Thursday, November 18, 2004

Day 4 - Gino's

Sulmona is a gem. This assessment is likely influenced by the weather, which after a day and a half of cold, wet, grayness, has gradually brightened and warmed until it has reached today's perfection, but it is true nonetheless. We are standing just off the main square, an enormous piazza that is entered by passing under a perfectly restored Roman aqueduct and which is flanked by well kept palazzi. The group is in exceptional spirits, perhaps due to the crisp weather, perhaps due to the beautiful scenery of the piazza and the snow flecked mountains surrounding us on all sides. I think, however, that the mood is attributable to the end of jetlag and by our growing friendships, which are forged by our shared experiences over the past three days (as well as many meals and much wine shared together). Familiarity and spontaneous humor have replaced the sterile recitations of our respective curricula vitae. We have come to appreciate one another and a real pleasure in each others' company is apparent.

This is a group that likes a joke, especially when it comes at the expense of someone else. Themes and running gags are beginning to develop, such as Fernando's observation that lamb is served with every course of every meal. As we wander into the piazza we approach a stand selling ladies' hosiery. Fascinated by the dozens of manikin legs bedecked in differing styles of sock and hose, I take a number of close up photos, artistic shots that earn me much ribbing from the group, a matter that is made worse when the stand's proprietor offers to mail me a copy of his catalog which features semi-clad women as much as it does his offering of socks.

We take a stroll around Sulmona, a slow, meandering walk past ancient buildings that span the recorded history of Italy. I am struck by how spotless, how modern and how large this town is. Italians call such towns paese, the same word they use to connote country. Looking on a map I would hardly give this village a second thought and cannot imagine altering my itinerary to visit it. But a paese it is - I could spend a week here, fully satisfied with the sights, sounds, smells and general good feeling. I really like this town.

Our destination is the Ristorante Gino and we are killing time until the appointed hour. So we continue to stroll. On this corner is a retail shop for Pelino confetti. Next door, with confetti flowers displayed along the door jamb is a William di Carlo shop. Alimentari - Italian specialty food shops - are also selling Pelino, di Carlo and other confetti, as well as Pan Ducale, Parozzo and many of the other confections we have visited or are about to visit. Truly the confection industry plays an important role in Abruzzo.

We wander down a block and it's déjà vu all over again. Here is a Pelino store and two doors down a di Carlo store. We wander a few more blocks and more of the same. Pelino, di Carlo, di Carlo, Pelino. We even see a di Carlo store with a sign from the previous generation of di Carlo, the owner apparently not having received word of the handing down of the family business to the son. What we have here is the Italian version of Starbucks: confetti on every corner.
We wander back past the main piazza on the way to Gino's to see scores of uniformed policemen that have just taken part in some sort of ceremony. Their uniforms indicate that they are prison guards and perhaps it is graduation day at the academy. Regardless, this unusual sight of Italians in uniform with smiles on their faces (Italian police, such as the carabinieri are generally quite severe looking - especially when they carry machine guns) adds to the growing good feeling among our group.

I mention all this, because the lunch that is about take place is one of the most magical experiences in recent memory. Perhaps it was the food. Perhaps the wine, which flowed copiously. There is no doubt that this is among the best meals I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying. But more likely it was an inevitability, the confluence of good food, good wine, good weather and good people. Not that we have not had our share of enjoyment thus far. But this is something special.

We enter Ristorante Gino (Piazza Plebiscito, 12, Sulmona, tel. 0864.52289), a simple room with vaulted ceilings and a couple dozen tables. We are seated against a wall at a large table and who is seated one table over but a group of about 20 of those same prison guards, engaged in loud conversation, drinking wine and having a glorious time. On a number of occasions I am overtaken by the urge to shout "Prison Break!" only to be thwarted by my inability to translate it into Italian.

The food at Gino's is magical and, as we have become accustomed to, never ending. We start with a mixed antipasto platter and despite the promise of a platter, is in reality a series of plates served one after another. A plate of local meats. Assorted crostini, including one with a crema di cecini, a paste made from wild chick peas that Alfredo tells us is typical of the cucina rustica movement that is currently in vogue in Italy. A ramekin with opaque green sprouts that look like washed out green beans, smothered in local olive oil and flavored with red pepper flakes. These, we find out, are garlic sprouts, the shoots that grow from your garlic when you leave it in the clay pot too long. Sometimes called scapes, we discover, they taste delicately of garlic and make an extremely pleasant crunchy snack.

The antipasti offerings are served by a tall, striking man in his forties, impeccably dressed and clearly in charge of the room. Another man who appears to be his brother checks on us often. A matronly woman dressed in white apron and a white toque hovers around, making sure we eat everything, likely the mother of the two brothers. In Italy the best trattorias seem to be family enterprises. As we have seen over the past several days, the confection industry seems to follow this pattern as well.

Wanting a light lunch, although already having failed, I have ordered a grilled scamorza, a ball of smoked cheese a little larger than a tennis ball. It is hung to age, tied around its top, a process that slightly elongates it and gives it the shape of a gourd. It has been scalded on a hot grill so that its outer skin hardens even more and leaves delicious grill marks. The hardened skin ruptures in places and soft, molten cheese oozes from the lacerations. It is a simple meal, but the crunchy, smoky skin with the hotter, oozing cheese is perfection itself.

And what of our group? Each is having his own culinary epiphany, including Fernando who is sampling a lamb dish. Smiles are evident all around and the conversation gets more and more animated until it reaches the moment I think we have all been waiting for. In one of the numerous discussions around the table someone has engaged Alfredo in a conversation about regional differences, including regional accents. Finally lowering his reserve to match his American guests, Alfredo begins a dissertation on and performace of various regional accents, including the clipped cadences and inverted syntax of the Sardinians, the unmelodic monotone of the Romani, the reversal of "c" and "h" by the Florentines that results in requests for hoha hola for America's favorite soft drink. A natural showman (apparently President Berlusconi was a lounge singer on a cruise ship in an earlier career), Alfredo captivates and entertains us through dessert, when the prison guards finish up and, we hope, return home rather than going back to work.

We finish up as well, and head back to the pullman, another meal under (and bulging over) our belts.

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