The ancient port town of Bari, located on the Achilles tendon of the Italian boot, is often regarded as little more than a launch point for the more tantalizing excursions further down the Apulian coast. It is here that the vast cruise ships disgorge their hoards for day trips to Lecce, and where tourists decamp from the airport in rental cars bound for the new luxury B&Bs dotted along the Aegean sea. But Bari, with its old citadel and laid back atmosphere, is worth exploring for a night or two, not least for an opportunity to dine at Al 2 Ghiottoni, one of the finest examples of authentic Apulian cuisine to be found on Italy’s southern shores.
At first glance, Al 2 Ghiottoni, tucked between an Argentine butcher and a kindergarten on a busy commercial road, looks like an uninspired chain restaurant. But just beyond the gaudy neon signage and framed prints of nudes in cocktail glasses is a luscious display of prime aged meats and fresh seafood that are the local specialties. In Puglia, crudo isn’t just for beef—here everything from langoustines to sea urchin, tuna and whole octopus are served raw. To order the seafood crudo antipasti plate is to forever wonder why it’s only oysters that get the raw treatment, when freshly shucked mussels and clams are such a revelation.
The kitchen also knows how to turn up the heat. The restaurant, dubbed after the two gourmands who opened it nearly 30 years ago, has a flare for making the humdrum menu items anything but ordinary: pesto here is enlivened with flecks of red pepper, tarragon and ricotta, and served over rigatoni noodles so big they could almost pass for bangles. The dry-aged beef, served rare, is the ideal combination of seared outer crust and a crudo-like interior. If you like your meat well done, better to go somewhere else. Or stick with the fish, either the catch of the day braised whole in a bath of wine, garlic and cherry tomatoes, or in a seafood risotto so stuffed with plump morsels of squid, mussels, shrimp and octopus that its difficult to find the pearls of rice that give the dish its name.
After three courses it may be tempting to put off dessert. Don’t. Ask instead for a plate of fresh, creamy ricotta—another local specialty. It comes with a massive bar of chocolate laid upon what looks like a paper guillotine. Shave off as much or as little chocolate as you like, sprinkle it over the ricotta, and laugh at the poor souls who cleared out of Bari as soon as they landed. An impossibly large dinner for two, with wine, costs about $125.
Al 2 Ghiottoni, Ristorante Braceria-Pizzeria, http://www.ai2ghiottoni.it.