We’ll Have What He’s Cooking

bruschetta

Do-it-yourself bruschetta: tomatoes, basil, and ricotta forte—a tangy spread with a kick.

La Cantina ti L’Artisti, Brindisi, Puglia

Is she saying there’s no menu? We exchanged glances. Something about antipasti, something something primi piatti, something something secondo…no phrase book in the world could keep up with our sweet waitress’s urgency to tell us what they had on offer. But it was clearly not written down. No, no, we eventually understood, we’ll be having whatever the chef is cooking. As if chef and his family had taken it on board to feed those of us unlucky enough not to have a family of our own cooking for us. Cantina A twenty-year-old Brindisi institution, the Cantina ti L’Artisti sits on a narrow street opposite the the Cinema Impero which shows films and presents plays, musicals, fashion shows and just about anything else requiring a venue. The Cantina doesn’t just take its name from the theatre folk who flock in after a performance, the Cantina is also run by a family of artists. Photos of the many happy artistic patrons who have eaten at the Cantina vie with sketches, show posters and musical memorabilia for space on the walls.

Tonight however, we had the place to ourselves as our jet lagged stomachs were insisting on dinner at the ridiculously early hour of 7:45. The theatre crowd would not be in until well after 9 p.m. We succumbed to our waitress’ need to feed us and were meekly led to a table. It was true, there was no menu, the chef was cooking dinner and we were going to have whatever it was he felt like that night. Fantastic. The burden of choosing antipasti, primi and secundo courses fell from our shoulders. That established, we sat back with our wine ( a decent house white or red, comes by the carafe) and let the food parade to the table.

Typically southern Italian cuisine is called cucina povera (literally “poor cuisine”) and Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, qualifies as one of Italy’s poorest regions. Cucina povera counts vegetables, wheat and olive oil as its staples. Add Brindisi’s seaside location and the general arid inland grazing and the proteins tend to be seafood, lamb and cheeses made from sheep’s milk. Having wildly under estimated portions on our first night back in Italy, we had to (shamefully) limit our courses to just appetizers and the first (pasta) course.

antipasti_int

The antipasti start arriving. Right: Taiedda— baked mussels, potatoes and rice

Antipasti:

  • Do it yourself bruschetta with toppings of ricotta forte, (Puglians let their ricotta go off and sour, stirring every 2-3 days to create a tangy strong flavour — an acquired taste — then use it as a spread or sauce), chopped fresh tomatoes with garlic and cilantro, and tiny black olives;
  • Cold shredded seafood salad;
  • Baked layered eggplant parmesan;
  • Mini cheesy lasagna;
  • Taiedda di riso patate e cozze: baked rice, potatoes and mussels. This dish probably dates back to the Spanish rule in Puglia. Its name comes from the crockery container in which the “taiedda” is prepared;
  • Puree di fave e cicoria: pureed fava beans with chicory and lashings of olive oil. This is a very traditional Puglian dish pulling from the regions’ humble agricultural offerings;
  • Lamb stew or ragu with carrots in a cream sauce—this seemed a bit odd as an antipasto, more like a secundo or main course, but we weren’t complaining.

Primi Piatti (the pasta course):

  • Torciarelli or trofie (hand rolled short, round lengths of pasta with tapered ends, then twisted to form the final shape) pasta with shrimps, cherry tomatoes, cilantro and zuccini garlic and olive oil;
  • Tagliatelle with swordfish, diced plum tomatos, garlic and tiny enoki-like mushrooms;
  • Orecchiette (“little ears”— small round disks of pasta with a shallow indent — the most Puglian of pastas) with eggplant, cherry tomatoes, basil and ricotta cheese.

Then, after many polite refusals of desert, the chef, concerned about our ability to properly digest the meal, insisted on a dark amaro digestif and some almond biscuits dusted with sugar.

Orecchiette

Orecchiette pasta made by hand, thumbprint still visible.

fave_cicoria

Puree di fave e cicoria—pureed fava beans with chicory, croutons and olive oil. A Puglian “cucina povera” classic.

Chef came out several times to make sure we were being taken care of. We frantically looked up synonyms for “delicious”, “exquisite” every time we saw him headed our way. Because it was delicious, satisfying in that way when you feel you’ve really shared a meal with friends. Our only comment is that given the heat coming in to full strength in late June, we would have expected more cold antipasti especially as Brindisi excels at seafood carpaccio. But the atmosphere couldn’t have been better and neither could the price. All of the antipasti, ample enough for three people, cost 8 Euro (US$10.38), the pasta was 8 Euro a head and our litre of wine: 3 Euro. Add in a 1 Euro per person cover charge and the three of us ate and drank our fill for 39 Euro (US$50.61)!

When we left, the Cinema Impero’s side doors were wide open and we floated down the street to the strains of something dramatic, operatic and most definitely Italian.

LA CANTINA TI L’ARTISTI
Via dè Terribile, 11
+39 0831 529036

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