– 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 forget where the restaurant is. 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 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. Codfish, as a matter of fact.
Northern Cod fish are not strange 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 of the high and forestall 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 saw that people ask less and less for 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 read it out loud, in case they don’t remember. Because here you come to eat Cod, from the 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 first courses, 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 minimalistic treatment of white wine, garlic, and parsley. Almost like choosing strictly necessary cookies when you enter a website.
Ordering the main dish is made only as a courtesy to ages of restaurant service, yet it’s completely unnecessary, because 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 graduate’s 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 to fight the crisis of overfishing, the main danger to oceans. To survive the trip from the northern volcano to the hills of southern Italy, the Cod is preserved in salt and resembles more of 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 that is done to maintain a stable low temperature, but crucial in the need of protecting the delicate fish. “I buy more expensive fish”, Ugo explains, “and it demanded a lot of sacrifices 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 but is very proud of the unique process he developed himself, answering to supply and demand rules, all 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, but will be fried in a special pan called Hrissura in the Calabrian dialect, and served only for it.