Basilicata, in southern Italy, is the land of wild boar. And wine. And the best bread in Italy. It’s a place to which few people travel, a region that has gone from being the shame of Italy to one of the country’s greatest hidden treasures – especially for anyone who likes to eat.
Basilicata has never been a wealthy region, like Tuscany, Campania or Emilia Romania. Instead, this sparsely populated state has always been one of the poorest, an arid, mountainous, dusty, no-man’s land between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Taranto.
There are no major airports or train stations in Basilicata. You don’t pass through here on your way to somewhere else more important. You really must choose to come. To do so, you travel first to neighboring Puglia, then rent a car and drive past the hookers who solicit truckers on the roadside on the outskirts of Bari. This is one of the last places in Italy to get a modern highway, and parts of it are still under construction – not yet recognized by GPS devices – which becomes a great source of consternation at a roundabout in the middle of nowhere when the computerized map on the dashboard of my rented Fiat is convinced that I’ve wandered deep into a pasture and is desperately trying to re-plot my route as I go round and round. “Look kids, Big Ben!”
In his memoir “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” Italian artist and antifascist activist Carlo Levi told the story of his capture and imprisonment by Mussolini’s government during the lead-up to World War II. Rather than being locked behind bars, Levi was exiled to the Province of Matera, in Basilicata, where he was permitted to live and roam freely but wasn’t allowed to leave. The region then was so impoverished and cut off from the rest of Italy that having to live here was considered a far worse punishment than prison.
Levi reserved his grimmest description for the remote mountaintop town of Matera itself, which was caught in a horrific downward spiral several hundred years in the making. There, in a neighborhood known as the Sassi, was a slum where thousands of people lived in squalor in a labyrinth of crudely chiseled sandstone caves, sleeping head to hoof with the few goats and chickens they owned, with no education, no plumbing, no electricity, and no hope. The nicer part of town wasn’t all that much better. Most people here had never seen a car. They traveled by foot or borrowed a frail donkey. But after the 1945 publication of Levi’s memoir, the Sassi, which means “stones” in Italian, became a great shame for Italy’s new government, and in 1952 every single resident was evacuated and relocated, leaving behind a ghost town whose haunting beauty wouldn’t be fully appreciated for decades.
The government repeatedly devised plans to demolish the Sassi, to erase the cruel memories, but they never found the money to follow through. Then in 1993 the United Nations stepped in and designated the Sassi di Matera as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thus forever preserving the remarkable architecture and landscape. Slowly, outsiders began to appreciate the beauty of the Sassi. One by one, the caves are being transformed into quaint B&Bs, farm-to-table restaurants and clothing boutiques. Although still only partially restored, the Sassi will absolutely take your breath away.
Basilicata’s three key destinations: Matera, Bernalda, and Rionero in Vulture.
A winding country road connects the towns of Matera and Bernalda, about 40 minutes apart by car. Thousands of years younger than its neighbor, Bernalda never suffered like Matera. Equally cut off from the rest of Italy, though, Bernalda has more or less kept to itself, a simple town with simple needs. The streets are narrow and mostly paved with stones. Faded work shirts and granny panties flutter on clotheslines strung between second-floor balconies. Farm tractors share the road with bicycles – almost everyone rides a bike, and absolutely no one owns a lock. Why would they?
Northwest of Matera is another mountaintop town called Rionero in Vulture. Basilicata’s best wines come from the aglianico vineyards of Rionero. One of the region’s oldest wineries, Cantine Del Notaio, was the first to switch from using local chestnut barrels to French oak, which changed aglianico’s future. That was in the 1990s, and the grape is only starting to gain the international recognition it deserves.
What to eat in Basilicata’s Matera Province
Despite the stark differences between Matera and Bernalda, the entire province has always shared a strong common bond: a deeply ingrained pride in the local regional cuisine, known as Lucanian. Although the name changed from Lucania to Basilicata in the mid-sixth century, the people here have always referred to themselves and their agriculture as Lucanian.
Pig farming – mostly wild boar – plays a crucial role. The boar are often left to roam alongside sheep in open pastures. Hillsides shimmer with the silvery leaves of centuries-old olive groves. Gnarled grapevines produce the same primitivo and aglianico grapes that farmers have been growing here since the Greeks arrived thousands of years prior.
Although it’s not uncommon to see restaurants advertising “alta cucina,” true haute cuisine has never made it this far, at least not the way we think of fine Italian cuisine elsewhere. You won’t eat extravagantly in Basilicata. But you will eat very, very well.
Where to stay in Matera
- Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita: The most authentic cave restoration in the Sassi. Luxury turned upside-down. Eighteen mind-blowing rooms. Rates from $325. See also: La Dolce Grotta: Italy’s Best Kept Secret
- Corte San Pietro: Intimate cave hotel with only 11 rooms. Personalized service. Rates from $275.
- Hotel Sant’Angelo: Contemporary comfort in the Sassi caves, with 23 rooms. Rooftop restaurant. Rates from $285.
- Palazzo Gattini: The former palace of the oldest noble family of Matera, the House of Gattini. Now a 20-room luxury hotel. Basement spa. Rates from $275.
Where to eat in Matera
- Ristorante Francesca: Via Bruno Buozzi 9. Hand-rolled trofie with Lucanian chillies and boar. Mixed grill of lamb. Podolico T-bone for two.
- Morgan Ristorante: Via Bruno Buozzi 2. Lucanian prosciutto and salumi. Handmade pastas.
- Latteria Emanuele Rizzi: Via Duni Emanuele 2. Salumi and wine shop with a secret dining room in the back, serving local cheese, cured meats and wine.
- Pizzeria Sant’Agostino: Via D’Addozio 6/8. Best pizza in town.
- Il Cantuccio: Via delle Beccherie 33. Tiny, ultra-cramped trattoria in the heart of the former noble section. Reserve several days in advance. Braised rabbit. Prosciutto-wrapped pork belly.
- Baccanti: Via Sant’Angelo 58/61. Deepest wine cellar in Matera, occupying an entire cave of its own. Foie gras with wild raspberry mostarda. Salt-crusted branzino.
- Groove: Via Roma 10. Craft beer bar with DJs and live jazz. Italian microbrews. Salumi. Panzanella. Pasta.
Where to stay in Bernalda
- Giardino Giamperduto: A former dairy turned 11-room agriturismo hotel. Charming and quiet. Pool. Cooking classes. Rates from $115.
- Palazzo Margherita: Francis Ford Coppola’s private family residence turned 12-room hotel. Extraordinary concierge. Exquisite. Rates from $725. See my full review of Palazzo Margherita.
Where to eat in Bernalda
- Al Vecchio Frantoio: Via Corso Umberto 70. Wood-fired pizza. Grilled lamb.
- Osteria La Locandiera: Via Corso Umberto 194. Stuffed squash blossoms. Veal meatballs. Whole pork shank.
- Cinecitta Bar Bistrot: Via Corso Umberto 62. Grilled wild boar. Wood-fired pizza. Limoncello.
- Bar Azimut Cafe: Via Corso Umberto 110. Local beer. Flatbread and salumi sandwiches.
- Giardino Giamperduto: (dinner served during high season only) Via Giamperduto. Handmade trofie with wild boar ragu. Housemade ricotta ravioli.