Back to the Source, Part IV: What the Hell is Wrong with Us?
Updated: Aug 17, 2021
Brief observations from Abruzzo… One of our first nights, sitting in the main piazza of Lanciano, a small but vibrant city in Abruzzo’s Chieti province. It’s around 8 pm, still hot, but a breeze is picking up. According to the locals, the summer has been crazy hot, not normal, but in keeping with a disturbing pattern developed over the last few years. This screws with wine and olive oil production. And these past two years, add the effects of a global pandemic. We all agree that the future doesn’t look good. But, here we all are, making the best of it. We’re eating at Il Pastore d’Abruzzo (the shepherd of Abruzzo), a no-frills place that uses some of the region’s finest ingredients to create dishes directly pulled from tradition. It’s scary delicious, unpretentious, and fun. During COVID, the town government has allowed the restaurant to expand outside into the piazza, and they’re getting slammed. While they’ve usually only about 40 seats, they’re rocking around 100 now and feeling it. It’s been over 15 minutes since we last saw our server, and we’re still waiting on our wine. All the tables around us are in the same boat. But no one… no one… is complaining. They all seem to get it, are maybe happy that the place made it through COVID (a lot of places didn’t), and enjoying each other’s company. The conversations happening all around us are filled with laughter and happy voices. The restaurant owners in us keep waiting for that mood to change. But, through the night, well past 10 pm, it never does.
There’s a guy at a nearby table pontificating about the qualities of the cucina abruzzese to a table mate, another Italian from some comparatively culinarily impoverished region (read: any other). During the night, their 6-top will absorb multiple waves of arrosticini (lamb skewers; my estimate is approximately 30 skewers per person). Next to us, two young parents entertain their toddler. They take turns getting up from the table and chasing the little girl around the cobblestoned piazza. There are multi-generational tables, groups of young people, well-dressed parties, and guys in t-shirts and shorts. And everyone seems to be in the moment, happy to be together. They know the food will eventually arrive, that it’ll be killer. It does and it is. The sun sets behind the canopy pines above the piazza; the temperature mercifully drops a few degrees. There’s a temporary metal stage set up in the piazza, about three feet above the stone pavement and without railings. Maybe there’s an event coming soon or one happened a few days ago. Tonight, the only performers on the raised platform are little kids: stomping, acting out elaborate improvised scenarios, chasing each other. No one’s panicking about a kid falling, telling them to get off the stage, worrying about cracked skulls or potential lawsuits. The parents are, without doubt, nearby, somewhere in the piazza. But there’s no obsessive hovering. As a child of the late 60’s and early 70’s – one who was told to “Get the hell out of the house. The sun’s out,” spent whole days unsupervised, played “Army” and “run the bases” in back alleys, and had some close calls in ruined buildings, abandoned quarries, and on the monkey bars – I’m filled with nostalgia. Childhood should be an adventure. The kids are still playing when we leave, past 11 pm. I’m happy to be back in Abruzzo.
Our staff members arrive in a week. We leave Lanciano in a couple days to see Massimo, our consulting chef, and his family in Colonella, Teramo province. The news from there isn’t good. We were supposed to attend his parents’ 50th anniversary party. But Massimo’s father, Rolando, from whom he learned how to butcher, make salumi, build and repair just about anything, and intrinsic stuff too complicated to relate here, succumbed to the illness, emphysema, he’d bravely battled for over a decade. Words fail.
The time spent with Massimo’s family was moving and, in spite of the circumstances, good. It came as no surprise that they’d hang tough, pull each other through. Though at times cracks in the façade appeared and their sadness showed, there was far more laughter and love than tears. And Massimo’s mother was happy for the distraction, to have people to cook and care for, and to have a house full of family and Massimo’s friends. After losing her partner of fifty years, the person she’d shared every day with since her late teens, she wore her sadness with courage and dignity. And she was a force of nature, constantly in motion.
Jesus, we ate well. As god is my witness, no more coniglio al forno (until the next time Maria’s making it for me, of course). My regimen of walking 10 miles a day (over the aggressively hilly landscape surrounding Colonnella) barely kept my caloric count in balance. The first day we were nearly killed by rabbit featured in a 4-hour lunch that began with the Conocchioli’s house-made salumi – lonza, liver sausage with orange zest, capocollo, etc. – made by Rolando, Massimo’s late father. By the time we’d dispatched with the bunny and attending potatoes, downed multiple bottles of pecorino and cerasuolo, and raided the Conocchioli’s ample liquor cabinet, downing more than our share of digestivi, I was toast. A couple of hours later, stretched out and moaning on the bed in our B&B (just down the street from the Conocchioli’s), we got a text from Massimo asking if we wanted steaks.
We assumed he was joking. He wasn’t. He and a cousin had fired up the grill for steaks and arrosticini. As the adverts for the region say: “Abruzzo, che spettacolo.”
Maria came along for some of the first excursions we made after Poli, Victoria (Poli’s wife), and Andrew arrived. It felt good to have her along. Despite her recent loss, she was excellent company. She’s a lady who can make and take a joke. The opening dinner was at Daniele Zunica’s eponymous, Michelin-noted hotel restaurant in Civitella del Tronto. The town, a beautiful borgo made out of stone and occupying a rocky escarpment rising above the Tronto river, the border between Marche and Abruzzo, is topped by a 16th-century fortress built under the Aragonese domination that’s among the largest fortifications in Europe. It was there in 1861 that, after a seven-month siege, the last forces of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies finally surrendered to the Piemontese army of Vittorio Emanuele. And most of Italy was, on paper if not in spirit or reality, united. Daniele, who we worked with when we did our culinary tours of the region, has become a friend over the years, someone who gives us the straight dope. Things had been rough, even before COVID. His family has operated the hotel since 1880, but the last two years nearly ended that run. Still, Daniele is made of pretty stern stuff. I’m hopeful, and plan on returning at the first opportunity. It was fun to sit across the table from Maria, a former restaurant cook and proponent of the cucina casareccia, and get her immediate reactions to the high-end but traditionally rooted dishes coming from Daniele’s kitchen. He’d asked us to disregard the menu and allow him to put together a feast with wine pairings. And he didn’t disappoint. A highlight, and something that might (had damn well better, actually) appear on a future Le Virtu’ menu was the creamy pecorino soup amply flavored with black truffle.
Even Maria agreed that it was scary good (she’d been somewhat put off by the amuse-bouche of melon in prosciutto brodo). The spaghetti with peperoncino, parsley cream, and lemon-infused goat cheese was also something that might need to find its way onto a future menu back in Philly. And the “cottura” of the pasta was, for me, perfect: very firm, with a satisfying chew. Massimo thought it might be too al dente for our guests (that means you, folks) but I’m willing to risk it. This is how pasta gets cooked from Abruzzo in giu (Abruzzo on down). I want us to deliver the goods. Don’t let me down, Philly.
By the way, this tour (and previous iterations) is all about a complete immersion, presenting as much of the entirety of Abruzzo’s culinary picture as we can cram in without killing our companions. So, our meals range from mom-and-pop joints to Michelin-rated temples of gastronomy. Maria’s cucina is as important to us as any. And two of her dishes, that rabbit (roasted with olives) and her coratella, a traditional Abruzzese dish of lamb liver and offal, with soffrito (including pancetta), peperoncino, and white wine, will definitely come out of our kitchen and soon, at least as menu additions. When we thanked Daniele, his guard slipped for a moment; his emotions threatened to overtake him. It got me in the gut. What a goddamn time this is to live through. Watching Poli and his wife wander the streets of the medieval borgo was affecting for Cathy and me. They were warmed by the willingness of the locals to engage in conversation and made friends quickly, particularly one fruit vendor, who sold the best peaches Poli had ever eaten. This has been one of the more meaningful and satisfying experiences of owning the restaurant. (Beard House and Bells be damned.)