Ciao a Tutti! It’s time for Italian Food, Wine & Travel and this month we are touring the Abruzzo region of Italy. Abruzzo is located in central Italy and is known for its surrounding mountains (65% of its terrain is mountainous), verdant landscapes, abundant vineyards, olive groves, and beaches. It’s a heavenly combination of mountain and sea with a cost of living 30-70% less than the more popular regions of Tuscany and Umbria. I’m enthralled and ready to pack our bags and board the first Alitalia flight heading for Leonardo da Vinci Airport.
The cuisine of Abruzzo has remained rather unique as the surrounding mountains isolated the region from international influences until the 20th Century. One of the region’s signature dishes is maccheroni alla chitarra, a pasta served with a tomato-based sauce flavored with peppers and including meatballs from pork, goose or lamb. The pasta is made by pressing the pasta dough through a chitarra (a “guitar” which actually looks like a rectangular xylophone), which forms long and thin square noodles similar to spaghetti. Alternatively, buy a good brand of dry pasta, which is what I did. My first attempt at this regional dish was a complete failure. I used a humongous onion and undercooked it, under seasoned the tomato-based sauce, and then added flavorless mini-meatballs to the mixture. I was completely deflated since pastas are one of my specialties and generally receive rave reviews from Sous Chef, the kids, and our neighbors. To make matters worse, the wine pairings were a complete flop also. The 2009 Barba I Ivasari Old Vines Montepulciano d’Abruzzo needed a piece of meat to soften the rustic taste of its dark fruit and slight astringency, and the Barone Cornacchia was flabby and without adequate character. And as if I needed another dose of Lady Luck’s scorn, in the process of photographing the Cantaloupe and Prosciutto appetizer that preceded the pasta, I knocked over a photography light which took with it a filled wine glass and wine bottle. Glass was everywhere, Sous Chef expressed his displeasure in vivid terms, and the kids went running for salvation in the other room. Needless to say, there was no joy in our household and “Abruzzo” became synonymous with misery.
I dwelled on the disaster for the better part of a week until I found an acceptable rationalization. I just hate it when recipes use quantities and not measurements. Just what does “one onion” really mean? Apparently it did not mean humongous in the case of the maccheroni alla chitarra recipe. And it has become painfully obvious that victuals in Europe frequently bear little resemblance in size, flavor, and texture to similar products at home. So after a week passed I decided it was time to consult Lidia Bastianich for some much needed cooking confidence and succor. Fortunately, in Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy there was a section dedicated to Abruzzo that contained a similar pasta sauce as used in the maccheroni alla chitarra. Armed with new grocery and wine lists, I visited Total Wine and Whole Foods, returning home with the supplies and a grim determination to succeed where before I had failed. Even the kids seemed to have their “game faces” on when supervising the second effort.
Lidia’s meat sauce is made with freshly ground pork and our butcher at Whole Foods ground quality pork chops for me. No little tasteless meatballs this time! The meat is browned with onions, carrots, and celery and simmers with wine, San Marzano tomatoes, and chicken stock for about three hours, resulting in one of the best meat sauces I’ve ever tasted. Sous Chef, the kids, and our neighbors all agreed and I felt the warm glow of cooking redemption.
Abruzzo wines are not as well-known as those from Piedmont and Tuscany. This is probably because about 80% of its wine is produced by large co-operatives and much is used for blending in other Italian and French wine regions. For the first try I had paired the dish with Abruzzo wines from Total Wine. In the interim, I discovered a forgotten bottle of Abruzo in our wine refrigerator. This was a 2011 Pasetti Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from K&L Wines and it proved a winner. The wine is 100% Montepulciano grape, so it had dark fruit notes with a light balanced body and tannins, and a subtle earthiness about it. All-in-all this is a wine I can drink every day, and at $16.99 a bottle it is within the realm of possibility.
Though our first attempt with the wine and cuisine of Abruzzo was a complete failure, persistence is a virtue and in this case paid dividends for we discovered a great pasta dish and a really enjoyable wine.
Follow along the Abruzzo journey with my other Abruzzi fans and make sure to join us next month on October 3rd as we will be covering the region of Umbria. You can also chat with us live this Saturday morning at 11am EST on Twitter at #ItalianFWT. Hope to see you there!
Vino Travels – The Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Terramane DOCG with Cerelli Spinozzi
Rockin’ Red Blog – The Natural Wonders of Abruzzo
Italophilia – An American in Abruzzo
Confessions of a Culinary Diva – Abruzzo Comfort Food & Wine
Cooking Chat – Pizza Pairing: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo for #ItalianFWT
The Wining Hour – 3 Wine & Food Pairings with Gusto from Abruzzo
Food Wine Click – Aruzzo 1st Course: Farro and Butternut Squash Soup with Passerina
Culinary Adventures with Camilla – Polpi in Purgatorio
Enofylz Wine Blog – Grilled Lamb Lollipops with Cantina Zaccagnini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Tralcetto
- For the sauce
- 1 cup onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
- 1 cup carrot, cut in 1-inch chunks
- 1 cup celery , cut in 1-inch chunks
- 2 pounds ground pork butt, freshly ground preferred
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon peperoncino flakes, or to taste
- 2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 3 cups canned Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, crushed by hand
- 4 cups hot chicken, turkey, or vegetable stock, or hot water, plus more if needed
- 3 tablespoons fresh basil (about 12 large leaves), chopped, for cooking and finishing the pasta
- 1 pound (1 batch) Homemade Maccheroni alla Chitarra , or other pasta
- 1 cup freshly grated pecorino, plus more for passing
- For the sauce
- You will need a food processor; a heavy saucepan, such as enameled cast iron, 10-inch diameter or wider, 4-quart capacity, with a cover, for cooking the meat sauce; a heavy-bottomed skillet or sauté pan, 12-inch diameter or wider, for dressing the pasta.
- Drop the chunks of onion, carrot, and celery into the food processor, and mince finely to an even textured pestata. Dump the ground pork into a large bowl and break up any lumps. Pour the olive oil into the big saucepan, and set over medium-high heat. Scrape in the pestata, stir in 1 teaspoon of the salt, and spread it around the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, as the vegetables wilt and dry, until they just begin to stick to the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes. Drop the peperoncino into a hot spot on the pan bottom for a few moments, then stir it into the pestata. Lower the heat to medium, drop in the bay leaves, then scatter the ground pork into the pan, breaking up any clumps of meat with your fingers. Sprinkle the remaining teaspoon salt over it, and stir everything together. Keep tossing the meat and breaking up any clumps until it starts sizzling and releasing its juices. Raise the heat a bit, and cook until all the meat juices have evaporated— about 15 minutes—stirring frequently. When the meat is dry and lightly caramelized, pour in the white wine, stir well, raise the heat a bit more, and simmer until the wine has evaporated completely, about 2 or 3 minutes. Pour in the crushed tomatoes, and stir with the meat. Slosh the tomato containers with 2 cups of hot stock or water (to get all the good juices), and stir this into the sauce along with the chopped basil. Set the cover on the pot, and bring the sauce to a simmer, then set the cover slightly ajar, and adjust the heat to keep it bubbling gently. Simmer the sauce for about an hour, letting it reduce slowly, then stir in another cup or so of hot stock, so the meat is just covered by liquid. Let the sauce cook and reduce for another hour, then stir in the fourth cup of stock, or more if needed, and simmer for another hour—3 hours total. If the sauce is thin, uncover the pot and cook over higher heat, stirring, to reduce and concentrate to a consistency you like. Adjust the seasoning, stirring in more salt to taste. You can use some or all of the sauce right away, or let it cool, then refrigerate or freeze any amount. Cooled or chilled sauce will have thickened; reheat it slowly, stirring in more stock or water to loosen it.
- For cooking and finishing the pasta
- Bring a large pot of well-salted water (6 quarts or more) to the boil. To dress the whole 1-poundbatch of maccheroni, put 3 cups or so of the meat sauce into the wide skillet; loosen with stock or water if necessary, and heat to a simmer. Shake excess flour off the fresh maccheroni, and drop the strands into the boiling water, stirring and separating the strands. Return the water to a rolling boil, and cook the pasta for about 4 minutes, until barely al dente. Quickly lift out the maccheroni and drop them into the skillet. Continuously toss the pasta in the simmering sauce until all the strands are coated and perfectly al dente. Adjust the consistency of the sauce if necessary: thin it with hot pasta water, or thicken it quickly by cooking down over higher heat. Turn off the heat, sprinkle a cup or so of grated cheese over the maccheroni, and toss well. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil, toss again, and heap the pasta in warm bowls. Serve immediately, with more cheese at the table.