Joe Cicala is the Executive Chef at Le Virtu in Philadelphia. The Salerno-trained chef is currently planning an Enoteca and recently spent two weeks on an epic fact (and truffle) finding mission in Abruzzo. He wrote in to tell us about it.
Layover in Finland, then Fiumicino, a night drive up the A24 autostrada to Civitella del Tronto in Abruzzo’s Teramo Province. We’re here to sample the province’s cuisine and see Angela’s (my wife and pastry chef Angela Ranalli) ancestral town, Controguerra, in one of Abruzzo’s best wine regions. We crash hard.
Morning breaks to views of the Gran Sasso mountain range to the south. Our hotel, the Zunica, sits on the town’s main piazza — which is like a balcony over the valley below. I see a guy from a bakery on the piazza delivering cornetti to the hotel. The aroma floats two floors up to me.
Controguerra is close by, near the sea. We drive through the hills toward the Adriatic. The fall foliage is aflame. It’s warm enough to roll down the windows and smell the briny sea air. Down the coast to Giulianova and Ristorante Beccaceci, said to be one of the best in Abruzzo for seafood. Course after course makes the case: Spaghetti with Adriatic clams; paccheri with mantis shrimp and bottarga; John Dory with fall vegetables. Everything minimal, bright and fresh. The highlight: An oven-hot slab of pink salt is brought to the table and thin slices of swordfish are seared on one side, dressed with olive oil and served with fennel mixed with the same local oil. [Edit: HOLY SHIT that image]
Dinner at the Zunica. We get the tasting menu of traditional and new dishes showcasing local ingredients — a poached farm-fresh egg with white truffle; pumpkin puree with pancetta and black truffle; maccheroni alla chitarra with porcini and buried under shaved black truffle. The surprise is a twist on “alla carbonara” that adds saffron from L’Aquila, further south in Abruzzo. It’s creamy, savory and the saffron — more aromatic and flavorful than any saffron I’ve ever tasted — blasts it to a new dimension. The dish is finished with a sprinkle of pistachios. My God.
After days exploring Teramo and driving switchback roads to southern Abruzzo, eating the whole way, we need a break. Civitella is celebrating the feast of San Martino and guys at the Zunica say there’ll be music and snacks in the courtyard of the fortress above the town. This sounds about right. Our dinner of Novello Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (served in plastic cups), roasted chestnuts and arrosticini (lamb skewers) is perfect. The town celebrates around us. It’s fun. Can we bring this feeling back with us? We leave Abruzzo tomorrow for Umbria and Norcia, the truffle and pork butchering capital of the world.
Through the Apennines to picture-perfect Norcia. The woods and mountains that surround it produce the ingredients that make it famous. Stuffed wild boar heads mark the shop entrances of “norcinerie”: Masters of the town’s pork and boar butchering/curing art. Everything we try — coglioni del mulo (literally mule’s balls, a pork salame with a core of fat), prosciutto, boar salame — is the best I’ve ever tasted. Dried ciauscolo, normally a fresh, spreadable salame like the ventricina teramana and n’duja we make at Le Virtù, really surprises. The flavors are more intense and complex. One butcher is so excited that we cure at Le Virtù he gifts me a selection of his best stuff. It can’t go home with me so we eat it in our hotel. Score.
Deeper into Umbria, around Spoleto, to visit friends of Le Virtù, actor and writer Mike Tucker and actor Jill Eikenberry. Their place is a centuries-old stone farmhouse in a quiet valley. It’s got an outdoor wood-fired oven that’s older than the house. We visit Mike’s favorite butcher, Ugo, whose prosciutto is crazy good. Maybe better even than the stuff in Norcia. We dine out with friends of the Tuckers at a simple trattoria. Strangozzi (short fresh pasta, literally “stranglers”) with tons of truffle and olive oil, grilled lamb and local Montefalco wine. Lamb is slaughtered young in Italy, when it’s still drinking mother’s milk. You can taste the grasses in the mother’s diet in the meat.
Mike and Jill leave us for a couple of days to do some traveling. We pick olives in their grove just outside the front door. Raw olives have a grassy aroma. You smell the spice that will flavor the oil. We make pork ribs in the fireplace and fill ourselves up with Ugo’s prosciutto and lombetto (cured pork loin). I could get used to this.
South to Salerno is where I got my first taste of the Italian cooking art working for my mentor, Pietro Rispoli. Dinner’s at his new spot, Ristorante Aladino. He’s sends out a ton of stuff, all wonderful and familiar, but blows my mind with a new dish: Risotto with Fiano grapes, sausage, black walnuts and parmigiano. Perfect combination of fat, bitter, sweet and tart notes. I’m lucky to have studied in this guy’s kitchen.
Last meal in Salerno at Vicolo della Neve, a little place focused on a wood-fired oven. Basic. Ingredients sit out on a table for inspection. Your choice is put in a copper dish and thrown into the 900-degree oven: Stuffed artichokes and peppers, melanzane alla parmigiana, giambotta, polpetti and pasta fagioli. A simple char intensifies all the flavors.
This is why Italy is important and necessary — the reminder that it’s about the ingredients. Fresh, local, natural. Honor the land, keep it simple, and nothing’s better. Lesson learned. Again.
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