We recently spent a few nights at Monastero Fortezza di Santo Spirito, a fortified monastery south of L’Aguila ion the Abruzzo that’s been converted into a great place to stay. It was a quiet retreat, living inside this castle; our room had a great view of the snow-covered Gran Sasso rising from the verdant plain below us. There was plenty to do in the area: treks, castles, archaeological sites, museums, and a fantastic grotto that follows an underground river kept us busy for a few days and made us wish we were staying longer.
Besides, most folks don’t know that instead of paying 100 euros for the cheapest and dirtiest hovel in Rome they could be staying in luxury inside a castle with such views, but that’s why Wandering Italy is here, to inform you of such inexpensive rural extravagances.
On the first night of our stay, our hosts provided us with a dinner which was meant to show off not only the ability of the kitchen to provide a fine repast, but to show off the local food of this corner of the Abruzzo. It accomplished both goals admirably.
The many-course meal left me with another wish entirely. Oh, if only I were 20 years old again and could finish off such quantities of food!
So, while Frank Sinatra crooned in the background and the candle flickered, the meal commenced.
First, of course, came the antipasti, a selection of local cured meats along with local cheeses and grilled vegetables. In these rural and lightly touristed parts of Italy they don’t just unwrap a block of mystery cheese from the local supermarket and plop it on a plate. They know exactly where it comes from and how it’s made. You might hear, as we did, that “the mozzarella was made this morning.” You might also hear something like, “the pecorino was made by Mario and aged in his secret cave for several years…”
In any case, the plate might look familiar, but the prosciutto is much darker and ruddier than the pinkish stuff from Parma. Stay a while in the rural parts of Italy and you’ll immediately notice this kind of thing. You can eat the same leg of pig from Parma, the Abruzzo, or the mountains of Sardinia and they’re all different experiences.
Then we moved on to the “fried pizza” and bruschetta. Now things were beginning to take on the hue of our local Lunigiana (Tuscan) cuisine, whose fried bread, called sgabei, is served with salumi or cured meats. Instead, this fried bread was formed into a round shape and enhanced with two strips of lardo, which is also the food of the Lunigiana, but very frequently found in the dishes of the Abruzzo.
The cuisine of the Lunigiana frequently uses chestnuts as do the Abruzzi. Next up was a soup I liked very much, a chickpea and chestnut soup (with a secret ingredient the server wouldn’t reveal) garnished with rosemary and drizzled with olive oil. Peasant food can really wow you some times.
Then came the classic scrambled eggs with black truffles. Simple can wow you too. And lest you think this is not local, the owner Gianluca cultivates the truffles himself.
And it must have been a good year for truffles, because the next course was a type of gnocchi with truffles. We were beginning to feel truffle overload. We were beginning to feel food overload, too, by this point. (By the way, both soup and pasta (or, in this case gnocchi) are both “primi piatti”—you’ll seldom get both.)
So, let’s summarize, two antipasti, two primi, scrambled eggs and now what?
Just one plate. Two types of lamb. One, my favorite, an ancient recipe that included lamb chops with egg, pecorino cheese and white wine. The other chop was fried, as is the tradition.
By this time, if there was going to be a huge dessert course, we would have had to throw in the towel for sure. But, after a short pausa, there came flutes of the most delicious strawberries anyone could imagine. Perfect.
You might think that we had consumed everything that the Abruzzo could offer. It sure seemed like it. But there is much more in the way of food to be discovered here. For the next night’s dinner, a lighter one we’d hoped, we scoured the local markets for local specialty salumi and cheese and just nibbled these things in the room. We’d found a great local salami made with liver and peperoncino, for example. A little spice is also found in my favorite salami from the Abruzzo called ventricina, which we didn’t see here.
You might also know that the Abruzzo, like Tuscany and Sardinia, was once a large producer of saffron. While today’s production on the plains of Navelli has fallen from 430 hectares to a mere 8, it’s still going on. Many of the castles you see frequently in these parts were built in part to protect the trade in this commodity, which by weight is worth more than gold.
Travel Tips for a Stay at the Monastero Fortezza di Santo Spirito
The Monastero di Santo Spirito doesn’t have a restaurant all year. They hire a chef during the season and meals can be arranged (in advance) at most times of the year (expect a less extensive meal than the one we’ve described!). If you are traveling in the off season or are going to be depending on meals served in the hotel, check to make sure you can be accommodated before you make reservations. The Web Site is: Monastero Fortezza di Santo Spirito
There are still many roads closed in the area due to the earthquake the region suffered 4 years ago. A GPS wasn’t reliable when we were there. There are signs to the monastery but it’s a bit of an adventure getting to Santo Spirito. But it’s worth a little struggle, and tt’s best if you can phone them if you get lost.