For me, there is absolutely nothing more enjoyable on earth than spending Sundays here in the Bel Paese. On this day of the week, Italians, one and all, gather around la tavola (table) with family and friends for a long, leisurely pranzo (lunch) that begins under full sun and continues through the waning light of a pastel-colored sunset.
This being Sunday, here I am with Orna O’Reilly, curator of Orna O’Reilly: Travelling Italy, along with my vacationing sister and her husband — just in from Phoenix, AZ — at one of our favorite restaurants: La Terrazza, an upscale seafood kitchen in laid-back Torre Santa Sabina along the Adriatic coast of the Salento in the Puglia region of southeastern Italy.
With postcard-perfect views out to sea, La Terrazza is one of those memorable locales to while away a Sunday afternoon savoring the slow food of Puglia in the company of like-minded epicureans.
Met at the front door by brothers Mimmo, owner/chef, and Valentino, head waiter/sommelier, warm embraces are exchanged and we’re escorted by Veronica, our server, to a table with an unfettered view of Torre Santa Sabina’s quaint little bay.
Glasses of Prosecco are poured, a toast is made (Cin cin!) and then we begin to study the menu, translating the offerings to our out-of-town guests while smacking our lips.
Today, our party-of-four is in luck, as Chef Mimmo recently unveiled a few new tasty items to his already mouthwatering menu and insists that we sample them all. No arm-twisting required, we all nod in the affirmative and our slow-food Sunday begins.
We leave the wine selection in the capable hands of Valentino who highly recommends a Verdeca, an IGT-rated varietal from the Terrecarsiche Estate in Castellana Grotte near Bari. This Valle d’Itria harvested white is fragrant to the nose and intense, but pleasant to the palate. It’s the perfect pairing for the fish-based bounty we are about to receive.
For starters, we share antipasti La Terrazza, a parade of ten different dishes, many of them amplified by Mimmo’s creative twist to tried-and-true regional fare. There’s marinated salmon tartare, burrata cheese, radicchio and ginger; fresh octopus in a tangy bell pepper sauce topped with crispy sheets of phyllo dough; a sushi of squid, cardoncelli mushrooms, red onions of Tropea and sweet-and-sour raisins; baked cuttlefish, artichokes and red onion; ovals of monkfish embedded with hazelnuts and placed on a tomato and carrot gazpacho; tempura of sardines; baked vegetable tarts with turmeric; fresh calamari atop a purée of fave (broad) beans; fried artichokes with fennel and pecorino accented with a potato and turmeric sauce; and, last, but not least, pepata di cozze, steamed mussels in a peppery broth.
To add insult to injury, we tackle one of the house’s signature, first-course dishes: risotto alla pescatora (fisherman’s rice). The grain is al dente with just the right amount of fresh mussels, clams, calamari and shrimp dotting the creamy landscape topped with a sprig of parsley.
Misery loves company, so we’re all in for a second course of mixed grilled seafood fished straight out of the nearby Adriatic and Ionian Seas: tuna, swordfish, scampi and calamari, along with sides of grilled veggies and French fries. Dig in, or, if you prefer, dive in!
We’re offered a look at the dessert menu, but we collectively wave the white flag. Not wanting us to go away unsatisfied, complimentary slices of homemade crostata alla confettura di albicocche (apricot pie) and glasses of chilled limoncello (lemon liqueur) are placed before us, a gesture that we cannot refuse. And, we close out our four-hour, slow-food marathon with much-needed strong shots of espresso.
The bill paid and a hearty arrivederci exchanged with Mimmo, Valentino and the friendly wait staff, our party-of-four, fully content with the bounty consumed, strolls away from La Terrazza and down the promenade of Torre Santa Sabina under the waning light of the pastel-colored Pugliese sky.
Ah, Sundays in the Bel Paese are a real treat. Only seven more days until we can do this all over again.