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Episode #143: 7 Delicious local dishes from Abruzzo

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Abruzzo, the beautiful Italian region that shares a border with Lazio and the Adriatic Sea, is a region of epic mountains, stunning coastline, and traditions as old as time. The incredible, produce-driven dishes of the region include many unique ingredients and techniques and are the ultimate comfort food.

Show notes

We talk to American food writer Domenica Marchetti who, with Italian parents and grandparents, spent long, blissful childhood summers in Italy and now spends as much time as possible in Abruzzo and has a huge passion for the food and its history. Many migrants made their way from Abruzzo to the US, Canada, and Australia but somehow this region still flies under the radar for visitors. The delicious and unique food they have on offer will hopefully tempt more to head to this region where you can feel the pace slow, even by Italian standards. We talk grilling meat skewers on a mountain pasture, the ultimate in grilled cheese, crepes in broth, and re-discovering a dish inspired by an Egyptian king.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Domenica (whose name means Sunday in Italian) is from an Italian-American family. Her mother grew up in Abruzzo before moving to the US and with her father’s parents also from Italy, she spend long summers there in her childhood which, though originally a journalist, fueled her passion for the food which led to her later becoming a food writer
  2. Domenica’s mother had three sisters, none of whom ever married. They were working women at a time when that was pretty unusual in Italy. After eventually moving from Abruzzo to Rome in the 60s, where they all shared an apartment in Rome which Domenica would visit, before heading off to spend the rest of summer at the beach in Abruzzo
  3. Abruzzo is due east of Rome, and if looking at the map, can be found mid-calf on the boot that is Italy. It is bordered by the regions of Lazio, Molise (which used to be part of Abruzzo and which is attached to Campania and Puglia), and by La Marche to the north east
  4. Abruzzo is very green. It’s got three national and regional parks within its borders, and it extends from the Apennine Mountains out to the Adriatic coast. It was a difficult region to navigate for a long time because of the mountains. Decades ago with the building of the Autostrade, it became more easily reachable, but it is still a place where journies will likely take longer than you’d expect
  5. When Domenica was little, driving from Rome to their house in Silvi Marina, used to take it was about four and a half hours. Now you can reach the border of Abruzzo within 2 hours. Domenica and her family now have a little house in the hills in the province of Pescara which takes around 3 hours to reach
  6. There are a lot of places in Abruzzo that are still a bit remote, where you still have to drive through the mountains. Do not be fooled by Google – everything looks close together on a map, but if you want to go from a town in L’Aquila to a town in the province of Teramo or Pescara or Chieti, you have to cross those mountains and it takes time. Even within the towns themselves, in this area, online maps are best not relied on, so a paper map is a good backup if you’re exploring the area
  7. Abruzzo offers up so many incredible ingredients. With the suggest Adriatic coast, comes amazing, flavorful seafood, like scampi, clams, and mussels. Then as you venture inland, you’ve got the olive groves and wine grapes. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo red wine grape and Pecorino white wine have both become hugely popular over the last couple of decades. There is also Cerasuolo which is a robust rose made from Montepulciano grapes. The region is also wonderful for vegetables and fruit
  8. Like in Calabria, in Abruzzo they love their pepperoncini hot peppers. If you go to pretty much any restaurant, there’ll be an array of different types of hot peppers. They’ll put out fresh hot peppers, long green ones or long red ones – depending on their ripeness. There’s the hot pepper in oil and they put out dried peppers and you get little scissors with which you can just snip the pepper right into your food
  9. Even the most simple of ingredients can be found at their best in Abruzzo. Domenica swears she has never eaten better potatoes than the potatoes from Avezzano. Avezzano is a low plain found part way between Lazio and the coast. These potatoes are so good because they are cultivated in what was once a lake. This ancient lake bed has particular minerals in the soil that feeds these potatoes and give them their incredible flavors. They are creamy yellow in color and are wonderful roasted
  10. Abruzzo so for many centuries was a pastoral economy running on the raising of sheep. In the summer, the sheep would come up from Puglia to graze in the mountains of Abruzzo, and then in the winter, they went back down to Puglia. They have wonderful sheep’s milk, cheeses, lamb, mutton, castrato (castrated sheep).  Pork too – like Umbria, and Lazio, Abruzzo has its version of porchetta. There are also lots of cows milk cheeses and beef
  11. Abruzzo has many wonderful old-fashioned style family restaurants – with maybe the husbands at front of house and the wife and mother in the back doing the cooking. Sometimes you’ll find a place that doesn’t even have a menu – you walk in, sit down and just you get whatever they’re making that day
  12. There’s the Gran Sasso massif range and the Maiella massif range and in the four provinces in Abruzzo, you’re either on one side of each of these. There’s fantastic foraging to be had in the regional and national parks for things like mushrooms and there’ ancient like Faro and Solina.  Legumes and lentils are abundant and they have, unusually, red chickpeas
  13. Saffron has a history in Abruzzo as centuries ago, a Spanish monk whose family was actually from Navelli came back and brought some crocus bulbs in his pocket which he planted and they thrived. Abruzzo uses this red gold in many dishes like chickpea soup or in seafood dishes
  14. A great treat and social dish are Arrosticini – skewers of tiny chunks of meat. Often lamb – usually pecora, which is older/teenage sheep. These tiny cubes of meat used to all be cut by hand but they now use these contraptions where you can pile the meat in and they have these blades that cut it into strips and then cubes, making it a much quicker process. Though if you wanted to do them at home you’d likely still hand cut them. They are then cooked on long, narrow grills. No seasoning – just cooked in their own fat and flavor with a little pinch of salt at the end of grilling
  15. A wonderful place to enjoy Arrosticini is at a Refugio (mountain huts that sell food) up in Campo Imperatore (the highest plain of the Gran Sasso mountain range). You see a lot of sheep and cattle grazing along this high plain which is above the tree line. The refugio are  spread miles apart on the range and you drive up to find rows of picnic tables and rows of grills. You then go inside the rustic refugio building and you buy your Arrosticini, which you grill yourself. You can also buy sausages, salumi, and cheeses – as well as the other things you need for a picnic like beer and water. Somebody blasts the grill to life with the high-powered torch, and you get to enjoy a rather special kind of picnic. Domenica has a great video on her Instagram that shows the process and the delicious-looking end product
  16. Domenica has done a few small group tours in Abruzzo and her partners put together the most incredible picnic, taking up gorgeous tablecloths, cutlery, amazing good wine, and liqueurs – to make it a real celebration. But even if you’re just going it in the most rustic style – it’s an amazing experience you’ll never forget. It’s what the Abruzzese do on holidays and their days off.
  17. Cheeses are another huge part of Abruzzo food culture. Italy actually has the largest variety of cheeses in the world, even more so than France – at over 400
  18. The most famous cheesemaker in the Abruzzo was the late Gregorio Rotolo, who had an Agriturismo and Caseificio in the province of L’Aquila. He was an incredibly creative cheese maker, but a true shepherd at heart. He made a number of really interesting aged pecorino cheeses
  19. Sheep’s milk ricotta is very common in Abruzzo,  which they use for ravioli, for lasagna. They also have it for breakfast time with either just a little bit of honey or mosto cotto(grape must)
  20. Due to its connections to Puglia, you get great fresh cow’s milk mozzarella, and you also get really good scamorza. Scamorza is drier and more aged. One of Domenica’s favorite dishes is Scamorza ai ferri, where you take either regular scamorza or smoked scamorza, cut it in half, and just grilled until charred on the outside and really gooey and soft on the inside. You can then just scoop it up with some bread or cut it with a fork and knife
  21. If you can get hold of some decent scamorza at home Domenica recommends roasting it and then serving it with roasted peppers for a great dinner
  22. There’s a centuries-old relationship between Italian cuisine and French cuisine and we cannot be sure who had the crepe first, but you will find a number of dishes in Abruzzo made with crepes. Timballo di Crespelle is the Abruzzese version of lasagna, which layers crepes with cheese and ragu
  23. Scrippelle ‘Mbusse or Crespelle in brodo (crespelle means crepe) comes from the province of Teramo. These are very large, thin crepes with egg, with a good amount of grated pecorino sprinkled over, rolled up cigar style, then with a ladle of very hot homemade broth poured over. Very simple and very delicious. Wonderful in winter with a steaming hot homemade chicken broth or meat broth. Domenica likes to serve them as a first course at Thanksgiving as they’re quite rustic and elegant at the same
  24. Dishes often come with a story of where they came from and we’re not sure if this is true, but the story goes that during or  World War II or post World War II, in an officer’s Mess Hall in Teramo, there was a French cook who was helping the Italian chef. He made crepes instead of bread because he felt they were lighter and easier to digest. When he was holding the plate of crepes, it slipped out of his hand and fell into a pot of broth, and to salvage the dish, they turned it into this soup with crepes!
  25. In Italy there is a strong sense of tradition, but there’s also continual innovation. Many people think Italians are so rigid about their food, but it usually comes back to what’s fresh and what’s good. They’ll always respect the ingredients and the tradition, but dishes can be very different – especially if you bring the cook into the equation – where people have tried different things over the years
  26. Spaghetti alla Chitarra is something Abruzzo is famous for. It is a long, squire noodle. The Chitarra (which means guitar) itself is an instrument dating back a couple of hundred years. It’s a rectangular wooden instrument strung with thin wires. You roll out your sheet of pasta, the same thickness as the width between the strings of the Chitarra. You then cut your pasta into sheets and put each one on the Chitarra. Then using a rolling pin and you roll up and down the length of this Chitarra, where the wires cut through the sheet and they fall to the bottom of the Chitarra
  27. There are a number of recipes to make the pasta for Spaghetti alla Chitarra. You can make it with semolina flour and egg, or semolina flour, egg, and water, or a little semolina, a little double zero flour, and an egg (as Domenica does). It’s a very sturdy pasta and the typical way to sauce Spaghetti alla Chitarra is with an Abruzzese style ragu. Often this is a mixture of meats – a little bit of lamb, beef, and pork – sometimes stewing hen. They don’t grind the meat like they do in Tuscany. You brown pieces of meat,  then take the meat out and put in the Battuto (your celery, carrots, and onion). You saute those, put the meat back in, add your tomato paste and simmer for a very long time. In the end, you end up with a meat-infused sauce, which is what you serve with the pasta, and then the meat you serve either as a second course or you chop it up and put it in ravioli
  28. If it’s a special occasion, you also make tiny pallotte, which are little, tiny meatballs made from veal – the size of a chickpea. Even if you’re just using a pound of veal, it can take forever to make them. You fry those and add those to the sauce. It’s a very rich sauce and it’s why, plus with all the effort, you eat on Sundays or on special occasions
  29. Spaghetti alla Farouk is Domenica’s favorite coastal dish is a dish that she had when she was a child, one night at a restaurant in Francavilla al Mare. Her dad ordered a dish called Spaghetti alla Farouk, which was named after the deposed king of Egypt, King Farouk. It had a kind of curry powder and saffron in sauce served with scampi (which are somewhere between lobsters and shrimp). The sauce was a creamy-gold color and was infused with the flavor of the seafood and the spices. When they went home to the US her mom tried to recreate the dish. Although you couldn’t get the same ingredients, she made her own version of it that the family ate happily for many years. Then 40 plus years later, when Domenica was working on her book, the Glorious Pasta of Italy, she knew she wanted to include a recipe for Farouk. So she made it like her mom’s, pared it down a little. After the book was published she heard from a few people who told her that restaurant she described still existed and it is called La Nave and they still make Farouk. So finally, last year, after all that time, she went to La Nave with her husband and had Spaghetti alla Farouk. They say you can never go back, but Domenica was blown away by how eating this fantastic dish matched the memory
  30. The La Nave restaurant itself is very interesting. It seems to be constructed with parts of an old boat and feels like you are on a ship. The restaurant opened in 1950 and it’s a little kitschy and quirky, the food is fantastic and it’s right on the water. The dish Farouk has actually become quite popular, and it is now served in other restaurants too, but at La Nave it has been their signature dish for a long, long time
  31. Meat, as in much of Italy, was only eaten on special occasions in Abruzzo. It was the lentils, grains, and vegetables that made up the dishes people ate every day.  Domenica’s mother made the most wonderful lentil soup simply – just carrot, onion, celery, lentils, broth
  32. Pallotte Cace e Ove,  Pallotte is basically polpette (meatballs) without the meat. It’s made from stale bread soaked in water or milk, mixed with egg and heaps of pecorino cheese. These are then made into little balls which you fry in oil and then simmer in sauce (as you would with meatballs). They are rich and satisfying  – you can really taste the pecorino and as well as the balls soak up the sauce like sponges, the sauce is getting flavored from the pecorino.  This was not a food you used to find in a restaurant in Abruzzo, but nowadays with the trend of celebrating this kind of slow, rustic, and regional cooking many restaurants in Abruzzo now offer Pallotte Cace e Ove
  33. Pizzelle (or Ferratelle or Neole, there are a few different names for essentially the same thing) are round cookies, like very thin waffles, that have beautiful patterns imprinted on them – made in a pizzelle iron. They’re made with a slightly sweet batter of eggs, flour, milk, sugar, and sometimes a little bit of cinnamon. This sweet is many centuries old and in Abruzzo, it used to be a wedding sweet. In the center of the pizzelle irons, there would often be a little flat piece in which the family name or initials would be carved. When you made your pizzelle, your initials were carved into them, so a pizzelle iron was a popular gift to give a bride. Pizzelle is often eaten with scrucchiata,  a rustic jam made with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grapes at the end of the wine harvest

About our guest – Domenica Marchetti

Domenica Marchetti is the author of seven books on Italian home cooking, including “Preserving Italy: Canning, Curing, Infusing, and Bottling Italian Flavors and Traditions,” and “The Glorious Pasta of Italy.” Her eighth book, “Williams-Sonoma Everyday Italian” is scheduled to be published this fall.  

Domenica is a former newspaper reporter who earned her master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University, in New York.

She writes a weekly newsletter called Buona Domenica on Substack, and her articles and recipes have appeared in The Washington Post, Cooking Light, Eating Well, Fine Cooking, Food and Wine, Sale e Pepe and other publications.

Domenica teaches Italian cooking classes online and leads occasional small-group culinary tours in Italy. She splits her time between Abruzzo, where her family is from, and Virginia.

You can find Domenica on these channels:

Domenica’s books



Places mentioned in the show

  • Chieti – city in Abruzzo
  • Atri – town in Abruzzo whose name is the origin of the name of the Emperor Hadrian
  • Isernia – town in the region of Molise
  • Fondi – city in Lazio
  • Silvi Marina – coastal town in Abruzzo
  • Gran Sasso – a massif in the Apennine Mountains
  • L’Aquila, Pescara and Teramo – provinces in Abruzzo
  • Alba Adriatica – town on coast of Abruzzo knowns as one of the seven sisters
  • Maiella – Masif in Abruzzo 
  • Campo Imperatore – an alpine meadow located above the Gran Sasso massif
  • Francavilla al Mare – town on Abruzzo coast
  • Ristorante La Nave – restaurant in Francavilla where Domenica got to taste Spaghetti alla Farouk for the first time again in 40 + years

Food & Drink

  • Montepulciano_d’Abruzzo –  red wine grape variety
  • Percorino – white wine variety
  • Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo DOC – rosé wine (Rosato) 
  • Avezzano potato – a mountain potato which comes from the L’Aquila area
  • castrato – meat of the castrated sheep
  • scamorza – stretched curd cheese made predominantly from cow milk
  • faro – ancient grain
  • solina – ancient wheat 
  • arrosticini – meat on skewers
  • sott’olio and sottaceti – sheep cheese varieties
  • caseificio – a dairy
  • Scamorza ai ferri – the ultimate grilled cheese, toasting the normal or smoked scamorza on the grill
  • ScrippelleMbusse (Crespelle in brodo) – crepes in broth
  • Spaghetti alla Chitarra – a type of egg pasta from Abruzzo which is more square in shape. Chitarra means guitar
  • battuto a mince of vegetables like onions, celery, carrots and garlic used as a base for cooking meat, stews etc
  • Spaghetti alla Farouk – seafood pasta, named after the deposed king of Egypt, King Farouk with curry and saffron spicing
  • Le Virtù – hearty soup made with lentils, beans and chickpeas 
  • Pallotte Cace e Ove – meatballs made with pecorino cheese and egg
  • cucina casareccia – home cooking
  • pizzelle/ferratelle/neole – cookies Abruzzo is famous for
  • scrucchiata – rustic jam that is made with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grapes at the end of the wine harvest
  • marozzi and baci di Dama – popular Italian sweets

Resources

  • Autostrade – the freeway/motorway
  • Niko Romito – Michelin star chef from Abruzzo
  • refugio – huts up on the mountains where you can buy food and drink
  • fuori porta – outdoors in Italian
  • Gregorio Rotolo – famous cheese maker in Abruzzo, running Agriturismo Valle Scannese
  • uno tira l’altro – one leads to another

Resources from Untold Italy

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