Believe it or not, I discovered this restaurant on a 9-hour flight from Italy to New York. I was stuck in the middle seat, and since there was no way I was going to sleep, the lucky co-passenger to my left, Luca, got to listen to me gush over how much I love Italy and all the places I’d been.
When I got around to Matera, he perked up and said “Oh! You must go back and meet my brother! He has a restaurant in the historic center, in the sassi.” Fast forward 1.5 years and I had a table reserved and waiting for myself and Agita, Creative Edge Travel’s marketing assistant. Luca had described Ristorante da Nico as authentic Lucana cuisine, slightly elevated and creative but with refined respect to traditional flavors and ingredients.
“I like to create new recipes but also to repeat the recipes that my grandmother taught to my mother, which brought me this passion for culinary art.”
The restaurant is located at the center of Matera, a maze-like town made of cave homes dug into the soft stone and dating back to Paleolithic times. When we arrived, the waitress lit up and was so excited to meet us. She gave us a big hug as if she’d met us already — that’s how things work down here, a contact of a contact is practically as good as family. She slid us into a primo table, asked if we wanted white wine or red, and left us to soak in the palate of the robust wine mingled with the warm outdoor breeze and sunshine bouncing off ancient stone buildings.
An array of dishes arrived- grilled eggplant, piped ricotta drizzled with honey, a sort of Italian gazpacho with bread and tomatoes, mini zucchini frittatas, and peperoni cruschi (sun dried and flash fried mild peppers, a unique and delicious specialty of the local Lucana cuisine). And that was just the first course!
Next there were the polpette, a sort of “meatless meatball” made of bread crumbs and cheese, swimming in delicious marinara. And then there were the pasta dishes, so unique and different from the pasta I’m used to in Italy. One was wide tubes of pasta with a basil baccalà and chickpea sauce. Delicious! The other was like thick fettuccini noodles doused in a colorful sauce made of local caciocavallo cheese, sprinkled with crunchy peperoni cruschi flakes. Dessert was an absolutely amazing chocolate torte. My mouth still waters as I think about it!
“The table is a meeting place to converse and reflect, where we discover common flavors and forget our differences.” -Chef Nico
At that point, Luca’s parents arrived to meet us with warm affection and generous offers to show us around their town. Luca’s brother, chef Nico, came out and I learned that our waitress, Fabiola, is actually the chef’s girlfriend. They were all so welcoming, helpful, and generous and made us feel so honored. I had been expecting a simple lunch reservation, though what I got was a homecoming to a family I didn’t know I had. Now that I did, it made all the difference in the world to have locals making sure we experienced the very best their town and cuisine has to offer.
Even if you don’t have a wildly random contact from an international plane ride to bring you into the “inner circle” at Da Nico, you are still certain to experience being on the inside of the local culture through every bite you taste there. Nico and his team don’t just do an excellent job, it is their true passion and you can feel and taste the difference!