Alf in Italy – Abruzzo – Lunch in PacentroAug 18, 2015
Today we are on an adventure to find a good restaurant for lunch. Sandra’s sister Paola and her partner Simone are taking us on a food tour across the Appenines to Pacentro. We are driving along the A25 heading away from Pescara in the general direction of Rome. At Scafa we leave the autostrada and the Pescara valley and at a much slower pace begin to climb gently folded hills through farming country. The hills are covered with vineyards, fallow fields freshly ploughed, olive groves interspersed with vines and patches of woodland. Unexpectedly there are outlying clumps of housing development. The typically serpentine road is bordered by pines and, red roofed white country houses. Occasionally we glimpse the two towered church we could see from the autostrada. From below it proudly sits at the highest point in its village. As we drive closer and gain altitude there are views over the hills across the more urban valley and the distant cityscape of Pescara to the Adriatic. Ahead the Apennines rise above us. We have been driving for an hour, too long for the Italians to be without coffee. In the next village we will soon find a bar and caffeine satisfaction.
The village with the church perched above it is San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore, probably the longest village name in Abruzzo. It’s named after San Valentino. You know him, he’s the Saint responsible for the mad panicked present buying among men every fourteenth of February. According to legend Valentino came to Abruzzo with his friend San Damiano to convert the pagan locals to Christianity. Now the locals were very content being pagan and were a little miffed at any suggestion that they were following the wrong religious path so they beheaded Valentino and Damiano to put a stop to their interfering ways. The church of SS Valentino e Damiano on the hill top gives us a rough idea who triumphed in the end, heads or no heads. We find a bar with tables beneath trees and relax briefly with coffee before continuing on.
Our next stop is Caramanico Terme, the only spa resort in Abruzzo. Here the genuinely ill and hypochondriacs come to immerse themselves in what they hope are healing waters. The road to Caramanico winds along a ridge above a river valley though farmland and dense green forest. Caramanico is neatly divided in two, the historic centre (Centro Storico) and the modern town with its hotels and spas. Leaving Caramanico the road continues to rise and the mountains close in as we drive between the mountains of Maiella and Monte Morrone. There are vistas toward tiny villages huddled against the mountain slopes and between limestone outcrops, snow drifts that have not yet melted even though we are well into spring warmth.
As we drive on, the deep green beech forest thins and above the tree line we begin to cross high alpine meadows. In the past this was where shepherds grazed their sheep on the rich summer pastures. Migrating flocks were driven along broad traditional routes to Abruzzo after wintering in Puglia. Sometimes shepherds and their flocks can still be seen wandering across the alto piano guarded by the local breed of sheepdog, the Pastore Abruzzese. As we crest Passo San Leonardo there are tumbled down sheep folds and shepherds huts in various states of repair. A little further on there is a tiny, isolated, forlorn, chapel grey and cold sitting alone in a clearing. The landscape is stunningly beautiful. The mountain sides are dotted with patches of dazzling snow and the alpine meadows are softy green contrast to grey rugged limestone outcrops. We drive back into forest and out again along the plain to Campo Di Giove, a village dating back to Roman times. One of the churches is built over the remains of a temple dedicated to Jupiter (Giove in Italian). But we are not here for the history, we here to buy cheese!
Leaving Campo Di Giove on the road to Sulmona is a row of very plain uninspiring buildings. In the cellar of one of these is a “caseificio”, a cheese maker. This one is very low key, a backyard operation if you like. If it wasn’t for a tiny and very obscure sign it would be impossible to find. Paola has told my son Hamish and me to keep quiet and stay out of the way. “If they hear a word of English they will think we are tourists and will put their prices up. Perhaps they will just say they have no cheese to avoid selling us any. Usually they only sell to locals” We promise to stay silent and stand behind and look inconspicuous. We are tall and fair. We are both a good head taller than everyone. We could be Italian. Perhaps we are from Sud-Tirol in the alpine north. Ignoring us, the old woman only sees the Italians. Before she spots us as imposters, the Italians buy ricotta fresca, ricotta salata and pecorino, thank her and leave with the prized cheese. The cheese reminds us we are hungry, so we drive to Pacentro for lunch.
Pacentro is sited high above Sulmona and the Peligna valley under the shadow of Monte Moronne which seems so close to the village that you could reach out and touch the cold rock. There is a magnificent view across the Fucino plain and the surrounding mountains. This is a wonderful example of an Abruzzese village. It is well preserved but is not a place that has been spruced up for tourists and so it is the perfect place to stroll and make your own discoveries. This is exactly what we did while searching for a restaurant.
Starting in Piazza Umberto 1 we begin to explore. As I look around at the palazzi surrounding the piazza I am surprised to see words painted above the main doorways of two of them. They are faded so I walk closer so I can read them. One reads “Viva Italia” and the other “Vincere”. I suppose that they celebrate the village’s liberation from the Germans at the end of World War Two. The straight and narrow Via St Maria Maggiore connects this piazza to Piazza del Popolo. At first glance the buildings which are almost placed one top of the other look the same. On closer examination these are often very different or have had individual touches. – a Saint’s shrine on the wall, a very particular wrought iron balcony, flowers festooning from a window box or a differently carved door surround.
Walking along the narrow street I catch a glimpse of an ancient fresco in the lunette over a bricked up doorway in the facade of the church of San Marcello. Built in 1047 it’s only 900 years older than me. The paint has faded and peeled off in many places but in the left corner next to the central Madonna and Child is a portrait of a pope wearing his triple crown. Fascinated by this remnant of the past I climb the steps to photograph it. Later when researching the history of Pacentro I learn that this is a portrait of the thirteenth century Abruzzese Pope Celestino, otherwise known as Pietro da Marrone, a mystical hermit who lived in a nearby cave. He was only pope for a few months before he resigned and returned to his hermitage. Until recent years Celestino was the only pope to have resigned.
The street opens into Piazza del Popolo, bathed in brightness after the soft shadowy light of the street which is barely wide enough for two or three people to walk abreast. Overlooking the piazza is the church of Santa Maria della Misericordia or Maggiore. The grey facade is built in the spare Mannerist style, the only decorations are three white framed doors, two smaller doors either side of the impressive main entrance, and a clock set into the pediment that looks as though it was added as an afterthought. Opposite the church there is a space between buildings granting a view over the valley.
Now hunger has got the better of us and just as we walk under an arch we see a sign directing us to a restaurant. Taking a chance we climb the stairs and at the top enter Zio Carlo as the Restaurant is called. We are seated, wine is poured and lunch begins. All is very typically Abruzzese, so we begin with antipasti, salumi, prosciutto, a loaf of rustic bread and melanzane sott’olio, (eggplant preserved in oil). This is followed by grilled goat’s cheese and a dish of chicken livers. Now comes the unexpected twist. We are served beans with pasta. This is delicious, but there is something unusual about the flavour, something un Abruzzese. Sandra dissects the dish. Beans, parsley, porcini and pancetta. And a flavour that she can’t identify. The chef comes out of the kitchen. “You have all the ingredients correct,” she says, “but I have made my own addition. I’m Polish so I added a touch of a special Polish spice.” Like so many of these beautiful villages throughout Abruzzo, Pacentro has been depopulated by the emigration to countries such as Canada, USA and Australia. And here is the irony; we are eating traditional Abruzzese fare cooked by a migrant (About 1300 people now live in Pacentro, in 1911 there were more than 4000.)
We continue with our “light lunch”, – pasta alla chitarra with walnuts, gnocchi with truffles and Sandra has arrosticini because she can’t resist them. Pasta alla Chitarra is typical homemade pasta in Abruzzo and is made with a special implement shaped like a box without a lid. Fine steel wires are stretched across the top of the box. A sheet of pasta is placed on the wires and rolled with the wooden rolling pin so that it is pressed through creating strands of pasta. We finish with cantucci biscuits and a glass of Vin Santo to dip them in. Finished? Not quite. How can we refuse a glass of house made digestivo with coffee to finish our delicious and deeply satisfying meal?
To help digest lunch and let the effect of the wine dissipate we stroll to the highest point in the village to see the castle. Built in the late 14th century by the Caldora family it is now owned by the “Comune”, the City Council. Its defensive purpose is in equal proportion to its other purpose as a definite statement about who was in charge in these parts in those days. As impressive as the castle is with soaring towers and huge grey bulk it is made quite insignificant compared to the vast wildness of the mountain landscape.
That night we have a simple meal, – bread we bought at a bakery in Caramanico, the cheese from Campo Di Giove and homemade salumi. The salad was made with the most intensely flavoured tomatoes, sliced, sprinkled with peperoncino and dressed with deep green unfiltered extra virgin olive oil bought straight from the farmer. Tonight Simone is slicing prosciutto and lonza which is cured pork loin. All washed down with local wine from a vineyard just down the road.
This is why I feel especially privileged each time I visit Italy. Most visitors do not get to eat traditional Italian food such as this, because they only experience restaurant food or classic Italian dishes known to the whole world. Most of this meal was either from small artisan producers or homemade and an expression of the true essence of la Cucina Italiana. Everything we ate was authentic, honest and true, straight from the hands of the maker or grower.
Pacentro is rated as one of “I Piu’ Belli Borghi d’Italia”, – one of the most beautiful villages in Italy of which there are 21 in Abruzzo. Visiting them is just one of the delights to discover Abruzzo.
Follow me, AKA Sandra’s husband, on my journeys in Italy as this sometimes bewildered Anglo-Saxon tries to understand this beautiful, complex, contradictory, frustrating and absolutely fascinating country.
(Written by Alf)