Best meals 2011: olive bread gas station epiphany @PaoloCantele

Since we met him about two and a half years ago, Paolo Cantele has become one of our best friends — in part because we all laugh so hard when we’re together, in part because he shares my interest in Pasolini, and in part because he KNOWS great food (he’ll be appearing again in this series of “Best meals 2011”). Paolo and I had my best “gas station” meal ever when I visited him in February…

Above: In Apulia (Puglia), they don’t call it “Pugliese Olive Bread.” They just call it “bread.”

There’s a saying in the South East of the United States of America: if you can’t play guitar better than the gas station attendant one mile outside of Nashville, don’t bother going in.” Well, I’m here to tell you that the same holds for sandwiches at gas stations in Apulia.

One of the great gastronomic experiences — unforgettable, really — of our February trip to Italy did not happen at a Michelin-starred restaurant, lunch in the home of top distillate producer, or at an avant-garde pizzeria (although there were great food and wine experiences in those contexts as well). It happened at a gas station. Yes, a distributore di benzina, where I ate the mortadella sandwich, above.

Above: Gas station food in Apulia can be excellent, folks, I’m here to tell you. Note how there are vineyards and an olive grove behind the gas station. In Apulia, it as if G-d planned an eternal Garden of Eden.

Aside from the gas station and bar above, there are not a lot of food options in the vicinity of the Cantele winery, where I visited in February with my friends (marketing director) Paolo and (winemaker) Gianni Cantele. No, there’s not much — just olive groves and vineyards, as far as the eye can see, one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen. O yeah, and there are also controversial solar panels.

That sandwich was a true epiphany for me. It was one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in 2011 and I went back to the counter for a second sandwich. The crusty bread was perfectly crunchy on the outside but delightfully firm and savory on the inside. The olives were a glorious balance of sweet fruit and savory brine and the combination of flavors and textures — including a few leaves of fresh arugula, a thin slice of provolone, and a spalmata (schmear) of mayonnaise — culled the delicacy from the mortadella (a northern food product that became a stable of central and southern Italy in the period immediately following the second world war).

Pasolini couldn’t have written it better: set against the backdrop of Apulia’s administrative dilapidation and its sun-drenched baroque lethargy, the glory of its materia prima — wheat and olives (more grains and olives are grown there than anywhere else in Italy) — spoke to me nobly in this forgotten gas station, filled otherwise with lottery tickets and tasteless tchotchkes. Writing this, I am as overwhelmed now as I was the moment I first bit into that sandwich and tasted its wholesomeness and goodness.

Does anyone remember the Corrado Guzzanti sendup of Antonello Venditti about the gas stations along the Grande Raccordo Anulare (freeway system) circling Rome?

E se nasce una bambina poi la chiameremo… PUGLIA! (If we have a girl, we’ll call her Puglia.)

That sandwich was T-H-A-T good!

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