The sharp rip of crisp cotton as I sat down was unmistakable. Four days into our pasta-packed Italian break, fellow diners might well have suspected that my dress seams had had all they could take.
In fact, a tiny, wrought iron curl on the back of my restaurant chair had hooked itself tightly round a loop in the broderie anglaise fabric. I knew nothing about it, until I leant forward to study the menu. It was lucky that there was a dress lining to spare my blushes, because earlier, this had been shaping up to be ‘one of those’ nights.
We’d left the hotel room a bit late for our dinner booking 20 km away. Outside, we found that neither of us had picked up the car key. Nigel ran back in, through reception and down a couple of corridors to our room, and back to the car park, to find that this time, he’d grabbed the keys to our house 2,000 km away, by mistake. Sensing his exasperation and hiding mine, I took over, rushing back through the main doors and accepting the room key once more from a receptionist now bemused by my mumbled excuses and wild, Italian-quality gesticulations. Oh, and by now, the heady combination of belting down hotel corridors and hanging around outside in a warm, strong Italian breeze had reduced my carefully curled ‘out to dinner’ hair…. to a straight, ‘staying-in’ straggle.
We shrugged it off and hit the road. Twenty, speedy minutes later, we were gazing up at Ostuni– a magical little city perched high on three hills. Petite, whitewashed buildings were clustered along its maze of narrow, twisting streets—too narrow for any car, so we now had to keep up the pace on foot to the top, if we were to make our table in time. But as well as the sloping streets, there were higgledy flights of stone steps to negotiate, too: deep and steep; three up ; two down. No time, this time, to visit the city’s fifteenth century Romanesque-Gothic Cathedral. The two ancient town gates, Porta Nova and Porta San Demetrio would also have to wait.
We stopped to catch our breath as the restaurant came into view. The final flight curved enticingly down to our tiny table; which nestled against the side of a fragrant, walled garden: one of the best—and most romantic– dinner settings we’d ever seen.
Seated, and with the dress drama over, we relaxed, drank in the view, and made our menu choices. Our eight o clock al fresco sky slowly deepened from cornflower to cobalt blue, as the near-silent but ever watchful waiters served us the best of Italian cuisine:
Incredible sharing antipasti included courgette flowers stuffed with tuna, anchovy and local cheese, baked aubergine with deliciously stringy mozzarella, a goats cheese souffle and pureed fava beans with spinach. Primi were a hearty vegetarian lasagne and pasta with a ragu made from slow-cooked lamb. A chocolate bomb and the lightest carrot cake with almond cream finished the meal, and us, off.
Wined, dined and surely several kilos heavier, we somehow clambered back up the restaurant steps. Lights were still twinkling in the busy little bars and eateries we strolled past; flower pots packed with hot pink petals a shock against the cool white stone. And, in a moment, as if someone had pressed ‘pause’ on the muddled hum of chatter drifting out of every door, the only sound was Etta James, her clear and mellow voice scything through the cooling night air with that perfect version of ‘At Last’. It stopped us in our tracks….each gentle beat beckoning us seductively into the coolest cave bar, hewn out of Ostuni stone. A look, a smile, and we were inside. Mesmerised, we listened, drank espressos, and wandered back down the hill under a now dark navy sky, studded with stars. One of ‘those’ nights…had turned into one of those nights. Italy does that to you sometimes……if you take your time.