The Province of L’Aquila is the largest, most mountainous and least densely populated province of the Abruzzo region of southern Italy. The outstanding feature of the Abruzzo region, one that distinguishes it from Tuscany, is its three national parks and 30 nature reserves. It is why the area is known as the “green heart of Italy”. However, the province has been badly affected over the years by earthquakes, particularly the capital city of L’Aquila and its surrounding areas.
The province is also known for its many castles, fortresses and medieval hill towns. The province’s two major cities, L’Aquila and Avezzano, have had rapid economic expansion since the late 20th century, with growth in the areas of transportation, manufacturing, telecommunications and the computer industry.
Throughout most of the 20th century, there were serious population declines in the rural areas, with the near collapse of the province’s agricultural economy, as people moved to cities for work. Since the founding of the Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga and Majella national parks and the Sirente-Velino Regional Park, tourists have been attracted to the mountainous landscapes. Tourism and associated services have boosted the economy and begun to reverse its decline.
The province of L’Aquila is dotted with ruins of ancient pagan temples and Roman settlements. A well-known city landmark (below) is the Fontana Luminosa (“Luminous Fountain”), a sculpture of two women bearing large jars, that was built in the 1930s.
L’Aquila is a good base for skiing in the Apennines. The two most popular resorts are Campo Felice and Campo Imperator. Both resorts offer routes for downhill skiing, as well as for cross country. Ski season usually lasts from December to April.
The Province of L’Aquila often organizes open-air celebrations and folk festivals that recall the old traditions and offer the chance to taste traditional local products. Abruzzi’s cuisine is rich in local specialties, such as red garlic, sugar-coated almonds, goat cheese, lentils from Santo Stefano di Sessanio, mortadella from Campotosto and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC wines.
The famous “Maccheroni all chitarra” is amongst the best known in the Abruzzi cuisine. The pasta dough, made of eggs and durum wheat, is cut into strips using a “chitarra” (translated literally as “guitar”). This equipment is made up of a wooden frame, strung with parallel steel strands, and by pushing the sheets of pasta dough through with a rolling-pin, the characteristic shape of chitarra is obtained. Chitarra is served with various Abruzzo sauces that include: pork, goose or lamb ragout.
Abruzzo side dishes include, “sagne e faggioli”, bean soup with traditional thin pasta noodles made from flour and water, flavored with a thin sauce made from fresh tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and spicy peppers. Other well-known Abruzzo dishes, include “gnocchi carrati”, flavored with bacon, egg and ewes-milk cheese. “Scripelli” crepes are served in a soup or used to form a soufflé dish and are served with a little ragout or stuffed with chicken liver, meat balls, hard-boiled eggs or a fresh ewe’s-milk cheese.
Ravioli can also be stuffed with sugar and cinnamon and served with a thick pork ragout. The “Pastuccia” is a stew of polenta that is served with sausage, egg and grated ewe’s-milk cheese and “pappicci” are thin pasta noodles in a tomato sauce.
Roast lamb has several variations, such as “arrosticini”, thin wooden skewers with pieces of lamb, cooked over an open fire and often served with bruschetta – which is roasted bread rubbed with garlic and topped with extra-virgin olive oil. Pecora al cotturo is lamb stuffed with herbs and cooked in a copper pot and “agnello cacio e oro” is a rustic fricassee.
Pizzas, from the Easter Pizza, above, (a cake with cheese and pepper) to “fiadoni” that is often enriched by a casing of pastry and filled with everything imaginable: eggs, fresh cheeses, ricotta and vegetables with all the flavorings and spices that the mind can only imagine.
The spreadable sausage from Teramano flavored with nutmeg, liver sausage from the mountains, ewe’s-milk cheeses and mozzarella cheese are all local favorites.
Traditional homemade desserts include “Ferrarelle”, aniseed wafers, “cicerchiata”, balls of fried dough joined into ring shapes with heated honey, “croccante” a type of nougat made with almonds and caramelized sugar, flavored with lemon, “mostaccioli” biscuits sweetened with cooked must; “pepatelli” biscuits of ground almonds and honey; macarons and the airy “Sise delle monache”, triangular pieces of sponge cake filled with confectioners cream; almonds and chocolate.
Prosciutto and Fichi
The prosciutto from near L’Aquila is a bit saltier and less sweet than the prosciutto from Parma or San Daniele.
Slices of prosciutto crudo
Fresh, ripe figs
Large basil leaves
Slice the figs in half (if they are the smaller ones or in quarters if they are the larger variety). Wrap the ham and basil around the figs. Arrange on a serving platter and drizzle with balsamic vinegar..
Swiss Chard with Borlotti Beans (Verdure con Fagioli)
2 cups dried borlotti or cranberry beans, soaked overnight and drained
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
7 lbs Swiss chard, trimmed, leaves and tender stems roughly chopped
1/3 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon. crushed red chili flakes
12 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
4 stalks celery, cut into 1⁄4″ pieces
3 carrots, cut into 1⁄4″ pieces
1 medium yellow onion, cut into 1⁄4″ pieces
2 cups chicken stock
Boil beans and 6 cups water in a 6-qt. saucepan. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook, covered, until the beans are tender, about 2 hours. Drain beans; set aside.
Fill a saucepan with salted water and bring to a boil. Add the chard and cook until wilted and the stems are tender, 4–6 minutes; drain and squeeze dry.
Add 1⁄4 cup oil and the chili flakes to the same saucepan and heat over medium. Cook garlic, celery, carrots and onion until golden, 8–10 minutes.
Add the reserved beans and chard, the stock, salt and pepper and simmer until the stock is slightly reduced, 6–8 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish and drizzle with the remaining oil.
Ragu’ all’Abruzzese (Abruzzese-style meat sauce)
3 tablespoons cooking oil
1/2 lb boneless beef chuck roast, cut into 3 or 4 large pieces
1/2 lb boneless pork shoulder, cut into 3 or 4 large pieces
1/2 lb boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 3 or 4 large pieces
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 pounds chopped canned tomatoes, with their juices (about 7 1/2 cups)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves finely chopped
Warm the cooking oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Season the pieces of meat with a little salt and pepper and add them to the pot.
Brown for 3 to 4 minutes, then turn the pieces over to brown the other side, another 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the pieces to a deep plate or bowl.
Press the tomatoes through a food mill. Discard the solids. Set the tomatoes aside.
Return the Dutch oven to medium heat and add the extra virgin olive oil. Stir in the onion and garlic, reduce the heat to medium-low, and sauté for about 5 minutes, or until the onion is shiny and beginning to soften.
Pour in the tomatoes, raise the heat to medium-high, and bring to a simmer.
Return the meat to the pot and reduce the heat to medium low or low to maintain a gentle simmer.
Cover partially and let the sauce cook, stirring it from time to time, for about 3 hours, or until the meat is very tender and the sauce is thickened.
Add a splash or two of water, if the sauce thickens too much before the meat is done. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
Turn off the heat. Remove the meat from the pot, shred it and return it to the sauce.
Note: The ragu may be stored in a tightly lidded container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months.
Makes about 1 1/2 quarts.
This sauce is traditionally served over pappardelle or chitarra pasta.
Italian waffle cookies, or pizzelle (which literally means small pizzas), are quite popular in the Abruzzo region of Italy. You can add cocoa with the sugar and make a chocolate version, or spread some hazelnut cream on one and top with another.
Makes about 36 pizzelle
1¾ cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ cup white granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup unsalted butter
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons anise (or other extract)
Preheat the pizzelle maker. In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
In another bowl, combine the butter and sugar and mix until smooth. Add the anise and then the eggs, one at a time, until well blended. Pour in the dry ingredients and mix well.
Lightly spray the pizzelle maker with vegetable oil (unless you have a non-stick version).
Drop the batter by the tablespoon onto the hot pizzelle iron and cook, gauging the timing (usually less than a minute) according to the manufacturer’s instructions or until golden.
Serve with your favorite toppings.
The region of Abruzzo is hilly and mountainous and stretches from the Apennines to the Adriatic Sea. In this part of the Adriatic, the long sandy beaches are replaced by steep and rocky coasts. L’Aquila is the regional capital. Pescara, Chieti and Teramo are other important cities.
Abruzzo boasts the title of “Greenest Region in Europe” thanks to one third of its territory, the largest in Europe, being set aside as national parks and protected nature reserves. In the region there are three national parks, one regional park and 38 protected nature reserves. These ensure the survival of 75% of all of Europe’s living species and are also home to some rare species, such as the small wading dotterel, golden eagle, Abruzzo chamois, Apennine wolf and Marsican brown bear. Abruzzo is also home to Calderone, Europe’s southernmost glacier.
The Abruzzo region has two types of climate: the first is strongly influenced by the presence of Abruzzo’s Apennines range. Coastal areas have a Mediterranean climate with hot dry summers and mild winters, rainy hills and a climate where temperatures progressively decrease with increasing altitude. Precipitation is also strongly affected by the presence of the Apennines mountain ridges with increased rain on the slopes of the mountains in the region.
Until a few decades ago, Abruzzo was a region of poverty in Southern Italy. Since the 1950s, Abruzzo has had steady economic growth. In 1951, the Abruzzo per capita income or GDP was 53% of that of Northern Italy, the nation’s richest region. By 1971, Abruzzo was at 65% and, by 1994, the per capita income was at 76% of Northern Italy’s per capita income, giving Abruzzo the highest per capita GDP of Southern Italy and surpassing the growth of every other region in Italy. The construction of superhighways from Rome to Teramo (A24) and Rome to Pescara (A25) opened Abruzzo to easy access. Abruzzo also attained higher per capita education levels and greater productivity growth than the rest of the South.
The 2009 L’Aquila earthquake led to a sharp economic slowdown. However, according to statistics at the end of 2010, it seems that the economy of Abruzzo is recovering, despite the negative data regarding employment. At the end of 2010, Abruzzo’s growth was placed fourth among the Italian regions with the highest annual growth rates after Lazio, Lombardy and Calabria.
Abruzzo’s industrial sector expanded rapidly, especially in mechanical engineering, transportation equipment and telecommunications. Both pure and applied research are carried out in the region where there are major institutes and factories involved in research, especially, in the fields of pharmaceuticals, biomedicine, electronics, aerospace and nuclear physics. The industrial infrastructure is spread throughout the region in industrial zones, the most important of which are Val Pescara, Val Sangro, Val Trigno, Val Vibrata and Conca del Fucino.
A further activity worthy of note is seaside and mountain tourism, which is of considerable importance to the economy of the region. In the past decade, tourism has increased due to Abruzzo’s wealth of castles and medieval towns, especially around L’Aquila. Beach-goers also flock to places like Tortoreto, Giulianova, Silvi Marina, Roseto and, further south, Ortona, Vasto and San Salvo. Ski resorts are equally popular.
Agriculture has succeeded in modernizing and offering higher-quality products. The mostly small, agricultural properties produce wine, cereals, sugar beet, potatoes, olives, vegetables, fruit and dairy products. Traditional products are saffron and liquorice. Most famous in the wine world is Abruzzo’s Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo has earned a reputation as being one of the most widely exported DOC classed wine in Italy.
Abruzzo has a rich culinary tradition, with various traditions attached to each province.
Battered and fried zucchini blooms, spit-roasted scamorza cheese, vinegar-poached lobster, salame di pecora (a rare sheep’s meat salami), crepes loaded with cheese and vegetables in a rich mutton broth, hearty ragus, ricotta cheese drizzled with honey and dusted with saffron powder .… are just a few of the complex and elegant flavors to be found on Abruzzi tables.
Ragus are a generalized term for any type of meat-based sauce. Ragus are heavily associated with the cooking of Southern Italy, as well, and seem to have begun their migration southward from the Abruzzi region.
This is a cheese-loving region and mozzarella and scamorza take center stage on the dairy scene. Both cow’s milk cheeses are young, mild, creamy and sweet with smooth textures and a stringiness that allows them to hold up equally well in baked dishes or on their own as table cheeses.
The maccheroni alla chitarra are highly renowned (homemade pasta cut on a machine with thin steel blades) and scrippelle are thin strips of pasta eaten in soup. On the coast, most first courses are fish-based, often made with tomato to enhance the taste of “poor man’s fish,” that are caught off the shores of ancient fishing villages.
As for second courses, a typical recipe is scapece, which is pickled fried fish. Guazzetto or fish broth is also popular in coastal towns. Other than sea fare, one will find plenty of lamb, kid and mutton on the dinner table, while pork is used for prosciutto, lonza, ventricina and other typical salamis that are produced locally. Abruzzi lamb, in general, is considered superior in flavor to other lamb found elsewhere because of the animals’ mountain-grazed diets rich in herbs.
Among the desserts, often made with almonds and honey, you will find nougat or torrone; confetti (typical sugared almonds) and cicerchiata, small balls of fried dough covered in honey.
Traditional Recipes from Abuzzo
Potato Soup with Saffron
- 1 ¼ lb potatoes
- 10 oz cannarozzi – spaghetti cut into small pieces
- 1/2 onion, diced
- 1 carrot, diced
- 1 celery stalk, diced
- 1 teaspoon Saffron threads
- 2 ½ oz extra virgin olive oil
- Celery leaves for garnish
Lightly sauté the onion, carrot and celery in the olive oil. As soon as the mixture has cooled, add the saffron, mix well and then let rest to dissolve the saffron.
Boil and peel the potatoes and cut them into chunks.
Add 8 ¼ cups of water to the pot containing the saffron mixture and then salt to taste. Bring to a boil and add the pasta. When the pasta is cooked, add the potatoes. Heat and serve garnished with celery leaves.
Timballo di Crespelle
This recipe is often served at wedding lunches, where it generally follows the soup course.
For the crespelle (crepes):
- 50g [2 oz] all-purpose flour
- Olive oil, for the pan
- 3 eggs
- 6 tablespoons water
For the filling:
- 125g [4 oz] ground meat
- 100g [3 1/2 oz] spinach
- 75g [2 1/2 oz] mozzarella cheese, sliced
- 20g [1 scant oz] butter
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 artichokes
- 2 tablespoons grated Grana or Parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
- 1 chicken liver
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk
To make the filling.
Mince the chicken liver and combine it with the ground meat.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a saucepan and gently brown the ingredients over moderate heat for 3 minutes. Set aside.
Clean the spinach, blanch in a little salted water for 5 minutes; drain, squeeze out any excess water and lightly cook it with the butter for 4 minutes. Set aside.
Clean and trim the artichokes, discard the tough outer leaves and trim off the tips; cut in half, discard the inner fuzz and slice them. Sprinkle with the parsley and a dash of salt and cook in a saucepan with 3 tablespoons olive oil for 20 minutes, moistening with a little water, if need be. Set aside.
Break the egg into a mixing bowl, add the milk and egg yolk and whisk with a fork. Set aside
To make the crespelle.
Put the flour, eggs and 6 tablespoons water into a mixing bowl and beat with a fork. Take a small frying pan, the bottom should be as wide as the ovenproof dish to be used for the timballo, and heat a little olive oil in it over a moderate to low heat.
Place 2 tablespoons batter into the pan, tilting to make sure it spreads out to cover the bottom; let it set and then flip. When the crespelle is ready, remove it from the pan and continue until all the batter has been used, greasing the pan each time with a little oil.
To assemble the timballo.
Butter an ovenproof dish and lay a crespelle on the bottom.
Make separate layers of sliced mozzarella, meat, spinach and artichokes, separating each with a crepe, adding a sprinkling of Grana cheese each time and a couple of tablespoons of the egg and milk mixture.
Make sure there are at least 2 layers of each ingredient, cover with another crespelle and sprinkle with the remaining cheese and egg-milk mixture.
Place the dish in the oven and bake at 220°C/425°F for 30 minutes.
Penne with Abruzzi-Style Lamb Ragu
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup chopped onion
- 2 ounces thinly sliced pancetta, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
- 1/2 pound boneless lamb, cut into very fine dice
- Coarse salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- One 28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped, with their juices
- 1 pound penne pasta
- 1/3 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving
Put the oil and onion in a large skillet and cook over moderately high heat, stirring frequently, until the onion is pale gold. Add the pancetta and rosemary and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pancetta fat is rendered; the pancetta should remain soft.
Add the lamb and cook until browned, 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and stir. Add the wine and simmer until evaporated, 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and simmer gently, stirring from time to time, until the fat begins to separate from the sauce, 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, fill a large pot with 4 quarts of water and bring to a boil. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of coarse salt, cover and return to a boil.
Add the pasta to the pot and stir rapidly with a wooden spoon. Cover and bring back to a boil. Uncover and cook the pasta, stirring frequently, until it is al dente.
Drain the pasta and immediately transfer it to a warmed bowl. Toss with the lamb sauce and the 1/3 cup of grated cheese. Serve at once, passing additional cheese at the table.
But among Abruzzo’s desserts, Parrozzo is the most remarkable. In ancient times, Abruzzo peasants made cornmeal bread in the shape of a dome and baked it in a wood-fired oven. They called this “pan rozzo” meaning ‘unrefined bread,’ as opposed to the regular and more expensive white flour bread eaten at the time only by higher classes. At the turn of the 19th century, pastry chef Luigi D’Amico re-invented that recipe by using eggs instead of cornmeal to obtain the bread’s golden hue. He kept the dome shape and topped it with a dark chocolate coating to reproduce the bread’s charred crust.
- 2 cups 70% dark chocolate
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup sweet almonds
- 10 bitter almonds
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 5 eggs, separated
Blanch almonds in boiling water and peel off the husk, and grind them with 2 tablespoons of sugar in a processor. Work butter with a fork, add the remaining sugar and the egg yolks and whisk well. Fold in the ground almonds and then the flour and cornstarch. Beat the egg whites in a mixer until soft peaks form and then and fold into the almond mixture.
Pour mixture in a buttered Bundt pan or dome-shaped cake mold and bake at 450° F for 45 minutes.
Melt the chocolate in a double boiler and once the parrozzo has cooled, spread the chocolate sauce over the entire surface. Allow the chocolate to set before cutting.