My friends and I set out for our day in Abruzzo on a rainy, foggy, downright chilly morning in Rome. It was a straight shot out on the autostrada, and within 40 minutes we had hit the Abruzzese border, bidding Lazio farewell in order to immerse ourselves in the foods, sights, and countryside of a region that is blissfully off the well-beaten tourist track.
In no time we reached Sulmona, a pretty little city known as the birthplace of the Roman poet Ovid and the home of the candies known as confetti. The rain had stopped and bits of sky were starting to peek out of the low-hanging clouds. I was told that the entire city would be filled with the sweet aroma of the confetti factories but I wasn't prepared for the overwhelming perfume of wisteria, as the sun gradually emerged and warmed the blossoming vines. The mountains revealed themselves from behind the fog, the smell of wood-burning stoves pierced the air, and the bustling little town suddenly came alive.
We started off by visiting the factory, or fabbrica, of Confetti Pelino, marveling at the elaborate arrangements of confetti "flowers" (above) and stocking up on some sweet candied almonds. Walking the length of compact, pretty little Sulmona was a breeze, and after visiting the medieval statue of Ovid, we ventured into the busy Saturday morning market, where whole chickens and gigantic porchetta roasted on rotating spits right in front of us and the impossibly tiny artichokes (right) and early spring strawberries almost made me cry.
After Sulmona, we headed north, traveling through countryside so beautiful, I was sure my heart would stop. We were deep within this portion of the Apennines, and thank goodness someone else was doing the driving because I don't do so well at 4,000 feet. But the peaks of the Gran Sasso are not to be missed, not even by an acrophobic like myself. Up, up, up and then gingerly across narrow mountain passes we went, each turn revealing another snowy peak looming above and another empty, wild valley below. We finally stopped at our lunch destination: Sapori di Campagna, an agriturismo not far from the small village of Ofena.
The kitchen of this small stone farmhouse is a marvel. There's no ordering, you simply eat what they made that day, and it is guaranteed to be good. We were led with a smile into a rustic, comfy-chic, wood-beamed dining room and seated across from a crackling fire. After that, the food simply appeared, plate after plate of local delicacies, each one better than the last and a masterpiece of balanced simplicity.
The antipasti came as a dazzling procession of regional flavors. There were locally cured meats, including boar salami and Abruzzo's own prosciutto; slices of warm frittata studded with slender wild asparagus; tiny fried, meatless "polpettini" (meatballs) of faro and olive, flavored and tinted with the local Zafferano Di L'Aquila and topped with a super-concentrated, chunky ragu of tomato; bruschetta of fennel-spiked sausage, both the bread and sausage baked together until they had almost become one, the entire surface slicked with a thin veil of homemade quince jam; fresh sheep ricotta with a fiery red jelly of peperoncino that made us dab our eyes.
As soon as one set of plates was cleared away another magically appeared, with a few thoughtful pauses in between to allow us to savor an excellent bottle of inky 2006 Montepulciano D'Abruzzo produced only a few miles away. After an epic nine—yes, nine—courses of antipasti, we decided on pasta for our final course: handmade spaghetti tossed with more of those wild asparagus and a quivering, oozy "bauletto," or "little chest" of thin pasta encasing ricotta and a spring lamb ragu with a touch of tomato.
Dessert was nothing more than the first, fresh, perfect strawberries of the season in a neat pile. There was no choice but to surrender to a huge food coma, and take lots of pictures of the mountain vistas on the way home. The inevitable traffic jam on the ring road leading back to Rome gave us plenty of time to plan our next visit to lovely, unspoiled Abruzzo.
For more information in English on the region of Abruzzo, visit http://www.regione.abruzzo.it/turismo/en/index.html
About the author: Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York City and the author of Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. She is currently in Rome doing research for her next book and further exploring her passions for Italian food.