Michele Roberts samples trattorie in southern Italy
On our trip to Italy, exercise involved walking between restaurants
Helen and I, niece and aunt, went away for a long weekend in southern Italy to do research. This involved eating lots of delicious dishes in various trattorie in Brindisi, Lecce and Otranto. It's a fattening job, but someone's got to do it. We did take exercise: we walked between restaurants.
Our best lunch was in Lecce, in a chance-found trattoria irresistibly called Lilith. First, we drank our aperitivi on the terrace of a quiet backstreet cafe surrounded by terracotta pots of flowering jasmine. Rosato vino was served alongside plates of black olives and loop-shaped, fennel-scented biscuits called taralli. It was Sunday morning: the flock of children dressed in white, whom we'd seen earlier in Santa Croce, making their First Holy Communions, poured past us, whooping and teasing. Their smartly dressed parents strolled behind. The next sacrament took place inside the restaurant and - you've guessed it - featured female celebrants. A team of two, mother and grandmother, did the cooking. We watched them through the hatch as they dashed to and fro with frying pans. The father waited at table, helped by his young son and daughter.
Inside, Lilith was small, cool and dark; its green-plastered walls were painted with a Greek key pattern at ceiling height. We tried the antipasti della casa, and found we needed nothing more. Plate after little plate arrived. Sweet yellow peppers stewed with onion and a dash of vinegar; grilled courgette strips, very thin, charred black; aubergine slices rolled up with bacon and herbs and then deep-fried in an egg-and-cheese batter; bruschetta with rocket and chopped raw tomato; octopus with peas; tiny slices of artichoke torta; marinaded anchovies. After this, it was just as well that the house speciality, turchinieddi, a Sicilian dish of wrapped grilled offal, was finished. Instead, we toyed with lunette, moon-shaped pasta served with fried sage leaves and melted butter. We'd ordered a green salad to follow, but couldn't eat it. The smiling, flushed cooks came out to shake hands. Our thank yous seemed completely inadequate.
The idea, in Otranto, was to take a long, brisk, healthy walk along the seashore. Arriving later than planned, we persuaded the kindly guardian of the cathedral to keep the doors open long enough for us to admire the magnificent mosaic floor depicting a surreal Creation of fantastic beasts, most of whom were nibbling or guzzling one another. Then we began our walk. Oh look, said Helen: there's a nice restaurant down there on the seashore. Fishy antipasti this time.
I remembered the mermaid we'd admired, curvaceous and curly-haired, holding her split tail in her hands, smiling joyfully, in the centre of the cathedral floor. Eating a carpaccio, paper-thin, of squid with lemon, I could imagine just how she felt.