Trippin’ With Margarita Forés In The Heart Of Southern Italy
In this first of two articles, the author accompanies this acclaimed chef and host of Metro Channel’s My Italy as she explores Italy’s southern regions, before celebrating her 60th birthday in Rome
After 17 hours of travel, three plane rides, and an airport breakfast of arancini and cannoli, the production team finally arrived in sunny Palermo, the first of several cities to be featured in Margarita’s newest food and travel show in Metro Channel called My Italy.
The weather was so unpredictable—early morning and nights would reach 6°C while noontime would hit 16°C. And the only way the cast and crew prepared for this uncertainty was to bring two sets of clothes to combat both the cool and warm weathers. One thing, we were surely clothed and armed with was the determination to get things done with fun. No campy climate was going to stop us from exploring southern Italy and all its natural beauty and lush gastronomy.
Escaping to a wine estate
After a pasta-filled lunch at Badalamenti Cucina e Bottega, the team headed to picturesque Tenuta Regaleali, 90 minutes away from the city, to revel in 387 hectares of vineyards living together with 30 hectares of olive groves and 35 hectares of farmland. The Madonie mountain range acted as a dramatic backdrop to lush fields populated with developing grapes of a wide variety—from Moscato, Pinot Nero and Sauvignon, to Gewürztraminer, Perricone, and Nero d’Avola.
The Tasca d’Almerita estate has been tended by eight generations, with Count Lucio Tasca and sons Alberto and Giuseppe as current owners-slash-caretakers. The team boarded overnight and was treated to a beautiful courtyard fit for cinema screen time, a traditional Italian home basking in simple rural design (think the movie, Call Me By Your Name), and a special dinner consisting of Sicilian lamb spezzatino, seasonal fava bean pasta, and second rounds of cannoli.
In the expansive compound, we met Vincenzo San Giorgi who makes two types of sheep’s milk cheeses everyday—pecorino or tuma for the curd, and ricotta for the whey. He produces over 20 kilos of aged cheeses per week, and they are all reserved for the lodging guests and the family’s consumption.
There’s also the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School, housed at Case Vecchie, where Sicilian food traditions are celebrated. They offer packages that may include “farm-to-table” lessons, memorable dining experiences, and off-site excursions such as a visit to a local coffee roaster and a pizza-making course in a pizzeria.
It’s conveniently located beside a garden that has day beds perfect for midday lounging and a stunning swimming pool with a view of the vineyards.
The team drove back to Palermo, named Italy’s City of Culture in 2018, to meet our lovely tour guide Julia, who brought Margarita to three food markets—Vucciria, which she said wasn’t as vibrant and energetic as before; Ballarò, which is the biggest; and Capo, the most lively of the lot.
Vucciria, which means confusion, couldn’t be a more appropriate word to name the lackluster displays in Via Roma. It used to be a bustling butcher’s block, but these days, it’s lamely punctuated with, well, fruit juice stalls and a handful of fish and vegetable stands.
Running from via Carini and via di Sant’Agostino is Capo, which is slightly busier and offers a lot more choices when it comes to ready-to-eat snacks. The team found beautiful and bright-colored produce to shoot, from orange-hued plums and baskets of frogolini di bosco, to pistachio candies, bottled jams, dry pastas, and fresh seafood. Here, Margarita found her first purchase of the trip, bags of thick and robust San Marzano tomato paste.
The oldest of the three, Ballarò provided the most energy typical of a market. The offerings are very diverse, given that the area is home to a lot of palermitanos from Africa. Multiculturalism is shaded in tents, represented by items like tarocchi (blood oranges), fried yams called banku, goat meat, and panella or chickpea fritters. It’s almost Arabic in vibe, what with the wooden boxes and mounds of spices, but then we would also spot a Chinese stand offering the cheapest padded bras in the city.
A short drive to the town of Alberobello in Puglia transported the team to a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has become crowded with tour buses as of late, due to what seems like snow-capped mountains but are actually conical stone-roofed residences. Built in the 1500s, these truli limestone huts are originally made to be lived in, but have now become spaces for retail, selling touristy knick knacks like postcards, keychains, and something Margarita collects in her travels, kitchen magnets.
Though debatable, the structure of these unique residences are said to have been born out of tax evasion. The Count back then hated paying taxes and so he kept this village under wraps. If anyone came to investigate, it would be easy for the people to deconstruct the stone huts and move to another area.
Tagged as the European Capital of Culture for 2019, Matera has become a top tourist destination in Italy, what with the beautiful cave dwellings that have been repurposed into luxury hotels. Before the 1950s, these sassis served as residences to people from the Paleolithic period. They were carved out of tufa limestone and lacked water and electricity. Nevertheless, they made for weather-proof grotto homes for the people.
Matera, though progressive, remains to be characteristic of a certain time in history. And perhaps that’s why it’s become a popular setting for films like The Passion of Christ, Wonder Woman, and the next James Bond.
As for Margarita, it was a very unique—and quite eerie—respite. She stayed at the Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita, which just happened to be on the cover of Condé Nast Traveler magazine (the Tastemakers issue) the same month of her visit.
Her room was carved about 60 meters in, with the bedroom to the left and the open bathroom to the right. Lighted only with candles, the place was deafening with silence, prompting our host to rely on Netflix to keep her company throughout the night. The following day, she was rewarded with a breakfast spread composed of charcuterie, cheeses, breads, pastries, and an unobstructed view of Matera’s rugged terrain.
The team moved to Naples next but instead of staying in the city, we woke up early to take a 90-minute ferry ride to the 18-square mile volcanic island of Ischia. It was drizzling and had the kind of cold that requires more than two layers of clothing. It seemed that it would be a trying day, but just before noon, the skies fortunately cleared and brought in more light.
Margarita particularly chose to include Ischia in the itinerary to pay respect to Gaetano, a friend who taught her and the Cibo staff how to make Neapolitan pizza years ago. She didn’t expect to be enthralled by the island, long after the shoot was done.
Neighboring Capri is the go-to island for many foreigners, while Ischia is where the Italians prefer to escape to. For one, there are more sandy spots as compared to the rocky seasides of Capri. Plus, lots more room to roam around as Ischia is bigger in size. Food-wise, you get to enjoy both fresh seafood as well as cuisine from the mountains. And then there’s Aragonese Castle.
Standing proudly on its own islet, the medieval castle was once inhabited by 3,000 families and 16 churches. Now, there’s only one family, the third generation of the Mattera family, who looks over the fort. They have opened it to the public and turned it into a venue for arts, with exhibitions and the annual Ischia Film Festival.
Back in the city, Margarita visited the production factory of renowned Italian coffee brand Passalacqua. She was introduced through the whole process and was even brought to the warehouse where sacks of beans from all over the world are kept in a temperature-controlled environment. Knowing its history and the attention and care given to every pack produced gave her more appreciation for the coffee she sips back home.
Roaming in Rome
Margarita and the team were greeted with the coldest day of the whole trip at their final point of destination. While here, she was able to catch up with old friends, namely Biboy, Alex, and chef Christina Bowerman. Her time in Rome was limited as she had to fly back to Manila the next day for a catering engagement.
But she made sure that she didn’t let the 10-day shoot end without treating the whole team for her 60th birthday. Everyone met up at one of her favorite restaurants, Settimio all’Arancio, where the group feasted on more pastas (we had plates of it in every city we went to), grilled lamb chops, and fiorentina di manzo or T-bone steak. A couple of wine bottles were popped and she led the toast for what was an eventful work trip, all of which were captured on camera in her show, My Italy.
Catch the premiere of My Italy with Margarita Forés on October 7, on Metro Channel, channel 52 on Sky Cable and channel 174 on HD, or via simulcast streaming on Metro.style’s YouTube channel and iWant.