Travel bites: Abruzzo and its sun, snow and food
|Rivisondoli in the morning sun|
While our Italian summer holidays are spent in seaside Cilento, our winter breaks (mostly Christmas) are spent in another beautiful and fascinating Italian region, Abruzzo. Situated at the southern end of Central Italy, it touches the Adriatic Sea to the East and is around 1.5 hours’ drive from Napoli and Rome. Allegedly (in ‘Miracle in Castel di Sangro’), the 1996 Frommer’s Guide to Italy described as it as “one of the poorest and least visited regions” in the country, “Arid and sunscorched … prone to frequent earthquakes, the Abruzzo is … impoverished and visually stark.”
That Frommers as recently as 1996 described Abruzzo as such makes me want to find who wrote it and slap them. The region is stunning, full of history (with some amazing Romanesque masterpieces), attractive seaside towns and mountain resorts.
The area we use as our base is of course the area we know best; quite close to the Molise border, around the town of Castel di Sangro. A further 20 minutes on or so, the ski area of Aremogna provides some winter fun. These are the Apennines Mountains, more smooth hills than rugged peaks, reaching just over 2000mtr, with over 100km of ski slopes. We love it.
It’s pretty and, apart from peak season (New Year’s Eve, Carnival), it is fairly affordable and never too busy.
We have been coming here for so long, that I feel it’s like a second (or third) home. Food is of high quality pretty much everywhere and prices are still very reasonable, hardly ever going above 20Euro per person for a full meal with wine.
In the grocery shops, we always buy local meaty delicacies (such as sausages) and dairy products (such as ‘Stracciata Molisana’, a soft cheese similar to mozzarella). I always get a few packets of the local biscuits called Ferratelle. They are scrumptious, waffle like biscuits, which come in either soft or crunchy version. Mostly produced in artisan bakeries, they are perfect with an afternoon tea.
|Ravioli at Caraceni|
Yet there are plenty of great restaurants for eating out too. Last year we spent Christmas Day lunch at il Vecchio Granaio (in Vastogirardi), a welcoming farm restaurant with plenty of labradors wagging their tails outside and a roaring fire inside. Amongst the best dishes was the truffle baked egg.
For Christmas Lunch 2011 we asked one of our favourite places (Caraceni in Alfedena) to prepare turkey which is not core on an Italian festive table. Yet they came up with a moist, tender, deboned roast turkey stuffed with chestnuts and olives.
|Cod balls at Caraceni|
Other dishes included Salt cod balls, Cappelletti with leeks, grana cheese and black truffle (delicious) and amongst the desserts, an Apple and almond crumb (Torta Yann) and a Chocolate mousse with Nurzia nougat. Caraceni is a stylish, small restaurant with a lot of character and we come every year to taste their seasonal menus. Next door there is another really good eating spot, Locanda Montegreco – traditional setting with new ideas in their food. Shame we did not have a chance to visit this year.
|Braised veal at Pulcinella|
We did spend another evening in Alfedena, dining at Pulcinella, a place where chef Vincenzo Iebano likes to mix tradition with inventive ingredients. Pizzas are very good and authentic but some of the dishes are maybe a little too eccentric. A starter of Salt Cod with Christmas Cauliflower was fresh and light; Genovese with Hare was perfect; my Braised veal with truffle and pumpkin coulis was well cooked and with plenty of aromas. It is really inspiring to see that in such small villages there is creativity in the kitchen at affordable prices.
|Melon with truffle at Il Tartufo|
During our few days in the area, we also visited a truffle restaurant (obviously named Il Tartufo) in Ateleta. Here the young chef possibly overdoes it a little, adding truffle to absolutely everything (but plenty of it) which does not always work. Fantastic is the White melon with fresh truffle shavings, the very light Ricotta ravioli with black truffle, but I was unsure on the White truffle escalopes, where flavours do not blend in and the aroma of the truffle becomes a little wasted; the Stuffed turkey we tried, we felt was a left over from Christmas (we visited on Dec 27th).
Yet once again the prices are incredibly low for such an abundance of fresh and actually very good quality locally picked truffles (just as good as the more famous Alba truffles).
|Tagliere at Lago D’Avoli|
We also made sure we visited more than once two of our favourite places of all times. One is right by the ski slopes and our regular lunch spot. The quaint Rifugio D’Avoli is run by a Sardinian family and every year Walter, the owner, welcomes us like old friends.
Sitting in the sunny conservatory overlooking the snowy hills and away from the mad and frankly, quite boisterous crowds of the main ski cafes, we love to rest and enjoy a calm lunch stop. This is surely a place for people who appreciate good, ‘slow’ food.
A daily changing menu, it never fails to disappoint. This year we’ve particularly enjoyed Polenta with radicchio and gorgonzola, Orecchiette with sausage and broccoli, Pasta with potatoes, a Tagliere with small bites (including some crispy and light onion rings) and @bmcboy’s favourite, Pasta al Forno. For 20euros including service, this is worth a trip up the mountain even if you are not skiing.
|Don’t let the exterior put you off!|
Finally, another place we love to eat at is somewhere I would never stop if I was driving by, not knowing how good it is. RAM or La D’Fenza is a steak house / pizzeria / trattoria just at the entrance of Castel di Sangro.
Outside it just looks dull and was named by @bmcboy ‘truck stop’. Yet inside brothers Rocco and Antonio offer genuine, appealing and home-made fare at incredibly good prices.
|Pork tagliata with mushrooms at RAM|
My favourite dish is Pork tagliata with raw mushrooms, which is divine – perfectly grilled, and full of mushrooms shavings and virgin olive oil.
Yet the whole menu is full of great choices; massive fillets, large portions of lamb chops, local greens, soups of cereals (barley, broad beans), truffle bruschetta, grilled scamorza with mountain ham, home made chitarra spaghetti with boar ragu, polenta with sausages.
Each meal is finished with a bunch of local digestive liquors, all brought to the table for guests to choose from.
|Abruzzo digestives and wine at RAM|
All this for under 25Euros per person. These guys deserve to be known more widely, because their food is gorgeous and authentic.
Castel di Sangro is also on the foodie map for a Michelin star restaurant that ‘moved’ here from nearby Rivisondoli. Reale, owned by Chef Niko Romito, is a major name among Italian food connoisseurs. I tried it once when they had just opened and loved it, and then tried again when they had reached fame and was not as impressed. I am told by a reliable source that they have also just opened a tea room with hot baked donuts and a view to Castel di Sangro old town centre. I will make sure to visit next time I am there, but it’s excellent that in such a small area one can eat incredibly well with 20euros as much as treat oneself for 100.
Visit now, if you can. Worth every cent.