You’d imagine premium-quality fish restaurants on this stretch of the Salento coast would be two a penny, but you’d be wrong. In fact, when it comes to the preparation and cooking of fish, what really makes the difference is not only the quality of the catch, which in an area so abundantly rich in frutti di mare is hardly a challenge, but also the ability not to cook the life and flavour out of it by unnecessary meddling.
That’s a mantra that’s wholeheartedly embraced at what appears at first glance to be a modest seaside shack on the side of the coastal road in Tricase. Closer inspection reveals a polished and sophisticated operation in this wild corner of the Penisola Salentina, where big skies prevail over the stiletto of the Puglian heel. It’s a region that genuinely feels as though it’s one of the last strongholds of off-the-beaten-path Italy.
Where the Ionian and Adriatic seas coalesce exists a cucina povera of the very freshest and finest seafood plucked from the ocean at sunrise each day. Inspired by his father Vito Coppola – a local farmer and fisherman (and no relation to Francis Ford, as far as I’m aware) – the current owner Mario and his two sons Alessandro and Pierluigi ensure that everything at Taverna del Porto revolves around seasonality and availability. The menu is directly linked to the surrounding lands, and the restaurant is governed by a self-imposed zero-waste tolerance – something we could all do with embracing in our own kitchens.
Imagine a Captain Corelli-like scene, where the taverna’s window frames a picture-perfect view of the deep-blue sea yonder, a landscape peppered by crumbling fortresses scoured and bleached by salty winds, powder white sands, iconic prickly Puglian cacti and candy-striped deckchairs billowing in the wind. So bright is the midday sun on my visit that it lends the taverna’s exterior an overexposed photo quality. Inside, the white and blue interiors, with walls festooned with faded Phoenician-script travel posters and fishing-rope handrails, could leave you thinking you were in Greece, and glancing at a map, you can understand why – this part of the world, in such close proximity to the Hellenic Republic, is inhabited by the Griko people, an ethnic Greek minority, who converse in a language of the same name.
The focal point of the taverna’s menu is a veritable kaleidoscope of raw seafood of unparalleled proportions, where an abundance of crustaceans and molluscs form miniature mountains for the chefs to pluck and shape into culinary masterpieces. It’s hard to know where to begin, but plumping for this mesmerising trio will ensure a true appreciation of the taverna’s raison d’être: simply prepared dishes bursting with flavour. Start by ordering the delectable melt-in-the-mouth fish skewers with mayonnaise, enlivened by a dusting of fiery chilli powder. Follow that with polpo croccante su soffice di patate (crispy octopus on a bed of soft mash with boiled spinach and sundried tomatoes) and then the divine Cavalieri linguine with garlic, oil, chilli and shrimps gently touched by the heat of the pan. Their sweetness and consistency will linger long in the memory. Wash it all down with a bottle of chilled Verdeca chardonnay from Michele Calò & Figli, vinified just down the road in Tuglie. The wine offers up silky soft marshmallow undertones and a mouthwateringly fresh palate. Then sleep it all off, reclining on said deckchairs out front.
Taverna del Porto,Via Cristoforo Colombo 121, 73039 Tricase Porto; tavernadelporto.com
Lee Osborne is creative director of Secret Trips