Sebastiano Lombardi
Last evening I had the pleasure of dining in the sky, or rather, at Cielo in Ostuni.  I had the privilege of sitting down with the chef, Sebastiano Lombardi (age 37), who recently brought a highly coveted Michelin Star to the picturesque hilltop restaurant overlooking the azure waters of the Adriatic.  In recent times, it seems like many decorated chefs get so caught up in their own celebrity they sometimes lose sight of their true passion, and it shows at the table.  Lombardi, to the contrary, is passionate, creative, hard-working, and above all, humble, much like the traditional Puglian cuisine he's elevated to a rarified plane.   Thankfully for Puglia, Lombardi didn't listen to his parents, who encouraged him to be an accountant or lawyer.   In elementary school, he dreamed of becoming a chef; hasn't wavered for a moment since then.
Chef Lombardi attended the Scuola Alberghiera with a bias in food (In Italy, this is similar to a technical school for chefs).  After spending a good deal of his early career in Lake Garda, a tourist hot-spot near Verona, and subsquently working under Nino di Costanza at the Manzi Terme Hotel in Ischia (near Capri), Lombardi truly came into his own under the disciplined guidance and mentorship of Antonio Guida, a double Michelin-Starred chef, at Hotel Pelicano in Argentario (Tuscany).  Chef Lombardi returned to Puglia because he believes that we are the number one region for agricultural produce, cheese, and fish....On Saturdays he can be found gathering fresh ingredients at the Ostuni farmer's market, where he chats with vendors and locals about new ideas for his kitchen.
There aren't very many Michelin-Starred chefs in southern Italy, and Sebastiano Lombardi is the only one in Ostuni.  After a couple of visits from representatives of the Michelin organization, the chef was pleased enough just to receive two pat-on-the-back phone calls for his wonderful food.   Lombardi learned the restaurant had been awarded a prestigious Michelin Star via a fax that unceremoniously launched itself from the machine one random afternoon nearly two months later--It was the best day of Lombardi's life.  Perhaps more so than in other parts of the world, professional jealousy and cut-throat competition run rampant in the culinary world, which I suppose is the reason that only one of Lombardi's fellow chefs in Puglia called to congratulate him.
Since social media has begun the not so gradual process of taking over our entire lives, photo-based websites and their corresponding apps such as Instagram, Flickr, and Pinterest have upped the ante in the Foodie Kingdom.  Taking a snapshot of one's fabulously fancy dinner to show off to friends has brought conspicuous consumption and high fashion to the dinner table.  Lombardi, unlike many of his colleagues, hasn't jumped on the bandwagon of cooking for the camera.  He isn't a big fan of molecular gastronomy, and his disciplined approach to building contemporary cuisine (organic whenever possible) with a few complimentary, recognizable flavors, does result in quite beautiful, colorful creations--more like the Natural Beauty, however, than the prom queen who left the house with too much make-up on. 
For example, Chef Lombardi has added a new twist to Acqua Sale, a traditional staple of Puglian cuisine, by adding fish.  It's his favorite dish to prepare and so we were fortunate that he insisted we try it.  It's a bold move for southern Italy, a culinary landscaped steeped in tradition, and Lombardi makes it work!  In one meal, you'll sample no less than 10 different freshly baked breads, which perfectly compliment the dishes.  My favorite selection, if I was forced to choose, would've been the Benedetto Cavaliere pasta adorned with fresh fava beans, mint, burrata cheese, and a cream of celery and star anise.  Standouts also include the frisella mullet, melt-in-your-mouth scallops, and roasted eggplant cooked in foil.  The succulent beef is perfectly presented first as chopped tartar, then filet style, and my dining companion's lamb will warrant a second visit in the very near future.  For dessert, we sampled local Pugliese specialties such as Pasticciotto Leccesse (a baked, custard-filled pastry), olive oil ice cream, and various Cegliese cookies that hit the sweet spot. 
The opportunity to dine at Cielo and experience authentic yet elevated Puglian cuisine at Sebastiano Lombardi's table, in my humble opinion, would warrant a special trip to Ostuni.  Stay a few days at La Sommita and experience true bliss.  La Sommita was formerly a medieval mill dating back to the 16th century.  The 15 room boutique hotel is built into a cliff overlooking the Adriatic and has been lovingly restored, tastefully combing the old structure with sleek, minimalist interior design.  La Sommita is refined and elegant, luxurious without ostentation, contemporary yet casual, and unabashedly romantic.  Check with our partners at has it La Sommita may begin offering packages with cooking classes. I can't wait!      
~Alfonso Caputo~ 

This week at Vinitaly in Verona, we had the pleasure of witnessing the culinary prowess of an Italian Master Chef in action at a luncheon sponsored by Jeunes Restaurateurs D’Europe.  Alfonso Caputo (two Michelin Stars), of Ristorante “Taverna del Capitano,” located in Marina del Cantone, Massa Lubrense on the Amalfi Coast.
Caputo’s Restaurant: Taverna del Capitano on the Amalfi Coast
Nestled in one of the most beautiful spots on the Amalfi Coast, the “Taverna del Capitano” is converted from an old fisherman’s house.  The family has been in this particular spot for generations, and Alfonso credits family as the backbone of their success.  Three generations work side-by-side in the kitchen, each bringing his or her own special passion, talent, or tricks as pillars that support this beautiful restaurant that they’ve lovingly created over the years.
For example, you won’t find Alfonso running around in the dining room too much.  He’s more than likely back in the kitchen creating a brilliant, colorful new dish, no doubt utilizing local, fresh-culled ingredients from the garden or the sea just outside, where legend has it Ulysses was lulled in by the Sirens. If you’re anywhere near the Amalfi Coast, you must make a stop at Taverna del Capitano.  If you yourself hear the call of the sirens and want to stay a while, the Taverna is also a delightful Inn.  Stay awhile!

Alfonso Caputo’s Presentation at Vinitaly:

The culinary performance began with a spicy soup of scorfano (rock fish) with mussels.  Caputo then prepared a dish of  pasta and potatoes topped  with a  delicate palamito fish that had been lightly dusted in a delectable mixture of breadcrumbs and dried tomatoes.  Using advanced techniques from molecular gastronomy, we then watched Caputo prepare squid, octopus, and cuttlefish with caramelized onions and mint in a delightful preparation inside of a cartouche.  Finally, we were treated to Baba agricultural rum, cream, and cherries, as well as fresh sourdough bread  from a wood-fired oven.
Alfonso Caputo is a talent to behold.  We were grateful for the chance to see him at Vinitaly and will certainly visit “Taverna del Capitano” next time we’re in the area.  I think I hear the sirens calling now…  

~Massimo Bottura~
Chef Massimo Bottura is without a doubt one of the foremost ambassadors of modern Italian cuisine. From his first trattoria—Trattoria del Campazzo—on the outskirts of Modena in 1986, where he worked with rezdora Lidia Cristoni, to an apprenticeship under Chef Georges Coigny, Bottura formed a culinary foundation that combined regional Italian cooking and classical French training. He further refined his style under legendary Alain Ducasse at Louis XV in Monte Carlo.
In 1995, Bottura opened his Osteria Francescana in historic central Modena, where he was able to freely blend his creative take on Italian cuisine with cutting edge contemporary art and design, bringing a modern aesthetic to the junction of tradition and innovation. Another formative experience—this time under Ferran Adrià—encouraged Bottura to continue pushing the envelope in his cuisine. Over the last 10 years, Bottura has worked to do just that, creating dishes such as “Five Textures and Temperatures of Parmigiano Reggiano” that showcase his maturity as an innovator, as well as his respect for his ingredients.
Two Michelin stars and a sixth place ranking in San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list prove that Bottura’s explorations are more than successful; they’re inspiring. Like so many cutting-edge chefs, Bottura cooks to invite and evoke a contemplation of history, territory, and flavor. And on the stage of gastronomic conferences around the world, Bottura freely shares his creative process in demonstrations, lectures, and videos (such as the conceptual “We Are the Revolution,” a narrative exploration of “original sound” through art, music, and food and his most recent production, “Il Ritorno,” which pays homage to Emilia-Romagna and the value of place). An ardent advocate for culinary dialogue, Bottura serves on the board of the Basque Culinary Center under the direction of Ferran Adrià.

~Carlo Cracco~
Carlo Cracco is a leader of the new generation of progressive Italian cuisine. He has garnered worldwide attention at his restaurant in Milan for creative takes on classic Italian foods: pasta made of cuttlefish and pureed salad encrusted in caramelized sugar.

Cracco was born in 1965 in Vicenza, Italy. He attended hotel management school in nearby Recoaro Terme, and began professional career in 1986 in the kitchen of Gualtiero Marchesi in Milan, the first Italian restaurant to be awarded 3 Michelin stars and the home of Italian nouvelle cuisine. In 1988, he joined Relais & Châteaux-La Meridiana in Garlenda for a year, before gaining further experience at the “temples” of French gastronomy – Alain Ducasse at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo and Alain Sanderens at the Lucas Carton in Paris. Returning to his native Italy in 1991, he took up the position as head chef at L’Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, which earned 3 Michelin stars in 1993/94 under his exacting management.

That same year he was approached by his former employer and friend Marchesi, who asked if he would help him open a new restaurant, L’Albereta, in Erbusco. After three successful years working alongside Marchesi, Cracco finally decided to open his own restaurant, Le Clivie, in Piobesi D’Alba in 1996. The restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star a year later.

In 2000, the Stoppani family – owners of the famous Peck delicatessen in Milan – approached Cracco and offered him the opportunity of a new joint venture, restaurant Cracco-Peck. The following year the restaurant opened to great critical acclaim and within three years it had obtained 2 Michelin stars. In July 2007, Cracco took over the restaurant and renamed it simply, Ristorante Cracco. That same year it was voted onto Restaurant Magazine’s “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list and obtained 2 Michelin stars.