‘Everything you eat is made at home’ said Diana, owner of Castello di Ugento. Home for her is a newly renovated 9 bedroomed castle in the sleepy Puglian town of Ugento, close to Lecce and tucked into the heal of Italy.
Diana and her husband Massimo d’Amore left their busy jobs in New York City to start the project of a lifetime: converting a ruin that had been in Massimo’s family for centuries, into a luxury hotel and an internationally acclaimed cookery school.
I first met Diana when she visited us in the Steppes office early last year. She was modest about their project and spoke in depth about their vision. She left us totally hooked. I knew we had to go and see it for ourselves. Now that I am here, having walked through the huge iron gates into this warm buttery coloured stone courtyard I see the scale of what has been achieved. It sounds cliched but I instantly feel at home – Diana’s warmth and understated style has been translated into every element. She didn’t call in interiors designers, instead as she said ‘I’ve decorated the rooms with things I love and would want in my home, I hope it works’. She is right, it does work. The castle’s style has a maturity fitting for its history but is also playful and fresh to boot.
Anyone in need of an Instagram boast should have enough material with a selfie in Diana’s baby blue Fiat 500 parked by the main gate or on one of the candy floss coloured Vespas parked outside on the cobbled street of Via Castello. Both set the Italian scene perfectly.
The staff Diana and Massimo have employed to live their dream alongside them, are a group of youthful, talented and experienced individuals, handpicked to grow with the property. The star has to be Tomaso, the head chef – young, modest and full of new ideas. Since the Castello opened he has been travelling alongside Diana and Massimo showcasing his culinary skills and educating the world with his take on classic Puglian food. During my time at the chefs table one evening I put him on the spot and asked him ‘who is most the exciting person you have cooked for?’ He graciously replied ‘my mamma’. He said he was terrified and emotional that day. I can only imagine she is the typical Italian mother who can whip up delicious fresh pasta in her sleep. Along with that, his father was a great pastry chef, who Tommaso learnt from when he was a child. Until the day he cooked for his parents at the Castello, they had no understanding of how far he had come.
Every dish placed in front of us was made with care and attention. Each course a mini work of art. To watch Tommaso in the kitchen was an honour. He shared some of his tricks of the trade with me and I teased him about how spotless his kitchen is. He is serious about his food but is by far one of the most approachable and modest chefs I have met.
Aside from all of the eating we have done we also had time to visit the beach this afternoon; it is around a 10 minute drive across town. Before we left the UK, Diana had emailed us to say that the ‘water was delicious’ at this time of year and that we must bring our swimmers. So, eager to have a dip, we headed to Cocoloco beach. It was, as Diana promised, delicious. The water is shallow for quite some distance so it is warm, clear and calm. Perfect for some much needed lengths. It was also totally deserted. Hard to think that from June to October, cabanas and loungers dot the beach in front of the bar shack, making it a great place for sundowners and lunches.
Aside from this stunning stretch of coast, there is also much to do back at the Castello too. We spent time with Chef Odette who is enthusiastic to the core and extremely good fun. I was hooked on her every word as she was able to make the most technical task seem achievable.
Odette spends half her time in Italy, at the Castello, and half her time in New York, where she met Diana. After my time in the kitchen with her yesterday I am now lucky enough to be able to fillet my own fish and I can now officially make pasta, which is a big cause for celebration- something I can’t wait to share with my Italian mother in law.
As the Castello is a historical building there are many areas that will never become guest rooms. Instead there are designated areas on the top level that are classed as a museum and are open to the general public.
Massimo showed us around the museum rooms this evening, it was a priceless experience. The castle was for many years, split into several apartments. The first one we walked through was once his grandfathers. Massimo explained that he had never noticed the frescos when he was growing up. He said ‘we never really looked up, it was just a sitting room to us’. The frescos had smoke damage from a stove that was in the corner and sadly most of the ceilings had been painted over when the frescos were no longer in fashion. It is so hard to imagine that anyone could cover up such beautiful and historical artwork but just as we change the colour on our walls at home, they fancied a change too. Tonight we stood below the restored frescos, the colours now so vivid the voluptuous ladies and fruit appear to drip from ceiling. As an illustration graduate I can fully appreciate the time and pain restorers must have been through to paint upside down for months on end.
Tonight has given me another speechless moment to add to the long list this weekend. The list began with Diana and Massimo’s warmth and generosity, which is palpable. It also includes Tommaso’s food, which destined be to graced with a star someday, and of course the building, housing a museum, a hotel and a home for the family and staff, that now call the Castello ‘their home’.
I am going to miss this perfection.