Written by Leslie Rosa, Sommelier and Founder of La Dolce Vigna Wine + Culture Tour Company.
If you haven’t heard of Matera—a small town carved into a canyon in Southern Italy’s region of Basilicata (the instep of the boot)—you will soon. This year, the city of caves is waking from a long hibernation and making a splash as the European Union’s Capital of Culture. For good reason too: it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, causes jaws to drop with its evocative architectural tapestry, boasts an impressive ancient subterranean water collection system, and is home to some incredible food and wine (and stunning places in which to enjoy them).
Let’s go spelunking, shall we?
Do This | Private Walking Tour of Matera: Part 1
To get your bearings and begin to make sense of this wondrous labyrinth, I recommend hiring a local guide. Your hotel or airbnb can help organize one for you. (Tip: Be sure they are licensed as Matera has seen a steady rise of illegal guides.) Take off exploring the Sassi, Matera’s historic district, making stops at the hard-to-miss, rocky outcrop of Santa Maria de Idris, and Casa Grotta, a complex of caves that includes a re-creation of what life used to be like in the Sassi as well as a church that functioned as a winery!
Eat This | Lunch at Panificio Paoluccio
The best focaccia in the world? Yes, quite possibly. This unassuming bakery on the main drag of Via del Corso churns out the freshest focaccia—moist and with a delectably crispy crust. Grab a few slices (take-away only) and, if it’s a sunny day, stroll down to Piazza Vittorio Veneto and absorb some vitamin C and those Southern Italian calories. Too cold? Head to the charming L’Arturo near the Conservatory and get an abundant tagliere (meat and cheese platter) with a glass (or bottle) of a structured and hearty Aglianico del Vulture, the “Barolo of the South”, made just an hour northwest of Matera in the province of Potenza. That will warm you up in no time!
Go Here | An Underground Waterworld
Next up is Palombaro Lungo, one of Matera’s most impressive sights: a cathedral-like cistern beneath Piazza Vittorio Veneto. Stop by early to reserve your spot on an English-speaking tour. If there’s a wait, wander the nearby streets, enjoy an espresso and take in the views of the Sassi from the perch just in front of the cistern’s entrance. After your visit, use the afternoon to get lost in the maze that is Matera or rest your (most likely) weary feet before the most magical hour of all: aperitivo hour.
Drink This | Wines from Basilicata
One of the hottest spots in Matera to enjoy an aperitivo is Dai Tosi—and, get this, the rooms of the subterranean bar are ancient cisterns. This hip, new spot has been immaculately renovated to highlight the city’s continuing ingenuity as well as an impressive array of Italian wines. Allow the knowledgeable staff to help you select a local wine such as a Matera Bianco (an aromatic Malvasia-based blend), a Greco (Matera’s crisp white wine made from Greco Bianco) or the bold, fruity, red Primitivo. Some of my favorite producers to watch out for: Parco dei Monaci, Cifarelli and Dragone.
Eat This | Dimora Ulmo
This evening, treat yourself to an unforgettable meal at Dimora Ulmo. Set in an 18th century palace with a contemporary twist, this newcomer is run by a young yet impressive team, including chef Michele Castelli, who trained under Massimo Bottura at his Osteria Francescana (which is only the number one restaurant in the world according to the annual list World’s Best 50 Restaurants). Try the Menu di Tradizione, which revisits traditional dishes, along with the inventive drink pairing that focuses on wines from Basilicata, local craft brews and particular spirits. Not feeling adventurous? Ask Francesco, the sommelier, to pick out one of the 800 bottles on their wine list for your dinner.
Do This | Private Walking Tour of Matera: Part II
Enjoy a leisurely breakfast before meeting up with your guide again this morning to explore the Parco della Murgia Materana, the vast and verdant expanse across the protected natural landscape visible from Matera’s Sassi. Hop in a taxi or your guide’s ride to hike around some of the settlements of the first religious asylum seekers who carved out cave homes and churches in the semi-soft limestone. As a bonus, you’ll get incredible views of Matera as well.
Eat This | Panzerotto Time!
Before heading back down into the Sassi, make a stop at one of the best local secrets for a quick bite to eat: Sottozero in Via XX Settembre. You can thank me later, but first get in line and order your very own fresh-out-of-the-fryer panzerotto, (essentially a pizza folded in half and deep-fried a.k.a. food of the gods). While wine is on offer here, a light, refreshing beer will probably hit the spot even more. Snag one of the three tables and buon appetito!
See This | MUSMA, Museum of Contemporary Sculpture
Even if art isn’t your thing (although this art curator-turned-sommelier begs you to reconsider!) the network of caves that makes up MUSMA’s exhibition space is worth the visit alone. For the rest of you, enjoy the playfully-installed sculptures by local and international artists in the numerous nooks and crannies.
Drink This | Vicolo Cieco
It’s that time again for those five sweet syllables: a-per-i-ti-vo. Today, head to the vintage-infused cave bar Vicolo Cieco. Make yourself comfortable around a 1950s-era table or even lounge in an old barber chair, while the friendly staff brings you a glass of their house wine (an Aglianico del Vulture that they bottle themselves) or a number of lighter wines. Feeling a bit peckish? Order a bruschetta fantasia (chef’s choice mixed bruschetta) and you will not be disappointed.
Eat This | Oi Marì
Cave hop to the restaurant right next door and be prepared to have your mind blown both by the food and the beautifully renovated space. Set in a network of gleaming, white caves, Oi Marì specializes in traditional dishes as well as Neapolitan-style pizza. Whichever you choose, you cannot go wrong. Looking for a pizza wine pairing? Try the Parco dei Monachi Matera Rosato, a refreshing rosè of Primitivo.
Stay Here | Feel like a Flintstone
Virtually all of Matera’s Sassi district is hotels, airbnbs and restaurants, so there are quite a few to choose from. Note that many are hotels diffusi, meaning the rooms are diffused throughout various structures. Here are three that offer beautiful rooms and impeccable service:
1. Il Palazzotto Residence & Winery | To continue the wine theme, why not stay in a winery’s hotel? Centrally located in the Sasso Barisano, this hotel offers rooms set in beautifully renovated caves and buildings made from the quarried limestone. Daily tastings of the owner’s wines, which are made in Basilicata’s Vulture appellation, are available in the lounge and terrace.
2. Sant’ Angelo Luxury Resort | Found right in front of the Piazza San Pietro Caveoso and Santa Maria de Idris, Sant’ Angelo is a hotel with perhaps the best views of the Sassi (and one of the best hotel breakfasts there is!). Together with evocative rooms, a helpful staff, and reasonable prices, it is a great option.
3. Sextantio Grotte Civita Matera | This instagram darling is perhaps the most luxurious of Matera’s hotels and yet the most rustic at the same time. A series of caves renovated with modern comforts such as heated floors and romantic touches such as lit candles, the philosophy of the hotel is to highlight the natural beauty of the rooms trapped in time.
About Leslie Rosa
After a decade of working in the art world for eminent institutions and artists in New York, London and around the globe, Leslie moved to Italy, fell in love with Italian wine, and became a certified sommelier with the Associazione Italiana Sommelier. She has traveled extensively throughout the country, seeking out small wineries that have a story to tell, local gastronomic wonders, cultural gems and experiences that exude the good life to share with you.