By Roberta Muir
Photography Franz Scheurer
Our Best Meals in Italy were in Matera
From Roberta’s Travel Diary
On our first night we dine at Baccanti (a recommendation from Sabino, a Melbourne importer of Italian foods from Puglia), a groovy cave setting, chic instead of clichéd, with good service and refined food. I start with an excellent budino of ricotta topped with a small splodge of rich, oily tomatoes and capsicum. Franz has foie gras which makes him very happy. My next dish involves the find of the trip black chickpeas (ceci neri) blended into a nutty puree underneath baccala; we’re intrigued by the colour and nuttiness. Franz’s pasta is broken wide ribbons coated in a broadbean puree (pulses are popular in Basilicata), scattered with deep-fried pepperoni cruschi; mine is also a wide ribbon (lagana), with local mushrooms in a slightly viscous tomato sauce - both are plate-lickingly good. Franz then had a horse T-bone steak and throughout the meal we drank a pinot nero from Alto Adige. A lemon sorbet ‘affogato’ with white chocolate was served in a groovy square glass set inside a larger, ice-filled square glass.
Baccanti was probably the best meal of the trip, and we were tempted to go back the following night, but were also keen to explore further and so opted to try the Hotel Sant’ Angelo restaurant, also a cave carved out of the soft tufa, though not quite as smart as Baccanti. The actual menu was more limited than the display one we’d been shown at breakfast and initially we were disappointed, but soon settled in to enjoy the experience. Crisp pettole (deep-fried chickpea dough), some with anchovy in the centre (like Calabrian zippole), were a complimentary snack.
The legume theme continues with a ‘pasta e fagoli’ of broadbean puree with wild chicory, capunti pasta and beans, it’s slightly spicy and delicious! For main course I have a thin, plate-sized slice of local provolone whose name translates as ‘back of the donkey’ (perhaps, like cacciocavallo, because it’s aged in pairs hung across a rod like a pair of saddle bags), it’s drizzled with local honey and served with a salad of iceberg and sorrel and is more interesting than memorable. Franz has fried eggs scrambled with salsicce with a whole pepperoni cruschi on top. We drink a local Aglianico from Cantina Venosa and finish with a torrone semifreddo.
The next morning we have breakfast in the same restaurant and the lovely waitress arranges the traditional local dish cialledda for us to try, it’s dry bread soaked in oil and water with chopped tomatoes, cucumber, greens and lemon - tangy, tasty and filling, this rustic dish, a good way to use stale bread, may have been introduced by Arabs as gazpacho was in Spain. The coffee’s excellent and the blood orange juice is good and fresh as are the pastries and tomato foccacia and bruschetta on the breakfast buffet.
But my favourite dish of the trip was a lunch pasta at I Due Sassi, a very unprepossessing trattoria just up the road from Hotel Sant’ Angelo with good hospitality. We wandered in after our big walk around the town, hungry and tired and a little worried that we were the only guests. We were given four deep-fried balls of dough as a starter - hot, crisp, airy and good, they were our introduction to pettole. Then came small plates of the salty fried potatoes and oily local wild onions that we’d ordered. Franz’s pan-fried salsicce was good and my orrechiette with cima di rape, pepperoni cruschi and crisp breadcrumbs was one of my great pasta moments! A 250ml carafe of primitivo completed the meal and we wandered back out into the sunshine content with the world.
Here’s a bit of background on Matera:
Matera started as a Paleolithic troglodyte settlement. On one side of a deep ravine are the 2 ‘sassi’ where homes have been carved out of tufa caves, while ancient churches have been fashioned out of the caves on the opposite side. Mel Gibson used Matera as Jerusalem to film The Passion of The Christ. The first sight of the sassi is wondrous!
We stay at the small, smart Hotel Sant’ Angelo beside Piazza San Pietro Caveoso ~ our room looks over the wide sweeping ravine and cave churches on the other side, the Romanesque-Baroque Chiesa San Pietro and, carved out of the rock above it, Chiesa di Santa Maria d’Idris.
It’s a steep climb up to Chiesa di Santa Maria d’Idris which is dug into Mount Errone (“the Idris rock”) just above San Pietro Caveoso. a narrow corridor leads through to another church, San Giovanni in Monterrone, which has well preserved frescoes dating back to the 1300s - until a few years ago it was used as a crypt.
On our first full day in Matera we throw cameras around our necks and walk for 3 hours - up the hill past San Pietro to the ‘new town’ at the top of the hill, a charming mix of old and new with a very ornate gilded cathedral. Further on we reach Sassi Barisano, the larger and better restored of Maratea’s two sassi, then down hill winding through narrow stair ways we somehow pop out opposite the ravine just up the hill from Hotel Sant’ Angelo.
We head back up the street beside San Pietro in search of local foods and find Sapori dei Sassi - a wonderful provedore selling pepperoni cruschi (dried sweet chillies), the wonderful ceci neri (black chickpeas) which I’d had at dinner last night, small red-skinned eggplants preserved in oil, pasta, dried beans, preserved mushrooms - I could go quite crazy here ... and do. Best of all we manage to get it all home except for our precious ceci neri which customs take.
In the afternoon we go through the arch beside the church and wander along the edge of the ravine up and down narrow stairways past old abandoned cave dwellings. We visit an old cave house that’s been preserved furnished as it would have been when a family lived here until the late 1950s. It’s much more sophisticated than I expected (compared to the ‘black houses’ of the Outer Hebrides).
Leaving Matera we drove around to the other side of the ravine and the Parco Archeologico Storico Naturale della Murgia e delle Chiese Rupestri del Materano (Murgia & Matera rock churches natural history & archaeological park), where there are over 150 churches carved into the soft rock and the sweeping view back to Matera puts where we’ve been into context.
Hotel Sant’ Angelo
Piazza San Pietro
75100 Matera, Italy
Tel. +39 0835 314010
75100 Matera, Italy
+39 0835 333 704
Trattoria I Due Sassi
Via Ospedale Vecchio
75100 Matera, Italy
Tel.: +39 0835 331 916