We have all seen the photo and the accompanying articles professing you can romantically dine in a candlelit cave overlooking the Adriatic Sea. The allure of that photo, a restaurant set in an unexpected location – who wouldn’t want to go there? I certainly did. It’s the Grotta Palazzese Summer Restaurant and it’s located in a hotel by the same name in Polignano a Mare in the Puglia region of Southern Italy.
Lucky for me, I received an invite to come to Grotta Palazzese for lunch while I was on my epic road trip that traced the outline of Italy’s boot. I’d read the TripAdvisor reviews and, frankly, they weren’t singing the praises of the food. We can’t lie – location trumps other things sometimes and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
There’s no debating that the location is fantastic. The restaurant was carved out of the cliff’s limestone centuries ago by the sea and has hosted elegant dinners at the request of Italian nobility since the 18th century. Today the natural sea cave, which is the largest of all the sea caves under the town of Polignano a Mare, serves as a summer restaurant (it’s only open from May until October) is sort of suspended between the town above and the Adriatic Sea 74 feet below.
The cavern extends back beyond the restaurant, which has just a handful of tables to keep the atmosphere intimate. My friend Leah from Leah Travels and I went for lunch since the restaurant recommended it is much more atmospheric when it’s daylight and you can appreciate the view. We were one of the lucky few to be seated at a sea view table. After having been there, I’d have to agree. Dinnertime in the south of Italy isn’t until after dark, even when the sun doesn’t set until 8:30pm, so you wouldn’t be able to see much beyond the interior of the restaurant.
There’s a fixed menu which is can plan to spend around $100 per person or you can also order a la carte. If you’re set on dining at Grotta Palazzese’s cave restaurant, another great reason to opt for lunch is that you choose a la carte and eat lighter. The menu is the same for both lunch and dinner and the average price per item, including appetizers, is around €33.
We started with the calamari fritti which was surprisingly paired with watermelon atop a bed of salad greens. The calamari was flavorful and crispy. It worked well with the watermelon. The portion was a bit on the small side for an appetizer priced at €35 though.
Craving the delicious lobster ravioli that was so good I ordered it two nights in a row at Hotel Santavenere in Basilicata, I opted for the lobster ravioli with cherry tomatoes and crispy basil. It lacked flavor and desperately needed some seasoning. I gave Leah a taste and she agreed that it just didn’t have much flavor.
Leah made a better entree selection and opted for tuna with curry served with burrata cheese and drizzled with just of balsamic. Her dish was more flavorful, immensely helped by the curry, and it’s hard to go wrong with a creamy burrata.
Italy isn’t exactly known for their rosé wines (called rosato in Italy), though they are much more common in the south of Italy and Puglia produces a good selection. A chilled glass of rosato is perfect for a hot summer day and €35 seemed to the magic number per bottle of wine. We asked our server to choose the one he thought was the best. We weren’t at all disappointed with our rosato.
Even though the restaurant was hosting us for lunch, we decided to skip dessert and opted to pop in to the gelato shop around the corner from Grotta Palazzese.
Overall, the food wasn’t terrible but it certainly was not up to par for the price. At Grotta Palazzese you are clearly paying for the location and atmosphere. What I suggest is taking in the atmosphere of the cave restaurant by sharing a bottle of wine from Puglia at their bar instead of dining at the restaurant.
And if you want that famous photo of the sparkling aqua Adriatic and the restaurant, head to the bathroom. There are tiny little windows where you can stick your camera out to get the perfect shot. Just be sure not to drop your camera!