Al Gambero, Porto Cesareo, Salento, Italy 16/20

IF you have a restaurant in a prime spot on the harbour, the nightly passeggiata is something of a two edged sword. It brings crowds, but it also locks out many people as the traffic jam encircles the inner city and parking spaces, like some medieval siege. Go for lunch, at least in August, time of the ferragusta.

Al Gambero is old school. The last update I can find on its Facebook page is 2015.  It is set near the old fishmongers who huddle these days surrounded by yachstville, coffeeville, buckets and spades, gelateria. ceramic etc. The centre is closed off, just for walking up and down. Al Gambero is for sitting down.

The menu is blue plastic printed, unchanging, except there is an ice tray of the day’s catch. The opening item is a raw fish starter, sashimi style, I might say, but actually it is also Salento bravura. We know our fish well enough to be doing this. This is not a kitchen that needs to be showing off. The room is full of old photographs of boats and patrons, a few wine bottles and a ceiling that looks like a ship’s gallery with wooden rafters, and a view on the marina, half closed today because, well we don’t want any distractions, thank you.

Let us demonstrate the point with this very old school antipasti – a plate to share of freshly breaded and fried squid, sitting on a thin slice of swordfish marinated in oil and lemon, a few prawns and cuttlefish rings scattered about, some rocket plus a gratin of mussels which is what grown up kitchens can do with mussels when the children are still doing moules frites.

The pasta with vongole is exemplary, but look at this specialty, what looks like a few tomatoes and mussels on pasta in the photograph is a mirage. The sauce is actually thinly cut squid, prawns, octopus clams, more swordfish, half the Ionian seabed mixed with tomatoes. A piscine Bolognese, you could say.

Local wine is from here. Right here. This is a wine region bordering the Ionian. The Apenine wine route they call it further east, known mostly to southern Italians, the Primitivo capital is Manduria, 30 minutes north. Everyone here knows exactly why they are here, staff and customers alike. And proud of it, a junction box that connects on the one side the ocean and on the other the people who live beside it.

The Italian solution, following the table next to us, is to order one of the starters each and to share them out, then a pasta, then a fish and something with cream and sponge that excited everyone greatly. Our bill for two was £40.

English speakers do not usually stray down here to Porto Cesareo, between Gallipoli and Taranto, which is a bit of a relief. Gambero is what I suspect many Italians would call a good restaurant. TripAdviser has it as the 53rd best restaurant in the port. Do not follow that advice. Number one is a hotel. Number two is a burger place. Number three is a mojito bar. Get with the programme, guys. It does not get much better than this. The pictures at least show the skill and brilliance of the pastas and vibrancy of all things fishy.

Caterina on FaceBook says: “Everything is very good. Fresh and tasty fish. Welcoming place and kind staff and attentive to customer’s needs. Highly recommended.”

Ristorante al Gambero , piazza Nazario Sauro n° 18, Porto Cesareo, Italy +39 0833 569123

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