I've written a lot about the pasta, the many vegetable dishes, and cheese of Puglia, but seafood is as big a part of Pugliese cuisine as those other dishes. The heel of Italy's boot, the region of Puglia is a smaller peninsula of the larger peninsula that is the bel paese. Salento is surrounded by water three sides, and the freshest fish and shellfish are only minutes away from any city. I spent an afternoon in the kitchen of, Ristorante Donna Lisa, where seafood dishes are their specialty. We watched the chef, Lino, cook up many of the restaurant's dishes, and sampled them, too.
It's not all seafood, vegetarian and meat dishes are also on a long menu that consists of 30 primi piatti (pasta and risotto dishes), 20 secondi (main dishes), antipasti galore and a wine list that boasts over 100 wines, coming not only from Puglia but other parts of Italy and a few from France.
The Salento city of Maglie, as my friend Ylenia explained it, is the most chicest in all of Puglia. Both men and women are clad head to high-heeled toe in designer names, Italian designers that is. I watched fashionistas glide over the city's cobblestone and uneven walkways in, men in suits and shiny leather shoes and stiletto-heeled women in shades of black and grey. Not only a city for the stylish, Maglie is a food city, host to one of the most popular food & wine festivals in Salento, the Mercantino del Gusto every August.
Not far from the piazza where the Mercantino del Gusto is held is the restaurant. The entrance is the 5th century courtyard of Leccese stone, that also doubles as the outdoor dining area. The interior dining area is adorned in a contemporary palette of black, grey and white. Even the breakfast "caffetteria," a not-so traditional Italian coffee bar, has a crystal chandelier.
It's a family-run restaurant that Chef Lino opened 4 years ago, after having worked at another restaurant for 20 years. His son, Vincenzo, is the main waiter and Anna Lisa, his daughter, the hostess. Chef Lino handles all orders for first and second courses and the antipasti plates that are cooked to order. Besides his son and daughter, he had two ladies in the back that help with prep, plating, and dish washing. A small crew for the 100 cover restaurant, yet I was the only person frantic in the back of the kitchen, as I observed lunch service and scribbled down notes and between samples.
It was a live cooking demonstration of sorts, as we watched him prepare dish after dish, as the orders came in. As he cooked he explained ingredients that made up each dish and peppered in a few of his cooking tips as side notes. One being that he liked to cook the pasta in water for only about 4 minutes, then added it to the sauce to let it finish cooking there. This allows the pasta to take on the flavor of the sauce. He made a penne pasta with radicchio and gorgonzola, explaining that the two strong flavors - the bitterness of the radicchio and the sharpness of the cheese - balance each other out. (This was the second time I'd seen radicchio paired with a strong cheese.)
There was antipasti galore that flew out of the kitchen - shellfish, fried sarde and other small fish, marinated anchovies, succulent salami platters, paper thin slices of grilled vegetables just to name a few. If you can't choose just one, they offer a selection of antipasti, wheeled out to your table on a fancy white cart. We tasted so many that it was impossible to get through three courses. One of my favorites was the stuffed and fried mussels. A cheese and herb stuffing surround the quickly fried mussels. The recipe for these will be in another post, coming soon.
The menu at Donna Lisa includes 30 primi piatti, some a basic as a popular paccheri with julienned vegetables, one of the pasta dishes we tasted, and others more exotic like a risotto with saffron and gold leaf or another risotto with rose petals. Chef Lino made for us one of the seafood fish recipes that can only be found in Salento. It's made with gamberoni testa viola (a violet-headed large shrimp) from the fishing village of Gallipoli.
We had no room for a secondo (main dish), but Donna Lisa offers 20 different secondi on their menu. Grilled and fried fish makes up the majority of those 20. One non-fish dish that I found interesting was a fillet of steak cooked in the local Negromaro wine with onions.
If you're in Salento and want to taste some of the freshest fish cooked both simply and creatively, I suggest you visit Ristorante Donna Lisa. You can see more of the restaurant and hear Anna Lisa talk about the restaurant (in Italian) in this video.
Join me in Puglia in 2013! For this food lover's culinary tour, we'll be cooking with our beautiful Italian mamme and professional chefs. We'll also be eating and exploring our way through the region. There are four tour dates available from which to choose! For tour details, check out this page: Culinary Tours in Puglia 2013!
***Early booking discount: Book and pay by check by January 31, 2013 and receive a $200 discount off the tour price.****
Ristorante Donna Lisa
Phone: +39 0836 311 865
Open 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner, except Sunday for dinner.
The menu is a la carte, but a three-course meal averages 40 euros, without wine.