A journey from the Italian coast to the interior, with plenty of shellfish, roasted meats, and pasta along the way
How could I miss shopping at the Caprai outlet? Cashmere scarves and hats appealed—great gifts, so my friends Cathy and David and I detoured on our way to a meal of fish on the coast. Vito had spoken to his friend Cesare Pancotto, coach of the Barcellona (in Sicily) basketball team and fellow food-lover. We drove far out of our way, although the road was lovely, winding through the Valnerina (Nera River Valley), with stone villages, olive trees, and tunnels in snow-peaked mountains to the coast of Le Marche. Vito thought the restaurant, Osteria del Mare, was on the beach in Marina Palmense, but instead it was in a brand new area of this summertime (and therefore abandoned at this time of year) seaside resort.
We entered the modern, almost empty restaurant and were greeted with enthusiasm by Francesco Pettorossi, sommelier and host—his mother, Agata, was in the kitchen. He chose our menu, composed of strictly local fish and seafood. We began with a selection of raw, marinated shrimp, langoustines, thin strips of cuttlefish, then cooked mantis shrimp, octopus salad, braised big shrimp (gamberoni), grilled cuttlefish skewer, deep-fried baby shrimp and stuffed olives (specialty of Le Marche). You know I never resist spaghetti with clams--wild lupini, tinier than true clams, and very tasty. We drank La Monacesca's Verdicchio di Matelica Mirum 2006, rich and ripe enough to stand up to our feast. Lunch was definitely worth a voyage.
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The drive through the mountains was breathtaking, gusts of snow-clouds blown off peaks followed by pink sunset on snowy slopes. I'd met Peppino Tinari at Peppe Zullo's wild boar festival and had always wanted to visit his restaurant-inn, Villa Maiella, in Guardiagrele, in the Parco Nazionale della Maiella. Peppino greeted us with a glass of Champagne and a few slices of homemade salami seasoned with Sarawak pepper, which I identified, and earned Peppino's respect. He introduced us to his son Pascal (back from a stage at L'Auberge de L'Ill) and said he had a surprise for me in the basement.
We descended the stairs to a laboratory where Vittorio Fusari, chef and long-time friend, told me about his latest adventure, polyvalent Dispensa Pani e Vini—wine bar, restaurant, gastronomic emporium, take-out, in Torbiato, in the province of Brescia. Vittorio and a group of friends from his area come to Villa Maiella every year, to make salumi--fresh sausage, the terrific salami I'd tasted, and a salami made with pork and offal, all made from pigs raised on the Tinari farm outside town. Vittorio and his cohorts, Pascal and his brother Arcangelo, were breaking down the pigs. They were prepping for the next morning's salumi session--and we could observe. What luck! Or is it my butcher karma?
Our dinner was superb: rustic food, sophisticated but unfussy presentations, intense flavors. Peppino's wife, Angela, and Pascal were in the kitchen, Arcangelo and his father in the dining room. The menu is split between tradition and innovation; ingredients are meticulously sourced, mostly from the area or neighboring regions (Puglia is close by), along with products from the Tinari farm. Bread and pasta are homemade. Note: a "guitar" in culinary Abruzzo is for making pasta, called chitarra or chitarrina. Peppino did a tasting menu—memorable dishes included pallotte (bread and cheese meatless meatballs) with tomato sauce, broken emmer (erroneously called broken spelt on the website) and chicory soup, pettole with ventricina ravioli filled with burrata and sauced with saffron, the tastiest chicken I've ever encountered cooked with vino cotto (cooked grape must, the southern answer to balsamico), and tiny grilled baby lamb chops. The wine list, with well-priced regional wines and older vintages I'd never seen, and sommelier Nicola Boschetti are a joy. We drank Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, of course, from Cataldi Madonna and Santoleri.
Breakfast didn't disappoint. Do-it-yourself blood orange juice, flawless cornetti, perfect cappuccino. Who could ask for more? We rejoined the salumi-makers, who were grinding pork, fat, and offal, stuffing sausage and salami into casings. Split sections of bamboo were held around the salami, elastic-banded (easier than tying string) into place, and then hung in the cellar to age, a procedure I'd never seen.
Off to our next stop, through more mountains, to visit friends Lamberto (father), Valentina (daughter), and Valerio (son) Centofanti at their restaurant, Angolo d'Abruzzo. We checked into the Hotel Le Sequoie at Lamberto's suggestion--closest to the restaurant, just outside town, with its own soccer pitch, tennis, and basketball courts. Don't ask me what bagels are doing on the hotel's web-site—I didn't see them during my stay, but the Le Sequoie was clean, inexpensive, the owners sporty and wearing track suits. I had met Valentina and Valerio at an event where most chefs make trendy constructions, strange combinations, but they presented mutton with chicory and earned my instant respect.
Lamberto mans the grill in the fireplace; Valerio knows what he's doing in the kitchen and adds a modern touch to hearty Abruzzo cooking, Valentina's smile illuminates the dining rooms. Mushrooms, black truffles, wild greens and asparagus in season are used in many dishes. Who could resist baby scamorza cheese, threaded on a skewer, plain or stuffed with anchovies, prosciutto, or black truffles, roasted in the hearth? Begin with regional salumi or bruschetta with truffles or mushrooms. Look for homemade pasta—fettuccini with three meat ragu, pappardelle with mutton sauce, tagliolini with wild asparagus or mushrooms. Main course options are grilled by Lamberto--steak, lamb, sausage while Valerio prepares roast and braised meats like mutton, lamb, beef cheeks, or suckling pig. Panetto, usually a rustic dessert with ricotta cream, is given an elegant look with hazelnuts and honey. The cookie selection is exceptional.
Cathy and David left for Rome, to meet their friend Raffaella Prandi, food writer for Gambero Rosso, who worked for them in Portland. We drove home to Florence. They flew home the next day. I will return.