Hidden secrets of 400-year-old castle finally revealed

Published September 12, 2018

It’s never too late for a second act.

Massimo Fasanella d’Amore — a native of Bari, Italy, with a personality as exuberant as his name — spent 33 years as a jetsetting exec for PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble.

But he could never quite shake fond memories of the vacation home of his childhood: a limestone castle at the center of Ugento, a village in southern Italy’s Puglia region, where his grandfather hosted him every summer. In 1643 d’Amore’s ancestor — a lord, naturally — acquired the fortress, gorgeously festooned with ornate moldings, pointed arches and painted frescoes.

Over time, d’Amore bought out his relatives for sole ownership and spent $14 million on an all-consuming restoration and renovation process with his partner Diana Bianchi. The four-year project turned the dreamy (but dated) castle into a nine-room boutique hotel with an exceptional farm-to-table restaurant and cooking school. Sister property Masseria Le Mandorle, housed in a nearby farmhouse with 12 suites, a pool and tennis courts, debuted in May 2017. The castle hotel and its restaurant, called Castello di Ugento, formally opened in April (from $464).

A four-year project turned the dreamy (but dated) castle into a nine-room boutique hotel with an exceptional farm-to-table restaurant and cooking school

The nine suites are divided between the ground-floor courtyard level and one flight up.  (Barbara Santoro)

Located in the heel of the boot of Italy, Puglia has become more popular over the last few years as a less-touristed alternative to points north like the Amalfi Coast, Tuscany and Lake Como. Still, visitors tend to stick to the craggy coastlines of the Adriatic and Ionian seas. Until, perhaps, now.

A 15-minute drive inland from the beaches and marina of Torre San Giovanni, Ugento (pop. 12,500) is a slice of workaday life. It is a place so petite that one church’s bells resound throughout, where crooked streets are too narrow for a modern car, and stumbling across tiny squares where residents take their daily walks, or passeggiate, is a charming ritual.

The golden hours, when the sun goes down and sets the creamy stonework aflame, are magical.

Like people, buildings can have second acts, too. The nine suites are divided between the ground-floor courtyard level and one flight up. Under high ceilings, the luxurious yet simple rooms allow the original architecture to shine through, from graceful arches to stone walls 3½ to 12 feet thick, while adding the latest conveniences, from a rain shower to high-speed Wi-Fi and perfect cell service.

Though it’s at the center of town and municipal signs with a crenellated icon point to it as a landmark, the castle had not been open to the public before. Now anyone can come in to feast on the sumptuous fare at Il Nuovo Tempo dreamed up by top chef Odette Fada, who once helmed Central Park South’s erstwhile San Domenico (now Marea), and local wunderkind Tommaso Sanguedolce.

A four-year project turned the dreamy (but dated) castle into a nine-room boutique hotel with an exceptional farm-to-table restaurant and cooking school

Massimo Fasanella d’Amore bought out his relatives for sole ownership and spent $14 million on an all-consuming restoration and renovation process with his partner Diana Bianchi.  (Barbara Santoro)

In the teaching kitchen, where Fada leads classes for Culinary Institute of America students as well as guests who reserve a session, a glass floor allows the original floor to remain in sight.

Fada, Sanguedolce, their staff and students tend to a magical walled garden dating back to the 17th century where herbs, fruits and vegetables grow and plants hang from a trellis. Guests can relax in loungers while inhaling the aroma of surrounding delicacies — like summertime’s fist-sized green-skinned fresh figs — plucked straight from the vine. From Pugliese specialties like handmade orechiette pasta and locally caught seafood to meltingly delicious burrata and decadent desserts, the food could go head-to-head with Michelin-starred spots any day.

In the palazzo’s upstairs, where the d’Amore family ate, slept and entertained, ceilings are bedecked with mythological figures; the newly restored and well-lit artworks literally glow as visitors’ jaws drop. These areas in the “museum wing” are not part of any guest rooms, so just ask for a tour while dining — or, better yet, call ahead to arrange one.

If d’Amore is around, implore him to lead an animated walk-through; he’ll dredge up totemic tales and secret backstories of the paintings. The novice hotelier speaks knowledgeably and passionately about Puglia’s diverse influences because of seafarers who passed through or colonized the region, from the Greeks and Romans to the Byzantines and Crusaders.

One of d’Amore’s favorite topics: Surprise discoveries made during the renovations, which include an underground tower, water storage cistern and other evidence of an even older castle dating back to Norman times underneath the hotel.

A four-year project turned the dreamy (but dated) castle into a nine-room boutique hotel with an exceptional farm-to-table restaurant and cooking school

In the teaching kitchen, where Fada leads classes for Culinary Institute of America students as well as guests who reserve a session, a glass floor allows the original floor to remain in sight.  (Barbara Santoro)

In a space now used for events — just off the former stables turned breakfast room where a lavish spread is served daily — is a Norman fresco that could well be from their conquest of southern Italy 1,000 years ago.

Put simply, delights astound at every turn in this newly opened property set on a hill in this undiscovered gem of a town. One server proudly explained that the morning’s fresh jams were made in part by his mother, who works at the masseria; that’s how tight-knit the staff is.

Southern hospitality rings true in Italy, too; bidding arrivederci is like parting from family.

This article originally appeared on the New York Post.

URL

https://nypost.com/2018/09/11/hidden-secrets-of-a-400-year-old-castle-revealed-at-last/