To say that we had essentially no idea what to expect when we arrived in Lecce, Italy would be giving us more credit than we deserved. And yet we managed to find fantastic dining options around town (as well as a miss or two).
The most delicious meals we had were also the most simple. Many restaurants these days seem to be making recipes more complicated, with ingredient lists that are longer and longer. But not in Lecce. In Lecce the dishes were simple preparations of fresh ingredients. It was wonderful.
Our first meal in town was at Trattoria Nonna Tetti. Starting with a cheese plate is a good way to make sure that you’re getting just the most simple of preparations of ingredients. And the variety of local cheeses available was quite broad.
After that we chose a couple pastas for our first course. One was a gnocchi with pancetta and eggplant, tossed in a light tomato sauce.
The second pasta was a pesto with sautéed shrimp. The sauce was top-notch and the shrimp were incredibly fresh.
For our secondi we chose to split the octopus. This was probably the best dish we had during our trip. The pulpo was simply phenomenal.
Our second meal was at Trattoria Le Zie – Cucina Casareccia. Given that we dine at a restaurant of a similar name in New York City on a very regular basis and that this one is played up as one of the best dining options in Lecce, we couldn’t resist. Faced with the premise of difficulty in getting a reservation for dinner we chose to go for lunch instead. Same menu but more casual and easier to get a table.
The food was mixed in quality. The anti pasta was quite good. Grilled eggplant, salads and a potato/mushroom thing of which I can say that the potatoes were quite nice.
Rather than pastas as our primi courses we ended up with potato casseroles. The pastas just didn’t sound very good and the potato options did. In retrospect we probably should’ve had one of each, but such is life.
One had artichoke mixed in while the other had mussels. I’ll never quite understand the service of mussels still in their shell unless in a bowl of broth. In broth it makes a bit of sense as the mussels are the only bits that you are eating. But when on a pizza or in a casserole it is a bit more strange.
Yet there they were. Mussels on the half shell, baked in with sliced potatoes, mini-zucchini and parmesan cheese that is toasted on top. I may not understand the mussels still in the shell but I definitely enjoyed the flavor of the dish.
For the secondi we skipped one of their more famous dishes – horse meat in a spicy tomato sauce – in favor of the stewed octopus in a red wine sauce. It was pretty good, though overly salty.
I think it is safe to say that whatever reputation Le Zie (Lecce) has these days doesn’t really show up in the food. Yeah, it got its start as serving up the food of the lower classes, prepared for folks who like to go out to dinner. Today, however, it seems to be just basic dishes that are hit or miss and not particularly special. Not worth the hype, I’d say, but still a decent enough meal. And it isn’t really all that expensive such that it is worth avoiding.
Our second night’s dinner was at La Vecchia Lecce, a restaurant that was listed as having a chef who trained at Trattoria Nonna Tetti, our previous night’s dinner locale. It turns out that was either a mistranslation or that "trained at" means "serves the exact same menu as" in Italy. I’m guessing the former.
Somehow it has a higher rating on TripAdvisor than Nonna which I can only attribute to it being larger and therefore easier to get in to. Otherwise the atmosphere was a step down and generally not worth the extra walk from the Piazzo. It was still a pretty good meal, though it did decrease our dining variety a bit in town. That said, the mozzarella was awesome.
Our final dinner in town was at the Joyce Enoteca. The restaurant is apparently known for its meat and cheese plates. Standing behind a counter by the entrance a gentleman stood patiently slicing up various pieces of pig that have been cured, smoked or otherwise made delicious. They are plated on large wooden trays, mixed with a variety of local cheeses if you want to go that way. Of course, we didn’t really figure that out until after we watched nearly every other table order that and we didn’t. Still, our meal was pretty damn good.
We limited our cheese intake to just one choice (the gorgonzola) rather than a tasting plate. Still damn good. We then moved on to the main courses. We had a pesto similar to that of the first night – though without the shrimp and not as good – as well as porcetta. The pork was pretty good, though the skin wasn’t quite as crispy as we generally prefer. Still, a quite good meal to wrap up our stay in Lecce.
Well, not quite wrapped up. I forgot about the grappa. We ordered a grappa and a limoncello after dinner. We had to get an extra grappa because it was that good. Just enough of the burn to remind you that it really is a strong alcohol but a smooth enough flavor to really make me want a third glass. Fortunately I was smart enough to resist so that I could actually walk back to the hotel room. But it was quite tempting.
Breakfast and dessert in Lecce are not generally to be had in restaurants. These are taken in the great gelato and pastry shops scattered about town. Il Alvino in the center of town saw us a few times and there are plenty of others as well. All good stuff.
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