Over the past few weeks, I've shared a series of grilling recipes that span a number of cuisines but all use the same modified charcoal grill setup that I designed for optimal skewer cookery. From Turkish-style chicken wings to miniaturized al pastor, I've been on a roll, as far as cooking meat on sticks is concerned. Other than having to wrap a few bricks in aluminum foil, none of the recipes have involved a ton of work. But none of the skewers can compete with the restraint and simplicity of arrosticini Abruzzesi.
The mountainous region of Abruzzo, located east of Rome, is steeped in the rich shepherding tradition of Italy. Unlike other livestock, sheep and goats can handle the uneven terrain of the Apennine mountains, which run down the spine of the peninsula. Life in Abruzzo owes a great deal sheep. The tradition of transumanza, the seasonal, cyclical movement of flocks of sheep from the mountains to grazing pastures, has left its mark on the land—the paths along which sheep have traveled for centuries still exist, and are called tratturi—but also shaped the cuisine, particularly the cheeses and the quintessential meat dishes of the region. Even the name of one of the local grape varietals, pecorino, is derived from the Italian word for sheep—pecora. So, needless to say, the people of Abruzzo know what they're doing when it comes to cooking with lamb and mutton, and arrosticini are a great example of that.
Arrosticini are made by threading pieces of mutton (sheep that, like me, have gotten on in years and can no longer be called lambs) onto skewers, seasoning them simply with salt, and grilling them over charcoal on long, narrow, channel-like grills called canaline (canale is the Italian word for "channel" or "canal"). Eating arrosticini is a communal affair, with people gathering together to stuff themselves with juicy mutton. I messaged an Abruzzese friend when I began working on these skewers, just to make sure there weren't any secret ingredients—like a spritz of white wine that I had seen in one YouTube video—or techniques I needed to know about. He responded: "No wine, no seasonings, just meat and salt. You burp it out for a couple of days." Can't get more straightforward than that.
Even with such a simple process, I needed to make some adjustments to develop an arrosticini recipe that can work for home cooks outside of Abruzzo. First and foremost, I had to substitute lamb for the traditional mutton, which is both hard to find at butcher counters and more intense in flavor than most people are accustomed to.
Lamb shoulder makes for a good replacement. Try to find a shoulder roast that still has a fat cap on it. Start by trimming away this fat cap, and then cutting the fat into small pieces that will get threaded onto the skewers to keep them juicy and rich.
I then cut the meat into small pieces, making sure to trim off and discard silver skin and sinew along the way. I thread the lamb onto skewers, alternating every few pieces of meat with one piece of fat. Because lamb in the States is so lean, I give the skewers a light brushing of olive oil to provide a little extra fat, before seasoning them with salt and pepper (I know this is breaking from the "no seasonings" instructions my friend gave, but I like pepper on my lamb, sorry).
Once they're seasoned, simply perch the arrosticini over charcoal, using the brick channel setup that I mentioned earlier. This rig is essentially an easy, low-budget canalina. As with my other meat-on-a-stick recipes, turn the skewers constantly to cook the lamb evenly, and manage any flare-ups caused by dripping lamb fat.
Once the meat is lightly charred and cooked through, and the fat has rendered and crisped slightly, the arrosticini are ready to go. Get them off the grill, and let them rest for a minute or two so you don't burn your mouth with molten lamb fat. Close your eyes, picture yourself in the mountains of Abruzzo, and bask in the beautiful simplicity of grilled arrosticini lamb skewers.