Haley’s Travels: phenomenal cuisine in Italy

The church in Matera, melting into the cliffs at night.

Rehoboth Beach restaurateur Matt Haley, after extensive travels in Tibet and India, made his way to Italy to sample the art, culture and cuisine.  His next few blogs will focus on his experiences in Italy. Timing wise, these next few blogs were all written before Thanksgiving. All of the writing and photographs are his.

Matera, Basilicata Region, Italy

Getting to Matera was easy. Just a few turns from Rome off A-1 south, but it was four hours: four great hours of driving through the inland mountains off southern Italy in the Basilicata region. Winding roads, muted fall colors, orchards and ancient hilltop towns. It is amazing how much open space there is in Italy.  I didn’t expect that.

A look at one of the roads from the balcony of the Sextancio Hotel.

Driving into Matera I was a little taken back. It was beautiful but I had read that it was more than Rome historically, but without the tourists and driving in it looked contemporary modern. I drove through the streets until I saw the signs that directed me to the neighborhood called “Sassi.” After a few turns I was in history. The town went back thousands of years. It was like watching an old movie. Coincidentally, I found out later it is where they shot the movie “Passion of Christ.”

The city of Matera.

It was beautiful. The entire town seemed to be carved out of a mountainside. At the top was an ancient church with a beautiful temple lit up by the sunset, with caves on the backside of the town, across a large ravine from our hotel. The ravine resembled a small Grand Canyon.

I knew I was in for a treat when I could not find the hotel because it had no sign. The Hotel Sextancio is the brainchild of a German winemaker whose family owns Italian wineries. He has developed a model for investing in old Italian villages that are losing their commerce to the big cities and easier tourist attractions. Some of the rooms in this hotel were over a thousand years old: rebuilt caves in the side of a hillside village turned into a five-star hotel.

The dining room at Sextancio.

So no sign. I had to have the women from the lobby come down to the street to show me up the winding stone staircase. Once up top I knew it would get better because the restaurant had no name and the dining room was a thousand years old too.

I spent a day in Matera and it was great. One afternoon I chatted with a man who showed me how to really eat bruschetta. With fresh-toasted ciabatta, he drizzled local olive oil and sea salt on the crunchy top then explained how the only way to finish it was by biting the top of a fresh picked cherry tomato and squeezing it on the top then eating it. He finished with a nice dry white wine; I, a glass of fresh-squeezed apple juice.

Beef Carpaccio at El Bottegha.

I had a phenomenal meal at “el Bottegha” one night. Fresh carpaccio of beef, orrechetti with chickory and bread crumbs, white bean mash and kale, finished with a hot chocolate cake. But the real dinner was the second night at Sextancio.

This may be the best meal ever. Please remember I said this and can’t take it back. I was with Bry and we walked into this cave dining room that was purely lit with candles and sat down at a table and were fed family style. The table looked like it was made by an apostle a LONG time ago. On the table (like the rooms) was all handmade linens indigenous to the area, candles, flowers and hand-pounded silverware. We enjoyed ricotta and mozzarella made within an hour of service followed by fresh-made cavatelli pasta with local squashes, fried zucchini, eggplant involtini stuffed with fresh marscapone, bread balls (like meatballs) poached in tomato ragu, sliced local hams, salumis and cured sausages and fresh squash blossoms sauteed with squash. The cheese was so fresh I felt like the cow was sitting right next to me.

When I was finished I asked our server, who was also our desk lady and housekeeper, if I could meet the chef if he or she wasn’t busy. After all I really did feel like I just experienced the most all-around, authentic better meal of my life. She replied ” it was me.” At that moment, without a second thought, it all made sense to me. A chef could not have produced that meal. Only a great granddaughter of a great grandmother who has passed down those recipes in a small village town in southern Italy using the same products from the same hillsides for all that time.

Enough said. I am trying to get Elizabeth to come to America to reproduce that dinner on a farm next fall with Lupo Di Mare.

Bry and Matt in the lobby of the Sextancio with chef Elizabeth, the inn keeper, and Oliver the security dog.

Laundry. A staple in every window in town.

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