Thursday, February 16, 2006

Day 8 - Pescara-l'Aquila-Castelli-Civitella del Tronto

Checking out of the Hotel Esplanade is unquestionably the most satisfying aspect of staying there. Its old world charm, which is evident from the moment you are greeted ("passports please") and in their attention to their clients’ needs ("of course you can park in any spot which is empty") make one wonder if this region of Italy was perhaps settled by the Swiss. The room, at least, is quite nice, a good sized bedroom with attached sitting room, which we put to good use consolidating the purchases we have made along the way by essentially throwing away all of our dirty clothes.

We check out late, not even getting a chance to enjoy the view of the deserted beach, which in the summertime is lined in a precisely laid out grid of bright colored cloth beach chairs and cabanas. But we have little time to dally for we have an appointment in l’Aquila, an hour and a half into the mountains, to visit with Rita Faroni, proprietor of Sorelle Nurzia, who supplies Bella Italia with delectable torrone and cookies.

The drive inland from Pescara is utterly breathtaking, with the sea at our backs and towering ranges of mountains on our left (the Maiella) and right (the Gran Sasso). On its way to Pescara the autostrada, which connects Pescara to Rome confines itself to the valleys between peaks, and off the side of the road dozens of small towns are perched in the shadows of those mountains, stretching from the valley floor upward into the hills above. The scene is much different from Puglia, from whence we have just come – gone are the fertile green, gently rolling hills, replaced with rocky grey and brown terrain, sharp, craggy hills and towering mountains majestically capped in snow.

We exit the autostrada and Bill retraces the steps he took a year and a half earlier when he met Rita along with a delegation of American companies organized by the Italian Foreign Trade office. We glide into the industrial park that houses Sorelle Nurzia and through a motorized security gate, parking in front of a nondescript industrial building. But while the outside of the factory does not impress, the inside is a veritable Wonkaland of activity making the prized torrone, a soft nougat candy that is flavored with chocolate, coffee, hazelnut, pistachio and the like. On the factory floor men and women operate machines that beat egg whites in oversized bowls into frothy peaks, sweet honey is dried and added to the mixture, nuts and other flavorings are added and the gooey mixture beaten and stirred until it is ready to be spread and cooled and cut and packaged into Nurzia torrone, known not just throughout l’Aquila and Abruzzo, but in Rome and distant corners of Italy and as far away as Amsterdam, Toronto and Bethesda, Maryland.

For today, and in fact for the next several months, that activity has been slowed, as the frenetic holiday season has given way to a slower season in the confection industry, perhaps in response to a collective New Year’s resolution to lose weight? Rita shows us around the quiet factory explaining what goes on when production is at full tilt, while a few workers continue to bake cookies and fresh torrone for the local market. And, fortunately, there are stacks of goodies everywhere – freshly cut soft chocolate covered torrone, bite sized bars of torrone packed in boxes ready to be shipped, freshly baked biscotti and other cookies just removed from the oven that are cooling and waiting to be packed by hand in clear plastic wrappers bearing the bell’epoch Nurzia emblem.

Rita shows us a large break room that is really a full kitchen where the entire Nurzia family, managers and factory workers alike, pull together to prepare lavish lunches that are lingered over by all in true Italian fashion. Later, after we return from our lunch, the smell of rich tomato sauce fills the hallways, mixing with the smells of freshly baked cookies from the factory floor, and we discover a woman lovingly stirring a pasta sauce of tomato, sausage and pork for tomorrow’s lunch. We are invited to join them the next day and when we explain that we will be unable, are told to arrange our next trip so that we can join everyone for lunch in the factory lunchroom.

It is apparent from our tour of the factory that Rita is, as she likes to say, la capa, the head or boss. But it is apparent, too, that this is a happy place, as one would imagine a candy factory to be, indeed like a big family. Much of that family atmosphere is attributable to the energetic and engaging Rita, who is in constant motion, on the phone, on the factory floor, looking over the factory workers’ shoulders or strategizing with Roberto, a genial man who acts as the company’s business manager. So after showing us around the factory and discussing our current order, forcing us to sample a new line of cookies (which we agree to add to our order) we are off to lunch with Rita and Roberto.

Rita drives us a few minutes up the road to Urbani (Via Umberto I 89 – 67026 Poggio Picenze (AQ) tel., 0862/801101), a small locanda restaurant that we would have driven past without giving a moment’s notice to. According to Rita and Roberto, they practically live in the place, dropping by for hearty meal on days when the company kitchen is not in service.

The restaurant is nearly deserted and in the kitchen we can see an elderly woman busily cooking. Rita shouts into the kitchen and we seat ourselves. A few moments later another shout comes from the kitchen, asking us what we would like to eat and we know we have found a place to our liking. Rita jumps up and runs into the kitchen and an animated conversation ensues. Rita comes back and begins to canvass us about what we would like. Apparently the gnocchi is handmade and excellent. She jumps up again, returns to the kitchen and emerges a few moments later with some toasted bread and a plate of grilled mushrooms, much fresher she assures us than the dry bread sitting on the table.

We all agree on the gnocchi and there is complete confusion regarding what to order for an entrée. Pork? Veal? We go back and forth and Rita returns to the kitchen several more times. We finally seem to be agreeing on some of each when Rita throws lamb into the equation, disrupting the equilibrium that we apparently been working toward. In the meantime the gnocchi appear at the table, lightly coated in a tomato sauce and as soft and delectably chewy as advertised. Unsatisfied, Rita returns to the kitchen yet again, returning with a silver dish filled with more tomato sauce and a giant ladle she had fished from some drawer. She insists that we all add some more tomato sauce to our gnocchi and who are we to disagree?

Later the lamb and pork arrive (we managed to decide on this one), as does a side dish of local potatoes that have been oven roasted to perfection and a plate of sautéed broccoli rape. Like the company commissary, the Urbani restaurant has been transformed into Rita’s family kitchen and we are drawn into her world perhaps unwittingly but quite happily. We clean our plates (not literally, although in Rita’s world, who knows?), thank everyone and return to the factory, once again happy and full.

Back at the factory we finalize some details on our order and begin to say our goodbyes, but things do not always go directly from A to B with Rita. She insists that we take a few samples with us, some of her new cookie assortment and a package of new wine cookies. But that is not enough, so we add some assorted bars of torrone and before you know it, a 3 kilo bar of chocolate torrone in a straw basket is offered up along with other treasures. A box is prepared and our samples are boxed up, and as it is taped closed our visit to Sorelle Nurzia comes to a close. We say our goodbyes with promises to return in the near future and are off to our next destination, Castelli.

On his previous visit to the area, Bill rented a car to get from Sorelle Nurzia to Castelli, a small mountain village on the other side of the Gran Sasso, Italy’s highest peak. In order to get to the other side the Italian government has thoughtfully built a tunnel under the mountain. On that day the tunnel was closed due to high winds and Bill made his away around Italy’s tallest peak instead of under it, a detour that added four or five hours to the trip. Needless to say, Castelli was struck from the itinerary that day.

Today we learn that the tunnel is open and we arrive at the tunnel entrance under thickening clouds and falling temperatures. The tunnel is over 10 kilometers long (approx. 7 miles) and when we emerge from the other side our breath is taken away. On this side of the mountain the sky is a bright blue with a few clear white clouds visible. To our left is a mammoth rounded peak capped in snowy white like a gigantic ice cream popsicle you get at the beach and behind us, which we have to crane our necks to see, is the endless Gran Sasso, covering at least half of horizon and also peaked in white.

Ahead of us are numerous peaks and valleys, dotted with little towns, one of them Castelli. After a minor map challenge we exit for Castelli and work our way down one slope, across a valley and back up another slope where the road ends in the little town of Castelli, an assemblage of stone buildings piled one atop another all precipitously balanced on a cliff reinforced with buttresses and other engineering feats from a period long past. The town of Castelli has been a principle ceramics town for centuries and we joke that the business got a real boost 50 years ago when a road was finally extended to the town, resulting in the sale of hundreds of years’ inventory of ceramic art. This is definitely a place that you want to come to. It is hard to imagine anyone just stumbling upon Castelli.

We have come here intentionally, but unfortunately the locals have not anticipated our arrival, as nearly all of the retail shops are closed and appear to have been shut for the season. We enjoy the ambiance of the place, however, and window shop for a time, getting a feel for the designs and styles unique to the place. We make a note to return some day (in season).

So it is back to the autostrada and our final destination for the day, the tiny mountain town of Civitella del Tronto, perched in the hills between Teramo and Ascoli Piceno. We are surprised to find the town so easily and glide into a public parking area just outside the tiny town’s gates and find our hotel, the Hotel Zunica a few steps away. We are slightly disappointed by the room, which for some reason includes a queen bed (a convenient six inches off the floor) and next to it a single bed also a mere six inches off the floor. We determine the room to be adequate but not charming. But the town is charming and the view from the room, over the valley, is beautiful. We take a brief stroll and get a table for dinner in the hotel restaurant.

We order a special four course tasting menu that features foods typical of the local area. Judging from the first three courses they must grow a lot of mushrooms, for our first course is a soup of pecorino cheese that is flavored with mushrooms, reminding us vaguely of fondue. The next course is a lightly fried porcini mushroom in a cheese sauce that looks an awful lot like the soup. A local pasta called ceppe is served next, a hand rolled noodle that is long, tapered and hollow, looking a little like a hand rolled cigarette. It is soft and tasty and served in a sauce of, you guessed it, mushrooms. The main course is a local specialty called filetto borbonica, a huge, tender steak served on a piece of toasted bread, topped with an enormous dome of mozzarella cheese and, for good measure, a garnish of mushrooms. And the whole affair, which seems to be taking itself a bit too seriously is greatly improved by an excellent bottle of the local vintage, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, this D.O.C.G. bottle from the Teramo hills.

Throughout the meal we have noticed a gradual warming of the wait staff, perhaps realizing our preference for the simple and rustic over the elegant and refined. A few smiles are offered as the meal progresses and occasional eye contact ensues. When we finish our tasty filetto the waiter brings us each a glass of champagne and moments later returns with a large ice cream cake with a candle in the center, the front desk having realized that it is Bill’s birthday when they took our passports at registration. So, for those who generally avoid hotel restaurants here is the tip of the day. If you want free desert, eat at the hotel restaurant on your birthday.

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