Restaurateur Rob Claassen from Queen’s Park in north-west London was born in the capital, but Italy has always been important in his life. His Italian mother took him back to Rome twice a year for extended holidays and he grew up completely at home with the culture, food and language.
However it wasn’t until 2004 that he visited Puglia, the “heel” of south-east Italy’s long boot between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. It’s a hot, flat region with a long summer, and budget airlines have only just started flying to its airports at Bari and Brindisi.
For Claassen, the appeal was immediate. He returned for a second family holiday in 2005, bought his first Puglian house with his father in 2006 and has since bought two more properties. With his teenage children, George and Layla, and his fiancée, Seraphina, he holidays there regularly.
“I like Puglia’s amazing diversity,” says Claassen, 42. “There’s the sea, beautiful hillside towns and olive groves all within easy distance of each other. There are quiet country villages and pretty towns. You see this diversity in the food and architecture, too.”
The local architecture includes Baroque, Byzantine and Romanesque churches. Family homes include romantic country houses and farms, nobles’ homes with thick walls and statuesque dimensions, and traditional trulli — small, circular dry stone huts with conical roofs, unique to Puglia and often grouped to make larger homes.
“I don’t know anywhere else in Italy where you can get the freshest seafood, incredible langoustine or sea bass, at such good prices,” adds Claassen. “Puglia is about real produce, picking up today’s catch from the fishmonger and shopping in local markets.”
Food is an important lifestyle ingredient for the founder of the Masseria Group which includes The Salusbury gastropub and The Salusbury Wine Store in NW6. In 2013 he brought his beloved flavours of Puglia to London, opening Ostuni, also in Queen’s Park, London’s first restaurant to feature the Italian region’s food, followed this summer with a second Ostuni in Highgate.
“The region of Puglia that I especially love is Valle d’Itria,” he says. “Most of Puglia is flat but Itria has rolling hills, lovely hill towns including Ostuni, Martina Franca, Cisternino and the Unesco Heritage Site of Alberobello all within 25 minutes of the coast.”
His three properties, all near Ostuni, are made up of trulli. He paid £500,000 in 2006 for a fully renovated house and pool and rents it for up to 15 weeks a year through Holiday Lettings. It sleeps 12-14 in six bedrooms at a weekly rent of £1,800 to £3,840.
He did rather better with his last two buys — two large plots, both with unrenovated trulli, costing £72,000 each. He is developing the first and is after planning permission for the second, using local soft, pale limestone and adding traditional features like vaulted ceilings.
“The transaction was straightforward but it is important to use an experienced local architect and a project manager to deal with the local council,” he says. “Local knowledge is crucial. Not all communes have the same rules.
“Puglia reminded me of the charming, rural Italy of my childhood. Today it has become much more popular. If you ask anyone in Queen’s Park where they are going on holiday it seems they all say Puglia — but the truth is it remains totally rural, rustic and Italian.”
ROB CLAASSEN’S FIVE PUGLIA MUST-DOS
1 See trulli houses at Alberobello Unesco World Heritage Site.
2 Have an early evening stroll and an aperitivo in Locorotondo. Enjoy the Valle d’Itria views and buy local wine, oil and linens.
3 Dine at Grotta Palazzese in Polignano a Mare, a hotel/restaurant carved out of limestone rocks with fab sea views.
4 Join the summer street party in Ceglie Messapica when the entire town turns out to eat, drink and party under fairy lights.
5 Tour Il Frantoio, a working masseria (fortified farm) with rooms where visitors are welcomed for a tour followed by a seven-course dinner.
PROPERTY IN PUGLIA
Puglia’s “golden triangle” lies between Monopoli, Martina Franca and Carovigno, says agent Johan Zetterberg of Casa Puglia. “It is close to Bari and Brindisi airports, near the clear Adriatic Sea and in the most unspoilt and beautiful part of Valle d’Itria with all the most charming towns of Puglia.” Prices start at £98,000 for a small two-bedroom seaside flat. A restored trullo with pool starts at £234,400.