In the Mood for Italy

by Sally Hammond

I am pining for Italy and its food - but I have a cure for it.

I want to share a passage from my book Just a Little Italian (published by New Holland Publishers, 2008) about a trip we took through southern Italy a few years ago. High in the mountains of Basilicata (the instep of Italy's boot-shaped peninsula) we discovered a fairytale town where we were served a surprise meal - possibly the best one of our trip.

The road takes us higher and higher, then delivers a scene straight from a fairytale. Below us, Castelmezzano lies tucked in the palm of a mountain's cupped hand. Tall bare peaks, said to be 15 million years old, extend like stony fingers far above the simple tiled roofs of the houses which are packed together, clutched tightly by the rocks. Beyond is an abyss it seems, before intensely forested folds of more mountains swell off to infinity.

It is as thrilling as it is sinister. At any moment, those rocks could turn from protector to avenger. Yet as we corkscrew down the road, now, stopping far too often to take picture after picture from every angle - so besotted are we with this unbelievable place - it becomes less like a fantasy. Sounds float up, ordinary noises: barking dogs, children playing, a church bell, motors revving, slowly becoming less surreal.

Once we reach the town we  can see it has been slotted in quite neatly, carefully wedged over and amongst the rocks, with some homes left to clamber the cliffs. Those roofs are not all tiles, either. Many are covered with sheets of sandstone, while the houses' walls are painted cream and yellow, or left grey to match the rocks above. Window boxes and lines of washing add all the normality we need.

These razor-sharp rocks were ancient even when the town began as a Lombard fortress. It was later occupied by the Saracens, destroyed, then passed on to the Normans a thousand years ago with the building of a castle. No wonder all craved it. It occupies, after all, the ideal defensive position.

As we lean on a railing and look across the town, sunlight paints the flat faces of those angled pinnacles, our eyes follow a line of sharp-tipped bare peaks, marching across the valley like a stone picket fence to another town. It's even higher and more remote with an immense ridge of rock that seems to plunge from the top of the mountain, driving like a shard into its very heart. Pietrapertosa. Its name means 'pierced rock.'

A thin road heads off from Castelmezzano towards it, improbably tacked onto the rock face, then far below last seen disappearing into a tunnel. Just considering the dangerous feat of engineering needed to accomplish this makes my toes tingle.

Yet Castelmezzano presents itself more like a child's play town, full of winding steps and hidden stairways, hiding spots and hollows. It is inhabited by fewer than a thousand people who possibly never think twice about it. Their families, most likely, have lived here forever. Yet its unique attraction easily makes it onto Italy's list of I Borghi Più Belli d'Italia, the most beautiful villages of Italy.

It is lunchtime, so we decide to eat in the town, choosing for no reason at all, the Hotel Dolomiti that resembles a chalet from the outside. Inside, the dim shadowy dining room totally empty of people, does not look to me like the place for a memorable meal. In the gloom I can just make out pistols and shields mounted on the walls in an attempt to give a hunting lodge ambience. When our host comes to greet us, dressed casually in a red Polo-shirt, I wonder should we have gone somewhere else for lunch?

I am so glad we didn't.

We order a plate of pasta each from the menu. It's lunch time, we're travelling, and we are not confident about what we might  receive here - three excellent reasons to eat lightly.

Within minutes our host brings us out surprise number one.

"Bruschetta", he announces proudly, although this is no ordinary bruschetta. Thin slices of country bread have been lightly toasted, drizzled with olive oil and - here's the real thrill - topped with wafer thin slices of fresh black truffles. We can't believe our eyes.

Our pasta arrives next, as ordered, no ordinary dish either. Handmade fusili, prepared by rolling the fresh dough around thick wires, is al dente and sublime, paired with a tasty sugo studded with chunks of local sausage.

"Signore, what is your name?" we ask when he hurries back. It is obvious he is chef and waiter combined, and no doubt hotel manager too.

"Giovanni."

"Giovanni, who?" we ask.

"Just Giovanni."

We thank him profusely and ask for the bill. He reacts as if we have insulted him. It is plain he doesn't think we have finished yet.

"Formaggio?" he enquires, "Frutta?" then without waiting for a proper reply he bustles off.

Moments later he reappears with a small plate holding a round of pecorino cheese and half a dozen purple pickled onions, the size of olives. The cheese has been heated just enough to render the centre meltingly liquid, the outside slightly crusty. The acid-sweetness of the onions provides a perfect foil.

I am sure now that I have entered an alternative reality, and nothing could improve it - until he returns yet again. This time he has in his hands a plate of green-skinned, honey-fleshed FIGS and two crostoli, wafer-thin fried pastry strips anointed with a drizzle of honey. The man's a mind reader!

Giovanni, his labours over for the day - it is hardly likely anyone else will come here for lunch today - spends some time with us, now, showing us the dining room and talking about the town. As our eyes have adjusted to the gloom, we now make out a boar's head and row of bottles over the mantelpiece, and a TV in the far corner.

"We have many day-trippers come here from Bari," he tells us, "especially on the weekends in truffle season, from September to November and again in March. Here, we use dogs to find them."

"Do you know where to find truffles here," I ask boldly.

"Oh, yes, of course," he replies, tapping the side of his nose in the way Italians do when they mean "but it's a secret".

Giovanni obviously loves to cook, and he has sensed a like soul in me. He was born here, he tells us, trained for two years in Switzerland, then, tugged by nostalgia for this unique place, returning to take over this hotel 33 years ago.

Later, I see that there was another road which we could have taken to visit  the other town, Pietrapertosa, higher at 1100 metres, and some say even more devastatingly beautiful.

I am not swayed. Castelmezzano has more than satisfied me in every way.

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