Virtual reality is big these days, and this second, Highgate branch of a popular Queen’s Park Puglian restaurant does a great job of tricking you into believing you’re within earshot of cicadas, buzzing mopeds and distant speedboats. Ostuni – named after a Puglian town – sits at the top of Highgate and screams southern Italy. The hostess was all big gestures and warm welcomes as I stepped into its lively and airy one-floor space done up to look like the stucco-heavy real thing, with its rough white walls, wooden tables and tiled floor. Ten minutes later, as the wine arrived (a great Puglian red), the same woman was dancing with an elderly man wearing a ‘Godfather’ T-shirt, who soon threw her over his shoulder. By now, I wouldn’t have blinked if an actual Puglian fisherman walked through the door with his catch of the day.
With such atmosphere on tap – and all without stepping anywhere near a Ryanair flight – it’s easy to forget you’re here to eat and drink. The approach to dining is as relaxed as the staff. You can land on inventive regional pastas, salads or small dishes, or you can opt for the regional speciality bombette, slices of pork wrapped around local cheese and then roasted. I tried these as part of an arrosto Pugliese, a mixed dish which also included lamb neck, mushrooms and salad. It’s a rich, rough meal, but rewarding and unusual. The orata al sale – a whole seabream baked in a salt crust – came recommended by the young waiter. With ample space and big tables, this would be a great place to go with a gang of friends or family. The cooking is passionate and homely, and you might be a bit shocked to find you’re still in not-very-Mediterranean England when you leave.