Tying up loose ends has always been a priority with me. This (occasionally) compulsive behavior of mine was especially evident when I opened Convito Italiano – our original name – in 1980. As a first time business owner, I couldn’t believe all the details that demanded my attention before we could open our doors for business. My partner at the time, Colleen Houlahan and I were driving ourselves – and each other – crazy trying to get ready for the big opening party and the arrival of my Italian partner Paolo Volpara and my culinary mentor (and Paolo’s mother) Wanda Bottino. They were coming to Chicago not only to join in the celebration, but also to support us during our first week in operation. Invites were out, a huge tent was rented and plans were in place. But we somehow couldn’t get past the details. There were what seemed like a million loose ends still “hanging” all around us, both to get ready for the party and for the actual opening of our market.
One day while sitting in our tiny office taking a break from all those details – hooking up the phone, training the staff, getting insurance, ordering all the food, stocking the shelves, etc – I put my head in my hands and said to no one in particular, “My god, life is a series of loose ends – except (taking a deep breath) for the knot in my stomach!” Colleen laughed at that somewhat over-the-top-declaration, as did my husband at the time, Bob. And because he so liked the metaphor, he later submitted it to Life Magazine’s annual “quotes catalogue” delivered at the beginning of each year to Life magazine subscribers. The calendar contained quotes about life for each day of the year. Mine made the cut and sits indelibly in Life’s 1983 Calendar right next to a quote from Nietzsche (“Is not life a hundred times too short for us to bore ourselves?”) Hmmmm…was there some sort of message there?
Years later, I found myself wrapped up in yet another situation where I felt compelled to tie up a loose end, this time regarding my research and travel to Italy. Convito had been open for six years now and all the while I had been travelling back and forth to Italy trying to understand the vastness of this country’s culinary tradition by visiting each and every region. Six years into this project and Abruzzo was now the only region I had not explored. I clearly needed to change that!
Background and research have always been important to me in that understanding the basics tends to give me a conceptual structure on which to build and create. It is certainly possible to open an Italian market in America without having visited all of Italy’s 20 regions, but to understand the how and why regional cuisine developed and to absorb it first hand was a priority for me. It was the process through which I gained the confidence to go beyond simply copying Italian cuisine, but interpreting it and giving it my own signature. And I was lucky enough to have quite a few Italian colleagues and friends who were happy to assist me in accomplishing that goal.
My dear friend Roberta Lai (formerly one of Paolo’s associates in his advertising agency) volunteered to help me tie up the loose end of completing this final regional visit and would escort me to Abruzzo. So one beautiful October morning in 1986 Roberta picked me up (along with my then-partner Colleen) at our hotel in Rome to begin our journey to region number twenty.
Abruzzo is divided into a mountainous area to the west and southwest (the Apennine Mountains) and a coastal area (the Adriatic Sea) to the east. Our destination was L’Aquila – the capital of Abruzzo – approximately a two-hour drive east of Rome. As we entered the region, I was struck by a uniquely soft grey palate that I hadn’t seen before in Italy. The colli (hills) were rocky and rugged though not particularly steep. As we traveled further into the region, the color green began to assert itself, first in the moss that began to cover the grey rocks and then in the trees and shrubbery that spread over the increasingly mountainous landscape. Roberta explained that national parks and nature reserves take up almost one third of the Abruzzo region and the area is often referred to as the greenest region in all of Europe. It was all so lovely and unspoiled and in sharp contrast to the very urban, very cluttered city of Rome that we had just left behind.
A wild, sparsely populated place, Abruzzo remains isolated to this day mostly because of the mountains and hills that cover much of its surface. That isolation is one of the main reasons its cuisine has remained true to its original regional character. Actually two cuisines exist in Abruzzo – one mountainous and the other coastal. The shepherding culture of the mountainous area is known for its robust peasant dishes that almost always feature locally available meats from the very animals that roam the hills and mountains. Lamb, mutton and goat dishes – especially lamb ragu – are found on almost every restaurant menu. Although meat dishes can also be found in the coastal area, fish and shellfish from the Adriatic dominate menus near the sea. Both areas, however, share the tradition of rustic pastas; rich cheeses (many made from sheep’s milk); chewy, delicious breads and hearty red wines.
Lago di Scanno, a tranquil, heart-shaped lake surrounded by dense greenery was a welcome break in our drive. We were struck both by the crisp clear mountain air and the impressive and imposing sweet-chestnut trees with their oblong-toothed leaves that were scattered about the fringes of the lake. Unfortunately, we had just missed the Chestnut Festival where chestnuts are roasted in villages throughout the area. But despite that fact, we still found an abundance of shops that sold those nutty, delicious treats, even if we had not been present for their roasting (and thereby missing one of the great smells of the season).
After another short drive we came to the medieval town of Scanno; a ski village in the winter and a resort in the summer. October was off-season here and old women clad in the traditional black dresses of the region leisurely strolled down narrow streets, some of them knitting as they walked with strands of yarn hanging over their neck like a sling. Some wore printed aprons over their flowing black dresses in various shades of grey and black. It was a strikingly monochromatic but oddly sophisticated look that reminded me of some of the styles I had seen in high-end clothing stores in Milan. Perhaps Georgio Armani came here and was inspired by these peasant women?! It was certainly not impossible.
We stopped at a small hotel for directions and a restaurant suggestion for lunch. To our delight, a little grey haired man came out from behind the reception desk to deliver a passionate lecture on the glories of hotel food and the sometimes-unfair reputation that category of food receives. “Non e vero” (it’s not true) he declared using theatrical hand gestures (that reminded me of the way I talk!) to emphasize his point. He told us that most Scanno restaurants were closed now, that we had simply missed “the season”. His little diatribe was so convincing (and the man so beguiling) we decided to stay at his hotel for our first Abuzzo meal.
Knowing we were in saffron territory I scanned the menu for any dish that contained that precious ingredient which has been cultivated here since the 14th century. Abruzzo was famous for growing an extremely high quality saffron in the nearby Navelli Plain in the province of L’Aquila and I was determined to find out if its reputation was deserved.
I ordered pappardelle with a creamy saffron and pancetta sauce. Sipping on a glass of an Abruzzo white wine (Trebbiano) and waiting for our food to arrive, I pulled out my trusty Abruzzo guidebook and read about saffron. We had all ordered dishes featuring it. Saffron we learned is the most expensive spice in the world, which didn’t surprise me since I was now selling it in our market. The high cost is mainly because the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus cannot be harvested by machine. Human hands are required to pick out the delicate red threads. It takes about 100,00 flowers and 500 hours of labor to yield one kilo of saffron. No wonder the expense. Fortunately, it takes very little saffron to flavor a dish, which I had learned (the hard way) from cooking with it. Using too much saffron in any recipe can result in an intense bitterness. However, my hotel pappardelle was perfect. It was creamy and succulent and highly flavorful without any bitterness whatsoever. Our hotelier watched us eat from across his dining room and the wry smile he could not hide betrayed his satisfaction with how pleased we were with our meal.
Pappardelle with Saffron & Pancetta
1-pound pappardelle pasta
¾ cup cream
½ teaspoon saffron threads
1 small shallot, finely chopped
1/3 pound pancetta, diced into small pieces
1½ tablespoons butter
1 tbsp. olive oil
½ cup grated parmesan
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste
Steep saffron threads in 2 – 3 tablespoons hot water for at least an hour.
Mix the cream with the saffron in water. Add a pinch of salt. Mix well.
Heat the butter with the olive oil in a large pan over low heat. Add the shallots and sauté until soft. Add the pancetta and sauté over medium heat until brown but not crispy. Add the cream and saffron mixture. Cook for 2 – 3 minutes. Add freshly ground pepper and part of the cheese. Mix well making sure cheese has melted.
In the meantime boil the pasta in plenty of salted water. Follow directions for al dente. Drain well.
Mix the pasta with the sauce. Sprinkle with parsley and the rest of the cheese.
We decided it was time to get on our way as we had more towns to visit and more places to see before reaching our final destination for the day, L’Aquila. Sulmona, a small town of ancient origins often described as “the prettiest town in Abuzzo” was the next stop on our journey. We parked our car and walked to Sulmona’s Main Square, Piazza Garabaldi, close to the very well preserved ancient aqueduct built in 1256. Relaxing in a small café near the Palazzo Annunziata we absorbed the Baroque splendor of the Saint Annunziata Church and enjoyed a quick espresso before getting on our way. Dark skies were approaching and we needed to get to our hotel in L’Aquila in time to change for dinner.
We arrived in L’Aquila after dark. We made a quick stop at the hotel and then immediately made our way to Tre Marie which turned out to be a dream restaurant experience combining excellent atmosphere with great service and delicious food. Dating back to the 18th Century, the décor was fit for the kings, queens and great statesmen that had dined here over the centuries. Beautiful paintings framed in soft polished wood covered the walls under an incredibly splendid ceiling made up of intricate mosaic designs. It was all quite regal.
Our waiter could not have been more attentive, which for me sets the tone of the meal. He was helpful in selecting both the dishes we would enjoy that evening and the local wine as well. Of course, we had a bottle of Abruzzo’s most famous wine – Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a medium-bodied, low-acidity red that pairs well with a wide variety of foods. It is made from the grape Montepulciano, which grows quite easily in this region – even in the mountains. Softer and more accessible than either Nebbiolo or Chianti, it is very affordable wine that also ages well. It continues to grow in popularity in the U.S. At Convito it is – and always has been – one of our best sellers.
We savored many excellent dishes that evening, but the one that stands out in my mind is the “Lo Scrigno Delle Tre Marie”, a house specialty. Scrigno means jewel box, and that was the way it was presented – a crespelle-lined bowl filled with a combination of diced chicken, ham, artichokes, scamorze cheese and seasonings that after baking came to our table turned over on a plate like a precious little jewel box. Most people associate crepes (crespelle in Italian) with French cuisine but many traditional Italian dishes feature them – especially in Abruzzo.
We enjoyed another crespelle dish that evening – one with more of a traditional presentation – a rolled crepe filled with a combination of wild mushrooms and spinach. Crepes are so versatile; they can be stuffed, folded, stacked, rolled or even presented like a little jewel box – although I still haven’t figured out that particular trick. Being a house specialty I know the technique was closely guarded and didn’t even ask how they managed to do it!
Today we make several versions of mushroom crepes at Convito. The one below features spinach and mushrooms in a tomato cream sauce. Crepes make for a great brunch item as well as a main course for lunch or dinner.
Crespelle con Funghi
(serves 2 or 4)
This recipe is the filling for 4 crepes, which will serve one crepe for 4 people or 2 for two people. To increase the number of filled crepes, increase the stuffing amounts.
Make 4 crepes from a basic crepe recipe before you begin. Set aside.
1 cup of sauce – can be tomato, tomato cream, béchamel or four cheese sauce
1 ½ tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons finely diced shallot
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
10 ounces mushrooms, thinly sliced regular mushrooms or cremini)
2 ½ cups baby spinach leaves
½ cup grated parmesan
Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot and thyme and sauté for approximately 2 minutes until shallot is soft. Add the mushrooms, turn the heat to medium-high and sauté for approximately 5 minutes until the mushrooms have softened and are beginning to brown. Add the spinach and sauté until the spinach wilts – approximately 3 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and set ingredients aside. Save a small amount for garnish.
Smear a small oven proof-baking dish with butter. Turn broiler on.
Place 4 crepes on a working surface. Distribute the mushroom combination between the four crepes arranging in a long line on each crepe. Sprinkle the filling with the parmesan then roll crepe up to form a cylinder. Gently arrange the crepes in the buttered baking dish and place under the broiler for approximately 2 to 3 minutes until the crepes are hot.
Tomato-cream sauce should be hot.
Remove and place crepes on individual plates. Drizzle with tomato-cream sauce and garnish with mushrooms and spinach.
We began yet another discussion on regional cuisine over dinner that evening. Roberta, our real Italian, was fascinated with my interest in studying the regional distinctions of her country’s cuisine. Since I was visiting my 20th and final region I was in a mood to reminisce about the superb education I received under the tutelage of my partners Paolo Volpara and Wanda Bottino. Roberta was especially curious to know how we used all that regional knowledge in Convito’s restaurants and markets.
Colleen explained how the market side of our business benefited from that knowledge. “We don’t organize all our grocery products and deli items regionally but with some products like extra virgin olive oil, regional distinctions are relevant – like olive oil from Tuscany, which has a very peppery taste – distinctly different than the buttery olive oil from Liguria. We describe those regional distinctions in our signage and our olive oil pamphlet to help our customers decide what oil best fits their taste or the dishes they will be using it in.”
Some applications of this acquired knowledge have been more successful than others. Detailed descriptions of olive oil and of Convito homemade sauces fall into the successful category. Organizing our wine department by regions, however, turned out to be too confusing for customers. When a customer wants a hearty red wine and doesn’t know Italian regions, they were overwhelmed in their search. So eventually we decided it was much more efficient to organize the wines by types – hearty reds, medium-bodied reds and so on. It is now possible to find a Piemontese Barbaresco or Barolo sitting next to a Veneto Amarone or a Tuscan Brunello di Montelcino – all hearty reds. Different in taste but in the same category. We identify particular flavors and characteristic by descriptive signage just below the wine. And we still identify the region in that signage for those customers who either know Italy well or are simply interested in where exactly the wine comes from.
The next morning we awoke to a spectacular view of the Gran Sasso, the highest peak in the Apennine range of mountains. L’Aquila, a city built on the bed of an ancient lake right in the middle of the mountains, was still in the throes of restoring buildings and monuments affected by the seismic activity of 1985. Abruzzo is very susceptible to earthquakes. In fact Italy is one of the most seismically active countries in all of Europe and we were in the very heart of that susceptible territory.
After a long leisurely walk around town, our first stop that morning was the fountain of 99 conduits; a 13th century landmark that had recently been restored to its unique trapezoidal design with a whole line of stone faces spouting water. The walls surrounding the fountain were of handsome polished pink and white stone. That same pink and white stone was the material that also covered the façade of Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio considered one of the greatest gems of L’Aquila – a masterpiece of Abruzzese Romanesque and Gothic architecture. We spent much time admiring its beauty.
Near the end of the day we visited the Basilica of San Bernadino. It was built in honor of Saint Bernadino of Siena between 1454 and 1472. Behind the Basilica in a somewhat dark lower area of the building, monks sat busily painting some extraordinary ceramic platters. The images they painted were copies of old pastoral or religious scenes. I couldn’t resist. I purchased a large platter of a peasant woman with a lamb at her side in muted tones of greens, blues and earthy browns. It now hangs on my living room wall and is a constant reminder of my journey to this most lovely, serene region.
After a long day of touring this fascinating city, we sat down for dinner that evening to enjoy another delicious meal and to continue our very intense and interesting discussion on regional cuisine. But first things first, it was time to order. Of course, I chose the lamb ragu served on chitarra pasta – a classic Abruzzese combination. Chitarra pasta, which means “guitar” in Italian, and is another signature of this region. It is basically square-cut spaghetti that has been rolled over a box strung with metal guitar strings creating the strait-sided strands.
Abruzzo’s valleys and plateaus provide some of the country’s finest hard durum wheat and semolina. Pasta from this region is exported to all parts of the world. Convito sells chitarra pasta as well as many other different cuts from one of this region’s excellent producers – Rustichella d’Abruzzo, a family business that was established in 1929 in the small town of Penne in Abruzzo. It continues to this day making fantastic artisan pasta as well as other fine products like sauces and holiday items like their excellent panettone.
The lamb ragu was as delicious as promised. The deep, intense flavor of the lamb made for one of the best meat sauces I have ever had. “Nothing says Abruzzese more than a lamb ragu” my guidebook stated.
Chitarra with Lamb Ragu
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ pound lamb stew meat – cut up into 8 – 12 pieces
freshly ground pepper
½ cup carrot, finely chopped
½ cup celery, finely chopped
1 cup onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, diced
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
2 teaspoons fresh thyme. chopped
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup red wine
1 28-ounce San Marzano tomatoes, broken into pieces
1-pound chitarra pasta cooked al dente
grated pecorino cheese (parmesan can be substituted)
Heat oil in a dutch oven over medium high heat.
Season lamb pieces with salt and pepper
Add lamb to olive oil and cook, searing all sides, for approximately 5 – 10 minutes
Transfer lamb to a platter
Turn down heat to medium and add the carrots, celery, onion, garlic, parsley, thyme and red pepper flakes. Sauté for about 4 minutes, scraping up all the browned bits as you sauté. (You may need to use a little more olive oil)
Return lamb and any lamb juices to the dutch oven
Add wine and turn heat to medium-high. Reduce for about 4 – 5 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and bring to a rapid simmer. Turn heat to low and simmer for approximately 2 hours until the meat is tender.
Using two forks shred the lamb in the sauce and stir well to combine.
Cook the pasta and mix with the ragu. Top with grated cheese and a little olive oil.
We continued our discussion – this time focusing on how regional diversity came about. Not just in Abruzzo but in all of Italy’s 20 regions. Geography, I believed, is one of the main factors affecting a region’s cuisine. Roberta also reminded us that a region’s proximity to another country- like Valle D’Aosta’s border with France or Trentino Alto Adige’s with Austria, significantly impacted flavors and ingredients as well. The culinary cuisine of France and Austria would naturally have an influence on the culinary identity of the Italian region that each country touched.
Especially interesting to me as I traversed Italy over the past six years with my partner, Paolo Volpara, was the effect that invaders from other countries factored into the overall identity of a region. Over the centuries almost every corner of Italy had been occupied at one time or another other. Some invaders just passed through while others stayed for longer periods of time (some permanently), substantially impacting not only the cooking of the invaded area but also its traditions and culture. Many different peoples – the Etruscans, the Romans, the Greeks, the North Africans, the Phoenicians – to name just some – had an influence on Italian cuisine.
Of course product availability is another factor in regional culinary development. Foodstuffs grown or cultivated in a region naturally become a part of that area’s cooking. It was certainly the case with the delicious saffron lunch that we so happily devoured at our first Abruzzo meal in Scanno – a product cultivated very near to that village.
All of those influences made for amazing regional diversity and for a most interesting cuisine. “We’re not just about pasta and pizza,” Roberta commented. “Certainly not”, I replied.
We finished our last drop of wine and I realized my visit to Abruzzo was coming to an end. It had been such a pleasurable trip filled with great food, great sightseeing and marvelous conversations about my favorite topic – regional Italy. And it was also a personally significant one because it had tied up a “loose end,” the completion of my quest to visit explore, taste and try to understand all of Italy’s twenty regions.
There is something cathartic for me when I finally tie up a “loose end,” even though I know that another one lies just around the corner. Putting a project to bed is incredibly satisfying, but in this case I also felt a little melancholy. Though my culinary education was far from complete (in some ways it was just beginning) and I would return to Italy many times, this regional project fundamentally changed me; perhaps even more than opening my business, which was the reason for doing it in the first place. I had travelled extensively during the years I lived with my family in the UK, but I had never immersed myself in a place (or a topic) as comprehensively as I had in this regional Italian exploration. That sort of deep intellectual pursuit is not something that happens often once you’ve grown up and left university, and I knew I would miss it dearly. I like to think of this particular “loose-end-trip” as a sort of final exam, the conclusion to an incredible history, cultural and culinary class that any university would be proud to have on their roster. It really was quite a ride!