Society long ago left its troglodyte history behind and embraced the wonders of modern life, but these days dining in a cave can be one of the most sought after and extravagant meals available.
There is something exhilarating and beckoning about walking into a restaurant where the first thing you hear is the crashing of waves, the twittering of birds and the rhythmic lapping of water, and a light salty sea mist floats in the spring air as you walk down steps carved into a rock cliff face. You know you’re not in any ordinary restaurant.
My husband and I were lunching in the underground cave restaurant Grotta Palezzese beneath the town of Polignano a Mare (pron: pol-yee-arno-ah-mar-eh). Located on Italy’s Adriatic coast, Polignano a Mare is a gem in its own right. Known as ‘the pearl of the Adriatic’ it sits on dramatic limestone cliffs along the coast of Puglia, the area known as ‘the heel of the Italian boot’. It has prehistoric roots and evidence of ancient Greek and Roman civilisations. It’s a favourite for Italian tourists, but not that popular among foreigners … yet.
The car-free historic town centre is a postcard-perfect maze of cobbled streets and stairways lined with cafes, restaurants, bars, boutiques and churches. It’s a place where everything happens slowly: eating, drinking, chatting, shop browsing and strolling along the walkways which eventually lead to one of the lookouts or bridges that give amazing views of the town, the rugged cliffs and the beaches and coves of the coastline below.
And it’s at sea level where you find the area’s most famous attraction, the maze of marine caves eroded into the limestone cliffs under the town. The Palazzese cave, the largest in the marine cave complex, gives its name to the world-renowned restaurant above.
But the Palazzese cave is no newcomer to the dining scene. It has been used by Italian nobility as a venue for parties and banquets for centuries. The cave was a favourite place for entertaining young nobles as they passed through on their ‘Grand Tour’, the extravagant European trip undertaken by young men of means when they came of age in the 1700s. And it’s a dining tradition that the restaurant holds dear. The 1783 painting ‘La Grotta di Palazzo’ by French artist Jean Louis Desprez depicting a banquet in the cave features prominently on their menu and in-house stationery.
But jump forward almost 250 years and things have changed. The cave, the cliffside buildings surrounding it and the stone cliff stairway depicted in the Desprez painting are relatively untouched, but gone are the open fires, spit roasts, terracotta urns, lavish platters, the brightly coloured bunting and boisterous entertainment. Today, you are greeted by the tranquillity and understated elegance of simple furnishings, muted lights, white linen, sparkling glassware and suited waiters and sommeliers. And the unchanged and still breathtaking view of the Adriatic Sea.
The dining experience
We were seated at a table right at the balcony railing where the turquoise water crashed against the rocks 25 metres below us and stretched endlessly in the distance. The cave floor is wood-panelled and several rows of tables across take you to an internal railing where the sea cave laps rhythmically beside you. Above, the cave roof is natural jagged rock where sea birds frequently fly in for a quick visit, circling through the cave before returning to their outside habitat.
Sumptuous can be an overused word in the food scene, but it’s really the only one to describe the menu selections which read like a book of artworks more than lunch dishes. We took our time over the menu because it was salivatingly, hand-wringingly difficult to decide whether to go with one of the three degustation menus or to choose á la carte, but we eventually opted for three á la carte courses.
Our selections included snapper tartare with melon and pomegranate extract; scallops with capocollo salami and sweet olives; spaghettone pasta with whitebait, sea urchins and yellow tomato sauce; Iberian pork with cheese fondue and Murgia black truffles; bluefin tuna belly with Jerusalem artichokes, figs and vinegar pearls; and shellfish with wild green salad, sour cream and lemon gel.
The wine selection was just as difficult with a list that included more than 300 labels from around the world. We’re great believers in enjoying local foods and wines when we travel so we chose a Calitro Negroamaro Rosato from the Salento region of Puglia. It was a rich and fruity rosé and light enough for our mainly seafood lunch. And, because we don’t often get to dine in a sea cave and we intended to make the most of our sojourn sitting above the beautiful Puglian coast, we enjoyed two bottles over a very leisurely lunch.
But was it worth it?
There are numerous reviews and comments about ‘Grotta Palazzese’ on travel sites and social media. They range from reports of sublime experiences to people who thought it was far too expensive, and everything in between. We paid almost Aus$800 for our experience. It was an expensive lunch by most standards but that’s the point – it was the experience that was important to us. Yes, the food and wine were beautiful but the experience of dining in a cave, the view, the ambience and the service were exceptional. That’s what we knew we would be paying for.
You can also dine at Grotta Palezzese in the evening for what is reported to be one of the most romantic candlelit dinners imaginable. We chose to go at lunchtime because it was superb weather and we wanted to make the most of the view. But next time we will try the evening sitting and locals tell us it’s best to book an early evening table so you can experience the amazing sunset before darkness descends and candlelight sets the mood.
The chef has changed since our recent visit, but I would be confident in returning for an evening meal and a similarly spectacular experience.
Alitalia and Ryan Air both offer direct flights from Rome to Bari, the capital of Puglia and only 30 km from Polignano a Mare.
There are a number of car hire companies at Bari airport and there is a lot to experience in this area of Puglia, so a car is highly recommended. Alternatively, you can also book private drivers. The historic centre of Polignano a Mare is car-free. On arrival you park on the outskirts of the town centre and the hotels and other transport businesses use small buggies and carts to collect you and your luggage for the short trip to your accommodation.
The Hotel Grotta Palezzese above the restaurant was closed for refurbishment when we were there so instead we stayed a few doors away in a beautiful boutique hotel, Dimora Talenti on the cliff: http://www.dimoratalenti.it/en/home-page/
The Hotel Grotta Palezzese has now re-opened and offers just 15 rooms. Take a look at their breathtaking views and glamorous décor. Find out more here: https://www.grottapalazzese.it/en/
What to do:
- Go on a guided boat trip to explore the sea caves, bays and coves of the coastline.
- Join the locals at the popular beaches – they’re small, rocky and pebbly as they tend to be in this part of the world, but it’s a great way to enjoy the sea.
- Stroll the waterfront and seawall for amazing views of the town and the coast
- Buy a gelato and go people-watching in the seafront square where the oversized statue of the town’s famous son, singer Domenico Modugno, draws photo-loving crowds. Locals say that if you listen carefully you can hear the strains of his best known, 1958 Grammy-winning song ‘Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu’ (better known to some as ‘Volare’) drifting through the sea air.
- Sit in the town squares and watch the world go slowly by. It won’t always be quiet; expect the unexpected. Brass bands, choirs, marching bands and religious parades can appear just metres from you when you least expect it.
- Go on tours to explore the local cathedrals, churches and museums.
- Visit the historic towns of Puglia, all of which are in easy driving distance: the historic walled city of Lecce with its baroque architecture is just over an hour’s drive south; Ostuni, known as ‘the white city’ because all buildings are painted a vibrant white is just 40 minutes away; Alberobello with its iconic trulli houses can be reached in just 30 mins; and it will only take you about 90 mins to drive to the coastal town of Gallipoli with its historic centre built on an island and linked to the mainland by bridge.