Maison Del Gusto's Experiencing Excellence: a Crash Course on Puglia

24 April 2024 By Aileen Mack
Rhys Bennett, Ross Dunk, Margot Laurent, and Konrad Schulze
Rhys Bennett, Ross Dunk, Margot Laurent, and Konrad Schulze

Associate Editor Aileen Mack joined Dockwalk in July 2018. She is a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. If she’s not at a concert or coffee shop, she is lost in a book, movie or a YouTube rabbit hole. Email Aileen at aileen@dockwalk.com.

It’s easy to taste something and recognize it’s delicious (even I can handle that), but it’s something else to meet the people who made it and feel the palpable passion they have while immersed in their culture. Premier provisioner Maison Del Gusto (MDG) showcased the culinary riches of Puglia, Italy, in its second Experiencing Excellence program.

Four chefs — Rhys Bennett, Ross Dunk, Margot Laurent and Konrad Schulze — along with me, received a whirlwind tour and taste of the region. And MDG ensured a truly authentic experience as we slept in caves at the Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita in Matera. These caves were turned into dwellings and churches and have been fitted with modern luxuries like running water and Wi-fi while still respecting the local cultural heritage and the cave’s original shape.

Matera, Italy

Even though we weren’t up before the sun to see the milk delivery or the bread go in the oven, the program provided glimpses into traditions passed down by generations. Throughout our few days, Vito Dicecca, whose family founded Caseificio Dicecca in 1908, was our guide and connection to the locals.

Naturally, our first stop was Caseificio Dicecca, which has been at that location since 1930, to witness cheese being made by Vito’s brothers, and the chefs tried their hand at transforming the mozzarella into different shapes and making burrata. And just around the corner is Di Gesù bakery with its 90-year-old oven, where five generations of bakers have maintained their roots by using the same bread recipe and traditional scquanète shape.

Tasting focaccia in Di Gesu bakery

The rainy weather didn’t dampen our spirits as we walked around Altamura’s historic center, visiting local producers and sites. Since the 1950s, Molino Artigianale DiBenedetto, the smallest and oldest mill in Altamura, has kept the same production process, though now it can be controlled via touch screen.

Just across from the oldest baker’s oven in Altamura, L’Antico Forno Santa Caterina that dates back to 1391, were two nonnas making orecchiette for our lunch. At 86 and 87 years old, the nonnas churned out the ear-shaped pasta with ease and didn’t hold back at criticizing the chefs’ attempts and results. Even the oddly shaped orecchiette tasted delicious tossed in the white fennel pesto, served alongside various cheeses from Caseificio Dicecca and tiella Pugliese — a dish of rice, potatoes, mussels, tomatoes and onions baked in the oven.

Rhys making orecchiette with the nonnas

Our stomachs got some rest as we soaked in sights and history. During our walking tour of UNESCO World Heritage Site Alberobello, local guide Mimmo Patrizio Palmisano shared the history of the town and its distinctive trulli buildings.

The evening continued as we ventured around Old Bari, which just two decades ago was viewed as very dangerous. Even the owner of Panificio Santa Rita sent his parents away to Northern Italy because of a threat, and at 53, he has spent his whole life at the bakery, serving arguably the best Bari Focaccia.

Trulli in Alberobello

Despite being quite full from all these “small” tastes, there were more local specialties to try: panzaretto, a street food of a fried pouch with tomato and mozzarella; sgagliozza, triangular pieces of fried polenta; and spaghetti all’Assassina (“killer spaghetti”), a spicy and crispy pasta that is cooked in the pan.

Eli, Margot, Ross, Rhys, and Konrad in Trani

The next day, after our bicycle tour around Trani, we had earned our aperitivo of raw clams, mussels and sea urchin while enjoying the view of Trani’s marina. But we couldn’t linger long as we had lunch reservations at Michelin-starred restaurant Quintessenza with a specially designed menu paired with some of Puglia’s best wines. Following the meal, head chef Stefano Di Gennaro received our compliments, especially for the layered seafood risotto so each bite was different, and he shared how the octopus we raved about being so soft was prepared — steamed, chill-blasted and roasted.

That evening, the chefs worked together to cook a dinner inspired by the program’s experiences in the hotel’s kitchen, which added the challenge of being far too small for the four of them and lacking some equipment and utensils. As usual, the chefs compromised and improvised, and guests were none the wiser. From the aperitif to dessert, each chef was inspired by ingredients we encountered like Dicecca cheese or the dishes, such as the tiella and prepared their own take.

Margot and Konrad plating dessert

For our final meal the following day, Mariangela, who spent 35 years in the restaurant business, welcomed us into her home in Bernalda, cooking us a meal of Italian staples: polpette di pane, balls of bread with tomato sauce; ciambotta, a stew full of vegetables with eggs nestled in; plus peperone crusco, peppers from Basilicata crisped in oil.

“Our overarching goal with the Experiencing Excellence program was to create an immersive experience that not only showcased the culinary riches of Puglia but also fostered a deeper understanding and appreciation among chefs from diverse backgrounds,” MDG co-founder Eli Ierardi says. “The program was designed to be a harmonious blend of cultural exploration and professional development, and it seems like we achieved just that!”

Rhys, Mariangela, Eli, and Ross in Bernalda

“To have been part of such a well-coordinated program was a real privilege,” shares Rhys, who hopes to use the insight he has now to explain and serve to guests as part of a larger Italian-inspired menu. “I loved the people Eli and Vito had selected for us to meet and learn from, but I also enjoyed the other less food focused elements of the trip.”

It also served as a catalyst for the chefs, allowing them to delve into the origins of exceptional ingredients. “What makes this initiative particularly noteworthy is its rarity,” Ross says. “Given the nature of our work, which often places us in remote locations, we lack the luxury of first-hand connections to producers that would be more accessible in a land-based setting.”

Konrad says, “For my everyday working life, I will try to retain the passion that all the people there have for their products and their food in general.”

Konrad, Graziano, Eli, Rhys, Margot, and Ross at Trani Cathedral

No words could possibly describe or do justice to the food I tasted and the experiences we had, but the feeling of those few days has stuck with me — the history of these places spanning centuries; the tradition of the food that is so inherently from Altamura, Bari or Puglia; the joy of everyone sharing their passions with us; and the dedication to keeping it all alive.

“You can see it in the way they speak about their work,” Margot says. “This meticulous attention to detail that went into the product's creation, the tradition and techniques used in its development or the tireless efforts put in to ensure it meets the highest standards of excellence. This pride and dedication are what us chefs live for.”


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