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.