fed veal, and a light but authoritative flavor of the earth. They were noble.
Italians shop for bottles of Apulia's artichokes, mushrooms, wild asparagus, and red peppers preserved in oil or vinegar, knowing that the hot sun, dry volcanic soil, and salty Adriatic breezes make for intense flavor. I go to the region as often as possible, for the beauty of its olive groves, carpeted with wildflowers and separated by waist-high stone walls, and for the odd charm of its trulli, houses topped by clusters of cone-shaped domes made of gray fieldstone with whimsical white-stucco finials. And, of course, for the vegetables.
I also go to stay at my favorite hotel—Il Melograno, a resort on a former farm that incorporates the original white-stucco buildings, which look almost Mexican in their rectangular simplicity. The new parts were literally built around centuries-old olive trees. Camillo Guerra, the owner, has a severe case of the Italian mania for construction. Since I first visited, in 1986, he has turned the old farm into a miniature city, with a convention center, a spa, and even a helipad. I recently watched Guerra, who is also an antiques dealer, supervise the furnishing of a new suite with elegant armoires and tables and argue good-naturedly with a workman over the size and placement of a light fixture. He was in his element.
Happily, the constant construction has in the past three or four years resulted in Il Melograno's two restaurants, both close to the main highway south of the city of Bari. From October through early June the chef, Onofrio Serio, presides over Il Trappeto ("The Olive Mill"), a former olive press built in one of the many large caves nearby, which in medieval times were used as underground churches by Christians fearing Turkish invasions. From mid-June through mid-September Serio is at La Peschiera ("The Fish Pond"), a series of tented white-stucco pavilions accented with Apulia blue, the color of wisteria, at the hotel's private beach a few miles down the coast. Guerra, true to form, has just opened eleven guest rooms at La Peschiera, each one facing both the beach and a new Olympic-size pool. At both restaurants guests are greeted by several members of the wonderful and winning Guerra family.
Antipasti can easily ruin a meal. Here antipasti can easily—and should—be most of a meal, because they include many of Apulia's vegetable specialties. At a late-spring Trappeto supper Serio sent out warm narrow slices of what he called an onion calzone—not like the big pillows we think of but a flat covered pie with a thin yeast crust made with wine and olive oil and a filling of spring onions, olives, capers, anchovies, tomatoes, and wild fennel. Every ingredient in the filling was local. The fruity olive oil, powerful enough to make clear why it is a folk medicament (I considered each crisp tarallo, a small baked bread ring fragrant with olive oil, a step toward a therapeutic dose), is pressed from the olives of the hotel's trees, and in summer many of the vegetables come from the hotel's garden. The antipasti platter included razor-thin slices of zucchini sautéed with darkened bits of garlic and garnished with vinegar and mint; orange-yellow peppers baked with bread crumbs and grated sheep's-milk cheese; deep-fried wedges of floured artichoke; and sporchie, fat purple wild asparagus that grows near the roots of fava plants. Even so, I had to have a second piece of the onion calzone.
Little twists and "cherries" of fresh mozzarella come with the antipasti, having been delivered that day from a town a few miles away; on Saturdays a cheese maker sets up a table in one corner of the restaurant and passes out warm, just-made mozzarella. On this trip I came to the heretical conclusion that buffalo-milk mozzarella, which I tasted at several farms south of Naples that are reputed to make some of the country's best examples, is overrich—buffalo milk has twice the fat content of cow's milk—and monotonous. The cow's-milk version at Il Trappeto was lightly chewy and impeccably sweet, with a tiny hint of refreshing acidity.
You can, of course, also have meat and fish. But after those antipasti I wouldn't want any main course other than the classic Apulian dish of the poor—fave e cicorie, a golden fava-bean puree like floury mashed potatoes with a more focused flavor, served with braised greens similar to escarole. This is food to play with: you're expected to mash the greens into the puree, and to mix it all with a thread of olive oil poured from the cruet that comes beside the dish.
Or you can follow the antipasti with a bowl of ciceri e tria, the pasta and chickpeas that had such a powerful effect on me, in a broth so rich in taste that I was sure it was twice-cooked poultry stock with perhaps a spoonful of meat glaze. Instead, Serio told me, it was simply water and the juice of the onions he had used as the base: another dish of the poor made rich by the Apulian sun and soil.
Il Trappeto, Monopoli, 011-39-080-6909111. Open October to early June, 8:00 P.M. to midnight Tuesday through Saturday, 12:30 P.M. to 3:00 P.M. Sunday. Closed Monday. La Peschiera, Monopoli, 011-39-080-801066. Open every day from mid-June to mid-September, 12:30 P.M. to 3:00 P.M. and 8:00 P.M. to midnight. Reservations and credit cards accepted.