My wife, Plaxy, and I have recently been going to Puglia a lot because we are doing up a house there. They say Puglia is either breeze block or baroque – architecturally, there’s nothing in between – and our place is still a building site. We bought it from two brothers who’d divided the house in two, and we are putting it back together again. It’s been a long process, but at least we’ve got to know the area. We don’t look for fancy places when we are on holiday – we want to be able to relax. One hotel we really love is called Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, in Marittima di Diso, right on the heel of Italy. It used to be a convent where nuns from northern Europe would acclimatise to the heat before they headed to Constantinople, and it’s now a very laid-back hotel owned by Athena McAlpine, wife of the late Alistair McAlpine. It’s an incredible place, with eight cell-like rooms and a beautiful pool, but no wi-fi, no TV, no nothing. Instead, Athena has filled it with her extraordinary collection of art from around the world, and maybe 50,000 books. It’s mental. Athena floats about in glamorous outfits, and service is done in such a subtle way. Breakfast is served until 1pm, and all day you can help yourself to whatever you want.
It was while staying there that we came across a tiny restaurant called Aria Corte. The owner, Virgilio, is a kind of gardener-chef-revolutionary, but he cooks in a very traditional way. He builds a big fire in the morning, fills amphorae with things like garlic, chilli and oil and different beans and peas from his garden and lets them gently cook. Then, in the evening, he grills whatever meat you want to serve with the legumes. It’s fantastic, but I suspect the bill has nothing to do with what you eat. If he likes you, you pay nothing; if he doesn’t, you pay a lot.
Aria Corte, Via Roma 30, Marittima di Diso, Italy (00 39 0836 92 06 48; ariacorte.eu)
1. Trattoria da Cicciotto
Calata Ponticello a Marechiaro 32, Naples, Italy (00 39 081 575 11 65; trattoriadacicciotto.it)
I discovered this place, perched on the clifftop above the fishing village of Marechiaro, just outside Naples, because the owner is crazy about motorbikes and cooks for the owner of the local racing team. Five of us went and he cooked something exceptional: a gurnard with tomatoes baked in the oven. The waiter removed all the bones in front of us and then put the pasta on top, covered it with a lid and told us to wait five minutes. My God, it was the best pasta I’ve ever had in my life. There was a touch of chilli, garlic, salt and pepper, but mainly it was just gurnard and fresh tomatoes. The level of sophistication in the technique was incredible, but done in such a simple way. Same with the service. You want more water? The waitress says, “Help yourself from the fridge.” I love that.
2. Osteria Francescana
Via Stella 22, Modena, Italy (00 39 059 22 39 12; osteriafrancescana.it)
It’s very hard to eat a bad meal in Emilia-Romagna, but if you love Italian food, Massimo Bottura’s restaurant in Modena is somewhere you should go once in your life. He is part of the new wave of Italian chefs, but he has a great understanding of the history and quality of ingredients, and of what Italian food should be. He pushes the boundaries but without being disrespectful to tradition. I was never a fan of El Bulli, but this is something else. You don’t go there for a meal with friends as such; it’s more a meditative experience. He has a dish called “Five different ages of parmesan” that is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.
Uliassi, Senigallia, Italy
Banchina di Levante 6, Senigallia, Italy (00 39 071 65 463; uliassi.it)
Uliassi may have two Michelin stars, but it started out as a beach café and it’s still a family favourite overlooking the Spiaggia di Velluto, or “velvet beach”, on the Marche coast. The cooking combines the expected – spaghetti with clams and grilled tomatoes, for example – with the unexpected: tagliatelle of cuttlefish with nori pesto, or prawns with pineapple sage flowers. The thing I remember most was a mayonnaise flavoured with sea urchin. When I tasted that, I thought, “Whoa, this is genius.”
4. Da Vittorio
Via Friuli Venizia Giulia 9, Porto Palo di Menfi, Sicily (00 39 0925 78 381; ristorantevittorio.it)
I’ve been coming to this family-run hotel and restaurant on the beach for years. There’s no menu, but the fish is as fresh as you could hope for. Sometimes it can be quite sophisticated – they make an amazing pasta dish with John Dory eggs, for example, and with sea urchins – but mainly it’s dishes such as tuna carpaccio or grilled catch of the day. One of the first times I was there, they said they didn’t have any fish, but you could see them building up this enormous barbecue. Then you heard the putt-putt-putt of a fishing boat and this guy in yellow waders jumped off with a box of live sardines. They went straight on the grill, no washing, no gutting, nothing – and they were incredible. When I see something so simple and natural, it makes me feel I should be more relaxed in my own cooking.
261 Moore Street, Brooklyn, New York (00 1 718 417 1118; robertaspizza.com)
There are a couple of places I love in New York. One is a dim sum place called Jing Fong on Elizabeth Street, right in the middle of Chinatown. It’s the size of two football pitches and the steam trolley is really steaming. They do the usual dumplings such as har gow (prawn) and siu mai (prawn and pork), but my favourite dish is chicken feet. I love that sticky mix of cartilage and fat, all coated in black bean sauce.
Otherwise, there’s this supercool pizza place in Brooklyn. The Americans really f***ed up pizza, but this is the only place outside Naples that I’ve tasted proper Neapolitan ones. It’s located in an old garage in an industrial part of town and still has its old metal shutters. They’ve gone back to basics, with good soft sourdough cooked at a high temperature and topped with first-rate ingredients. And I spotted that they use the same tinned tomatoes that I do.
6. The Bull & Last
168 Highgate Road, London NW5 (020 7267 3641; thebullandlast.co.uk)
I haven’t been to a Michelin-starred restaurant with the family in years. When you’ve been working in the kitchen, tasting dishes all day, you want to go somewhere completely different, where you can relax. This is our local boozer, which we go to with our children, Jack and Dita, and Olive, our cockerpoo. The food is very English, very produce-orientated and very unfussy, which explains why it’s so hard to get a table. They’ve got a good wine list, too, which is great because I don’t drink beer.
7. Shimo Gamo
108 Parkway, London NW1 (020 7424 9560; shimogamo.co.uk)
This is a brilliant Japanese place not far from our house. The sushi and sashimi are both good, but it’s the aubergine with red and white miso that I go here for. My mouth starts watering as soon as I think about it.
Scott’s, London W1
20 Mount Street, London W1 (020 7495 7309; scotts-restaurant.com)
When I go out, the food doesn’t matter to me so much – it’s more about the experience. And this place always delivers. Not that the food is anything other than excellent, but the key to feeling special is to be treated just a bit better than normally, without it being obsequious, and the guys at Scott’s work it perfectly.
9. Del Parc
167 Junction Road, London N19 (020 7281 5684; delparc.com)
A tiny Spanish restaurant near Archway. They’re only open four evenings a week, and there’s no menu: the chef just stands in the tiny open kitchen and sends out tapas as and when they are ready. You can see he has been shopping that morning and everything is superfresh.
Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, Great Milton, Oxfordshire
10. Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons
Church Road, Great Milton, Oxfordshire (01844 278881; raymondblanc.com)
Plaxy and I go here if we need a celebratory night away. The way Raymond Blanc has maintained standards is incredible. It’s all about the relationship between the garden and the kitchen, which is so close it feels almost like a dream. When I was little, I used to sit on a box of beer in my uncle’s restaurant and watch as people came in. As soon as there was an order for perch, my job would be to run downstairs and pick three sage leaves, fresh for every portion. I grew up thinking that was what cooking was about, getting your ingredients fresh and cooking them straightaway. When you arrive at Le Manoir and you see the chefs picking peas in the garden and then there is a pea soup on the menu, it’s magical.