Cristina Conte – Light and contemporary

The chef of LaltroBaffo brings the sea to the table even during winter. Cristina Conte creates authentic interpretations of the traditional cuisine from Salento without excessive nostalgia and with a light and contemporary touch

by Francesca Portoghese

While some consider the sea in winter to be a bit like a faded black&white postcard, Cristina Conte, chef of LaltroBaffo, has a rather different view. Apulia, Salento, Otranto, Middle Eastern influences, and the creativity of traditional but innovative dishes are the elements that she declines perfectly, even during the winter months, because it is precisely between November and March that the sea yields its very best products.

Cristina Conte’s culinary tradition has strong hints of vegetarian cuisine with legumes and vegetables.

Following in her family’s footsteps, Cristina learned to cook at a young age. Her father, a gruff innkeeper who ran the inn Il Baffo with his wife, taught her how to embrace the flavours and aromas of traditional dishes and gave her the ambitious idea of creating a cuisine with a new personal signature. This was the challenge she won about fifteen years ago when she opened LaltroBaffo, a restaurant which moves away from the idea of a seafood inn without ever abandoning tradition.

At Terrazza Paradiso, Cristina serves vegetables and herbs grown directly in the restaurant’s organic garden.

Memories and obsessive attention to raw materials are the elements that complement creativity that speaks other languages. LaltroBaffo’s dishes are full of the most diverse contaminations. From Japan to Pakistan, passing through Afghanistan, Cristina’s cuisine travels and is enriched with combinations and flavours that are declined in the dishes with a harmony that leaves you speechless. Because, as she declares: “All these different influences enhance the importance of the product”. This is why, though you would expect to taste a typical Salento dish at LaltroBaffo, you are suddenly catapulted into Morocco or might find yourself in the Middle East. And those contaminations come precisely from her kitchen, which is always populated by a select brigade chosen without leaving anything to chance.

Cristina Conte almost obsessively draws from recipes, flavours and ingredients from her homeland. Through a melting pot of different cultures and techniques, after many experiences, travels and new sources of inspiration, her cuisine has become increasingly international, but with a touch of Salento. Hers is a cuisine that plays both with memory and the future.

Together with these young chefs who come to Otranto from all over the world, Cristina tests, experiments, and creates perfect food pairings that become dishes to be included on the menu. The chef from Salento told us that, although Otranto is a seaside town, its culinary tradition has strong hints of vegetarian cuisine with legumes and vegetables. So, the cosiness and warmth of a hot dish, a demi-glace, a soup or an infusion go perfectly with the winter catch of succulent monkfish, tasty amberjack, tender frigate tuna, lots of oily fish, lots of cuttlefish and squid, white and pink prawns and, of course, the ever-present seafood.

THE CHEF’S VISION IS BASED ON FINDING THE PERFECT BALANCE BETWEEN LIGHTNESS, PLEASURE AND EMOTION.

Cristina Conte does not stop at LaltroBaffo and a new challenge came her way a few years ago. Le Capase, a renowned resort in Salento, offered her the chance to manage its restaurant, Terrazza Paradiso. Cristina knows the establishment quite well since she used to stay there as a child with her parents, and when she saw that endless sea unfolding in front of her, she had no doubts. Inspired by the breathtaking view that delights the eye from Santa Maria di Leuca to the Torre del Serpente and by the rather retro style of the place, she felt a lot of ideas coming straight from the 1980s and including important and ambitious reinterpretations that transformed the dishes into fun and bold games for an ultra-luxury seafood restaurant. And since the pennette mare e monti was a must on the menus of her past, she cannot avoid re-proposing them in a highly personal interpretation involving pasta baked in the oven with flakes of truffle combined with raw Gallipoli red prawns.

Cristina splits her time between the two restaurants for which she has skilfully created two distinct personalities, and this is her signature, in a region that does not want to be known just for its “sun, sea and wind”, but which has so much to say, 365 days a year.

(Cristina Conte – Light and contemporary – Barchemagazine.com – July 2023)