The joys of living in a small town in Puglia are many, and you soon acquire your favourite places to eat and drink. Generally, meals are so affordable that you tend, like the locals, to eat out a lot and, no matter how delicious the food, it is easy too get a bit jaded.
I was therefore thrilled when L’Inferno opened up, under new management, and it is definitely my new favourite place, especially as there are always ‘dishes of the day’ so you never get bored.
The restaurant is situated in a charmingly medieval looking courtyard, filled with flowers, in the maze of streets opposite the castle. It gets it’s name from the old street name ‘hell’ (there is still a via Purgatorio nearby) as the area hosted pottery kilns and was, presumably, unbearably hot and smoky.
Two previous restaurants on this site were both of the ‘all the meat you can eat’ variety, which is not really my thing. (There is lots of wonderful Puglian produce but I wouldn’t say meat was a strong point). This new one, in common with other local restaurants, focuses on traditional dishes, but Giuseppe, the chef, although originally from Nardò, trained elsewhere and has worked in restaurants all over Europe. The difference shows. This is not, as is often the case in Puglia, excellent home cooking, which can be fantastic but often patchy if the cook is having a bad day. Here, the high quality of the dishes is consistent and the food would hold it’s own, any day, in any restaurant, anywhere.
Don’t miss the abundant ‘antipasto della casa’ – even this varies from day to day and dishes are beautifully garnished and presented. The crocchette di patate are crispy on the outside, soft in the middle and flavoured with mint and cheese, other deep fried delicacies are light as a feather and often come with a twist. One day the zucchini flowers might appear in a pink batter, coloured with beetroot, another time in a yellow batter lightly flavoured with turmeric. Peppers, courgettes and aubergine might be grilled in strips, or in little cubes and the ‘melanzane alla parmigiana’ often comes in little stacks garnished with salad leaves or a sprig of deep fried rocket. The ‘pitta di patate’ (a Salento speciality made of two layers of mashed potato with a filling in the middle, breadcrumbed, baked till golden brown and cut into squares) is slightly different every time but always delicious.
The ‘primo’ of the day is always worth trying. Fresh potato gnocchi could come with a tomato sauce and local cheese, seafood, a blue cheese sauce, or, most recently with a ‘crema di melanze’ (cream of aubergine ) sauce – all delicious. Staples on the menu are ‘ciceri e tria’ a local pasta dish with chick peas, or an excellent pasta dish with sausage meat ragu, crispy speck (a kind of ham) and cheese.
A delicious stewed octopus (polpo) dish often appears as a dish of the day, as do mussels – the advantage of the rotating menu is that the ingredients are always super fresh. Despite my earlier comments about meat, I quite often have the Tagliata here – beautifully cooked strips of steak with rocket and grana (similar to parmesan) accompanied by roasted potatoes with rosemary, or grilled vegetables. The first time I had this I asked for a glass of the local red to accompany my meat (we normally have the excellent house rose’) and love the fact that on subsequent occasions, when I ordered the tagliata, I was asked if I wanted one (I did of course!!)
Alessandra, who looks after the front of house, is charming and welcoming, and nothing is too much trouble. The first time I ate here was with friends who had a nine month old baby and seeing that the mother was having difficulty eating her meal Alessandra piacked up the baby and whisked him off for a walk around the restaurant – he went vey happily and his mother was able to relax and enjoy finishing her meal.
The restaurant is open every day for lunch and dinner and you can also order dishes to take away if you fancy eating at home.