Chef Federico Valicenti is a real people person and when you visit his restaurant Ristorante Tipico Luna Rossa in Terranova di Pollino, the main town in the eastern part of the Pollino National Park in Basilicata, you experience so much more than just a meal. Apart from the stunning views from the restaurant terrace and the fantastic food featuring local produce and homemade pasta such as the pasta bruna made from a mix of chick pea, barley, wheat and oat flours, one of the highlights of eating here is Chef Valicenti himself. During our lunch, which consisted of 9 courses, he came to our table during each course to explain what we were eating, especially the historical or traditional significance of the dish.
Modern day Basilicata was once part of an ancient area of Southern Italy known as Lucania. The restaurant features Lucanian cuisine and also what is commonly referred to as cucina povera or peasant food although Chef Valicenti prefers to refer to it as traditional food and he has fine tuned ancient regional recipes to include on his menu.
We had the tasting menu which consisted of 3 taster portions of anitpasti, 2 of primi piatti (literally ‘first plate’, but difficult to translate exactly as meals in the UK and many other countries are in a completely different format, but which I’m sure we all know refers to what is usually a pasta or rice course), 2 of secondi – often the meat or fish course and 2 of dessert. If you want to try this tasting menu or menù di degustazione go hungry because the ‘taster portions’ are generous.
The first antipasto, “ciambottella nella sportella” was a dish conceived of in the past as an easy way to transport a meal away from home and into the fields to be eaten during a short break in the working day. It is a hollowed out bread roll filled with peppers, tomato, egg and salsiccia (sausage) and capped again with a bread ‘lid’. A convenient meal in an edible container! There are probably many international examples of this type of dish. From the UK the Cornish pasty springs to mind which was exactly the same concept; meat and potatoes inside a pastry case, the pastry being the edible container, which was a meal that Cornish miners used to be sent down the mines with, now widely enjoyed all over the UK.
Indeed, Chef Valicenti will tell you that there is a story behind every dish on his menu, for example the “coscia della sposa” or the “bride’s thigh” is a slow cooked leg of lamb. Legend has it that this dish was served to the bridegroom during the wedding dinner to compensate him for the upholding of a past rule known as "lo ius primae noctis" which stated that the Count or Lord of the area had the right to the first night with his bride! Then there’s “maiale alla rabatana” - pork cooked with orange peel. This was a dish devised by the Lucanians to prevent Arab invaders from eating their oranges as, once cooked with pork, the oranges would no longer be appealing to them.
The Chef is also willing to accommodate special diets whilst maintaining the main flavours of the dish, and was able to produce, for example, a vegetarian version or alternative of all the 9 courses of the tasting menu for me which I requested with a day’s notice. Another nice surprise is the bill at the end of the meal which we found to be more than reasonable at €40 a head for 9 courses, a bottle of wine, coffee and liqueur.
Chef Federico Valicenti - image courtesy of lafamevienmangiando.com
Not only a great talent in the kitchen, but also a font of knowledge of the region, Chef Valicenti came and sat at our table at the end of the meal and asked about our plans for the rest of the day. We were in fact heading back to our hotel in Matera and had been planning on returning via the same route we had arrived by. Thanks to the Chef, who produced a hand-drawn map for us and took the time to explain what we could see along the way, we took a different route back through the National Park enjoying some of the sights we would have otherwise missed. This level of service and attention to detail is not such a common thing these days and was a real treat, although I have to say that in general the service and hospitality was of a very high standard everywhere we went in Basilicata, even at the little supermarket round the corner from where we stayed in Matera who presented us with a 3 or 4 generous free samples of local cheeses when we were trying to decide which to buy.
Tip: If you have the chance to go and eat at Luna Rossa and you don’t speak Italian yourself, bring along an Italian speaking friend to translate for you. If that’s not possible, come anyway, put yourself in the hands of the Chef and let the food speak for itself!
Chef Valicenti will soon be opening a new restaurant in Rome offering a menu that celebrates Italian excellence whilst leaning towards mediterranean cuisine and street food.
For more information visit: www.federicovalicenti.it