We hit the ground running when we arrived in Puglia last weekend. Our friends picked us up at the Brindisi train station and we headed directly to Ceglie Messapica, a small town about a 45 minute drive away.
We chose it for two reasons: First, it was near enough to Brindisi to be able to make it there for lunch. But more importantly, this is where Cibus is located.
I’d been wanting to go to Cibus for, oh, 15 years or so. About 20 years ago, when the whole Slow Food movement was just taking root, Lillino Silibello decided to open a restaurant, in the heart of Puglia, in one of the oldest towns, that would feature seasonal and local dishes of the region. With his mother in the kitchen, he took care of the rest, creating a place that has become a destination in and of itself.
After parking the car we wandered the narrow, white washed alleys of Ceglie Messapica . Since we were running kind of late, and starved, we decided to leave the sightseeing till after. We finally spotted the red Cibus flag waving at the end of one particularly narrow street.
I knew we were in the right place even before we made it into the dining room: hanging pomodori fiashetto, braids of onions and garlic and big bunches of dried red peppers were hanging from every available nail and beam.
We settled into the grotto-like, warm and cozy dining room (part of an ex monastery) and began exploring the menu. Even though my Italian is pretty good, and Domenico is actually from Puglia, there were still certain words neither of us could translate for our friends. Italian food is so regional, and most of the dishes so local, that even an hour or so up the coast in Bari they didn’t exist or were called something completely different.
Sagnapenta turned out to be a type of handmade pasta made of grano duro, and here served in the traditional way with toasted breadcrumbs, ricotta forte and tomato sauce. I ordered strascinati, another type of handmade pasta, this time made from farina di grano arso, and topped with a rabbit ragu’.
The secondi part of the menu was, if anything, even more local and tempting than the pastas. Martha ordered the mixed roast, which included pork, lamb and sausage. Deena instead went straight for the lamb. Each dish included rustic, meaty cuts of obviously locally raised animals that were boney, fatty and absolutely delicious.
Avrum had decided, the minute we sat down, to order the rabbit, braised with tomatoes from nearby Torre Guaceto and tiny black olives. Chuck, went for the bistecca di podolico, from a the local breed of cow.
Domenico decided this was the chance to get a bit more adventurous and had involtini di cavallo. Yes, horse meat. It used to be much more common and we actually saw a few horse butchers during our weekend. These were little bundles, stuffed with a bit of local cheese and parsley, and stewed till tender in a tomato sauce.
I went directly for the word I recognized the least: maretto di agnello. As it turns out in Puglia maretto is what in Rome is called coratella: the lungs, heart and liver from a baby lamb. Here chopped and then wrapped up into its own little bundle, held tight with caul fat and intestine. It was, at least in my humble opinion, one of the best things I ate not only all weekend, but ever. I’m a huge fan of coratella, and always order it in Rome, but this way of cooking it was a revelation. It’s incredibly labor intensive (and you can watch a video here, for how it’s done) but if I can get my hands on lamb intestine and caul fat, then I’m going to try to recreate it.
One thing I forgot to mention is that all of the pastas were topped not with run of the mill parmigiano, but incredibly fragrant and flavorful pecorino. Each dish was dusted with a different cheese that brought an entirely new dimension and richness to the dishes. After we finished our meal, we found out why when Lillino showed us his secret cheese cave. Located in one corner of the dining room, was a secret door leading down to a sunken closet. He flicked the light on and we saw his stash of cheeses. Fat wheels of pecorino and pendulous orbs of caciocavallo filled the small space. Meticulously maintained, some were 15 years old and reserved for special cheese workshops.
We then got a chance to visit his workshop area, just beyond the wine cellar (one of the largest selections of Pugliese wines in the region). Jar after jar of preserved figs, lampascioni, figs in wine,….we could have easily stayed there another hour or so just dipping into his pantry.
Instead we headed out to explore. I’m not sure if it was all the good food and wine we had just enjoyed, but Ceglie Messapica is kind of fairytale like. I know it was off season, but we were wandering around and had the town almost completely to ourselves. The Castello Ducale, which is built around a 12th century Norman tower, includes a magnificent 16th century staircase.
As we were wandering aimlessly a man came up to us and wanted to make sure we were visiting all the churches. Taking us literally by the hand, he brought us through a low doorway and into the church of San Domenico. Normally closed to the public, a group of townspeople were using the space to get ready to start work on the Christmas nativity. While they scrubbed off tables, we wandered around on our own, taking in the late baroque interior which was, more or less, completely covered in polychrome cherubs.
A kind of fairy tale ending to a perfect fairy tale kind of day.