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By Marguerite Thomas
Abruzzo, Italy: Vines & Olive Trees
Tired of lounging under the Tuscan sun? Are you sick of the crowds in Rome and the tourists in Venice? Bored by the dolce vita rampant in Capri? For a change of pace, go to Abruzzo, Italy's forgotten region.
Located halfway down Italy's eastern coast, the Abruzzo region lies due east of Rome, and is bordered by the Marche in the north, tiny Molise in the south, and the Adriatic Sea on its western border. One reason this place has yet to be discovered by tourism is its relative inaccessibility -- but that has begun to change. In 1984 a two-lane highway tunnel connecting Rome to Teramo was bored through the Sasso Mountain Range, and in 1995 a second parallel tunnel was dug. It is a long drive (about three hours) from Rome even with the sleek highways, but as more airlines are scheduling inexpensive flights into Pescara the place may soon be as handy as Florence or Pisa.
Nature has endowed Abruzzo with a dramatically beautiful landscape, which man has done better at protecting than in many other places in the world. The 129-kilometer-long Abruzzo coastline features beaches and marshes, fishermen's houses and modest resort communities. Vast national parks, a paradise for hikers and skiers, roll across the region (one-third of Abruzzo's land is protected, the highest percentage of any region in Europe). The Grand Sasso massif includes the Corno Grande, which, at 2,912-meters-high, is the tallest peak in the Apennines, the mountain range that runs the entire length of the Italian Peninsula. The national park covers 203, 000 hectares in which many diverse species of trees, wildflowers, birds, wildcats, bears, chamois and wolves are sheltered. (Protecting these vulnerable creatures poses a considerable challenge however: two days before I got to the park three black bears and a handful of wolves had been killed.)
Having been subjected to the uninterrupted presence of man for some 700 000 years, Abruzzo's history has been chaotic. The proliferation of mountaintop fortified villages often dominated by a castle are part of the region's charm today, but they were conceived during the period of feudal anarchy in the dangerous Middle Ages, when the characteristic bare stone houses were built close to each other, hugging the hilltops to form a protective barrier. But while periods of poverty and pestilence, flood and famine swept across the country, and while various conquerors and rulers (Romans, Normans, Austrians and Bourbon monarchs among them) came and went, the local populace continued to attend to Abruzzo's main business: sheep farming.
Today, modern roads and rails, along with development in communication and information technologies, have all brought great changes, yet Abruzzo remains one of Italy's least populous regions, with a strong agricultural base. Fields of grains and corn are an important part of the rural landscape, and significant acreage is devoted to olives and grapes. Wine, made from Trebbiano and Montepulciano d'Abruzzo grapes, is a rapidly expanding industry. Sheep farming is nowhere near what it was in the pre-World War II days when people used to say that there were 10 sheep to every human inhabitant of Abruzzo, but lamb still plays an important role on the menu here.
Since lamb is possibly my favorite meat I was happy to indulge this passion almost every day during my weeklong visit to Abruzzo, but beef, veal and pork are also treated with a fair amount of reverence by local chefs. At Osteria dei Sani, in the tiny village of Notaresco, for example, I had the silkiest, most deliciously delicate veal carpaccio that has ever crossed my lips. In this same friendly tavern I also enjoyed a plate of pasta sauced with duck ragu seasoned with juniper berry, thyme and a healthy jolt of peperoncino. One of Abruzzo's claims to culinary fame is its extravagant use of hot peppers, though my own palate, perhaps because it is used to fiery TexMex and Thai dishes, didn't find the fare truly eye-wateringly hot.
Abruzzo pasta is exported around the world, and is even admired by Italians from other provinces. Some of the best-known commercial pasta producers are in Abruzzo; the
Saffron is an important seasoning in Abruzzo, where more saffron crocus plants are raised than in any other part of Italy. Not surprisingly, saffron contributes its distinctive flavor to any number of dishes, from soups to desserts. On a warm evening this autumn I sat under a clear evening sky slurping up mussels bathed in a pungent saffron-scented broth at the
Simple and rustic though much classic Abruzzo fare is, it is occasionally given an urbane modern twist. At Elodia, a stylish little ristorante conveniently located on the Grand Sasso Highway, one finds world-class contemporary cuisine based on local tradition and ingredients. Until the amuse bouche arrived I was convinced I could have dined happily on nothing more than Elodia's delicious homemade breads, but then a martini glass brimming with white-bean puree and garnished with a scattering of sauteed escarole was set in front of me. With the first taste of this deeply flavored creamy concoction I knew I was going to be in for a great dining experience that night. Among the evening's gastronomic highlights were a truffled mortadella, a pasta with chick peas and pig's cheek (an edible poem of taste and texture), and a clever dish of ricotta and cauliflower baked in a radicchio leaf as an accompaniment to succulent roast lamb. Then, just when I thought it couldn't get any better, the array of imaginative chocolate desserts arrived.
Inspired by this memorable meal, I made a detour a few days later to have lunch at Villa Maiella, a sister establishment to Elodia. This being the height of mushroom season, I concentrated on dishes imbued with wild fungi, beginning with a soup whose rich, fragrant broth was generously studded with meltingly tender morsels of porcini. Tagliatellini suffused with more porcini, wild spinach and shavings of pecorino was both homey and chic, contrasting and combining the smooth earthiness of mushrooms the sharp, salty bite of cheese, the fresh blast of spinach and the tender silkiness of the pasta. A serving of perfect little baby lamb chops and a tangle of sauteed wild mushrooms spiked with wild mountain herbs convinced me beyond doubt that a detour to Villa Maiella is indeed an imperative to anyone visiting the region. As a bonus, it's located just outside the lovely hill town Guardiagrele.
"Abruzzo is an amazing but underestimated place," says Massimo Criscio, a young man who left his corporate job in New York City in 2004 to return home to Abruzzo in order to found Abruzzo Cibus, an organization dedicated to offering personalized culinary tours of the region. "There are so many great places to check out here such as the trabocchi fishing houses (traditional wooden structures suspended on stilts high above the Adriatic)," says Criscio. "People love visiting local cheese makers, who make amazing caciocavallo or mozzarella burrata." My own advice is to visit Abruzzo now -- before the secret is out and the place becomes Tuscanized.
-- Elodia Ristorante, Camarda S.S. 17 bis, 37, L'Aquila, 086/260 6219, www.elodia.it.
-- Ristorante Gainforte, Via Nazionale, 86, Scerne di Pineto, 085/946 1129
-- Per Voglia, Viale XXIV, Castelbasso, 086/150 8035
-- Osteria dei Sani, Via D. Matemucci-Centro Storico, Notaresco, 085/ 895 8031
-- Villa Maiella, Loc. Villa Maiella, 30, Guardiagrele, 39/ 087/180 9319.
-- Abruzzo Tours, www.abruzzocibus.com.
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© Marguerite Thomas
Travel | Abruzzo Italy's Forgotten Region