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An Independent Traveler’s Approach – Exceptional Dining in Pulignano a Mare, Puglia, Italy

“Honey, I still don’t see any action in the restaurant!”  

We were sitting on the balcony of our hotel high above the Adriatic with a view directly into a large, empty, open-air restaurant built in a cave which was also high above the crashing surf. For experienced independent travelers we were getting a little concerned. Did we just make a big leap of faith on a good friend’s recommendation to go to this isolated location for an exceptional dining experience?

The Journey of Faith and a Twinge of Adventure

After an uneventful, 3½-hour drive from Positano on the west coast of Italy to Poignano a Mare on the east coast, we arrived at this ancient village located several miles south of Bari. We rarely plan  a one-night visit as it is against the mantra of "slow travel” but this was a very special restaurant and hotel, highly recommended by our friend who lives in Milan.  With adventure in mind, we made the exception.

We arrived in the middle of riposo, or “nap time”, so this small town was literally closed up for a quiet period. One of the telltale clues were the single chairs in front of the doorways. In this southern part of Italy, a chair’s orientation sends the message of "do not disturb"- if their backs face the street, and if their backs face the doorway then a guest is welcomed….simple but effective.

We had time to spend since our room was not available so we toured this very old fishing village and came across a World War II memorial that had fresh flowers and an American flag! The town still remembers the American troops that helped liberate it back in the day.

The Hotel and Restaurant

Polignano a Mare was settled in prehistoric times, and is believed to be the site of the ancient Greek city of Neapolis of Apulia.  Today one of the main attraction is the Hotel Ristorante Grotta Palazzese, considered one of the most romantic in the world.  It has 25 rooms of quality and uniqueness with spacious, arched-ceilinged accommodations built into the solid limestone rock. The beautiful dining area has been hosting the local nobility since the 1700’s and the fortunate visitors since.

Our room would soon be ready, so we parked the car and went in search of a wine merchant to buy a bottle of local wine to enjoy in our room before dinner…it is one of our traditions. That would not happen.  Nothing was open.

We returned to the hotel and explained to the hotel manager, in our best Italian, that we had been out looking for a nice bottle of wine and he was puzzled… “Why would anyone search for a bottle of wine outside the hotel if we have wine here that we would be happy to deliver?”  Well, OK, that was logical - and so in a few minutes a bottle of sparkling wine, in an ice bucket, with two glasses arrived on a silver tray.  So we sat on our stone balcony watching the waves crash 100 feet below on the side of the hotel, anticipating a fabulous dining experience.

The Dining Experience Vs. Anxiety

So, now it is close to our 9 pm reservation time.  We are dressed, but still looking towards a dark restaurant. This is silly… we are now really hungry and we know it would be all but impossible to find somewhere else to eat.  We might have to dip into our road rations of Cheez-Its and Goldfish crackers!

We poured another glass of wine and began to feel a little anxious and discussed  a Plan B (snack food and Asti Spumante). To the refrains of…. “I’m sorry… I hope this doesn’t turn out to be a bust”.

At that moment we suddenly see a dark figure walking amongst the empty tables.  A candle is lit, then another, and then another!  Soft lights appear as do more waiters in white gloves and tuxedos adjusting table linens and silverware.  There is LIFE!

At Last……Dinner in a Grotto

Having been ready for over an hour, we bolt out the door, walk around the entire hotel, finding the obscure entrance, hurrying down a narrow flight of stairs to beat the crowd just off an Italian tour bus and finding that our reservation was intact. The restaurant is in a cave. The ceilings and walls are rock. You can feel the fresh, salty air wafting in. It was truly magical.

We were led to a beautiful table on the side against a railing that was at least 100 feet above a surging ocean in the dramatically lit grotto.

And Now Dinner Begins

First we ordered a beautiful white Italian wine, Fiano de Avellino Fenli Disen Gregorio… and they started us with an appetizer of smoked, lightly breaded shrimp plus marinated cucumbers and radishes, complemented with a glass of Asti Spumante.

The waiter spoke a bit of English but wanted to speak very fast Italian.  He was rushing us and, in my best performance, I said, scusi, lentamente, per favore! (slow down, please!); we were good for the rest of the meal.  Don’t let the servers rush the meal. They truly believe that Americans want to eat and run.  Not us.  We want to savor every bite.

And so we continue with "Mare di Adriatico" (a seafood medley from the waters of the Adriatic), artichoke crab cakes, sea bass carpaccio, linguine a mare, ravioli a mare, octopus in tomato sauce - each one better than the other. Every plate we ordered seemed to be delivered with a complimentary dish we did not order!  And a never empty glass of the sparkling wine.

When it was time for the main dish, a beautiful whole sea bass, skinned and filleted at the table, we could only taste a small portion.  There was simply no more room in our stomachs.  Then they brought biscotti and lemon sorbet.

Basta, finito… Enough, we are FINISHED!  A true dining experience in true southern Italian style (the restaurant was still seating at midnight).

The next morning upon checking out, we found that the meal was included in the price of the room… the wine was extra so our meal came to about $40.

We rank this exceptional meal as one of our TOP TEN dining experiences  and It was certainly worth the drive across Italy… now we were off to Rome!

Go to for more information on the hotel and restaurant; for the town.  

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