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A Short Guide to the Traditional Foods and Flavors of Abruzzo

In the heart of Italy, Abruzzo is a well-guarded and often sadly-forgotten treasure. Here, with virtually no flatland in between, the most majestic peaks of the Apennines slope down to the Adriatic Sea in an intoxicating variety of vistas that alternate between peaks and beaches, national parks and medieval villages.

The Gran Sasso and the beaches of the Costa dei Trabocchi, south of Pescara, are worthy parallels to a historical, cultural and gastronomic identity that mixes stories of shepherds and fishermen. Geographically a region of Central Italy, Abruzzo is culturally and economically the most extreme offshoot of the South. Southern is the dialect–which blends influences from Campania, Marche, Puglia and Lazio–and southern is the cuisine, the conviviality, the Sunday family meals. In Abruzzo, food indeed has a preponderant family dimension, and typical regional dishes, often the offspring of poor traditions, are numerous.

PASTA AND BREAD

Thanks to the pure water of mountain springs, Abruzzo historically developed an excellent pasta-making culture and boasts countless pasta formats. In particular, the pristine water of the Green River has made the town of Fara San Martino, in the heart of Abruzzo and the Maiella National Park, famous for pasta production: the city is home to as many as four pasta factories. Among the primi, the best known is surely spaghetti alla chitarra, egg noodles handmade with a wooden loom with metal wires–reminiscent of the strings of a guitar–and seasoned with a slow-cooked meat sauce–usually pork, beef and lamb. In the province of Teramo, however, this pasta is seasoned with, in addition to tomato sauce, pallottine (tiny meatballs).

For lunch but also as a snack, the pane porchettato from Il barone is not to be missed. In Roccascalegna, just a stone’s throw from the medieval castle, Mrs. Anna Maria Oliveri invented (and patented) a baked good that now attracts tourists from all over the world. It’s as simple as it is delicious: bread with (very soft) pieces of porchetta inside. Porchetta, typical across central Italy, consists of a whole, hollowed-out and boneless pork, flavored with many herbs and spices and cooked for a long, long time. It’s cut into robust slices and eaten in sandwiches–a real street food. Mrs. Anna Maria’s recipe, however, is top secret.

Another popular bready food is Fiadone, a rustic cake with a fluffy filling of cheese and eggs, sweet or savory, and shaped like a doughnut. Although mainly prepared for the Easter holidays, it can be eaten year-round.

Eggs, bread and cheese are the only three ingredients needed to prepare another Abruzzese specialty, pallotte cacio e ova, a traditional cucina povera dish. They look like meatballs, but there is no meat; once fried, they are dipped in a basily tomato sauce.

And then there’pizz e foje, a dish that really tastes like an Abruzzese home. The historic plate of farmers is an unleavened pizza made with cornmeal and boiled vegetables, all sautéed in a pan with oil, garlic and peppers.

PEPPERS

Peppers are an ever-present ingredient in Abruzzo cuisine and, as in certain southern villages, it is common in Abruzzo to come across long necklaces of peppers, called serte, drying in the sun in the courtyards or patios of houses. The sweet bell pepper of Atino, for example, is a typical product of traditional regional cuisine and can be used either as a main ingredient or in powder form as a spice.

Pipindune e ov, peppers and eggs cooked in a pan, are a typical peasant dish, along with pipindun arripien’ (or pipindun ‘mbuttunat), peppers filled with stale bread, cheese, eggs, and meat.

Bocconotti, dolce tipico di Castelfrentano

MEAT AND FISH

The absolute protagonist of Abruzzo cuisine is meat. You say arrosticini, you say Abruzzo: now a true street food, the classic sheep skewers, roasted on furnacelle (braziers), are the main protagonists of the region’s outings, festivals and picnics. 

However, thanks to the presence of the sea and the Trabocchi, ancient fishing structures typical of the Abruzzo coast scattered along the shoreline and now often adapted into restaurants, there is no shortage of fish dishes in the regional cuisine. Particularly well-known is brodetto alla vastese, typical of the Vasto area: a fish soup, usually the catch of the day, cooked in a sauce made of tomatoes and broth, and served in an earthenware pot.

SWEETS

And should there be room for dessert, Abruzzo’s sweets are countless and each better than the next. Typical of Guardiagrele, a small village in the province of Chieti, sise delle monache–sponge cake, custard and powdered sugar–have a distinctive shape and heavenly flavor. The three humps of the cake either recall the peaks of Abruzzo’s mountain massif–Majella, Gran Sasso and Sirente–or the nuns who invented the cake. According to folk tales, the nuns used to put a cloth handkerchief between their breasts, giving the illusion of three. In Guardiagrele, check out Emo Lullo, a historic bakery that has been making them since 1889.

Another classic is bocconotti, typical of Castelfrentano. These small sweets (the name translates to “small morsels”) made of shortcrust pastry with a chocolate and almond filling are sensational.

From the province of L’Aquila, on the other hand, specifically Sulmona, are the very famous confetti, now produced in countless shapes and colors. The sugar-coated almonds are a symbol of good luck and are never missing from weddings, baptisms, graduations, weddings and various anniversaries.

Parrozzo, a sweet originally from Pescara, is eaten especially at Christmas time. The cake, made yellow by cornmeal, is a kind of almond zuccotto and is covered with a chocolate glaze. Among the first to taste the delicacy, invented by pastry chef Luigi D’Amico, was the famous Abruzzo writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, who was so struck by the parrozzo that he dedicated many verses to it.

Each family has its own recipe and the name changes according to the county in which they are prepared, but pizzelle (also ferratelle, neole or nevole) are wafers of cookie dough, made with a double plate called lu ferre that, placed on the fire, squeezes the dough above and below, giving the dessert its characteristic shapes (rectangular or circular with a pattern of rhombuses). However, the tradition of forging the iron plates with the family crest or the owner’s initials suggests that by the late 1700s, this tool, usually brought as a dowry by the bride, was common in most families of the region. Be it the softer or the crispier version, these waffle-like cakes, with their enveloping taste (and smell), can be filled with jam, chocolate or honey.

LIQUEURS

Finally, the liqueurs. Gentian–quite bitter and earthy–is the typical liqueur of Abruzzo extracted from the root of the eponymous plant typical of the mountainous areas of Abruzzo.

San Pasquale, on the other hand, is a particularly bright green digestive made from numerous herbs and roots. Produced by the company Cav. Remo Mario Totaro of Atessa, in the province of Chieti, the recipe and the name of the liqueur come from a nearby monastic complex where the monks made this digestive since 1400. 

A sweeter digestive, made of black cherries and red wine, is ratafia. The etymology, according to one of several hypotheses, comes from the Latin rata fiat, or “make an agreement” as the liquor was drunk to toast the conclusion of important deals.

Antica pasticceria Al Barone

Pasticceria Emo Lullo