Toby Sawday: Italy without a guidebook
I've always known that a guidebook is a poor substitute for tips dished out by a local. So, to test my theory, I've arrived in Puglia without one, but with a list of Sawday's Special Places to Stay and a hope that the people who run them would point me in the right direction. And how right I was.
We arrived late on our first night at Masseria la Rascina, a much-tarted up farmstead run by Leonie and Paolo who've become adopted Apulians. They quickly put a call in to a local restaurant to grab us a table, recommended their favourite dishes and pointed us down the darkened road. The place, La Taverna da Maurizio, is an inconspicuous, dull-looking roadside spot, but was still buzzing with families and couples, the pizza oven still ablaze and the owner still passing between tables to stop and talk with old regulars. The food was divine. Fresh pasta with scampi, a blistered pizza with fresh mozzarella and basil. Yet there's no way we would have stopped here had we not been told of it.
Over breakfast the next morning, another 48 hours of meals and trips were planned out. Paolo opened his drawer to pull out handfuls of cards for local bars, restaurants, beachside cafes. They've eaten in each (they make a point of checking out each new place that opens) and know the rituals. At the Osteria del Tempo Perso, a cave-like dining room behind the Cathedral in hilltop Ostuni, we were told to go wild on the antipasti but leave just a little room for a small pasta dish. At the other, we should go for the fish and nothing else. They were right every time.
There's no chance a guidebook, written two years ago by a single author and limited by what she could find out herself, could possibly offer up these little secrets. By definition, it will be out of date and designed for a wide audience, not for you.
Instead, our conversations with Leonie and Paolo have given us the insider's guide, tailored to us, and slap bang up to date. And there's a good chance that, if you were to stay with them, you'd get an entirely different set of pointers.
Next up, an organic farm, Masseria il Frantoio, where the meals are something of a legend.
Photo of Ostuni, istock.com/Alessandroi