A winding, rutted dirt road cuts through a dry landscape, acre upon acre of stark punctuated only by the dark green of grape vines and knotted, leafless olive trees. It makes the blaze of white that is Masseria Potenti that much more stunning, a bold stroke that at once blinds and cools under the intense Puglian sun.
Here in the heel of the Italian boot, masseria are fortified farms, highwalled compounds from another era. When Maria Grazia Di Lauro bought the 14th-century Masseria Potenti outside Manduria, it had been empty for 100 years. Today, the bed-and-breakfast’s vibrantly whitewashed arched ceilings and sprawling, lush courtyards give no sign of such neglect.
Di Lauro had invited me for a lesson in Puglian cooking, a hardscrabble variant of cucina povera built from robust pastas, plentiful produce and ample olive oil. She has been cooking since she was 5—“It is impossible to study to be a good chef. You are born.”—but ignored her passion for a career in law until she and her husband renovated the masseria.
Standing at a rustic wooden banquet table in an alcove off the main courtyard, Di Lauro kneads dough for what will become a folded and stuffed focaccia while explaining that the masseria was supposed to be a family retreat. But friends and family visited so often for the beauty—and her cooking—it simply made sense to turn it into a business.
"If you have no fantasy, you have no good food.” – Maria Grazia Di Lauro
As she carefully folds the focaccia dough plumply around a heap of roasted zucchini, peppers, eggplant, raisins, onions and mozzarella, more of her culinary philosophy spills out. “If you have no fantasy, you have no good food.” It’s easy to fantasize as the aromas of baking bread, melting cheese and savory herbs rise around us.
While we wait for the focaccia, Di Lauro prepares two zucchini dishes, almost as afterthoughts. The first is the simplest of salads. Raw zucchini shredded and tossed with fresh mint, lemon juice, ample extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. That’s it. It’s an explosion of fresh, bright, herbal and citrus that I can’t stop eating.
For the second dish, she slices a zucchini lengthwise into thin strips, wrapping them around a mixture of fresh ricotta, lemon zest, fresh rosemary, olive oil and salt, dipping one end of each roll in sesame seeds, the other in poppy seeds. Topped with fresh mint, they are amazing—salty, crunchy, creamy, minty and fresh.
Back at Milk Street, we were smitten with both of Di Lauro’s takes on raw zucchini and decided to combine them into one simple salad. Thinly sliced raw zucchini tossed with herb-flecked lemon juice evoked the freshness of the first dish, while a topping of ricotta with lemon zest, fresh mint and a scattering of seeds and nuts brought in the second.
The result was as bright and wonderful as Masseria Potenti itself. And as for that focaccia? With Di Lauro’s words, you can imagine how good it was. “In the kitchen if you give love, the food you prepare gives love."