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A small yet majestic loop around Mount Vesuvius placed the city in our rearview mirror, plunging us into undiscovered country where we would fly by the seat of our pants with plans for an eventual arrival in the ancient city of Matera that evening.
According to Google Maps, the fastest route would take us through Salerno passing through nearby Amalfi and on to Basilicata, but memories and flavors of Aglianico del Vulture wine bought at an enoteca on a previous trip to Florence were etched in our minds (and taste buds).
So, instead, we set our GPS target for the city of Rionero en Vulture – a town in the center of the resort area Italians call Vulture-Melfese. And off we went.
Why This Route?
Aglianico del Vulture wine is not well-known among American wine circles, but this red wine’s pedigree is formidable with big smoky flavors that go great with grilled meats and a bold structure that makes the wine more than age-worthy. Some have even come to call Aglianico the “Barolo of the South.”
While that description may be dubious, there’s no doubt that this big red gem of a grape gives plenty of value at prices as low as 10 euros and as high as 40.
So we were off, with no firmly planned midday destination except for a small area around a long-extinct volcano and a series of small towns where we would explore, taste wine and experience local cuisine.
First Stop, Rest Stop
Of course, no trip down the Autostrada would be complete with a visit to a rest stop.
Rest stops in the USA are generally dismal affairs full of bad chain restaurants and toilets. But Italy is different. You can eat a tasty meal, grab an espresso or stock up on a few bottles of local wine. Pizza anyone?
Basilicata Italy – It’s All About the Grapes
When we arrived in Vulture-Melfese, we were struck by vineyards overlooking the fertile landscape of northern Basilicata. We pulled over next to a stone building that looked like it had been there for millennia and marveled at the ripe berries on vines surrounded by umbrella pines overlooking the vast, green Northern Basilicata plains.
At 1:00 p.m. nothing was open, but there was plenty of time for a photo-op before lunch, along with time to sneak a grape or two off the vines.
Lunch Stop in Basilicata Italy
When traveling without a plan in Italy, it’s good to know that reservations are not required for dining. If you’re fortunate to stumble into a local family-owned restaurant, as we did in the town of Melfi, you can’t go wrong.
We approached Ristorante Della Rose without a clue of whether the restaurant was open. We entered, greeted by a young boy watching Law & Order on TV in a room that looked like it was pulled from an American fire hall with plastic chairs, folding tables and dingy wall art.
We were the only diners in the there, and, after ordering two pasta dishes, we could hear the cook scrambling in the kitchen. We figured out what the commotion was about once our pasta reached our table.
Daryl attacked a hand-made orechiette with a tomato and lamb ragu (in the style of Mama Tina), while Mindi enjoyed tagliolini with sausage, arugula and chunks of fresh tomato. The tagliolini was lightly bathed in a rich savory, earthy classic Italian meat stock or brodo that tasted like it had been handed down through the Melfese family for multiple generations.
Paired with locally produced house wine (Aglianico del Vulture, of course) our first simple meal in Basilicata was pretty close to perfect.
Ristorante Della Rose is located at Via Vittorio Emanuele, 29, 85025 Melfi PZ, Italy.
Wine Shopping in Basilicata Italy
Wine tasting opportunities don’t abound in this region, so it pays to be extroverted. After lunch, while driving through Barile, we noticed a small wine pressing facility named Paternoster – the same name as the vineyard where we snapped pictures outside Rionero.
In a sort of example of naive American stupidity, we boldly walked up to the wine pressing room and approached an older man who looked like he was in charge.
“Vino?” we asked. After some hand gesturing, he welcomed us to come inside. Originally from Albania, Ernesto Paternoster gave us a tour of the facility. He offered to sell us wine in liter jugs, but we weren’t sure how they would travel.
We instead bought several bottles of the freshly bottled Merum wine for the price of seven euros each. We wondered how it would taste when we got home. After drinking a bottle or two, this wine is easily the best seven euro wine one can drink. Bravo!
Our gracious host and tour guide ended our impromptu tour by offering us a bottle of his olive oil to take home with us as well. We hadn’t planned to shop for olive oil that day and we appreciated the sincere gesture.
Matera – Our Final Destination
On approach, our final destination, the ancient city of Matera, didn’t seem impressive at first glance. As we descended into the sassi and saw the houses carved in stone up close, we got it. With days ahead to explore the area, we marveled at the views as the day turned from dusk to dark.
Not so many Americans travel within the instep of Italy’s boot. Based on our first impression, they are missing out. As for us, we’re always up for adventures involving food, wine and glorious scenery. That’s what food travel is all about.
Plan Your Basilicata Stay
About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.