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Puglia Italy Travel

Galavante to Puglia with a Local
September 21, 2011

With the opening of the $180 million Borgo in Puglia, Galavante had the pleasure of catching up with Aldo Melpignano, developer and owner of the Borgo Egnazia. The stunning Borgo is the newest addition to the family of San Domenico Hotels, which also includes the Masseria San Domenico and Masseria Cimino, both in Puglia, and the San Domenico House in London. The Melpignano’s have brought a whole new meaning and standard to family run hotels.

Galavante: Hotelier sounds like such a glamorous profession. How did your family get into the business?

Aldo: My parents are both from Fasano, and moved to Rome after they got married. While growing up in Rome, I spent all of my summers in Puglia. We had an old family estate, Masseria San Domenico, which we first restored as a private residence in the 1980’s. Then my mother and an hotelier friend of ours decided to turn it into a luxury hotel, which opened in 1996. My mother, until then a schoolteacher, became very passionate about the idea and has run that business since. Then slowly, slowly we all fell in love with the business, which grew to four hotels and a golf course in a short period of time.

Galavante: And how did you get into the family business?

Aldo: Even though I only joined the family business in 2007, I helped my mother start up Masseria San Domenico in 1996. Since then I had always known that eventually I would get involved full time. In the meanwhile, the business grew and I "prepared myself" first by attending university in London, then working in finance and marketing, then during and after my Wharton MBA, I became a full-time hotel freak. I had a short stint at West Paces Hotels, then a couple of years doing development for Morgans Hotel Group (formerly Ian Schrager Hotels) before returning home in September 2007.

Galavante: It is pretty impressive to run your own business in your thirities.

AldoIt is a lot more interesting to do things the way you want versus they way you are told they should be...I hated having a boss I am more of an entrepreneurial guy. In addition to the professional difference, on the personal side I am also better off. Most of the times I work even harder than before but I have more control. For example I can take a few hours off to spend them with my daughters in the middle of the day, than work late in the evening

Galavante: What makes Puglia so unique?

Aldo: Puglia - food, wine, people, historic towns, beach, and countryside. I think what's most appealing to the discerned traveller is the fact the place is real, not a tourist trap like many other Italian regions were they stage farmers' markets in the towns to make the tourist believe they are exploring real Italy.

Galavante: What are your favourite restaurants in Puglia?

Aldo: Grotta Palazzese in Polignano is certainly the most spectacular in terms of setting. It's basically a bridge that goes across a grotto just above the sea. I place it in my top 10 worldwide in terms of setting. Food is not very traditional and presentation more contemporary.

Ristorante da Tuccino in Polignano is among the best places in the world for raw seafood. They make the best fish carpaccio I have ever tried. Also strong on oysters, shellfish, lobster; I have friends who drive 5 hrs from Rome just to eat there and drive back the next day. Cooked food is OK but the reason to go there is raw. Forget sushi... 

Polignano is a nice town, and home to the best ice cream in Puglia so I would try one of the two and pair it with an ice cream-walk in the old town, built right on a cliff.

For a high-quality Michelin-star type of experience I recommend Pascia' in Conversano and Gia' Sotto l'Arco in Carovigno. I prefer Pascia' although it's not starred (the other one is). For a more casual/rustic yet very special dining experience I recommend Cibus in Ceglie Messapica.

In Alberobello (the trulli town) the top restaurant is Il Poeta Contadino.

Galavante: These are incredible recommendations. We always thought of Puglia as a small region that would have excellent, but limited choices. 

Aldo: Believe it or not, there are even more than just the ones I mentioned above. I am passionate about good food. My personal ranking (town+dining experience):

  1. Cisternino
  2. Polignano
  3. Conversano
  4. Ceglie
  5. Ostuni
  6. Carovigno
  7. Alberobello

Our concierge can help with reservations, but if you do go to any of these places do let me know as I know most of the owners and can ask for special "Aldo's treatment.”

Galavante: Aldo’s treatment sounds pretty regal. We imagine that extends to staying at your hotels as well. 

Aldo: Absolutely. Our hotels are unique because there is a lot of heart in them: owners, designers, staff, everyone really cares and you can feel it. I would like people to feel the hotels are family-run, even the big one...we want to care about our hotel guests as if they were guests of our home, which is how it all started anyway!

Galavante: Where are your favourite places to travel, other than Puglia of course?

Aldo: Brazil would be at the top of my list - love the place, culture and people, especially in the state of Bahia. I have also made a small investment there (Itacare', Bahia) and will open a "posada" (small hotel) with a local partner next year.

Galavante: Besides your own, what is your favourite hotel?

Aldo: I love Babington House in Somerset, England.

Galavante: With four hotels, and travelling all over the world for work, what’s next for you?

Aldo: Small hotel in Brazil, maybe a bigger project there, too. Another project in Puglia, but further South. Rome, Milan and one more in London.

Galavante: What an empire; we look forward to seeing the new hotels.