As I land in Rome early in the morning it seems like just a couple of weeks ago we were in Italy. That's because just a couple of weeks ago we were in Italy, eating our way from the Piemonte to Emilia Romagna and finally to Tuscany. Today I arrive in Rome, bound for a very different destination, the Abruzzo, on a very different kind of itinerary and with very different traveling companions.
As we were leaving Washington, DC for Torino in late October, we were also finalizing arrangements to participate in delegation organized by the Italian Trade Commission to visit the Abruzzo - a lesser known region stretching from the east of Rome to the Adriatic coast. The trip is being sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission, an Italian government agency charged with promoting Italian trade, from food fashion and ceramics to automobiles and industrial machinery. The purpose of this trip is to introduce American buyers to some of the unique, but little known traditional confections of the Abruzzo. The trip has been organized by John Battista of the Italian Trade Commission office in New York. An ICE (the Italian acronym for the Trade Commission) representative by the name of Signore Giorgio is our host and organizer in Pescara, the economic capital of the Abruzzo, and he is responsible for organizing the daily itineraries and arranging the meetings with local producers.
I arrive in Rome an hour and a half behind schedule, the result of a passenger who decided he did not want to fly to Rome after the plane had departed the gate. This late withdrawal requires a lengthy search for his checked luggage, which must be removed from the plane. Little things like this, in the post 9/11 world, have a way of rattling passengers even more than the delay they cause. When I finally arrive in Rome, the group, which includes John Battista and the buyers for five other American food retailers, is assembled, and surprisingly they do not appear to be angry at me for delaying our departure.
We depart Fiumicino airport for Pescara, a drive of little over two hours. We avoid Rome and encounter little traffic and soon we are heading into the Appenine mountains west of Rome. As we reach the frontier between Lazio (the province that includes Rome) and Abruzzo the mountain peaks are covered with snow and the autostrada, which follows the valley between the mountains becomes more and more dwarfed by the ever rising peaks. We pass some of the highest points in the Appenines, but the drive is generally flat, as we alternate from high bridges to long mountain tunnels. The highway skirts some beautiful ancient hill towns, their severe brown stone buildings rising one above another, following the steep contours of the countryside. From a distance these towns appear to have been forgotten by time and untouched by modern progress. There is a feel of poverty about them, and we will need to visit some of them to get a more accurate picture.
One thing is certain. In the broad valleys between the mountains the Abruzzese have made the most of this somewhat inhospitable land. Olive trees stretch as far as the eye can see, blanketing the valleys. We pass isolated herds of sheep in the mountains, which are used for their milk to produce pecorino cheese and for the meat, as well.
Finally, we emerge from one last mountain tunnel and reach the coast, where we make our way to Pescara, a large fishing town that is also the commercial center of the Abruzzo. It would be an exaggeration to describe Pescara as picturesque, charming or even beautiful, especially in the cold, gray drizzle that has accompanied us since landing in Rome. But as we arrive at our hotel, the Hotel Esplanade (Piazza 1 Maggio, 46, 65122 Pescara, tel. 39-085-292141, www.esplanade.net) we see a sandy beach that (in good weather, we imagine) stretches for ten miles. Indeed, the coast of the Abruzzo is apparently a non-stop beach resort that actually starts at Venice in the Veneto and stretches for hundreds of miles to Pescara.
We check in to our rooms and I am teased by a shower that makes hissing noises but emits no water, so it's back to the lobby, unwashed and still slightly reeling from the flight, to meet our local host, Signore Giorgio. After some brief introductions, Signore Giorgia escorts us a few blocks to the Locanda da Pia, a smallish family run restaurant that features local Abruzzese fare. Signore Giorgia, wanting to expose us to some of the local dishes confers with us and orders maccheroni alla chitarra pasta with ragu, the local variety of sauce being made from a combination of lamb, veal and beef. The pasta is a local specialty that is rolled into sheets and then placed over a device that consists of rows of parallel metal wires that resembles guitar (chitarra) strings. The pasta is then cut into strips by being pressed down through the strings by a rolling pin. The resulting pasta is like spaghetti, but rather than cylindrical, it is a long square configuration. No matter how you slice it, though, it is a delicious primi.
We follow the pasta alla chittara with a mixed grill of local sausages and grilled meats. The sausages in particular are outstanding - spicy and smoky from the grill. We enjoy a "salad" of wild greens that are delicately sautéed, like spinach greens or rabe, but with a slightly bitter taste conjuring images of dandelion. Throughout our two hosts, Signore Giorgio and John Battista talk to us about the history of Abruzzo, its principal towns and its traditional products. There is much talk about the bounty of Abruzzo - how it is unique among Italian provinces in producing foods indigenous to the mountains, the plains and the sea. There is talk of seafood meals to come - but will have to wait another day - as the rough weather has confined the fishing fleet to shore and no Abruzzese in good conscience would sell seafood that has not been fished from the waters the previous day. There is talk about tomorrow's itinerary when we will be introduced to Abruzzo confections and will meet nearly a dozen of its principal producers.
We finish our meal with a selection of desserts - half moon shaped cookies called celli pieni that resemble ravioli, stuffed with unsweetened chocolate and fruit preserve and covered with powdered sugar; cantucci, traditional biscotti familiar in Tuscany but which we are assured in no uncertain terms are native to Abruzzo; a chocolate tort cut into narrow wedges; and parrozzo, the most popular dessert in Abruzzo, which we will be sampling later in the trip. We wash down our meal with the excellent local D.O.C. wine Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and have a digestif called ratafia, a distillation of the montepulciano grapes and wild cherries that ends a terrific meal.
After wandering the city streets for a while it is back to the hotel to catch up on sleep and prepare for tomorrow's workshop. It is lonely being here without Suzy and the experience is different - a less full experience as I do not have her inquiry to complement my own. Nonetheless I am thankful to the Italian Trade Commission for inviting us along and am eagerly looking forward to what the next days have in store.
Ciao a presto!