Giovanni DeBlasio was born in Fasano, a small town in Italy’s Puglia region. It’s an area dotted with ancient white-washed farmhouses, centuries-old olive trees on a backdrop of low lush hillsides that reach as far as the Adriatic Sea. It is a magic place, he says, but as an ambitious young boy growing up there, all he wanted was an escape from the rural and bucolic small town life.
And so escape he did. “I told myself I’d never come back when I left to study law in Bologna,” Giovanni says. But, he continues the tale with a chuckle. “Here I am, a decade later back home.” That’s because Giovanni DeBlasio, lawyer and business man, is now the managing director of a company that owns (among other properties) the historic and meticulously restored villa, Masseria Pettolecchia, in the very same place that as a young man, he swore he would leave.
Giovanni uses the word “magic” often to describe what brought him back to Fasano to be part of the project to restore the noble Palmieri family’s early 19th century, almost 20-acre estate. It wasn’t quite magic but it was a serendipitous meeting with an international businessman who wanted to develop some of the old masserias (traditional fortified farmhouses) in the area. The developer was looking for someone who had the business acumen, but also deep knowledge of the area, to manage the development. Giovanni DeBlasio was exactly the right person.
For Giovanni, however, that fortuitous meeting was about more than business. The estate the developer wanted to restore, in fact, had a very personal meaning for him. It featured prominently in a very special memory from his childhood, a memory that resonated with such intensity he knew he had to take the job and return home. The memory, he says, was when, as a teen, he was playing soccer one day on the grounds of the abandoned masseria. An enthusiastically kicked soccer ball ended up on the balcony of the old house. Giovanni scurried up the stairs to the terrace where the ball had landed and retrieved it while his impatient friends waited below. But for just one moment, he stopped, caught his breath and looked out. The view beyond was so striking, he says, it awakened some new idea of beauty in him. “This place,” he remembers saying to himself of the old fortified farmhouse, the land and the view, “is a piece of paradise. I was just astonished!”
He admits he is still astonished that fate would lead him to meet someone years later who wanted to restore that same estate and wanted him to direct the restoration. He recalls the first time he returned to that place of early profound awakening as an adult in order to assess the abandoned building for development. He made his way through the high grasses, pushed a creaking old door open and saw the 16-foot high vaulted ceilings and thick ancient cream stone walls. He says he had the same emotional reaction that he had had in his youth. “It was the air of magic inside.” Giovanni DeBlasio knew he was meant for this work. “It was like a bolt of lightning!”
When reality set in, however, the responsibility and magnitude of the task was daunting. The doors and windows were broken and various animals had taken up residence. But the building was still magnificent. The old stone kitchen was “perfect” and under the layers of dust, the floors slabs were revealed to be of light gray chianca, the old quarried stone used in the area for centuries. And, of course, there was that same terrace of the wayward soccer ball, and that same stunning view of the countryside and the sea.
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Using local materials, traditional building methods and meticulously honoring the architectural history of the area, Giovanni began the work. “We wanted to restore and bring back the original beauty,” he says. But that wasn’t all. Giovanni, rediscovering his roots himself, wanted to give the whole region visibility. “There is something unique, a harmony with nature, in Puglia!”
Oddly for a construction project that usually involves a few dozen pull-your-hair out of your head, moments, that same harmony extended to the restoration. He and the new owner pored over old books about the architecture of the region. “You can’t see where you are going if you don’t know where you come from,” he says. Thinking of themselves as more cultural entrepreneurs than developers, they put together a crew of locals who were old craftsman and stonecutters. For five months, day and night Giovanni and his crew worked to restore the original structure and add an extension while carefully using the old stone cutting techniques and materials. “We even worked through the nights with a spotlight,” he says with a wistful nostalgia for the pleasure of that challenge in his voice.
The interior, once cleared of debris and scrupulously cleaned, was in excellent condition. He sought out unique antique French and Italian pieces from the 1930s and ’40s as well as Jansen handcrafted reproductions of period furniture. Sculpture as well as original 14th and 15th century gilt framed paintings would line the walls of the living room, giving the space the feel of an elegant art gallery. The bedrooms would reflect the same period with original antique beds with a signature look from the Florence of the 1930s. From those beds in some rooms there are views of the countryside and its hundreds and hundreds of olive trees. All in all, Giovanni and the new owner created a gracious and stately but uncomplicated interior in which guests could time travel to an elegant past and at the same time enjoy the subtle integration of technological modernity.
But it was and is the land around Masseria Pettolecchia that Giovanni says, exerts an almost magnetic pull on visitors. Whether dining al fresco, lounging by the pool or sitting at the outdoor bar, the air is infused with the fragrance of the dark red earth and olive and almond trees. “We want guests to fill themselves with nature”, he says. To that end, as part of their stay, visitors can harvest olives or work in the vegetable garden or simply hike in the hills. One special hike known only to local residents is the walk up to the Belvedere of La Selva di Fasano for a panoramic view of the whole area. “We want the guest’s visit to be a natural and cultural introduction to the area,” he continues. Guests can even learn to make traditional bread and pizzas with a local baker. For those who want to venture further afield to experience the local culture and food, Giovanni suggests nearby Osteria Del Porto Savelletri where guests can sit outside with a view of the harbor and enjoy fresh oven roasted fish.
Of course there are dozens of local cheeses and wines to try, Roman ruins and a museum (Scavi D’Egnazia) to visit and the five-star and stylish Coccaro Beach Club for a night of partying. Nothing, however, according to Giovanni DeBlasio can match just staying “home” and sitting out in the evening on that very same terrace where as a boy he lost his soccer ball, and staring at the sweep of hills and trees out to the Savelletri harbor twinkling with night lights.
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