Silvestro Silvestori, owner of the cooking school The Awaiting Table, provides us with an almost poetic local guide to Lecce, the coastal gem of Southern Italy.
On your first day here, seeing this is a must: The city of Lecce. Really, the entire city. Yes, there are world-class churches — Santa Croce, il Duomo di Lecce, San Matteo, Santa Chiara — but it’s the purity of architecture that makes Lecce so special. So, in other words, rather than a few architectural stunners, it’s the entire city that amazes, as if you stepped back through a time portal, into the late 1600’s, or the Baroque era, when everything was designed over the top. Further, the entire city is made from really just one material, what we call, la Pietra Leccese, or literally, Lecce stone. A soft, porous local version of sandstone, the entire city is golden, carved into intricate and ornate patterns. It’s considered a national treasure here in Italy. Outside though, it’s virtually unknown. Stroll Lecce at night and you’ll see what all the fuss is about.
But while tourists (95 percent of which are northern and central Italians) come to Lecce for the architecture, they come to the Salento (the regional versus the city) for the prettiest beaches in all of Italy. And some of the best food too, the kind that most of the world wants — the Mediterranean Diet — tasty food that just so happens to be really good for your body.
Most people don’t know this, but to get a true taste of the local culture”… You have to understand that Southern Italy is quite literally a vineyard, vegetable garden and orchard dangling down into the Mediterranean. Anyone that wanted to control the Mediterranean invaded here, using the islands and peninsulas as if they were today’s aircraft carriers. In our case, the biggest foreign influence is Greek. In fact, there are nine towns that even today still speak an ancient form of Greek, thousands of years later.
And even today, many foreigners still get Italy completely wrong, wanting to see the place as a unified country, rather than as countless tiny countries pushed together a hundred and fifty years ago, resisting any sense of cohesion or union, from day one. Talk about the food and wine of the Salento and it’s only partially still true an hour north of here, and two hours north of here, it’s already changed completely.
For a glimpse of daily life, I recommend this form of transportation: Good shoes. Lecce is a great walking city, so leave your car outside of the historic centre. That’s where I live and work and my biggest problem is that my car battery often dies because I forget to drive it enough.
I had my best night’s sleep at: My girlfriend’s summer home, right on the Adriatic. It’s a simple, bare-sandy-feet sort of place, and the calming sound of the sea beats just about anything.
But you can have the same effect by renting a room in Santa Maria di Leuca, Castro, Gallipoli or Otranto, the very beautiful cities that butt up to the two seas that leave three out of four of our “˜borders’, seafront. Watch the sun come up over the sea, drive 30 minutes and watch it set over another. The sense of the sea permeates all aspects of life here.
The meal at this local eatery had me salivating for days: I own and run my own cooking school, so I eat and drink pretty well at home. But when I do go out, I seek non-traditional dishes. There are food trucks just outside the historical centre that serve grilled horsemeat sandwiches with French fries right inside the slices of bread. A couple of cold beers and a horse meat sandwich, sitting at the outdoor tables with a couple of hundred others is a simple but profound pleasure, and a nice antidote to the traditional food and wine of the Salento.
Best place to find artisan handicrafts: The historic centre of Lecce. The Salento’s historic isolation turned the historic centre into something of an artistic community: paper machÃ¨ statuaries, ceramic whistles, handmade leather goods, high-quality linens, paintings, ceramics — and on and on and on… The fact that we have a really good academia delle belle arti (the national art academy, housed in a former cloister), and a large university, makes Lecce something of a bubble of high culture in an otherwise agrarian region. Walk any street in Lecce and you’ll find bottega after bottega of someone working on something, all done by hand at a very intricate level.
Local celebration not to be missed: No question, San Martino, the festival of San Martin, where everyone gets drunk on the new wine released the day before, and then eats lots and lots of meat — your own grandmother gets tipsy and tucks into a plate of sausages that would give gout to Henry the 8th. It’s sort of the Thanksgiving of the region, and as a school we rent a castle for the week, with live local music. But around the region come San Martino, you’ll find kitchens filled with 12 or 15 people crowded around tables, long after the chairs have been filled, and someone has resolved to sit on an upturned crate or your kid sister’s upside down laundry hamper. It’s telling that in Italian that “˜feast’ and “˜party’ are the same word, “˜festa.’ San Martino: the most fun you can have that still involves doing major damage to your spleen.
Favorite pastimes: I love to bicycle wine country. In fact, I close my school each year to bicycle Southern Italy — Sicily, Calabria, Basilicata and all of Puglia, back down to Lecce — for two months. Each year I call the trip “˜research’ for our Southern Italian wine programme, but it’s really an excuse to bicycle what I believe to be the prettiest part of the world, only to discuss wine and wine making with my heroes, each year. I happen to believe that the heavens made the grape favour the prettiest parts of the planet, and as a pleasant byproduct, the relationships between the coast, sea, forest, mountain and even volcanoes, still enchants to no end. I’m giddy about next year’s trip while still high on this year’s. The fact that I’m a nationally certified sommelier here in Italy makes the trip seem less like a self-indulgence. I’ve done it seven years now and each year it keeps getting better. Salento and Puglia in general are great for bicycling. Bicycle the coasts for a few hours and you’ll feel stoned from the glee.
Most ludicrous stereotype of the people here: So many think that Southern Italians are all farmers or fishermen, when there are many more college graduates in the South than in the North. There is also a lot of old money, and a very high standard of living here. In Lecce, most everyone I know has a law degree, whether they happen to practice or not. And if you consider Catania, Palermo, Napoli, Lecce and Bari, a case could be made that Southern Italy is where Italy sends its children to study. For example, the university here in Lecce is famous for its nanotechnology, a fact that surprises most Northerners that I speak with.
The art/music scene is alive and well here: Lecce is a college town, so there is no shortage of live music. Plus, it has a huge opera season in the winter months, and great weather the rest of the year, for outdoor concerts. I bet not a week has passed in the last ten years where I haven’t heard some great music, outdoors, for free, or something close to it. We also have a Roman era amphitheatre (like the coliseum in Roma) and concerts or dance recitals here are a special treat.
Where the locals get tipsy: There is a row of upscale wine bars down at the feet of Santa Croce, five or six in a row, each spilling over with wine lovers. It’s only a thirty second walk from my school, so I often take the students there for one last glass. The golden stone city at night is something you won’t ever forget.
If I had only 24 hours to explore Lecce I would: Walk the city, to really get a sense of little side streets and the different boroughs set up for the different professions: the printers, the antique dealers, the butchers, the locksmiths. Count the churches. I won’t tell you how many there are but it’s a high number. I’d check out la movida or night life down by porta San Biaggio, the city’s “˜French quarter,’ where everyone spills out of bars and restaurants, filling the streets with night life, gossip, people watching and all the other variations on Southern European life. I’d eat a frisa, drink some negroamaro, catch a free concert in the piazza and then head out to the coast for some midnight swimming; the constant sense of the nearby seas is always colouring the city and region in ways you have to see for yourself.
About Silvestro Silvestori
Silvestro Silvestori teaches regional Southern Italian food at the school he started nearly ten years ago in the historic centre of Lecce, Italy. Graduating in 2010, Silvestro is a nationally-certified sommelier here in Italy, and he closes his school for two months each year to bicycle Southern Italy’s wine country, while writing about it from the road. He teaches those same wines at his Southern Italian wine programme called, Terronia at The New Wine School of Southern Italy. Sign up to receive his food and wine content for free at www.awaitingtable.com. A photographer and a wine journalist, he writes features for Wine & Spirits.
Featured photo by: Dott. Hydruntum