(Marchigiana breed cattle on the Campo Imperatore w/Corno Grande in the background; view of  the Sirente range from the Gran Sasso)

(All photos by Francis Cratil Cretarola)

A little more than an hour from Rome, Abruzzo seems - is - a world away. Leaving the Grande Raccordo Annulare (GRA), the beltway that surrounds Rome’s ever-expanding sprawl, take the exit for the A24 highway toward L’Aquila, Abruzzo’s capital, and Teramo. The traffic thins. The land roughens. Settlements and development become more sparse. By the time you cross the border from Lazio to Abruzzo, the landscape takes on an imposing air. Mountains tower above. Wooded expanses fill the valleys. Medieval villages appear in the distance, clinging to the spines of rocky outcrops. You are entering Abruzzo’s mountainous hinterland, what many Abruzzesi consider the region’s heart and soul. The road you drive on did not exist until the 1980s.

Exit the road past the city of L’Aquila, which has some sprawl of its own, just beneath the epic mass of the Gran Sasso d’Italia (the “Big Rock of Italy”) mountain, and begin the switchback climb up, past the tree line, toward the stark, wind-swept beauty of the Campo Imperatore, a high mountain plain that serves as pasture land and is nicknamed “Italy’s Little Tibet.” Above the road, sometimes on it, herds of sheep appear, protected by the large, white Abruzzesi sheepdogs, i pastori abruzzesi. Some of the dogs might still sport protective iron-spiked collars and they take their work seriously. There are wolves in these mountains. Cattle pasture free range and herds of semi-wild horses - big, burly animals - thunder across the plain.

(A herd of sheep crosses the Campo Imperatore; wild horse on the Campo; Abruzzese sheepdog protecting his flock; I’m noticed by a sheep)

At the Campo’s western end, there’s a place to park and a relatively easy trail to climb toward a small gap in the rocky, northern rim above the plain. Passing through it puts you directly beneath the Matterhorn-like mass of the Corno Grande, the spire that is the highest point in the entire Apennine chain. And beneath you, in stark contrast to the austere majesty of the Campo and the country you’ve just driven through, part of the province of L’Aquila, unfolds the vast green expanse of Teramo: dense forest hugs the mountainsides all the way to Le Marche, the northern bordering region, and undulating, agricultural hills - like something from a Renaissance painting - extend eastward, gradually mellowing until they meet the Adriatic’s intensifying gradations of blue.

(One of our Jacks on the Gran Sasso over Teramo; the village of Castelli, Teramo with the Gran Sasso above; Santa Maria della Pieta on the Gran Sasso; the Castle of Rocca Calascio with the Majella range in the distance)

Edelweiss grows on the mountain plain; olive trees and grape vines thrive in the hills; palm trees flourish along the coast. This is the terra that inspires our restaurant, Le Virtù.

Abruzzo is a happy anachronism, a kind of miracle: Europe’s greenest region, isolated for centuries by its mountains, where ancient customs and vocations persist and where one can be immersed in a culture and natural world less compromised than in most other parts of Italy. Over 30% of the region is dedicated parkland (there is one regional and 3 national parks, and numerous WWF reserves), and much of what lies beyond park boundaries is still wild or agricultural. Italy’s largest population of wolves and its only surviving bears roam the woods, along with chamois, lynx, roe deer, boar, etc. The parks also preserve dozens of medieval villages and encourage traditional farming and animal raising. So much of Abruzzo‘s land, park or not, is rough terrain and difficult to farm, that small farms are still the norm. Farmers stick with local varietals.

Development only really exists on the Adriatic’s northern and central coast, the only part of the region which attracts and can accommodate mass tourism. The region’s southern shore, along Chieti province, remains mostly untouched: at the Punta Aderci coastal reserve, in Chieti near the town of Vasto, grass-covered hills gently decline toward pebble beaches and the sea’s electric blue; i trabocchi, long wooden fishing platforms with huts and complex net rigs, project into the water; walking the trail that traces the hill line above the sea, you might not see another soul for miles.

(Trabocchi fishing platforms; our late Jacks near Pineto, Teramo)

Abruzzo’s cuisine and ingredient pool reflect its geographical diversity - mare, colline e montagna (sea, hill and mountain) - and the persistence of natural farming, animal husbandry, cheese making, etc., as well as its geographical and cultural positions in Italy. Abruzzo shares latitude with Lazio and parts of Tuscany and Umbria, so it’s in central Italy. But Abruzzo was the northernmost region of various southern realms - the kingdoms of Naples and of the “Two Sicilies”- until Italy’s unification in 1861 (some Abruzzesi would participate in the Brigantaggio, the armed resistance to unification under northern rule that spread throughout southern Italy and lasted into the 1870s). So culturally, Abruzzo is firmly in the south.

From a culinary perspective, this is a happy confluence. Owing to geography, Abruzzo’s ingredient pool mirrors almost everything one would find in parts of Tuscany and Umbria: abundant porcini and other funghi, black and white truffle (Abruzzo is one of Italy’s top producers of truffle, which might come as a shock to some) game, a diversity of cured meats and quality olive oil, including three D.O.P. (denominazione d’origine protetta) designations. Its historic connection to the south means a liberal use of tomato, peperoncino (chili - Abruzzo is second only to Calabria in the use of hot peppers) and garlic and production of fior di latte mozzarella, scamorza cheese, spicy salumi and quality dry pasta, or “maccheroni” (several of Abruzzo’s commercial pasta makers vie for the title of Italy’s best). Abruzzo’s sheep’s-milk cheese is among Italy’s finest (though seldom imported and difficult to find in America), the quality of its lamb and mutton without peer and its saffron, from L’Aquila province’s Navelli plain, is the best in Europe.

Austere rocky massifs, wooded solitudes, medieval villages that seem unchanged by time, beaches where the only sound is the water sifting through pebbles on the beach and innumerable agriturismi, trattorie and ristoranti proferring an unheralded diversity of cuisine fashioned with local ingredients that would be considered gourmet in any metropolis, in Italy and beyond. But the most beautiful thing about Abruzzo might be the people, their sense of community and love of sharing.

(Loreto Aprutino street scene; Loreto’s old town)

Cathy’s and my most memorable and instructive meal in Abruzzo was probably one prepared in the winter of 2002 by our landlords, Elio and his wife Gio, in our ground-floor apartment in the village of Assergi, part of the comune (municipality) of L’Aquila. Assergi is a community of just over 500 souls on the southern slope of the Gran Sasso mountain. This was our second stay in the apartment (we’d used it as a base for six months the previous year while we were investigating the region’s history, culture and cuisine). Our landlords, who lived in the house above us and took an interest in our research, wanted to give us a real taste of mountain life, one we couldn’t find at a restaurant.

They organized a traditional polenta dinner and invited some of their friends from the village. Elio and Gio saw to the polenta, which they cooked in a seasoned copper pot hung over a wood fire in the apartment’s fireplace. Another guest from the village made a sausage and tomato ragù in our kitchen. There were 12 of us: Elio and Gio and their son and daughter, a local doctor (who routinely made house calls, and prescribed vin brulèe - Abruzzese mulled wine - for my bout with the flu), another family of 5 and Cathy and me. A lot of local Montepulciano d’Abruzzo was poured and there was a lot of laughter and animated discussion: politics, local traditions, whether one stirred the polenta in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. When I remember the night, everything’s in soft focus and gilded light, like a childhood Christmas memory.

When the polenta was ready, Elio and Gio’s kids covered the entire top of the apartment’s huge table with wooden boards. Polenta was poured onto the boards, le spianatoie, spread out evenly and covered with the rich ragù. A liberal amount of olio santo, chili-infused olive oil, was added to the mix, along with freshly grated local pecorino. All 12 of us took a seat, each armed with a fork. I remember the smiles around the table, the aroma and steam rising from center of the boards, the wink given me by Gio. A signal was given, and we all unceremoniously attacked the section of polenta immediately in front of us, leaning forward and pulling the savory golden and red mixture across the board and toward our mouths with our forks.

It was delicious. And no meal I’d ever had was ever so fun, so primal and communal. It was about being together and sharing. When Le Virtù was first imagined, Cathy and I would often remember that meal, think about the warmth, the sense of community present in that room, and about how we could ever recreate such conviviality in South Philadelphia.