A memorable meal that changed our lives
By PAMELA HASTEROK with photos by DON LINDLEY
It might sound odd, but we moved to Monopoli in part because of the restaurant il Guazzetto.
Driving along the Adriatic coast one morning on our mission to choose a town to live in, we made an unplanned stop in Monopoli and found our way to il Guazzetto. We were hoping for an early lunch. The friendly English-speaking waiter sent us away – lunch never begins before 1 p.m. in Puglia – and we debated whether it was worth it to wait.
It was. The wait for lunch gave us time to stroll Monopoli’s atmospheric ancient centro and seafront. And the two hours at il Guazzetto informed our entire six-week scouting trip.
The memory of the authentic ambience of a restaurant a block from the sea, the warm welcome, the fish-based cuisine using local ingredients and professional techniques never left us. Afterwards, every time we considered a city’s merits and tried to narrow options for our new home, Don would interject on behalf of Monopoli.
“Let’s go back there,” he’d say.
What he really meant was let’s go back to Il Guazzetto. We did during the decisive last days of our trip, more than once. The food of Swiss-trained chefs and childhood friends Mario Dormio and Francesco Fiume was so consistently flavorful, so notably a notch above other southern Italian restaurants, that we were hooked.
The local sea bass, butter flied and baked with translucent slices of potatoes and zucchini was the essence of Puglian cooking, simplicity and flavor elevated to epic status. The fritto misto – a staple of seaside restaurants – was so lightly floured and deftly cooked one wouldn’t recognize it as fried fish. The inventive pastas featuring the freshest of both the Adriatic and the earth, were incomparable. And the crudo — platters of raw seafood that were a new experience for us — was unsurpassed.
A simple formula explains the restaurant’s success.
“When the quality is high and the price is normal,” says Dormio.
We might add the warm and accommodating staff, led by Daniele Laera, who helped translate my interview with Dormio and never fails to make us feel welcome.
Dormio and Fiume grew up together in Monopoli, both apprenticing at restaurants as teenagers and training in Castellana Grotto before working in Switzerland. Always, they dreamed of coming home and opening a restaurant together.
Each day dawns with the two shopping for fish and vegetables for the day’s menu, perhaps discussing a special they want to create. Spigola, that tasty sea bass, can show up with a sauce of potatoes, olives and cherry tomatoes. Pasta with clams might come accompanied by tiny zucchini flowers. The house namesake dish – guazzetto means stew – is an intimidating bowl filled with an aromatic red sauce and whatever the Adriatic is offering, including tuna, mussels, clams, scorfano, prawns, red mullet and langoustines.
With the success of their hometown restaurant, it would seem the two young chefs have it all. But they have one dream left.
“A restaurant on the sea, with a view,” Dormio says, a rarity even in ocean-blessed Monopoli.
No matter where the restaurant goes, we’ll be there. With some inspiration from Il Guazzetto, Monopoli is home for us, too.