Alf in Italy – Lunch at il Vecchio Forno – BarlettaOct 25, 2016
Rubbing the foot of the Colosso di Barletta certainly brought us luck. Of course luck does not just happen; it needs to be encouraged to happen. This day in Barletta it is Paola’s friend Beppe who encourages fortune to surprise and delight us. He has arranged lunch for us at Vecchio Forno, a restaurant specialising in Pugliese seafood. Like most Italians he believes, no, beyond mere belief, he knows that food of his region is exceptionally good. In fact it is the best in the world. As he often says, “Nel mondo!” Of course he thinks that this is a self-evident truth but just to make sure that the visiting Australian appreciates this he is taking us to his favourite restaurant.
The specialty here is sparkling fresh seafood. When your life is shared with a Pescarese your experience of the variety of flavours from the ocean is expanded. Sea creatures you never thought of eating will become part of your normal diet. When Sandra dumps market shopping bags on the kitchen bench I watch wide eyed for today’s surprise to be unwrapped. Will it be a big bony headed gurnard to flavour the stock for a fish soup? Or perhaps it is tiny Lakes Entrance school prawns to marinate in oil and lemon juice to eat whole, no peeling or cooking required, or mussels in the half shell to stuff and quickly grill, or the sweetest, most tender, very small cuttlefish for a fish casserole. Periwinkles? “I can’t get sea snails so I’ll find a recipe for Lumache di Mare and use these instead.” This is so different from the deep fried flake and chips and a sixpenny potato cake of my childhood. And an even greater distance from my mother’s boiled smoked cod with parsley sauce, a milk and cornflour sludge flecked with chopped curly parsley, more like wallpaper paste than any self-respecting sauce. I loathed it. But now I have passed a sort of matriculation of taste and the fish section is my favourite part of the market. If it lives in the sea and is edible I want to taste it. There are many Australians who are still at the “I like a nice piece of grilled salmon” stage of fish eating. Vecchio Forno is not for them.
The first incarnation of this restaurant was in an ancient bakery, so the name; Vecchio Forno – literally old oven. Today it is in an ancient building opposite the wonderful Palazzo della Mara in Via Cialdini. As there are ten of us Beppe has booked us the large table in the cellar so we can dine in private. The thing to order here is the seafood antipasto, a selection of an incredible variety so fresh that I think it could still swim if tossed back into the water. Most of what is placed in front of us is crudo, raw and dressed minimally with an economic touch of oil and vinegar. I’m impatient to begin but Hamish and Tonie are regarding the food with the same suspicion as the nice salmon eaters would. Hamish has had an allergic reaction to seafood in the past so we can understand his wariness. The most confronting item for them seems to be the whole raw fish, thinly sliced and still with its head on. It’s still bright eyes seem to regard us with suspicion.
We walk through the restaurant and descend to the vaulted honey coloured stone walled cellar. On the way we inspect the cantina which is stocked with the best of Italian wines: Super Tuscans, Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello and the rest. But we are not here for the wine. Seating ourselves around the table we wait for lunch. It arrives fresh, sweet and salty direct from the sea, dressed with oil and accompanied by wedges of lemon to complete its baptism. Platters are distributed between us, wine is poured and Focaccia Barese is placed at hand to mop up any juices from the fish. There are scampi to be peeled with your fingers, tiny sweet mussels, meatier larger ones and two different types of clams. Sparkling with freshness they all smell and taste of the sea. Now here’s a plate of octopus and once again it is so simply prepared with just the addition of fruity olive oil, pepperoncino and parsley that the true flavour of the octopus is all that meets the tongue.
Beppe has a plate of neonate, this means newborn, which in this case refers to tiny translucent recently hatched fish. Their only recognisable features are two minuscule, very black eyes. Again crudo, just with a squeeze of lemon juice to highlight the flavour. These are a classic Pugliese antipasto delicacy and as they are just past the larval stage of development, eaten whole and uncooked, another challenge for the nice piece of salmon eaters.
Next we have paccheri with an octopus ragu’. The ragu’ has been slowly simmered until the sauce is dark, unctuous and rich and the octopus is meltingly tender. Paccheri are large cylindrical dried pasta that hold the ragu’ perfectly. The sauce coats and flows into the hollow of the tube so the eater gets the full flavour of the dish with every forkful. Now every Pescarese knows that it’s wrong to put cheese together with seafood. This is a culinary crime that is almost as horrific as putting pineapple on pizza or cream in a carbonara. And here we have an octopus ragu’ with a generous snow of grated pecorino. Sandra brings a doubtful forkful to her mouth. She tastes. It is not horrible! It is quite delicious. Being ignorant about these rules I blissfully enjoy the rich, robust flavours.
Beppe has succeeded wonderfully in showing us how good the seafood of Puglia can be and how justified he is in his regional pride to think that this is the best you can get. More than this Beppe has given the Australians at lunch an insightful lesson in Italian food. Not only is it regional, but more importantly it is based on the highest quality ingredients simply prepared. At this particular meal prepared is the key word. Sometimes the ingredients are so perfect in themselves that they are best eaten raw.
Sandra was so delighted with the paccheri with octopus ragu’ that she was determined to recreate it at home, a difficult task given that it is not possible to source the exact same ingredients in Australia. The recipe for her near as dammit version is on her recipe blog. Try it. You will be transported to Barletta.
Follow me, AKA Sandra’s husband, on my journeys in Italy as this sometimes bewildered Anglo-Saxon tries to understand this beautiful, complex, contradictory, frustrating and absolutely fascinating country.
(Written by Alf)