Traditionally, to make sushi in Japan, you have to be a Japanese man. “I’m an Italian woman, so I’m doing things my own way,” says chef Raffaella De Vita, who hails from Puglia on Italy’s southern heel.
She swapped tagliatelle for udon in 2017, and is now based in Tokyo. The move was the culmination of a long infatuation with Japanese cooking. “I started working with a Japanese chef when I was still in Italy, and learned how to cook the basics from him – the rice, the fish, tempura, soba, udon…” she says. “After that I continued studying on my own, to learn how to make everything.” Her Italian cooking skills needed no such training. “The Italian cooking I learned from my mum and my grandmother, as well as my dad who also cooks everything, down to cake.”
The restaurant where she now works in Tokyo focusses on Italian gourmet cuisine, and De Vita enjoys the fusion of working with Japanese ingredients. “Obviously, when requested, I also prepare my sushi,” she says. Though the two cuisines might at first seem very different, De Vita points out they are more similar than you might think: in both Japanese cooking and Puglian cuisine the focus is on raw fish, prepared in the most natural way.
When she’s at home with her family in Puglia, De Vita enjoys the food she grew up with. “I define Pugliese food as authentic and genuine because even today, all traditional dishes are made following traditional recipes.”
If you’re visiting the area and want to get a taste of true Puglian cooking, De Vita says the Grottone restaurant in Polignano a Mare is the place to go. “It preserves authenticity and has good food, attentive service and a splendid location,” she says.
Eating in the area is all about trying the local produce. “When a person goes to Puglia they should definitely try our raw seafood, focaccia, panzerotti [savoury pastry] and la tiella barese [a local dish of mussels, potatoes and rice]. Our fruit and vegetables are also very good,” says De Vita. She cooks ‘Mediterranean sushi’ with fresh fish when she’s back in Puglia, combining the Italian and Japanese cuisines in dishes such as locally sourced fresh octopus with yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit) or Barese sushi with potatoes and mussels.
For anyone who wants to eat and cook like a local while visiting, De Vita has a useful tip. “To get good seafood you have to go to the open markets of Manfredonia, Mola di Bari, Gallipoli, Taranto – the markets of the seaside cities. If I want to buy fresh and good-quality ingredients, I always go to the various open markets, like the one in Foggia, my city, where I find people I trust with products that are always fresh.” She also uses her time in her home country to hang out with her close-knit family, eating at her mum’s house (“she cooks divinely,” De Vita says,) or going to their beach house near Manfredonia.
De Vita isn’t the only family member in the restaurant business. She made a name for herself making sushi, in what was typically considered to be a man’s domain, and that rebel spirit is equally evident in her sister Veronica. De Vita says they’ve always had a special relationship, and Veronica is also breaking convention with what has previously been considered to be a ‘man’s job’, but in Italy rather than Japan. She runs a pizzeria. “My sister’s pizzeria is located in Foggia and called Capriccio all’Italiana,” De Vita says. “In addition to the classic pizza margherita, customers try a little bit of everything, as there is so much choice [from] the rotisserie.”
When the blazing Italian sun beats down on the streets of Puglia, you might need to escape somewhere cooler. De Vita recommends La Terrazza, her favourite bar in Polignano a Mare, for a good coffee or an ice cream. And she knows where to spend the long Mediterranean summer evenings, too. “If I want a very high-level cocktail, I go to the Moonshine, a beautiful place in Polignano a Mare whose owner is a very good bartender named Antonella Benedetto,” she says.
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