- How do we get there?
- Oh, that’s easy. Drive to the square with the statue of the Madonna and turn right. Pass the cemetery and the cement factory and climb up the hill. Before the hot springs turn left and keep on straight until you get to the oil refinery.
- That’s it, you’re here.
When wonderful V. and her family took me to Da Ugo I was completely sure that we got lost, or that they just forgot where the restaurant was. On a hill with a view to the bay of Sant’Eufemia, no street name nor number (there are, but only for administrative reasons), resides the trattoria Da Ugo, one of Lamezia Terme’s most known secrets.
If the driving instructions are not intriguing enough, it’s surprising to see that the parking area - apart of the oil refinery – is shared with some houses that look like taken from another place and were put here. No neighbors, only one road from- and to-. And that’s it. The atmosphere, as you’d expect from isolated houses up the hill is definitely casual, and it seems more as if we were invited to one of the residents’ well-set yard.
And if that’s not surprising enough, the main attraction of the trattoria, situated 8 km from the sea and 260 meters high, is something you cannot find around - fish. Cod fish, as a matter of fact.
Northern Cod fish are not estranged to Calabria, as described in one of our steps on our way south. But here Ugo De Strangis made a conscious choice to focus on an ingredient not characteristic to the high and forestal area. Ugo told us that he came to this spot twenty years ago, “because it’s quiet here. Not chaotic, no cars, fresh air, great view”, which makes so much sense. Here he started to cook the ordinary menu you could find in Italian trattorias, including many pasta and meat dishes, but in time he noticed that people were asking less and less these dishes, while keep on asking for the fish ones. The Invisible Hand in the middle of nowhere.
As you expect, there’s no menu here. Patrizia, Ugo’s wife, welcomes the diners with a straightforward smile and reads it out loud, in case they don’t remember. Because here you come to eat Cod, from start and (almost) to the end.
One of the two things we don’t change, regardless of season or companions, is the Cod with tomatoes and parsley starter. Small chunks of fish with lots of olive oil and parsley, radicchio and lemon for the flavor, and tomatoes, mainly for the color. If you think of this dish from the cooking point of view, it’s almost a vegetable salad, since there’s almost no actual cooking, but one of the ingredients is a fish, and its freshness rolls joyfully on the palate between soft fish and crunchy vegetables.
My main recommendation for eating at Da Ugo is to follow the Cod-y lane all the way, but for starters you might want to check also the chubby fried anchovies. And if it’s the right season, which means the beginning of summer, chubby mussels as well who get the same minimalist treatment of white wine, garlic and parsley. Almost like choosing strictly necessary cookies when you enter a website.
Ordering the main dish is done only as a courtesy to ages of restaurant service, but it’s completely unnecessary, since the reason you turn right at the square and pass by the cement factory is clear. To the table will be served – not if, not maybe – to the table will be served a tray with Ugo’s education graduates fried Cod.
Ugo gets his Cod from Iceland, which means fish captured under the supervision of the Icelandic government and following the strict protocol of environmental preservation, all in order to fight overfishing, the main danger to oceans. In order to survive the trip from the northern volcano to the hills of south Italy, the Cod is preserved in salt and resembles more a wooden plaque. Probably also tastes like one.
At Ugo’s kitchen starts the process of rehydration, and not like in other places, it takes time. The fish stays in the fridge in freezing water for three days, and the water is changed every morning and evening with new water – also kept in the fridge. It’s a continuous and strict process which is done in order to maintain a stable low temperature, but crucial in the need of protecting the delicate fish. “My fish is expensive”, Ugo explains, “and it demanded a lot of sacrifice to develop it, but the quality at the end is something you cannot find anywhere else”. Ugo doesn’t feel sorrow for focusing on one ingredient, moreover he's very proud of the unique process he developed himself, answering to supply and demand rules, all in order to serve the best Cod possible.
At the end of the simple but long (and vice-versa) process the fish will get out of the box, will be well dried, and will be coated in a very thin layer of flour. Very thin. In the kitchen there are fryers, but the fish won’t enter there. It will be instead fried in a special pan called Hrissura in the Calabrian dialect, used only for this purpose.
The fryers, on the other hand, are kept to its companions on the silver tray: fried potatoes and peppers, Patate-e-Pipi as they’re named here, and to the fried olives hiding underneath. All the vegetables come from Ugo’s fields and orchards around the restaurant and up the hill (I don’t think there’s more “up the hill” from here). Don’t expect to find the “supermarket look” vegetables, but you can be sure to get the tastiest ones.
The first response as the tray is served is an uplifted spirit, followed by silence which comes from concentrating at the plate. Next you will hear the light popping of the crunchy thin layer of flour around the fish, and the sigh of relief when everyone understands that nothing has changed and the fish is comforting and indulging at the same time, no matter what.
At this point another ceremony will take place, in which you will be offered desserts. But at this point you will be after a long Cod evening, so for the sake of your stomach it’s better if you stick to one of the local bitter liquors.
Since Italy reopened Patrizia and Ugo hope that the situation will return to normal. Although most of their clients are still mainly locals, as you can hear from the Calabrian dialect around, and “the ones who know the secret”, but during our visits we heard also Spanish and even German. The joy of revealing a secret to new people is quite a joy also for yourself.
Some of the regular patrons dedicated some words to Patrizia and Ugo, where they are compared to “angels”, and “eating at Ugo’s is like eating in paradise”. Well, if eating at Ugo’s is like eating in paradise, so paradise feels like home, and this is a thing I can get used to.
Via Sant’Ermia 50, Lamezia Terme (But not really)