In Fish We Trust is the slogan of a new "concept" restaurant in Lecce - the Pescheria con Cottura (fish market that also cooks). The idea is simple, and there are several tangible benefits: lower prices, freshness and quality, and an active role for the diner in selecting the materia prima.(1)
Upon arriving, you first ask the host to hold a table for your party, then you receive a ticket and queue up in a short line that leads to the fish selection. Behind a glass pane lies the day's catch, like jewels on display, glittering colorfully: red and grey triglie(2) , plump orata(3) , beefy-red colored yellowfin tuna, black mussels, handsome beige swordfish steaks sliced and laid next to the head with its huge clear dark eyes and its long sword pointing dramatically upward. There was also squid, octopus, shrimp, branzino(4) and sundry other medium and small fish and shellfish. Your nose immediately tells you that nothing you see has been out of the water very long. This visual and olfactory dazzling makes for a very agreeable first impression.
You select exactly what you want, how much you want, and how you want it: grilled, sauteed, or fried. Or you can pick from a short list of daily specials prepared by the cooks who work in an enclosed space with windows large enough to let you see that the cleanliness of the place extends all the way through the kitchen.
After selecting the main course, you can also add to your order appetizers, side dishes, bread, and beverages. You pay and then carry to your table on a tray your settings, bread and drinks. After a reasonable wait your number is called, you return to the kitchen counter, present your ticket and are given the finished dishes, attractively garnished and on ceramic plates - no plastic!
On our visit, my friend picked a variety of tiny fish for a frittura mista(5) (at €2,80/kilo, about €12-14 for one portion), and I selected a filet of tuna (€13 per order)prepared alla messinese - sauteed and still pink inside ("scottato" - perfect!) with a sauce of black olives, cherry tomatoes, and sweet-sour raisins. It was beautiful to look at and that divine sauce merged perfectly with the juicy 2cm thick steak. My friend's frittura, which also had a few rings of squid and some baby octopus, was lightly floured, fried gently, and smelled as fresh as the sea air in a Salentino coastal town. The fish were so small you could eat them whole, the bones a bit crunchy and quite flavorful. We each had a side order of velvety caponata(6), another Sicilian touch. Though the man who greeted us had a Neopolitan accent...?? Well, who cares? We're in the SOUTH - It's all good!!
With water, excellent Pugliese bread, and a glass of wine each, we spent €43 total. I have just one small complaint: the only red was a house wine in a simple glass, a decent but unremarkable Leverano red, while on the white side a more sophisticated offering, a crisp dry Friuli, was available in a proper goblet. It paired excellently with the fried fish. (I still fantasize about how a rich negroamaro or primitivo(7) might stand up to that robust tuna)
With no hesitation, we both enthusiastically decided that we would certainly return...and soon. For an in city experience (for that matter, right in the center of town - Pescheria is both fight in front of the ancient castle of king Carlos V, and a one minute walk from Lecce's ancient amphitheatre!) you get solid value for your money. My less than stellar red was compensated for by the sight of the many women animatedly enjoying their dinners, dressed for summer, looking both casual and bewitching, as only Southern women seem to know how to do.
But don't worry. I kept my eyes on my plate...
Pescheria - via dei Mocenigo, 23 (Piazza Sant'Oronzo) 73100 Lecce
For information: 0832 09 83 66
Outdoor seating available. No reservations.
VISA, American Express
(1) "principal ingredient" A fundamental concept in Italian cuisine, especially in the South. The idea is that using the best possible ingredients both simplifies cooking and assures that the most basic preparation - which is usually preferred - will produce the most delicious results
(2) red mullet
(4) bass, in this case sea-bass
(5) a variety of seafood, floured or battered, and delicately deep-fried
(6) sweet and sour appetizer or side dish made with aubergines, olives, tomatoes, capers, celery and raisins
(7) two of the greatest Southern Italian red wines, treasures from Puglia