The pressures of the workplace, the clashing of opinions, and the long hours spent together can take a toll on even the strongest relationships. For Diana E. Bianchi, co-owner of Castello di Ugento, she’s found a positive balance with partner Massimo d’Amore. “We are very complementary I would say and although he is clearly the one who had the vision and the folly to launch on this endeavour, I certainly had the folly to follow him and we are a great team,” she shares. The castle has been a landmark for over one thousand years and the recent renovations have helped to turn the beautiful property into a nine-bedroom hotel. “Although I am born a Tuscan and truly love my region, I have fallen in love not only with Massimo, the man who brought me to Puglia, but also with the authentic and laid back feel of this beautiful region, especially the southern area known as Salento.”
The food culture that is ingrained in the Puglia region can be strongly felt and tasted within Castelli di Ugento. “The Chef’s Table in the former 17th-century storage and bakery kitchens have been turned into our open kitchen where guests are able to follow Chef Tommaso and his team as dishes are being prepared. A real feast for the eyes and the palate!” Bianchi says excitedly. We speak with Bianchi about her favourite spot in the castle, her tips for finding a work-life balance, and why Puglia has to be on everyone’s bucket list.
What do you love the most about living in Puglia?
It is very interesting to dive into the rich history that saw so many civilisations cross this region from north to south, east to west, and am in awe witnessing those influences in the architecture, art, food and culture everywhere. I love turning a corner and falling upon an amazingly beautiful piazza with its church in pietra leccese adorned with rich baroque art, most of which are off the beaten track and often known by few.
How do you and Massimo balance each other out when it comes to owning and running the castle?
He beautifully manages the back office and administrative issues, and yes the Italian bureaucracy as well as the interface with the ministry of culture for the restoration process, whilst I am more the face of the business and the front side of the house enjoying very much the hospitality side and leading our wonderful staff to offer the best holidays we can to our guests. I also greatly enjoy decorating the properties with the help of a dear friend, Fabienne Gerard.
The property recently went through a big restoration project. What was the key goal behind this?
From the onset, we wished to breathe life back into Castello di Ugento and return it to its right place in the 21st century. For this we worked with passion with the wonderful team of architects from the Studio Carafa-Guadagno in Caserta, and together we envisaged to make sustainability a priority so as to give it a business model that would help preserve the property all year round and for the next 100 years. We were not interested solely in beautifying it and offer lodging and thus we created the most state-of-the-art cookery school, the Puglia Culinary Centre, as well as a very fine dining restaurant Il Tempo Nuovo, and surrounded ourselves with the best professionals we could find. We then fitted eight suites to be able to offer lodging of course and now our lovely guests can also enter a home that is brewing with life once again after 35 years of being closed and 900 years since the Normans built the first tower.
Why did you decide that design would play an important role in Castello di Ugento?
What was most important to us was to be extremely respectful of the architecture and history of Castello and indeed the restoration we undertook is known as a “restauro conservativo” which entails faithfully restoring the walls and the frescoes to what they were meant to be. The Piano Nobile offers frescoes that are now telling the stories they did back in the late 1600s and we wished to keep the design of the museum wing as light as possible as we felt that the the real protagonist of such a monument is the beauty of the monument itself.
For the hospitality side however, as our ancestors did in the 17th century, we wanted to surround ourselves with modern comfort and design and use sustainable technology and solutions and therefore create a modern connection between the past and our world today. One must not forget that this is our home and not just a hotel, so every area and piece reflects how we feel, a souvenir, a design we love, a fabric that has a story, and this is what we are happy to share with our guests.
• Many people are now traveling far and wide in the quest for excellent food. What makes Il Tempo Nuovo a true destination restaurant?
Certainly it is our most wonderful chef Tommaso Sangueldolce. Pugliese-born, and Michelin-star trained, Tommaso re-imagines Puglia’s traditional dishes, dissecting recipes passed down through families over the centuries and conjuring gastronomic creations from the simplest ingredients. His philosophy is to focus on flavour, shining the spotlight on each season’s natural produce and capturing its essence with his trademark elegance and lightness of touch. Of course dining at Castello is also unlike any other place given the beauty of the spaces. You may experience the distinctive cuisine of Il Tempo Nuovo, in the antique paved courtyard, the ancient stables, or in the vaulted room known as La Torre Scoperta whose glass floor reveals the Norman Tower dating from the 12th century that was unearthed in 2015 during the renovation.
• Tell me more about the Puglia Culinary Centre and the value it brings to guests staying at the castle.
The Puglia Culinary Centre was our dream and passion from the beginning. It is the most advanced cookery school in the region for enogastronomy, and we teach programs that encompass all the different regional specialties in Italy, the true definition of Italian cuisine. It enables us to offer both professional programs to university students such as our collaboration with the Culinary Institute of America, as well as offering lovely “Lunch and Learn” day classes or multiple day workshops to our guests both in-house and those visiting. We believe in the nutritional value of good produce, ancient and modern cooking techniques and no waste cooking which is also at the basis of Italian cuisine and we passionately wish to share all this with our guests as well as sharing the cultural context with which these foods come from
• What is the absolute “not to be missed” dish on your menu right now and which wine would you pair with it?
It’s hard to choose as Chef Tommaso composes beautiful seasonal menus, but we all love his sheep ricotta gnocchi with sea urchins, preserved garden lemon and wild rocket. It is an exquisite light gnocchi dish that mixes sea and land flavours and is paired beautifully with Tormaresca’s Bocca di Lupo red wine, made with well matured “aglianico” grapes that deliver a rich but very elegantly balanced flavour.
• What type of itinerary would you recommend for a day trip from the castle?
There are so many it is hard to recommend one only! Being situated close to the tip of the heel, I always recommend our guests to drive down the coast from Ugento to Santa Maria di Leuca and visit the most south-eastern tip of Italy’s boot and admire its pretty port as if time has stopped in the 50s. They can admire its tall and protective lighthouse and admire the landscape where the the Adriatic and the Ionian sea meet. The coast is a protected natural reserve and has been unchanged for centuries. And I then recommend to drive up on the Adriatic side toward other ports such as Porto Badisco and the charming Tricase porto which truly expresses the untouched beauty of the land. A nice lunch in the port, a gelato and a swim any time from March to November make for a wonderful day in nature. And coming back home, one may choose to stop in Maglie and visit its beautiful baroque churches and lovely shops, and then cut across he heel with a stop in Specchia, another beautiful small baroque town, before winding up either on our sandy beaches close to Castello or in our 17th century kitchen garden for a breathtaking sunset , music and aperitivo in hand. They will feel a million miles away from home.
• What would be your favourite spot in the castle?
I adore sitting in the garden at sunset with Massimo, at aperitivo hour and watch the end of the day and the sunset on the castle. There is nothing more beautiful; the colour of the limestone goes from blonde, to gold, to pink, to orange to rose gold and it is the sweetest time of the day surrounded by all the 100 herbs and fruit trees we have in the kitchen garden while the birds and crickets are still singing their evening repertoire. We also love to listen to music and I often pinch myself, that we actually did bring life back to this most magical of castles, and for this reason we often invite our guests to enjoy aperitivo in the garden with us.
• How do you make sure you have a good work-life balance?
I can only say that I am blessed and fortunate to live my life between two of Itay’s most beautiful regions: Tuscany and Puglia. My work is my passion, and sharing the beauty and rebirth of Castello di Ugento has become, for me and Massimo, our mid-life’s project. Clearly the many years in which we were involved with the complexity and challenges of the restoration and the creation of our business have been very demanding, but now in our fourth year, we are trying to find the balance between managing and enjoying the properties and it is coming along nicely. Because our two hotels, Castello di Ugento and sister property Masseria le Mandorle, are just five minutes from our homes, we feel that work is our life and life is our work, but the pleasures of welcoming the wonderful guests who come our way make the joys of all this work far outweigh the challenges.
• Do you have any tips for other young women out there who are interested in a career in hospitality?
Hospitality is a very challenging but also very rewarding field and I believe creative and business \-minded women can find great satisfaction in a career in hospitality as it mixes both worlds beautifully. My background as a marketer has certainly helped me be able to understand how to communicate and effectively launch our business, but the technical expertise comes over time and must be paired with a true and strong passion. This is an industry that requires long hours and lots of energy, and it is changing now more than ever…We are being trusted with our clients’ most valuable asset, their TIME, and we cannot afford to waste any of it and they know when a hotel is genuine and true to its roots and its values.
Our two hotels were created with the objective of offering the experience of living in what have always been family homes, so my approach has been to design them as we like to live in them and then open the door for others to enjoy the home that we love so much. I therefore encourage young women to create what they feel resembles them the most, follow their instincts as a traveller and then offer what they love, being true to themselves. Travel is and should always be a way to “taste and feel” a different culture while away from one’s home and for this to occur the best advice is to remain true and respectful to the territory, to its culture to its people and to its customs so that your guests will indeed leave your property richer in spirit than when they arrived.
Castello di Ugento
Address: Via Castello, 13, 73059 Ugento LE, Italy