Abruzzo could be Italy’s best kept secret
I grew up hearing the word Abruzzo, but didn’t know what it meant. The older generation, their parents born in Italy, often spoke words that I did not understand. Words of emphasis, words of food, words sometimes whispered. As I got older it became clear that Abruzzo was a place, and not just any place, but the most beautiful place in all of Italy, evoked with tenderness with teary eyes, by immigrants who wondered if they would ever set foot back where they were born.
The first time I looked for it, I found it on a map. Italy has 20 regions; some like Tuscany and Sicily are well known. Others, like Abruzzo, nestled between the sea to the east and Lazio (home to the city of Rome) to the west, remain unknown to most travelers. In a country of UNESCO-listed monuments and iconic cities, Abruzzo has neither. Yet it’s the very lack of traditional tourism infrastructure that is why Abruzzo is so appealing to me – and what makes it ideal as the latest pick in our underrated destination series, It’s Still a Big World.
As far as I can remember, I wanted to travel to Abruzzo. When my mom retired, there was only one place we both wanted to go to mark this milestone. We found a cooking school, Abruzzo Cibus, located in a medieval hilltop hamlet called Carunchio, with 600 residents. A vision quickly formed: a week in a hilltop palace in our family’s hometown, breaking eggs into flour for fresh pasta dough, tasting our way through a local cheese factory, and by learning the traditional recipes of our ancestors. As soon as we imagined this mother / daughter kitchen getaway, it became irresistible: we booked straight away.
In May, we flew to Rome laughing with excitement like two schoolgirls taking off from the plane. A driver from the cooking school met us at the airport and we set out on the three hour trip to Abruzzo. Carunchio first appears from a distance, perched on top of a hill. It is a village with stone walls, red terracotta roofs and a charming church with a high bell tower at the highest point of the hill. As the van began to climb switchbacks, the wildflowers, winding alleys, stone steps, and ancient wooden gates of the village all appeared. Carunchio is far from the Italy of t-shirts and trinkets; they are church bells and linen hanging from ropes and a simple wooden table in the shade of a trellis.
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“Abruzzo does not have a major mark or landmark, there are no big cities,” said Massimo Criscio, host and owner of Abruzzo Cibus, who greeted us upon his arrival at his palace. of 12 rooms. âAbruzzo is already hidden in Italy, and Carunchio is hidden in the hidden place. For some travelers, this can be very appealing. As we got out of the van at dusk we were greeted by a stunning view of the grassy hills of the valley. âIn Carunchio, the locals don’t even expect tourists. They are surprised to see tourists, âMassimo told me. âIt’s a very different experience than other regions of Italy. “
Within an hour of our arrival, we were settled into our comfortable room at Palazzo Tour d’Eau, a large house dating from 1730, and stepped out onto the terrace for a pre-dinner drink. Were we just jet lagged, or was the spritz, sipped as we lounged in a swing watching the sunset, the best spritz I have ever tasted? After a welcome dinner of pasta, free-flowing Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and a chat with our cooking school mates, we fell into a heavy sleep that not even the morning church bells do. could disturb.
The next day, before breakfast and a cooking class, I wanted to find my way around the village, so my mother and I put on our sneakers. We walked along steep stone steps and alleyways so narrow we could smell morning coffee on the stove, practically look out the windows at local villagers and listen to their emphatic conversations. At the central bar / cafe we ââwere the only customers, and the bartender took his time steaming milk for our morning cappuccino. We sat outside at a small table watching the locals go by, savoring the cool morning breeze and the stillness and rumbling in our stomachs knowing that a day of great dining awaits.
Back at the palace, it was time to cook. As we entered the cooking school kitchen, we were greeted by a wood-fired oven with fragrant, steaming logs and tables lined with knives and tea towels alongside eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, brilliant herbs and garlic. Italy is, of course, a country of regional cuisines, and Abruzzo the tariff has its own style and its own flavors. With a history of poverty, this region is known for its peasant dishes. âOur cuisine has no fuss, it’s all about the flavor,â said Massimo Criscio. âWe use a very small amount of ingredients, but every ingredient has to be top notch. If we use a tomato, it has to be the best tomato.
During the week we have concocted a menu of high peasant cuisine, including several vegetarian options such as pallotte cacio e uova, or dumplings of bread and cheese in a sauce of peppers, tomatoes and onions. We tasted a local hot spice blend called pepe tritto, tossed over spaghetti, it was both wonderfully simple and yet surprising. (âIt must be simple, it must be tasty,â Massimo said.) We rolled some cavatelli by hand and found new life for stale bread and noticed the density of the flavor of a red pepper – how is it that a pepper can contain so much life? I looked at my mom with one of the biggest smiles on her face I’ve ever seen; she fell asleep even at night with that smile on her face.
This 7-day culinary getaway provided plenty of hands-on time pasta dough and baking almond biscotti and learning about local DOC wines during a wine class led by a sommelier, but the trip also included several excursions to Abruzzo. We walked through an olive grove, approached a traditional olive press and tasted extra virgin oil at the source. We visited a cheese maker, to witness the process of caciocavallo cheese being made from start to finish. We tasted the regional flavors our ancestors would have missed so deeply once they left Abruzzo for America.
The most memorable excursion was that of the Adriatic coast and the town of Vasto, where my maternal family came from. This stretch of coast is home to the traditions of the region trabocchi, or fishermen’s houses. These spindly wooden structures on stilts, once used for fishing, are now reused in simple restaurants. Go up on the platform to get out trabocco on a sunny afternoon we were surrounded by the different colors of the Adriatic, the lapping of the sea breeze and the melody of the local dialect.
In these fishermen’s houses, an open-air terrace serves as the setting for a seafood lunch. Where our ancestors once fished for sardines and sea bass, we feasted on crudo with olive oil and lemon; small breaded and fried fish in a crisp bite; and seafood pasta. There are too few truly perfect afternoons in life, but this was one of them, and besides the pleasures of food, cold white wine and company, these hours also provided a sense of education and connection to our roots.
Visitors interested in exploring the trabocchi the coast can also be done by bicycle; a new, recently opened cycle path that follows an old railway line along the coast. The trail stretches from Vasto in the north towards Pescara, a stretch of 42 kilometers with views of the sea, beaches and the trabocchi. Back at the palace, Abruzzo Cibus guests can recover from a long bike ride in the new on-site spa, which houses three outdoor hot tubs, a steam room, and an all-glass sauna atop a mountain. hill with panoramic views (massages and spa treatments including facials are available).
On our last night at Carunchio, we put on aprons one last time to spread the pizza dough for the wood-fired oven. I had spent more quality time with my mom – talking about hopes, happy memories, and struggles – than I had had in the past year. Around a table, we gathered for hot pizza from the oven, always full wine glasses, accordion music and laughter. There is a reason why people dream of Italy, why it is always at the top of travelers’ wish lists. The pleasures are simple, and maybe even more so if you choose to explore areas travelers sometimes forget. I fell asleep that night, grateful that our ancestors guided us there.