Dining at Al Fornello da Ricci, in Ceglie Messapica.
The cucina of Apulia (Puglia) is rustic. It is based on this rural region's native hard wheat, exceptional produce, extra-virgin olive oil, pungent wild greens, and possibly Italy's greatest bread, baked in wood-burning ovens. This area is also home to burrata, a mozzarella that is inflated and stuffed with heavy cream and mozzarella threads - the sexiest cheese I have ever encountered. Travelers to Apulia should seek traditional dishes featuring these ingredients.
The restaurant Al Fornello da Ricci, outside the city of Ceglie Messapica (in the locality of Montevicoli), is difficult to find but worth the search for a taste of chef-owner Dora Ricci's excellent cooking. Ricci is modest about her skills, saying she prefers simple dishes that allow seasonal and regional ingredients a chance to shine. The dining rooms of Al Fornello are spare, attractive, and comfortable.
Begin a meal there with locally cured meats (salumi), tiny meatballs (polpettine), or eggplant stuffed with pecorino cheese. First-course choices include orecchiette paired with frusciddati (handmade short pasta tubes) and dressed with vegetables, or soups like chickpea with grain or a classic, dense fava bean puree with chicory. Ricci roasts lamb or kid in the oven (fornello) from which the restaurant gets its name. Small roasted birds, such as quail, or salt cod braised with olives are tasty alternatives. Cheese-lovers will enjoy Ricci's Apulian selection, especially a hard-to-find sheep's milk ricotta that has been fermented for a month (justifiably called ricotta forte). Save room for delightfully uncomplicated desserts like almond tart, cookies, gelato, or sorbetto.
The tables are set with impressive wineglasses, a hint that Angelo Ricci, Dora's husband, really cares about his cellar. His wine list is a joy. It includes gems from nearby Taurino and Rivera, as well as an ample choice from other Italian regions. Diners usually conclude with one of the homemade liqueurs, flavored with coffee, herbs, rose petal, or citrus.
Prehistoric sites, Greek treasures in the Taranto museum, Romanesque and Baroque churches, and round, stone dwellings (called trulli), with their cone-shaped, whitewashed roofs, are among Apulia's nonculinary attractions. After lunch at Al Fornello, check out the trullo by the restaurant's entrance.
Al Fornello da Ricci, localita'¡ Montevicoli, Ceglie Messapica, tel./fax 39-0831-377-104.
Closed Monday evening and Tuesday.
May 31, 2001