Stupidly Speechless in Abruzzo

Piazza (with aqueduct) in Sulmona, Abruzzo

It only took about twenty minutes of driving in Abruzzo for me to tire of hearing myself yelp, “Look at that!”

Dramatic landscapes, sliding towns that give precarious Civita di Bagnoreggio some serious competition, more dramatic landscapes.

Gabe climbs the hills in Abruzzo

This was not what I expected. At all.

We had decided on Abruzzo because after more trips to Italy than we could count, we figured it was about time for Keith to honor his ancestry and see where his bisnonno was from before that great-grandfather got himself to Napoli (driving through the countryside I couldn’t help asking HOW someone from Abruzzo got to Napoli over a hundred years ago) and then on a steamship to New York, before settling in Minnesota.

Church in Sulmona, Abruzzo

I confess I was no more than a willing participant. I duly planned some fun ventures, assuming that the region itself would be dull. Why did I make this assumption? Well, the same reason anyone makes erroneous assumptions, I suppose: I didn’t know enough about it.

Abruzzo has no spin factory. Unless you’ve been there, you will likely have no idea what treats await you over the mountains from Lazio. In fact, I posted a pretty typical photograph of Sulmona on the “Traveling to Italy” Facebook page, asking “what region do you guess this photo is from?” It wasn’t an obscure photograph, like of a sewer grate; and yet it was guessed only after EVERY SINGLE OTHER REGION IN ITALY (other than almost-as-misunderstood Le Marche).

Celano, Abruzzo

Anyway, our first stop in Abruzzo was Celano, Keith’s ancestral homeland. Distances are deceiving when one is skirting mountains and alpine plains, so we actually passed Celano before we realized it. We noted the castle perched prominently above a town, and wondered what that was about, and how close we were to Celano, and Celano was small, right? Much, much smaller than this grand town and oh my God, that’s actually it.

Celano, Abruzzo

We spent much of our first ten minutes in Celano simply turning in circles in the piazza, dumbfounded. This was it? Why had we pictured a tumbledown dun-colored village? This town was framed by mountains, the houses in icy blues and goldenrod yellows. Perhaps I looked like I had some sort of gaping mouth disorder, because a barber came out of his shop to tell me about Celano. He pointed out some features of the town, the mountains, the castle. I nodded, but wasn’t really listening; I was too busy noticing that the man looked like Keith’s Grandpa, a man whom I adore. Taking instructions from the Grandpa doppelganger, we climbed the appropriate steps to get to the castle and church.

Gabe in Celano, Abruzzo

I felt a hush entering that church. Had Keith’s ancestors been baptized here? We wandered around inside, and then wandered around outside, marveling at the wrought iron balconies and the giant lightwork (flowers? Snowflakes?) and the plastic chairs stacked against the side of the church’s piazza. Was there a festival here?

Every alley revealed a different slice of a mountain view. Every home cried out for me to stop and gape and wonder if it would be okay if I knocked and announced, “We’re Damiani’s! Can you show me your house? Can we stay for supper?” An earthquake devastated Celano in 1915, and the architecture reflects that, as it has a more early 20’s vibe than I’ve seen in other regions.

Getting drinks for the game in Celano, Abruzzo

Droplets of rain drove us into a bar. As luck would have it, this was just in time to catch the second half the France vs. Uruguay World Cup game. Siena had been living virtually World Cup-free in Arezzo, where she had no access to a TV, but the rest of us had World Cup fever that had only gained steam in Bologna as we cheered on teams alongside Italians, over sumptuous spreads of fries and local cheese and salumi. The bar in Celano was old and gracious, with elaborate woodwork and historical photographs on the walls. Again, I couldn’t help but wonder if Keith’s ancestors had knocked back espresso here.

Street in Celano, Abruzzo

People drifted by and I insisted that every last one, even the women, looked like Keith’s Grandpa.

Finally a group of boys came in from the castle, led by a priest who cleaned the bar out of ice cream novelties to feed what seemed to be his church group. He lingered, watching the game. Then he announced that the Uruguay team was “tutti sporchi” (all dirty) and left. This was our invective for the rest of the World Cup. “Tutti sporchi!” we yelled at the screen whenever our favored players were grabbed. We were curiously mum when our favored players grabbed. But everyone who flopped was sporco.

 Nicolas in Celano, Abruzzo

Nicolas in Celano, Abruzzo

We wandered through town a bit longer before our dinner plans with Nicolas’s girlfriend’s family propelled us further, to Sulmona.

Unlike Celano, which sits against a mountain, Sulmona rests in the middle of the valley. On one of my morning rambles, a gentleman took me by the arm to show me the mountains all around, and teach me the word conca, basin. Not just good for a landscape vocabulary lesson, the man also was quick to help when I asked for directions to a bakery. He pointed out the one that was piu fresca, piu piu fresca.

You might have an idea already, but it must be said, that the people of Abruzzo are awfully friendly. I’ve never had so many people greet me in the street for no reason. When I paused to smile and greet the old men on the bench, one practically pulled me back to sit beside him. When I went into shops, customers wanted to ask where I was from and fell all over themselves to answer my questions. The employees were, it should be said, shyer (except the fruttivendolo guy who sold me three days worth of fruit for less than €4, and kept me there to practice his English before walking me out, asking if I would come back tomorrow;  when I said I would, he folded his arms across his chest and beamed, saying my name one more time before seeing me off), but I think that’s because they aren’t used to American tourists and worried that I might speak to them in English. When I didn’t, their relief was palpable and everyone was chatty and friendly. The accent took a little getting used to, but it was manageable. All in all, I found making conversation with people a huge highlight of our trip to Abruzzo. It was at the end of the trip, I think I was desperate to get as much language fun out of those days as I could. I asked which bread was a customer’s favorite, I asked which pastry was particular of the region, I asked what kind of fish I was being served. I asked questions I already knew the answer to, but I actually do that all the time in Italy. It is a trick that has been known to get me extra biscotti.

Coffee break in Sulmona, Abruzzo

The vibrancy of the Abruzzese went beyond their willingness to engage with a stranger. I have seen few evening passeggiate rival Sulmona’s. There are a lot of houses for sale (this was far too tempting, as I was already in love with Sulmona) which I would have predicted meant the town would be quiet. But it was bustling. The piazza was full at night, and clutches of people walked up and down the corso. You could hear the burbling merriness approaching from a side-street.

So much for the dour psychology I had somehow expected: I was totally smitten. More smitten, perhaps, than the rest of my family, but then again, I was getting out early to interact with locals and I do admit to a weakness for wrought iron balconies set in candy-colored buildings. Even the cobblestones delighted me, with their scalloped pattern of grey and white stones, which adds to Sulmona’s sense of whimsy.

Kids in Piazza in Sulmona, Abruzzo

Then there was Sulmona’s long tradition of making confetti. If you are like me, the image that has just flirted into your mind is of little pieces of paper, and your brow is furrowed as you wonder how a town can be renowned for hole-punching. This confetti is far better. Instead of a flurry of paper, imagine Jordan almonds, and you are a lot closer. I researched enough to know that confetti was candy coated almonds, but I thought that was it. Punto e basta. But it’s not. It’s essentially candy coated anything. Candy covered chocolate is popular. I actually wonder if confetti is the original M&M. My favorite is saffron-scented candy coated orange peel. Unbelievable. Sulmona is so famous for confetti that according to our travel companion Natalye, Sulmona was asked to provide the treats for the recent royal wedding.

Confetti flowers in Sulmona, Abruzzo

Also, the confetti comes ready to eat, but also in fantastical designs like snails sitting atop flowers, or mushrooms, or butterflies. But mostly flowers. There are a number of stores selling confetti, but if you go to Sulmona, I can’t stress enough that you need to walk past those stores, past the piazza, to the other side of town. The whole town can be gone over in about an hour, and even when you get away from the overarching scent of sugar, Sulmona is so sweet it demands a thorough exploration. In fact, it is so charming, so tidily perfect, it is hard for me to write this post. I feel like by speaking Sulmona’s name into the ether, I might shatter it’s delicate hold on the world.

Kids walking down street in Sulmona, Abruzzo

Because it really feels like the village that time and tourism forgot. People hardly speak English, the town is authentic, and there was not one Rick Steves book in evidence.

I can give it no heartier recommendation than this—if we didn’t already have our hearts stitched to Spello, I would be seriously thinking of eventually moving to Sulmona. I know. I can’t believe I’m saying that either.

And the food. The food was a revelation. Granted, we sought out two highly specific and extraordinary eating experiences, but even the ordinary meals we had in Sulmona were stunning. Our first dinner at Hostaria dell' Arco included an antipasti buffet that was varied and delicious, and my pasta filled with ricotta and porcini was sublime.

Caffetti—a treat only found at Caffe Ovidio in Sulmona—espresso topped with a flavored cream with crushed confetti. Way tastier than it should be.

Our last lunch at Trattoria Don Ciccio featured the antipasti of the house, which from my experience is typically some salumi, some cheese, and maybe a salad or two. Not this one. In fact, we tried to order antipasti, primi, and secondi (being our last lunch in Italy and all) and the waitress refused to take our secondi order; she said having ordered antipasti and primi, she’d wait to take our secondi order until after primi. Have you ever had a restaurant not willingly have you buy their food, whether or not they think you’ll eat it?

Then began the antipasti. Bear in mind, we ordered only two portions, that’s antipasti for two people. And yet the only plate we were able to finish was the prosciutto, which was perfectly-aged and the texture of silk. Then came stracciata, which we were informed won the Italian cheese award in 2017. What? There’s an Italian cheese award? Turns out yes. After that came so many dishes, I’m sure to forget some: Chickpeas and cabbage. Barlotti beans and farro in a savory tomato sauce. Balls of eggy bread (kind of like a cross between a bun and a souffle) in redder tomato sauce. A gratin dish of eggplant parmesan. Tripe in a sauce that included a bit of saffron (an ingredient grown in Abruzzo's crocuses). And much more.

Pasta ready for pepperoncino in Sulmona, Italy

When it was finally done, the waitress came over and asked if any of us wanted to cancel our primi order. Yes, Gabe and Siena both did. I was full but went ahead with my primi because I had been craving pasta, and I was excited to ask for the pepperoncino, as I love heat (harder to find in the north) and I knew there was a special kind of pepper in Abruzzo. It appears the pepper they brought me was indeed the local one; it was served in a repurposed honey jar, as if it had been crushed in house. It offered a richly earthy, smoky hit. I wanted to stick it in my purse.

And that was our normal Abruzzo eating.

Which I’m sure has you wondering, what the heck was the other two idiosyncratic dining experiences we had???

Kids in Sulmona

Well.

I’ll tell you.

Or at least I’ll direct you to the links where I’ve written about both the barbecue in an otherworldly landscape, and the fish lunch literally on the water that never, ever quit.

Which gives you plenty of time to prepare yourself. 

Have you been to Abruzzo? Where have you been? Where would you like to go?