In the blue in Polignano a Mare

I spent a blissful Saturday in Polignano a Mare, walking around the old town on my day off. It’s the next station towards Bari from Monopoli so it only took me a few minutes to get there, although you should check the timetable as trains aren’t very frequent.

The town is famous for a few things, in particular the spectacular construction of the inhabitant’s houses which are built flush with the sea cliffs, and below them the natural sea caves which the waves have cut out of the limestone over the eons. You can take a boat trip to see them if you want to.

Polignano is also the hometown of Domenico Modugno whose famous song ‘Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu’ (‘In the blue painted blue’ aka ‘Volare’) was the 1958 Eurovision entry for Italy, back when they still took part. Most people are probably more familiar with the Dean Martin version. Modugno’s beautiful lyrics were apparently inspired by the vivid natural blues of the sea and sky at Polignano and you can see his ecstatic statue on a clifftop with the Adriatic as its background. I spent the day wandering around the old town looking at the pretty old buildings and taking in the views.

Unfortunately a fair few of my photos didn’t come out well as the sun wasn’t in the best position and I was still learning how to use my camera, apologies for that. There are lots more pretty sights than the few I show here.

I wasn’t planning to do any shopping but I found it hard to walk past Oro Della Terra at 41 Piazza Vittorio Emanuele without stopping in to look at their local food products. The nice lady working there pressed me to taste their De Carlo olive oil www.oliodecarlo.com which was fantastic. I left the shop, walked round the town but just couldn’t get the fragrance and taste out of my head, so I went back and bought four bottles, much to her amusement! I’m currently trying to source it in the UK as it really was some of the best I’ve ever had.

The main reason I’d come here though was to eat…

Grotta Palazzese (Advanced B), 59 Via Narciso, www.grottapalazzese.it This is a stunning venue, a hotel perched on the cliffs above a restaurant built into a cave overlooking the sea. This ‘summer cave’ was converted into a banqueting space by a feudal lord in the 1700s and it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever eaten. It’s definitely the kind of place you would go to propose to your loved one. Please click on the images for the best view.

Sadly though, I have to agree with many of the comments on Tripadvisor that it’s overpriced and the food and service are sub-standard. Despite knowing all this I still decided to go to sample the setting. Overall it was a good experience and I wouldn’t want to put anyone off from going, just don’t expect everything to be perfect.

I was ready for some attitude from the waiting staff, especially as I was by myself, wearing jeans and trainers, and clutching a plastic carrier bag full of bottles of olive oil. Instead I caught them on the hop by arriving exactly on time, while some of them were still in a state of undress. Although they tried to tell me they weren’t open, I asked them what their opening time was and pointed out it was one minute past. I hadn’t told them I had a reservation as I was still deciding whether to just have a drink at the bar but I had to play that trump card too when they then tried to tell me they were full (which wasn’t the case as many tables were empty throughout the evening despite it being Saturday).

So with no means left for them to prevent me, I made my way to the bar and befriended the bartender who made me a fairly decent Negroni. Later a less than pleasant waiter tried to seat me at a table where the floor moved every time anyone walked past but a nicer one let me change to a different table further towards the back of the cave, where you can see the waves coming into the lower cavern under you. Tables right next to the rail at the front, overlooking the sea, must be highly coveted so you’d probably have to be popping the question, or be a big tipper, or both, to be seated there.

Not all the staff were arses but I took great pleasure in making the ones that were run around for me constantly, changing dirty cutlery and so on, while giving the nice ones an easy time. The most enjoyable experience though was watching all the colours around me change as the sun began to set and everyone else began to arrive. There was also the great sight of feeding swallows darting in and out of the high roof of the cave, although one silly Englishwoman on an adjoining table thought that they were bats and started freaking out. Fortunately a sax player came out to soothe everyone by playing an instrumental version of Volare on a high ledge above us.

Having established I wasn’t going to take any crap off anyone, in the nicest possible way of course, I prepared to dine. Despite the warnings, I went for the €90 Menu Degustazione which I matched with one of my favourite Campanian wines, the Falanghina Terredora DOC 2011, even though it was overpriced by about a third at €30.

The welcome entrée of a cherry on a cube of raw tuna was actually the best thing they served me (A), probably because it didn’t require any cooking.

The following ‘Burrata di Andria con lo Scampo marinato alla Maggiorana e Riduzione di Negroamaro’, or mozzarella with scampi, courgette flowers and blueberries, with a reduction of a local red wine, was pretty good too (B+).

Sadly things went downhill after that. ‘Busiate Integrali mantecate alla Mousse di fave Bianche, Battuto di scampo e Fava Novella’ or wheat flour pasta (a local speciality) with scampi, broad bean mousse and fresh broad beans was oversalted and overcooked, so I sent it back (D).

They replaced it with a badly-made risotto which was completely unsalted so I had to put the cellar to work. It was watery and the peas in it weren’t fully cooked and I didn’t finish it (C-).

Next the ‘La Variazione del Tonno Pinna Gialla con le Zucchine crispy, Salvia e Fior di Sale alla Vaniglia Bourbon’ or lightly grilled tuna, fried courgettes, sage and salt scented with vanilla Bourbon (?), was badly prepared and completely over salted again.

This started to make me paranoid that the kitchen were taking revenge on me, but it is a salty dish anyway, although too much so even for this big salt lover. It scored a D and I didn’t finish it.

The final ‘Sfera al Riso Soffiato con Chutney di Fragole e Basilico’, or a ‘rice crispy’ strawberry chutney with fresh basil, was unmemorable (C+).

Having burnt out a few waiters with my demands and complaints, Fisher Wanduragala the restaurant manager became my main server. As his name would suggest, although not his seemingly Puglian complexion, he’s actually from Sri Lanka and speaks good English. He fielded my rejections of his kitchen’s food with aplomb and gave me my Negroni and final Amaro di Capo for free, although not the food which I think he should have done. Despite this, I think he actually quite liked the way I’d played them and he even offered to take me on a personal tour of the local area the next day. Sadly I had to work on my day off so we never met up, but it would have been very interesting to have chatted more with him.

After eating I went for a short stroll and an ice cream at Bar Turismo, at 7 Via Sarnelli Pompeo, an old school gelateria recommended by a teacher as being the best in town. Can’t remember what I had except that at my colleague’s suggestion, I had it topped with Panna del Café, or fresh whipped sweet cream, which was delicious (A). The teacher also liked Caruso at 3 Via Martiri di Dogali, which is a bit posher apparently.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Polignano a Mare and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone for a day trip. You don’t have to go to the restaurant I went to, there are plenty of others. A friend liked Osteria de Chichibio www.osteriadichichibio.it 1001 Restaurants You Must Experience Before You Die lists Da Tuccino (but not Grotta Palazzese interestingly). I’m sure there are others.

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