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Where to Eat: Chef Franca De Filippis, La Pergola Gesualdo

I was first introduced to La Pergola in Gesualdo by the wonderful Raffaele Pietropaolo, owner of Zembalo B&B and champion of all things fantastic in Irpinia. My parents and I had embarked on our first family trip to the village perched high in the hills of the Irpinia mountains my great-grandfather had immigrated from back in 1904. We were discussing lunch plans when Raffaele mentioned we were just a 5 minute drive from one of the best restaurants in Irpinia, loved by locals and food critics alike.

Chef Franca De Fillipis, La Pergola (and me)

He went on to tell us that the Chef at La Pergola, Franca De Filippis, is a trained architect turned self-taught master chef who decided to put aside what she’d gone to school for to pursue her passions: cooking and Irpinia. And thank goodness she did. All her dishes are created using the culinary traditions that date back centuries, sourcing the best local ingredients, and crafting some of the most gorgeous compositions of the most fragrant fresh foods I’ve ever come across in my travels. And the best part is they’re still 100% Irpinia; elevated representations of the food my ancestors would have eaten.

From the moment I’d heard Chef Franca’s story, and how good the food was at La Pergola, I felt like I was going to like her. A lot. My family and I decided we couldn’t wait another day and made reservations for lunch. Around 1:00 pm, we made our way down the winding roads to the restaurant, heading into the countryside from the castle in the center of the village where we found a beautiful stone building nestled within tall pine and oak trees and acres upon acres of farmland surrounding this little oasis. We arrived at the front door to meet Antonio, Franca’s husband, who ran front of house at the restaurant and served as La Pergola’s incredibly knowledgeable wine ambassador.

Trio of Antipasti, La Pergola

It was a beautiful summer day, so we decided to eat outside at a table under the protective shade of the grape vines that formed “La Pergola” over the entrance to the restaurant. We excitedly chatted away as we awaited our meal and it wasn’t long before we were marveling at the delicious delicacy of the antipasti plates that were first to arrive at the table. A large white plate arrived adorned with three starters positioned artfully on their canvas: there was a light as air mini frittata bursting with the flavors of fresh summer zucchini, there was a savory mini parmigiano, and a fried stuffed pepper that nearly melted in your mouth to start.

We were still talking about how great our meal had started when the perfectly cooked al dente pastas arrived. There was a house made maccaronara, a locally made pasta shape that has the thickness of a pencil and is cut into long strands with what looks like a smaller rolling pin containing grooves made from peaks and valleys that form every ¼ inch to create a line of cutting edges that are passed over rolled out pasta dough creating slightly triangular noodles. The maccaronara was served with a sugo made from fresh picked summer tomatoes and topped with local ricotta cheese made just down the street. This was everything you’d want in a plate of pasta. There were also short tubes of pasta perfectly coated in a sauce made of zucchini puree and zucchini flowers, and there was an incredible summer soup celebrating celery, Gesualdo’s specialty vegetable. No seriously, the village is famous for it’s celery. The celebrated celery had been cooked and pureed into the most gorgeous grass-green color, and the soup was adorned with fried baccalà and roasted red fresh summer tomatoes floating in the green lake in the bowl.

Each plate was a celebration of local flavors and local traditions served in an elevated yet relaxed manner. We opted out of a meat course and went straight for dolce, where we were treated to a deconstructed sfogliatella with the most amazing pastry dough fried to golden brown perfection and this is where Franca’s architectural background was on full display, constructed to form the most gorgeous layers between a delicate orange citrus pastry cream and adorned with cherries preserved in their sauce. To say we loved it would be an understatement.

dolce, La Pergola Gesualdo

Our little family meal was not only delicious, but inspired the telling of nostalgic stories of past family gatherings, producing wishes more of Dad’s family were eating there with us. Because while Franca’s cooking was refined, elegant, and scrumptious, the flavors kept you feeling like you were eating a home cooked meal. How was she able to achieve this seemingly impossible balance? I’d say it’s because she’s insistent on using the same authentic ingredients her family had been cooking with for centuries before.

After we’d finished dessert and had our caffè, Franca came out from the kitchen to meet our table. She arrived in her white chef’s jacket, with her name embroidered across her heart, and her infectious smile spread across her face. You could feel her larger than life personality spilling out of her small frame and her brown eyes exuded enthusiasm from behind her glasses. Before I knew it, we were all embraced in warm hugs as we thanked Franca for this most special meal and tried to convey in our best broken Italian how her food brought us to the warm memories of our family gatherings.

I’d be remiss to not point out La Pergola also boasts a terrific wine selection, featuring some of the best Irpinia wine producers, not to mention many of the wines featured in the wine club.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that after this idyllic introduction to the restaurant, and the incredible people who make dining here so special, that some of my favorite memories have taken place at this location over the years that would follow. There were impromptu caffè stops to chat and catch up, there were parties large and small because there was always something fun going on at La Pergola, and I’ve since brought foodies from around the world to enjoy this phenomenal experience. Each visit, each meal with Franca and Antonio better than the last.

They’ve created a restaurant where people come to enjoy life, it was home to not just amazing food, but joyous laughter spent in the company of those who genuinely enjoy each other. There were always people celebrating milestones, birthdays, anniversaries and just being alive to share a meal with friends and family. That’s what makes La Pergola a must stop on any tour of Irpinia.


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