Francesco Castellana, head chef of Vesper Bistro & Bar on Toorak Road in Melbourne, Victoria, has loved the Puglian barbecue octopus sandwich ever since his uncle Angelo introduced him to it as a child.
In Puglia, a region in Italy's south that's surrounded by the Adriatic and Ionian seas and is close to Greece, local produce is everything, including seafood like mussels, clams and octopus.
A local tradition involves introducing children to raw seafood when they reach seven years of age. When Castellana reached seven, his uncle Angelo took him down to a port after school one summer's day. The port was filled with pop-up stalls and kiosks selling seafood. Uncle Angelo pushed him to try raw mussels, mini calamari and squid from them. Castellana says, "Being so young in age, at first, I didn't quite appreciate the texture of raw seafood, but eventually, I found myself loving it."
That same day, uncle Angelo also bought him a barbecue octopus sandwich. The octopus was served in a rosetta-shaped panino with provolone cheese.
"What I always remember from trying the sandwich for the first time, is the crunchy bark and slightly bitter flavour of the edge of the octopus' tentacles that come from it being cooked on a barbecue lit with charcoal," he says.
"But what excited me the most was the octopus and cheese combination. It might not be an enjoyable pairing for most, but I find it very very sharp, almost extreme, where the cheese gives you a chewy salty texture, and for my palate that's a great flavour fusion."
The octopus is also dressed in a special salsa verde: a cold green sauce of chilli, lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, salt and pepper.
"What excited me the most was the octopus and cheese combination. It might not be an enjoyable pairing for most, but I find it very sharp, almost extreme."
Castellana explains how this particular panino sandwich is like an addiction. "It's so tasty and popular with the locals and people travel from all over the country just to bite into it."
It's common for locals to try every version on offer. "Every spring and summer there's a friendly challenge amongst friends of who will pick up the best panino," he explains.
In his teenage years, he and his friends would go on quests to find the best octopus panino on offer. "It's certainly one of the most iconic street foods we have, and we dedicate our time to finding the best one across the coastal area."
His favourite is made by La Baia restaurant in the Puglian seaside town of Torre Canne. It even has a kiosk on the beach. "The quality of the octopus itself and the tenderness is unmatched anywhere else," he says.
Castellana's cheffing destiny
Castellana comes from a family of chefs. His father Giovanni, together with his uncle Michele, co-owned and ran restaurants and cafes all their lives. Their menus offered a selection of traditional Mediterranean-inspired delicacies sourced from the region for their loyal clientele, large banquets and wedding receptions.
"Back then there was no mixing and matching of ingredients or any fusion of cuisines. The 'grandmother' cuisine was very much alive in the region, so for anyone to dine out the meal had to be worth it," he says. "It had to have that sense of homemade and a connection to those deep familiar family, traditional and much-loved flavours, and my family ensured those tastes were found in everything we cooked."
In 1987, when Castellana was just five months old, his family opened a restaurant named Al Nuovo Trulletto. From age one, he was on the kitchen bench.
"Unconsciously, I quickly began to absorb the kitchen atmosphere and a connection with the whole environment. I call my father 'chef' probably more often than I call him dad."
At age eight, he began helping in the restaurant kitchen with simple tasks his family presented to him as games, like washing vegetables, preparing simple stocks and sauces, weighing ingredients to make focaccia and shaping dough.
His parents wanted him to become an air force pilot, but he already wanted to become a chef.
"At age 13, I wanted to enrol in the most renowned culinary institute in the south of Italy, the Culinary Institute of Castellana Grotte, so I did. Over five years this school prepared me with solid and exhaustive technical knowledge as well as practical skills that I find myself still using."
"I call my father 'chef' probably more often than I call him dad."
By 2011, at age 24, Castellana was ready to experience more of the world. He moved from Puglia to Melbourne, Australia, to expand his career. "Melbourne was immediately a great platform to experience food from different cultures. I was exposed to much more Asian flavours than in Italy, and mastered other European cuisines like French, Spanish and Greek," he says. "It was truly inspiring for a young chef."
However, despite leaving his hometown, he's never forgotten about its famous barbecue octopus sandwich. "Since I moved to Australia, every time I go back to Italy for a holiday it's become a bit of a tradition for us to make this sandwich at home," he says.
In 2016, the last time he visited Italy, his whole family (about 90 people) gathered at his house by the sea. Together with his dad and two brothers, they cooked and served about 120 barbecue octopus panini.
"My recipe is inspired from the many differing forms of this sandwich I've tried throughout the years, with a unique modern twist, but still includes the heart and soul of my ancestry," he says.
"When in Australia, at every barbecue, this is the dish I make for both local but also other Italian-Australian friends that come from the same region. This awakens a lot of home memories for them and keeps mine alive as well."
BBQ octopus and provolone cheese panino
- 4 rosetta-shaped rolls or baguettes
- 4 large (700 g) Fremantle octopus raw tentacles
- 2 bay leaves
- 500 ml white cooking wine
- 2½ litre water
- 20 g salt
- 5 g fennel seed
- 1 large peeled and sliced shallot
- 1 large lemon cut into wedges
- In a medium casserole dish, combine the octopus ingredients and cover with a lid.
- Cook on the stove over medium heat for at least 30–40 minutes or until the octopus tentacles are soft and tender. This poaching method is essential to build an early layer of flavour into the octopus and improve the texture.
- Once ready, remove the tentacles from the liquid and let them rest over a cooking tray before grilling on a barbecue.
Barbecue aromatic oil
- 200 ml olive oil
- 2 large red chillies, cut in half and deseeded
- 3 whole crushed garlic cloves
- 1 sprig fresh thyme
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 1 sprig fresh sage
- 2 anchovy fillets in olive oil
- 1 small piece of Parmesan cheese crust
- 10 ml balsamic vinegar
- While the octopus is cooking, make the aromatic oil. Quickly char grill the chillies over a hot barbecue and then roughly chop them.
- In a small cooking pot, mix the charred chillies with the olive oil, crushed garlic, fresh herb sprigs, anchovy and Parmesan crust.
- Heat the pot until the oil reaches a temperature of 120°C and the ingredients release a nice aroma.
- Set the infused aromatic oil aside and add the balsamic vinegar.
- Store it until needed.
- 40 g fresh parsley leaves
- 30 g fresh basil leaves
- 20 g fresh mint leaves
- 20 g tender green celery leaves
- 120 ml extra virgin olive oil
- 15 g drained capers in vinegar
- 15 ml red wine vinegar
- 1 peeled and sliced garlic clove
- Finely grated zest and juice of half a lemon
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- To prepare the salsa verde, put the salsa verde ingredients in a food processor and blitz them at medium speed until a coarse paste is formed.
- There is no right consistency for the salsa verde. If you prefer a rustic look, blend less. Otherwise, keep mixing until you achieve a more refined appearance.
- While blending, don't overheat the sauce, it could affect the green colour.
- Once finalised, remove from the food processor and refrigerate in a food container immediately.
- 200 g thinly sliced provolone cheese — a sweet version or the riper, spicier one, if you can find it.
- Finally, dress the octopus tentacles with the aromatic oil and sear them on the barbecue at a very high temperature.
- Cook until a dark, rich crust forms around the octopus. If necessary, keep brushing the aromatic oil during the process.
- Cut the rosetta, or the demi baguette, in half and warm them around the edges of the barbecue.
- Assemble the panino by slicing the octopus tentacles into bite sizes and placing them in between the bread.
- Dress heavily with the salsa verde and garnish with sliced provolone cheese.
- Press the panino gently so the elements combine and the bread absorbs the flavours.
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