The South of Italy is packed with men who ooze machismo from their bronzed pores, but everyone knows it’s the women who run the show. At the seaside masseria of Carlo Capasa and his brother Ennio, Lecce-born brothers who run Milan-based fashion label Costume National, there is manliness in spades. Ennio, a fashion designer who wears asymmetrical layers of fine black cotton and rugged leather to the beach, and Carlo, the company CEO, are dark haired, well-built and accustomed to commanding, and their brood of uncountable male cousins come out from the cracks of the town like ants after the rain. But all power in this soaring fortress-like home on the Otranto waterfront is ceded to four silver-haired grandmothers who are as sturdy as blocks of limestone and sheathed in all black—with the occasional touch of pure white.

The undeniable matriarch is Maria Luisa, 80, who possesses a magnificent Roman nose and a virtually lineless face, quenched for nearly a century with raw extra virgin olive oil. Carlo and Ennio’s widowed mother commands the masseria as if it were her own stone castle, though she lives 40 minutes away in Lecce, where she owns a high-fashion boutique called Smart.

Maria Luisa is shaped like an ox, and has plump, well-greased hands, which she digs savagely into mountains of raw ground veal to make her pan-fried meatballs or with which she squeezes fat chunks of lamb for agnello agli agrumi.  When not in the kitchen, aided by her Filipino maid Alfonso, she moves silently from the dining room, with its sweeping stone arched ceiling, to the outdoor patio drenched in bougainvillea, surveying the landscape of table settings and ensuring everything is attended to. Otherwise, you’ll find her in the maze-like orto, a vegetable garden tucked in a meadow lined with olive trees along the rocky dirt driveway, where she peacefully pulls up wild chicory, fava beans, peas and tomatoes from the earth.

Cooking for 25 people—only a quarter of the full Capasa clan—requires backup. Heavy reinforcement comes from Le Zie, Carlo and Ennio’s three aunts, who emerge during every holiday period and most weekends in the summer with a parade of home-cooked delicacies for the Capasa brothers, their four children and the extended family scattered throughout the neighboring hills. The procession of food is monumental and handled with grave care. Zia Franca, 79, places the huge metal pan containing her paper-thin lasagna with the formality of a religious ceremony.  The dish weighs 15 kilograms and is handcrafted from a 150-year-old recipe with three cheeses, meatballs, mortadella and pasta that Franca rolls out with a rolling pin. For Easter, three versions of lamb are prepared: braised in citrus and white wine, cooked among slices of potatoes, or layered into a cheese pie.

Though many of Le Zie’s specialties are calorie bombs (you don’t even want to know how many are in Zia Annunziata’s lovingly stratified eggplant parmigiana), one of the perks of Pugliese cuisine is its emphasis on vegetables. These women are experts at preparing them, from batter-fried artichokes (admittedly not slimming) to detox-appropriate soups made from nothing but freshly shelled fava beans, shucked peas, raw baby artichokes and sliced onion, all cooked briefly in boiling water for 10 minutes.  When the vegetables are pulled from the earth just hours before, nothing but a pinch of salt is necessary to flavor this extraordinary broth.

When it comes time to serve the food, the sisters are dressed neck to ankle in sharply tailored black separates. Certainly the edgy noir outfits are a nod to their nephews, who have made it big up north in Milan with their Costume National label, but the Capasa’s Zie owned black way before it became a fashion trend. “We started wearing black when our mother died,” Zia Annunziata, 68, says.  She and the two other aunts favor skinny pencil skirts or slim trousers with neat turtlenecks, sharp-shouldered jackets, and opaque tights, their silver hair set beautifully off the dark canvas. The 75-year-old Zia Lia, for example, shows up to Easter in a runway-worthy, cropped, fitted black blazer paired with a black Costume National pencil skirt that has a shredded sheer chiffon trim.  The only one who breaks the code is Maria Luisa, who pads around the kitchen in a white sheath and white hotel slippers, wielding a big wooden stick. Aesthetically, it’s all rather French Vogue, except perhaps for their feet, which are slipped into comfortable tennis shoes—all the better to skip around the kitchen in.

– J.J. Martin

DoubleJ Dictionary

Masseria: manor farm
Agnello con agrumi: lamb with citrus
Le Zie: the aunts