Sublime seafood in Puglia

The seafood at these charming restaurants is so fresh there’s no need for cheffy self-indulgence

Ristorante Porta Nova, Ostuni
Ristorante Porta Nova, Ostuni

If Puglia is the heel of Italy's boot, then the picturesque seaside town of Trani is somewhere around its upper Achilles tendon. Despite 20th-century sprawl – the old town, with its imposing 13th-century fort, glorious Romanesque cathedral and pretty fishing harbour – remains more or less untouched.

The harbour is where the fish-mad Gannet stumbled across Osteria La Banchina, having spotted a toothsome sea bass in the restaurant’s open fridge. I had it kept to one side for an hour or so, though, while I scoured the menu looking for other fishy treats: mussels with some of the summer’s last cherry tomatoes, skinned and sweet, and a fragrant, herby, olive oil-rich broth, mopped up with toast; some especially wonderful octopus, squashed into a tin and cooked slowly like a terrine, then sliced thinly and anointed with a sparkling citrus dressing; and a half-portion of tagliolini flecked with herbs and sweet prawns.

All were terrific, particularly with a bottle of Marina Cvetic's Trebbiano Riserva from Abruzzo, and the sea bass – beautifully cooked, fragrant with smoke from the grill – was only marginally spoiled by my seeing platters of oysters and sea urchins being delivered to neighbouring tables. They weren't on the menu, but I should have asked.

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That schoolboy error apart, I thoroughly enjoyed Osteria La Banchina. If the fish is fresh, there is no need for cheffy self-indulgence: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as the saying goes, a sentiment that seafood cooks the world over would do well to heed.

Around the top of Italy’s heel, in the pleasantly scruffy, hilly, white-walled old city of Ostuni, the chefs at Porta Nova generally stick to that principle. The service is charming too: I had wandered in wearing sandals and shorts, expecting a humble trattoria, and nearly turned tail when I saw the smartly liveried dining room and its magnificent picture windows with views stretching as far as the Adriatic.

Don’t you dare (or something like that: my colloquial Italian is somewhat ropey) said the maître d’, so I made my excuses and stayed. Squid ink trofie – thin, elegant quills of pasta – was dressed with anchovy, baby squid, breadcrumbs fried in olive oil and cime di rapa (turnip tops, that most Puglian of green vegetables): a perfect balance of flavour and texture.

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Then sea bream: a fat tranche of it, bathing happily in an olive oil and fish stock emulsion, artichokes and carrots scattered next to it. A bottle of local Fiano provided a pleasingly lemony counterpoint. I lingered for an hour after that, admiring the scenery and finishing my wine. Overfed, overwatered but underdressed… and – in the best possible way – down at heel.

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