To live like a Pashŗ

A visit to Antonello Magistŗ and his mum Maria Cicorella in Conversano: a beautiful and delicious place in Apulia

03-09-2017

Antonello Magistà, first from the left, his mum Maria Cicorella in the middle and most of the staff (left to right Sara Pertosa, Livio Improta, Leonardo Caterino, Daniele Gamarro and Mario Magistà): these are the people at Pashà in Conversano. Photo Tanio Liotta

To live like a Lord, or, in Italian, like a pascià, (or in Turkish pashà, in Persian pādishā’h, “king”, mixed with the Turkish  basqàq, “governor”). It doesn’t matter that the name of this gourmet destination in Conversano has a completely different reason (pashà was the nickname Antonello Magistà was given as a kid, it appears). For sure, having a great time, and thus receiving excellent hospitality, is a pillar of this establishment, a pride for Apulia. For more than one reason.

First, because it has a stratospheric location. It oozes history and beauty. Niko Romito, Lorenzo Cogo, Vincenzo Candiano’s restaurants come to mind, just to give an example. Opened at Easter in 2016, it is 40 metres away from the previous location in Piazza Castello. Here one can still find the bar and bistro, and soon there will also be some rooms to stay overnight. Indeed the place first started as a bar in 1983, then a restaurant in 1998, as recalled by the sign, “Since 1998 sacrifices, errors, growth and satisfaction”. The neoclassic facade is dominated by a bell-tower stating Crescamus in Illo per omnia, with a stern and majestic architecture. They say the initially diffident seminarians are now more accepting of the pleasures of meat, fish, vegetables.

Second, because when we visited the place a few weeks ago, they opened a charming champagneria, in the garden in front of the restaurant: it’s so nice to choose some bubbles from the best French maisons among the centennial trees – there’s a cedar tree from Lebanon that is over 120 years old here – paired with anchoas Nardin, pinzimonio doc, butter from Normandy… Cuddles that give you the best disposition.

Third, there’s pashà Antonello, who looks like he was born to run a high quality restaurant: he creates the right empathy, he’s there when you need him, and disappears at the right moment. He’s the perfect dominus of the dining room, affable, caring. He’s a sort of living compendium of how you can make use of the above mentioned fabulous location to make sure that the guest feels satisfied from the start, regardless of the rest which I’d usually consider the most important part, or almost. Well done.

Scampi from Polignano, soup of date tomatoes and oregano. Photos by Tanio Liotta​

Scampi from Polignano, soup of date tomatoes and oregano. Photos by Tanio Liotta​

Focaccia with burnt wheat, mortadella, peated whisky and pistachio

Focaccia with burnt wheat, mortadella, peated whisky and pistachio

Hence his mum Maria Cicorella has a much easier task in the kitchen. Plus she gets further help from the extraordinary local raw materials. These enrich dishes like Scampi from Polignano, soup of date tomatoes and oregano, or Prawn from Gallipoli, lime, bergamot, powdered capers and pepper.

There’s also a stronger tension, an effort to improve. In the words of our Sonia Gioia, who perfectly made the point as usual: “The dishes arrive with lightness on a more contemporary horizon, between acidity and bitterness, notes which Apulian vegetables bestow in infinite versions”. Very true, I agree.

This even though Apulia is in fact enough by itself, when it comes to culinary opulence: so we’d never remove from the tasting menus, even the most innovative ones, fundamental, archetypical delicacies such as Barbecued lamb torcinelli, leek au gratin, robiola, Vermouth Dry. We even told so with frankness to the brilliant pascià. These are the perfect representation of what-we-would-always-want-to-find-but-rarely-do. Of course this is the thought of a gourmet tourist away from home, but this is still an important part of the clients.

Barbecued lamb torcinelli, leek au gratin, robiola, Vermouth Dry

Barbecued lamb torcinelli, leek au gratin, robiola, Vermouth Dry

I mean: what better could a gourmet relaxing in Apulia for the summer expect than a dish like this? It is based on the extraordinary meat from Michele Varvara, may Jesus (quoting Dario Fo, so we’re inclusive and we don’t look like the hardened lay people we are) bless him, amen. Cooking gives him the gift of speech, with the right counterpoints and complexity to make it a great, fully accomplished dish, one of those you’re not afraid to call excellent. “Isn’t it too traditional perhaps?”. No, it’s simply delicious.

Rabbit tuna with seasonal fruit and vegetables

Rabbit tuna with seasonal fruit and vegetables

Fish, crustaceans, rice, lemon and shallot

Fish, crustaceans, rice, lemon and shallot

So no fear: Apulia is here, now. It is also finely presented in other recipes: Rabbit tuna with seasonal fruit and vegetables; or the delicious (the cereals could have been cooked a few seconds less, in my opinion) Fish, crustaceans, rice, lemon and shallot, which has the sea as the main feature, as hinted by the name of the dish, but made me – from Lombardy – discover an excellent product I didn’t know of: Reperso rice from Azienda Agricola Lodigiana, pardon my ignorance.

"Orecchione"

"Orecchione"

A note of merit also goes to orecchione. They are bulimic orecchiette, «made not by rolling the small finger, but with the thumb slipping outward» says Magistà explaining the technique. They are larger, and lovelier, they are meatier in a way: with sheep’s meat sauce (cooked eight hours in a pignata in a wood oven, with mushrooms and herbs), black truffle, caciocavallo, vegetables, tomatoes and cacioricotta. Another perfect representation of the surroundings.

In other words: delicious Italy.
Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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