‘Teacher! My teacher! Oh my god!’ Lucio, the owner of Atlantis, the restaurant in which we’re eating tonight, is over the moon to see Alex. Alex taught him two years ago, and there’s a lot to catch up on, apparently. ‘I went to London for a year. Una ragazza inglese. Una bella ragazza inglese.‘ Lucio sighs, a far away look in his eyes. ‘It’s finished now of course.’ He winks and roars with laughter before returning to schmoozing around the tables.
There’s a fair bit of schmoozing to be done, it has to be said. Atlantis is a seriously good restaurant, and the tables are all full up, with people waiting to be seated. The setting, right by the beach just outside Otranto’s town centre, is idyllic, and the food is excellent. It’s expensive by Salentino standards (about €65 per head) but absolutely worth it. We start with antipasti misti, which includes both raw and cooked fish. The frittura mista is made up of cubes of white fish combined with razor-thin slivers of zucchini, all dropped into feather-light batter and fried for mere seconds into hot, sizzling deliciousness. Drizzled, as it is, with a thick, sticky, balsamic reduction, I think I’ve just about reached nirvana in terms of taste. That is, until I try the crudo platter, at which point I collapse into a puddle of gourmand goo under the table. As Alex squeezes lemon juice over the raw shellfish, the scallops visibly contract. They really couldn’t be much fresher, and they are utterly delicious. The oysters are plump and juicy, tasting of the sea without it being overpowering, and the clams are little mouthfuls of heaven. The stars of the show, however, are the scampi. Almost translucent (but with just a touch of palest, palest pink to them), they are unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. They are actually *sweet* and I could happily eat them all evening. It’s hard to believe that, once upon a time, they were so little-rated in the UK that they were cheap as chips and used as chicken substitute. Now, of course, things have changed and gone the other way, with chicken being the poor relation. I know which one I’d rather pay for, though, and it doesn’t have wings.
In the break between courses, Lucio returns for more gossip. He rolls his eyes salaciously at us before sitting down. ‘Che cazzo: the English!’ We all splutter with laughter: he’s referring to a large table of middle-aged Chianti-shire exports behind us. They’ve been arriving in dribs and drabs for the past half an hour, every arrival punctuated with a lot of air kissing and ‘buona sera’-ing, spoken with that very obvious Cotswolds twang. It’s strange how alien they sound to me now, after a year of being surrounded by Italians. With a little jolt, I realise that, while far from being a native, I’m no longer the outsider that I was 8 months ago. It’s a good feeling.
Our secondo arrives: a large grilled fish, served whole. The waiter fillets it for us at the table, asking Alex if he wants the head. Always game for a challenge, Alex laughs a little nervously and accepts. Mmm. Fish cheeks. Once again, it’s delicious, and we subside into greedy silence. A plate of more scampi arrives to accompany the fish. This time, however, it’s grilled rather than raw. It’s just as delicious, but in a very different way. I can’t resist grabbing it straight off the plate almost before it’s put down in front of us and am taught the error of my ways as I burn my fingers. That toasted seashell smell is just too hard to resist, however, and I lick my wounds and go back for a second try. They’re cool enough to handle now and I demolish three of them in very short order, mopping up the juices with yellow Puglian bread and a dash of local olive oil. I’m almost too full to move, but then the waiter offers sorbettini and coffee. Well, they aid digestion, don’tcha know? As does limoncrema, straight from the freezer. Now that’s a recipe I really have to learn – my digestive system is absolutely counting on it. Honest.
Image by Kate Bailward