Go to Margot if you want avvocato-chic, but the real taste of Italy can still be found in Puglia
Puglia makes me think of Evelyn Waugh’s comment on the Sphinx: “As a piece of sculpture it is wholly inadequate to its fame. People . . . went out to see it by moonlight and returned very grave and awestruck; which only shows the mesmeric effect of publicity. It is about as enigmatic and inscrutable as Mr Aleister Crowley.” Poor, tatty, overcrowded Europe of course retains some places of genuine beauty, but why will no one admit that the French Riviera nowadays resembles at best the less-unpleasant areas of Los Angeles, or that Ibiza is no longer a “White Isle” in any sense but the narcotic one?
English people love Puglia, because they think it’s the real Italy. They’re not wrong, since Puglia is mostly hideously ugly and economically wretched, but that is not the reality they mean. They want to believe that the mournful, imposing centres of its white Baroque towns are inhabited by pasta-rolling nonne instead of the stranded descendants of those clever enough to move north, desperately cashing in on the Airbnb. The coastal strip from Bari down to Lecce is basically an endless concrete tourist conurbation whose revolting appearance can indeed be avoided in the fabled centres of Monopoli or Polignano, but only if one looks straight out to sea at all times.
Not that the Italians are any more immune to collective delusion when it comes to the Bel Paese. My Milanese publisher was in town recently and took me to dinner at Cipriani (because why eat anything other than Italian food?). “Qui e l’Italia dell’Avoccato,” he explained, as the waiter dexterously served the justifiably famous gratin of green tagliolini. “The Lawyer” refers to Gianni Agnelli, whose name conjures for Italians an historical watershed of perfection, somewhere between the end of that embarrassing business with Mussolini and the advent of the corrupt, terrorist-strafed “years of lead”, an age of elegant innocence beloved to the national consciousness.
Cipriani has been doing Avvocato-chic forever, but Margot in Covent Garden has recently elbowed in on the action under the direction of Maurizio Morelli, lately of Latium. Mr Rayner of the Guardian got quite excited about Margot, though not so eloquently as my publisher. “Who in their right mind puts waiters in dinner jackets in 2016?” he remarked with awe. The jackets are perfectly correct, midnight-blue, not black, with proper buttons on the cuffs, and their presence certainly adds a sense of luxurious ease to the proceedings, which is just as well, because Margot is an oddly schizoid restaurant. Downstairs is Agnelli a go-go, a hushed salon of cream and green leather which makes you feel as if you’ve just stepped off the Riva into 1956, but upstairs, where lunch is served, is more Cheshire wine bar-black MDF panels and curious knobby glass decorations protruding pointlessly from the walls. I can’t think who this space is meant for — lawyers from the Inns up the road squeezing in an hour of Dolce Vita between insurance cases, perhaps — but the effect is too jarringly effortful to produce the sense of expansive ease which Margot’s menu requires.
The food here is very good, though maybe Mr Rayner was a bit dazzled by the sheeny lapels. Octopus with ‘nduja, a sausagey suckered curl woody with sherry and sharp with Calabrian chilli, came with a prinky rocket garnish which undermined the conviction of the dish. Tagliatelle with a white ragù of rabbit was beautifully spiked with rosemary, good chunks of lean meat melding perfectly with the buttery slip of the pasta, but it was competent rather than spectacular, and given the premium Margot is charging (those dry-cleaning bills can’t come cheap), spectacular was implied but not delivered. For pudding, my colleagues and I shared a caramel and vanilla mousse which I was going to turn into some kind of cheap comparison with Anita Ekberg’s breasts, because it really was exquisitely creamy and lickable, but I’m in too much of a hurry to forget about Margot and tell you that I have discovered the best chef in Italy and that she works in Puglia.
Because I went to the Valle d’Itria, in the hills above Fasone, and had to admit — not for the first time — what a cynical inverted snob I am. Lilly Poliseno cooks at the Leonardo Trulli Resort, her first position as a head chef and one which she diffidently explains she only took to help out her friend Rosalba at her small, newly-opened restaurant. Lilly takes the classics of the Mezzogiorno and does that simple, impossible thing, she makes them new. Just that.
Our dinner began with involtini of roast peppers with capers and pine nuts on a saffron sauce, a combination from which she conjured a kaleidoscope of flavour and texture that left us probing speechlessly through its layers, each bite a variation of crunch, bittersweet and cream. Then a little mould of aubergine and mozzarella with crostini interpreted as tiny cubes of toast, stuffed with tomato and smoked ham — nothing special or extravagant, just the kind of ingredients nonna really would use, yet fresh, witty and intriguing.
And then, oh then, olive-leaf pasta with a paste of black chick peas, punterelle and anchovies that was earth and sea and endless cicada-choired afternoons, deep and ancient-tasting, yet more accomplished and soulful than anything Margot is serving up. Little fillets of veal with chicory and herbs bounced into our mouths next, followed by a dessert of delicate, friable Apostle’s fingers with vanilla custard fragrant with cinnamon and orange zest and the sweetest wild blackberries. We drank a Verso Sud Susumaniello from the Pastini cantina over the hill, one of several vineyards which are reintroducing Puglia’s autochthonous grapes. The last black glass of it brought out the heat and the patience in Lilly’s food and the breeze really was full of lavender and wild sage and it really did waft through the squat towers of the trulli along the valley and shame on me for being a dismissive urban twat. This level of skill and love doesn’t need dinner jackets or nostalgia. Lilly Poliseno won’t, I imagine, remain in Puglia for long, but for now, she’s the best reason to go there, as a reminder that Italy really can still taste this good.