Conversano is a very nice town in Puglia near Bari with one of those fantastic, sprawling castles that got a tower or two added to it every time a conquering horde passed through. Inside is a very important set of paintings you must see.
We spent the morning exploring Conversano with journalist Rosalia Chiarappa of am apulia magazine, who lamented the lack of open restaurants on the day we decided to visit. In the end, she took us to the Caffe Mediterraneo, a place she hangs out after work. Casual. Built into a modern apartment complex on the edge of town, not where you’d expect to eat a fine meal.
You see, you walk into the Cafe Mediterraneo through a typical pasticceria arrangement. Sweets. Piles of them. Blech. I wanted a glass of wine and something salty to eat.
Cleverly concealed behind the rows of refrigerators holding all manner of tooth-decay-producing dolce were tables set for lunch. Surprise!
So we sat down and had that glass of wine and some nibbles. There was pasta with mussels, cozze, available so Rosalia and I ordered them. There they are on the right. They look, well, a bit normal.
But oh my! They were good. Unbelievably good. After praising the preparation and the care taken in cleaning the mussels I looked up at Rosalia and said something I’d come to regret, “these are made the way I like my shellfish and pasta, in a sauce enhanced with butter!”
She looked at me like I was nuts. You know I am, of course, but she, up to this time, had been polite enough to ignore the troubling signs. Now she couldn’t avoid them. “They don’t use butter.”
“But,” I said, pausing quite a while because I knew, of course, that the kitchen wouldn’t dare use butter; this is olive oil country and the oil has come so incredibly far from the semi-dreck produced 30 years ago—but still I continued, whining really, “it’s all rich and everything, it’s gotta have butter!”
So we asked the waitress. I don’t think she had ever heard of butter.
So I admit it—I was wrong. It was oil. It surprises you. Olive oil here in Puglia is not that sewing machine lubricant you get at the Safeway, it’s real food that has a character and flavor to die for. It certainly took to my steamed mussels quite nicely.
So that’s my tale. If you’re in town, visit the restaurant. Expect simple food prepared with good ingredients. If you have shellfish, drink the local wine made to go with it: Verdeca. There’s a picture of a very good example of it up there. Click to see it at a reasonable size. It’s got a beautiful label.
2011 | Via San Giacomo, 14 70014 Conversano (BA)
Tel/Fax 080 4959121