“I only have four days.” This is what was going through my mind as I touched down in Pescara on the east coast of central Italy. Though only two hours’ drive from Rome, Pescara and the rest of Abruzzo lies pleasantly ignored by the hordes of tourists busying themselves in Tuscany and Umbria. While visiting family and friends in the UK and France this spring, I had managed to set aside four days to hop over to this still undiscovered area in search of new flavours and recipe ideas.
Enthusiasm and a healthy appetite for food in a foreign land never cease to get me into trouble. Typically, I ignore all physiological cues and plunge into the culinary offerings of a new place with wild abandon, unashamed, for instance, about eating two complete dinners, on the grounds that my time in said place is limited and god forbid I should miss out on anything delightful that may be on offer. “Eat now, suffer later” is my motto, and when I’m lucky enough to get to Italy, “Mangia, mangia!” is my mantra.
And so it was that, on the morning of my second day in Abruzzo, I found myself fighting back waves of nausea while being driven to what my travel companions had been boasting would be “the best lunch you’ll ever have.” Silently cursing the excesses of the first day, I wondered what could possibly outdo last night’s mountain of chittarina pasta packed with langoustine tails, radicchio, truffles and drenched in cream (how could something so wrong — so incongruous — taste so right?). In Pescara for just one night, we’d taken advantage of our proximity to the Adriatic Sea and topped off that decadent primo piatto with a still-flopping six-pound turbot, congratulating ourselves with the punchy Zaccagnini Ibisco Rosa 2006 rosé and the mouthfilling and earthy Masciarelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2004 (and liberal amounts of Carpenè Malvotti Prosecco to start and grappa to round things off, if you must know).
So where was I going to find the culinary gusto, then, to fully enjoy this “be prepared to die and go to heaven” meal? As we headed west from Pescara, past the cobbled streets of the town of Penne, we started climbing the spectacular but winding east side of the Gran Sasso d’Italia massif en route to the lunch to end all lunches.
The Apennines spread out over an impressive two-thirds of Abruzzo, and they provide the perfect backbone for endless smatterings of crumbling, gorgeous hilltop villages, many of which lie within the boundaries of protected parkland. Historically a poor, underdeveloped part of central Italy, which suffered from mass emigration after the war, the area’s natural beauty — its forest- and pasture-clad mountains — and its affordability are only now starting to attract visitors.
Two hours of switchbacks and bendy mountain roads later, we emerged onto a deserted, windswept plateau, and my stomach-churning was only increasing. Caught between the desire to not disappoint my hungry friends and my physical discomfort, I started imagining the worst: an exclusive mountain lodge, heaps of wild-boar papardelle (“al cinghiale”), the juicy chops of a maiale nero (the black pig of the region, which I’d heard feeds exclusively on acorns) cooked alla brace — the Abruzzo equivalent of a one-two knockout punch: mountains of rich, filling pasta followed by lovingly braised game, topped off with something that would most definitely do me in entirely, say, gelato al fragola with a generous pour of Ratafia, the local cherry liqueur.
As we drove across the vast plain, dozens of parked motorbikes and a rustic cabin gradually came into focus. Here, on this 2,000-metre-high pasture, people had driven for hours to come to a lonesome … butcher shop. We crowded inside for some choice raw meat, which we then proceeded to grill al fresco on communal canala, gutter-shaped coal-fuelled barbecues. Handily, the shop also sells beer, wine, a wide selection of local cheeses. The makings, in other words, of the most pastoral of picnics.
And so it came to be that, here at Ristoro Mucciante, surrounded by nothing but majestic mountains, I was introduced to arrosticini — the Abruzzese specialty of densely packed chunks of lamb on a skewer. Sold by the fistful, you should not think of ordering less than ten skewers per person. With some crusty white bread doused in olive oil and an invigorating glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo in hand, all fears will be abated.
While Montepulciano d’Abruzzo may not have the fine pedigree of Barolos and Barbarescos (see pages 28 and 33), the rugged, unpretentious nature of the appellation and a high number of ideally placed vineyards have nevertheless produced respectable wines that can range from fruity, easy-drinking pleasurable numbers to more sophisticated, structured and well-developed offerings, reminiscent of Syrah — complete with wonderful aromas of rich red fruit, spice and tobacco. The animal quality, not surprisingly, makes it a perfect match for the cuisine of the region, which leans toward hearty, saucy, rustic goodness.
That’s how, outside Ristoro Mucciante, I came to enjoy the tasty Cantina Zaccagnini 2003 (which comes with a piece of vine on the neck of bottle) and its redcurrant and fig aromas with a hint of spice. The next day, I was seduced by the Marramiero Inferi 2003, which was more persistent in its intensity and complemented a wild-boar steak very nicely. My trip favourite, though, was the Zaccagnini Chronicon 2003 — austere at first, almost French, it opened up, as I navigated my way through hearty plates of tagliolini with black truffles and butter, spelt chittarrina (square-shaped spaghetti) with chicory and homemade sausage in a saffron sauce, and tagliata of beef on a bed of arugula and tomatoes, to reveal a perfume of plum, a whiff of cherry and a touch of tobacco, with a crema finish.
But on that afternoon, in the middle of a glorious mountain meadow, in the company of fellow pilgrims enjoying the most delicious barbecued lamb, sipping my Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, I dared not ask for more.
Where to stay, where to eat
Bustling modern town with seaside charm; its restaurant-lined beach is great for people-watching on a Saturday night.
Hotel Duca d’Aosta, www.schirahotels.it/duca
Ristorante Marechiaro da Vittorio, Lungomare Matteotti, 70, +39-085-4213849
The most remote butcher shop in all of Italy, on a high mountain plateau surrounded by the Gran Sasso mountains.
Ristoro Mucciante, Castel del Monte, +39-0862-938357
Stunningly draped over a sloping mountain ridge in the heart of Majella National Park, Caramánico is a beautifully preserved and utterly charming small town whose residents will greet you with a heartfelt “Bongiurno, como sta?” as you meander through its steep streets.
Locanda del Barone, Con.da Case del Barone, Santo Vittorino, +39-085-92584
Ristorante Il Carro, Con.da Salza, Abbateggio, +39-085-8574492
Nestled in the hills above Caramánico, this mountain village of eighty people is the perfect place to stay, surrounded as it is by the breathtaking Majella Mountains. Idyllic accommodations and the perfect base for a hill-walking holiday.
31 Decontra B&B, www.decontra.com
Agriturismo Pietrantica, www.agripietrantica.com
Ristorante Il Cervo, Contrada Decontra, 3, +39-085-922187
Santo Stéfano di Sessanio
Perfectly preserved fortified medieval village, recently saved from complete ruin by a Swedish-Italian millionaire who is funding its restoration. The accommodation is rustic–luxe: a number of the small houses throughout the village have been converted into unique suites. Plans are afoot to turn Santo Stéfano into an artistic and cultural heritage centre for the region.
Albergo Diffuso Sextantio, www.sextantio.it
Gelato allo Zafferano
Serves 6 (3 1/2 cups)
Gelato has been a mainstay of Italian life for centuries. Distinctive in texture and flavour, you’ll enjoy this culinary twist.
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1 1/2 cups 35% cream
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1/8 tsp saffron powder
- 4 egg yolks
- Whisk egg yolks and sugar in a bowl until thick and creamy, about 2 minutes.
- Heat the milk, cream and saffron in a saucepan over medium heat until the mixture bubbles at the edges (do not bring to a boil).
- Gradually whisk the hot milk/cream mixture into the yolks and sugar mixture, then return to the saucepan.
- Stir over medium heat until the custard has thickened slightly, leaving a path on the back of the spoon when a finger is drawn across it, about 10 minutes.
- Pour the custard through a sieve into a bowl. Let cool to room temperature.
- Process custard in an ice-cream maker. Transfer gelato to container. Cover and freeze until firm, at least 4 hours.