James Delingpole

In a restaurant this perfect-seeming,there has to be something fishy

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‘God, you are going to love this place — it is absolutely perfect!’ I report back after my recce. ‘It’s completely ramshackle, kind of a beach-hut arrangement, almost. They don’t speak a word of English. It’s in this gorgeous position bang next to the sea. And they’re open for lunch tomorrow.’

‘Sounds brilliant,’ says the Fawn.

‘Oh it really is. I think this is going to be it. The one. You know, one of those throwbacks to the days of Elizabeth David, like they just don’t make any more.’

‘Great!’

So we arrive the next day, the four of us, and it is indeed as I described: the dining terrace right on the very edge of the sparkling azure waters of the Adriatic; the scruffy arrangement of huts and awnings and other makeshift structures lending it a pleasing air of rustic authenticity and tremendous value for money; the proprietor and his wife and brother or whoever looking less like restaurateurs, more like the kind of people you see running a fairground — which is good, very good, because it means they’re proper ­fisherfolk, probably, who are doing this for the love.

There’s only one problem. The restaurant specialises in fish and Girl doesn’t like fish. This we try to explain to the proprietor as he looms over our table, but we don’t succeed, first because he doesn’t speak a word of English and second because he’s far too busy telling us what we’re going to have: ‘Antipasti — frutti di mare. Uno? Due? Spaghetti alla vongole? Spaghetti alla marinara? Uno? Due? Tre? Sea bass? Quattro sea bass? Tre?’

OK, I exaggerated. He does have two words of English, ‘sea’ and ‘bass’. And possibly a few more words of multilingual praise for how good his frutti di mare and his spaghetti alla marinara and his sea bass are. But that’s OK — it’s part of The Experience. Indeed, as I confide to the Fawn in a self-congratulatory aside once he’s gone, this is yet another sign that the food we’re going to get is going to be really, really special. It’s only in the most authentic restaurants, after all, that you don’t get to see a menu; that the proprietor comes and tells you what you’re going to have because that’s all there is, freshly caught just seconds earlier that day, probably.

You’re no doubt thinking at this point, because of the way I’ve set it up, that the food’s going to be crap.

In fact, though, the frutti di mare antipasto is the business: fat chunks of cold octopus in vinegar and oil; more octopus, hot this time, in red wine; mussels stuffed with breadcrumbs and cheese; mussels with breadcrumbs and garlic; a Puglian version of moules marinières; triangles of pale creamy pecorino; and those anchovies — the nice, creamy-white fresh ones in oil, as opposed to the horrid stinky salty brown type you get in tins. And olives. And a pitcher of the local white wine the colour of urine — tangy and oh-so-echt.

And that’s just the first course. Next we’ve got two plates of spaghetti we’ve got somehow to find room for. And after that, the pièce de résistance, the sea bass, which I would never order in a million years normally. Sea bass, I happen to think, is the most overrated fish in the entire fish kingdom. It’s priced like a noble white fish, like turbot or Dover sole, but in delicacy of texture and subtlety and general whiteness, well I’m sorry, I’d rate it closer to mackerel. Obviously, though, we can’t not have it here because the proprietor has recommended it and his boats only hauled them in an hour ago, probably, and if we turned it down we’d be missing on The Experience.

We’re feeling pleasantly tiddly now. And bloated. The kids are playing nicely together on the rocks, trying to catch tiny fish and crabs, and we’re looking on, talking about how very nice it is when the kids are playing nicely and how gorgeous the cloudless blue sky and sparkly sea are and how incredibly lucky we are to have found this amazing restaurant. Because it really is, you know. That frutti di mare and that spaghetti alla marinara were some of the best I’ve ever eaten. And now, look — wow! — here’s the sea bass!

We eat the sea bass, making the sort of ‘mming’ and ‘aaahing’ noises you make when eating freshly grilled sea bass, its skin all charred, all costing next to nothing in the kind of rustic, authentic seaside restaurant such as you used to find all over the Med in the good old days before the euro spoiled everything.

Then we have coffee. Then, while we’re waiting for our transport to take us back to the hotel, we talk to some fellow English customers who tell us that this place is Puglia’s best-kept secret. (Though possibly not as best-kept as all that, because apparently Rick Stein discovered it about six years ago and has been singing its praises ever since.)

While we’re chatting the proprietor arrives and puts the bill on our table. I glance back and smile at him, indicating I’ll settle it in a moment. I feel as relaxed and happy as only you can when you’ve gone back in time to the Italy of a Ripley novel and when you know the best bit — the punchline which you repeat to all your friends ad nauseam: ‘No go on. Guess how much the bill came to…’ — is yet to come.

Before allowing my eyes to focus on the bill, I tease myself with the imagined answer. Sixty euros, max, I’m guessing. But most likely lower. Much lower. Comically lower, in fact. More like...

WHAAAAAAT?