Heritage cooking is a huge topic now. This industry trend is about people who have recently moved and brought their culture with them to share with their newest home. While we are not first generation immigrants from Italy, we have had the special opportunity to get old world instruction on some of the most wonderful aspects of regional Italian cuisine. In this post I am going to briefly touch on Italian regionality, some traditional dishes, and an ancient grain.
Since Italy is a popular travel destination there are some hot spots that can make us focus on only some of the things Italy has to offer. Most Italian vacations center around Tuscany as they have beautiful scenery and boast a number of wineries. Another area of focus for tourism is around the tip of the peninsula and encompass Sicily and Naples taking you through the southern area along the west side of the country. These are outrageously gorgeous areas of the country and many immigrants came from this area making the Neapolitan and Sicilian stops rich with meaning. I myself am Calabrian and Chef has ties to the Naples region
Once we got a chance to meet the family in the eastern part of the country we got to appreciate new things about the country as a whole. First: Italy, largely, is a mountainous country. Photos of lightly rolling hills in Tuscany and the water rich Venice do not really illustrate how vast the spine that runs down the length of the country is from the Alps down. These mountains range from idyllic to treacherous depending on where you choose to explore.
Another thing we learned by heading to a small hamlet off the beaten path is that North and South are very different in mindsets. The North has the majority of industry - manufacturing being very prevalent and has a long tradition of higher education with some of Europe's oldest universities. The farm dotted south was hit hard after change of social structure and the wars during the early twentieth century leaving further holes in the economic struggle. It is safe to say that the Northern and Southern Italians think they are separate from their neighbor based on the struggles each has had to overcome. With these observations: how people travel, the terrain, and the separate income streams of Italy brought me to an all important fact that is often overlooked unless you happen to be an Italophile. The country is separated into 20 distinct regions each with their own defined governance. Most winos are well versed in the regions but otherwise a general onlooker may not realize the lines and where they are drawn. Each region has its own history, culture, struggles, cuisine, landmarks, and traditions.
I have become best acquainted with the Abruzzo region and it has a charm all its own. The Abruzzo flag is striped with white, blue, and green for the mountains, ocean, and forests that make up this particular region. The seafood is phenomenal and the best meals can be had on a trabocchi - a restaurant literally built on a boardwalk over the ocean. The mountains provide mushrooms and game and the land is ripe for farming.
Abruzzo is considered a southern region based on its history and culture but is geographically central and eastern. Abruzzo is known as the “greenest region in Europe” because almost half of its territory consists of national parks and nature reserves. Boasting the largest mountain outside of the Alps - the Gran Sasso which translates to the Big Rock, a large portion of people that travel to the Abruzzo region are intensely outdoorsy. While I always thought of Italian vacation as zipping over gentle hills through a wine and cheese tour on a Moped, the Abruzzo region is full of hiking, skiing, and proximity to nature.
The culinary traditions of Abruzzo that we were privy to had common threads because the family operates a farm. The majority of the items used were local - from Abruzzo. This is less of a hyper-intentional choice as we see a resurgence in the USA, but they live on the side of mountains and it takes 45 minutes of winding roads to get down. As an established mountain town, the people of Abruzzo are self-sufficient. Goats cheese is common and wonderful, lamb is always an option, tomatoes and fava beans have a season that comes on you like a tsunami and then abruptly washes back out to turn over to the next fruit of the earth.
Abruzzo even has its own ancient grain that is experiencing a revival. The most common ancient grain we hear in mainstream cooking is quinoa - the superfood, nearly perfect for nutrition, that hails from Peru. In Abruzzo - and Abruzzo only - there is an ancient, nutrient packed, low gluten flour that has been reseeded and milled. This is called Farina Solina - or Solina flour. The family chose to plant and harvest this varietal of wheat in the past years. Once it was harvested it was milled and used to make a soft solina bread and pastas. Solina flour has gluten in it but is much easier on digestion than other mass produced flour options. If you want to purchase this type of flour you can only find it from the people that grow it and they will give you a very exact description of which area of Abruzzo and which nature reserve it is closest to. We have, in the past, made pasta with the solina flour, it is slightly sweeter and earthier and does not land like a stone in digestion. When the world calls for a cure, nature is at hand.
Nothing was quite so obvious about why things have a season as when the butcher brought us a pig for Chef to break down with the family butcher. (Let’s digress for one moment - the Family Butcher is not the guy everyone calls for pork chops and has his own butchery shop - this is the cousin that has been selected to learn all the traditional processes of butchery in the Abruzzese style, but he also has a standard 9-5 job.)
The butchery of animals occurs in the late fall, October or November. Of course this makes sense since the animals will be at a mature enough age to produce a higher yield but it is also in preparation for the colder months to come. Making sausages in the sweltering heat of Italy without air conditioning is not an ideal set up. The family butcher was kind enough to show us the ropes despite the off season nature of the request and Chef learned about dried sausages and how to correctly prepare chiffa chaff - a long simmered pork dish somewhere between soup and stew.
There are two personally impactful Abruzzese foods that we have brought back with us and I figure now is a great time to touch on them: Arrosticini and Timbalo.
We are Di Rosco Arrosticini. But what is Arrosticini? Arrosticini is Abruzzese to its core - these are a traditional lamb skewer cooked over a very particular grill: a fornacella. If you do not have a fornacella you can grill them or perhaps sear them over a flame like a marshmallow? But I would not recommend this. The meat needs to be the precise width of the grill, then the grill needs to be a correct temperature - running at a steady heat to cook and caramelize the meat. Arrosticini is everywhere in Abruzzo. The skewers are abundant at the festivals that occur throughout most of August and can be bought in the 10s at the very least. Sometimes the little skewers are served with some sliced bread and peppers like a tiny hors d’oeuvres that you build while on the way to your mouth. We picked up this tradition and have been running at it full force during the second part of 2020 wherein we travelled all over central PA with our fornacella in hand. Our version is a revised recipe since we choose to use pork instead of lamb. Pork being widely available and also, if I will: damn good. Using pork in the same preparation as lamb arrosticini and cooking it over the fornacella allows us to put a foot in both countries while preserving the intention and primal satisfaction of cooking out in open air.
Another quite marvelous dish is called timbalo. Oh have you never heard of timbalo? No? It's a crazy dish that when eaten is akin to savory tiramisu in the literal translation meaning "it lifts you up". The short definition of timbalo is a lasanga made with crepes and not pasta. Halfway through Italy, here we are, making a crepe dish on a mountain in Italy. Isn’t food fun? I found this fascinating - who really started making crepes? Italians can be easily overlooked - their regions and their major imprint on the development of classic cooking techniques - the crepes in timbalo are another “chicken or the egg” question between the French and Italians. To make timbalo you need a few dozen large savory crepes, meat, cheese, tomato and egg. You layer these together and the rest is heaven.
If you are looking to plan an Italian tour when the world opens up, put some of the far away places on your map and shoot for them. Italy has so much to offer and the hideaway spots can bring you a new awareness of tradition and the value in following the ebbs and flows that can easily be washed away in a torrent of changes. Nothing changes so much it can’t get back to the core of a vital and rewarding life.