We met our guide, Fabrizio Lucci (from Italia Sweet Italia tour company), in Sulmona, Italy, at Hotel Ovidius. The Roman poet Ovid was born in Sulmona in 43 BC. The small city has a beautiful town square, bordered by an intact Roman aqueduct. Farmers markets are held twice weekly where you can often find porchetta (roast pig) food trucks.
Sulmona is famous for its “confetti,” a delicious sugar-coated almond confection that originated in Abruzzo, a region of central Italy known for its mountain villages, some dating to the medieval and Renaissance periods, historical parks and three national parks.
Confetti also has a long history here. The confection used to be handed out at weddings, before the ceremonies changed to paper confetti. The Confetti Museum is definitely a worthwhile stop that shows how the confection is made today. You can see how the machinery has evolved over the years and watch a video of the preparation process. Best of all, there’s a gift shop where you can taste some of the assorted flavors, and purchase bags of confetti to bring home.
The town square of the ancient town of Sulmona is flanked by an original Roman aqueduct and framed by the Apennine Mountains in the background. (Photo by Dorene Cohen)
Leaving Sulmona, one of our side trips was to Campo Imperatore in Gran Sasso National Park to sample arrosticini (lamb skewers). The drive goes into the high country of alpine meadows where sheep graze, and food emporiums are set up with outside barbecues — hot and ready for cooking.
Inside, you can buy ready-to-go arrosticini and other meats for cooking along with an array of cheeses (especially Pecorino) and, in the place we visited, marinated artichokes and eggplant. Outside, you cook your skewers over the hot coals, turning them two to three times over the course of a few minutes until you reach your preferred doneness. There’s a picnic area with tables and benches outside where Fabrizio, always prepared, set up a spread complete with tablecloth, napkins, utensils and plates and some supplementary goodies.
Adjacent to the high plain of Campo Imperatore is the medieval hill town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, which is in an ongoing state of renovation with an eye toward authenticity. Many of the buildings have been renovated to reflect how they looked in the 15th and 16th centuries, during the rule of the Medici.
Stop at one of the quality food stores to purchase some of the world’s best saffron and lentils. These lentils are relatively thin-skinned, and don’t require hours of boiling. If you happen to be in the town on the first weekend in September, you might hit the Lentil Festival where you can try scores of different recipes with lentils.
Hike to the top of a medieval castle in the mountains for a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside, at Rocca Calascio. Note that the way to the viewpoints is fraught with rocks, uneven steps, steep inclines and declines — but the view is worth it if you’re able-bodied.
The hilltop town of Scanno sits in the Sagittario Valley and is surrounded by the Majella mountains. (Photo by Dorene Cohen)
Jewel of a town
Scanno may be the most beautiful hill town in all of Abruzzo. With its very steep streets, hidden passages and winding alleyways, it’s a town made for walking. It’s also a center of the jewelry industry, particularly filigreed pendants. One of the shops, Oreficeria Di Rienzo Armando, has preserved their original laboratory, so you can see the ancient tools of the jewelry makers.
There’s also a hidden cheese store on Via Silla just to the right of #117. When you ring the bell, the owner appears from the second-story window above, then comes down to open the store. Scanno also is well-known for its unique costuming, lace and heart-shaped Lake Scanno. A walk around the lake is highly recommended.
On the way out of mountain country, we drove through the beautiful Saggitario Gorges, enjoyed a nature walk and stopped at La Porta dei Parchi — an organic farm where pastoral traditions are maintained — for lunch and a visit. You can join their Adopt a Sheep program to help keep their herds healthy and receive pictures of your sheep and their dairy products. La Porta has been designated a Slow Food community. Here at the agriturismo, you can eat at the restaurant on-site and also rent rooms. This is bio-tourism at its finest, living and eating off the land.
Abruzzo is known as the pasta capital of the world, particularly Fara San Martino (between the mountains and the sea) where De Cecco, Del Verde and Giuseppe Cocco are all made. The Vatican orders their pasta from Giuseppe Cocco, and you can purchase it online from Amazon!
Arriving in Vasto, we checked into the Residenza Amblingh, a beautiful cliffside hotel in the heart of the historic district. Beautiful views of the Adriatic Sea, with its white sand beaches, can be enjoyed from the breakfast loft on the top floor of the hotel, as well as the stone promenade outside where many people take after-dinner strolls (“the passagiata”).
Vasto happens to be our guide Fabrizio’s hometown, and through his depth of knowledge and connections, we were able to enjoy a sampling of the bounty of the sea, an in-depth wine tasting, experience several extra virgin olive oils, spend time with a local painter and a sculptor, and enjoy a re-creation (on a smaller scale) of La Panarda, an ancient multicourse feast.
Also called the Feast of Saint Anthony, La Panarda commemorates the saving of a woman’s young child from the jaws of a wolf. The mother prayed to Saint Anthony and, miraculously, the child was released from its mouth — or so the story goes. This yearly feast generally begins at 8 p.m. and finishes at 8 the next morning and includes 40-50 courses, as well as singing, dancing and music.
Three towns still do La Panarda in all its splendor: Sulmona (August), Lanciano (September) and Villavallelonga (January). Since we were not visiting at the right time of year, Fabrizio stepped in and found a willing partner in Agriturismo Caniloro in Lanciano. Owners Pina and Berardino love to recreate ancient traditions, and they agreed to put together a “mini” Panarda for our group of six with wine and 21 courses served family style, starting at 1 p.m. The cost was 70 euros per person, a raving bargain. We were still sated the next day!
Dining at the beach
Two distinct highlights of the Adriatic coast include the picturesque beaches, and the Trabocchi (wooden jetties) where fishermen without boats could walk to the end of the pier and cast their poles. Nowadays, restaurants at the pier’s end cast large nets operated by winches capturing the seafood bounty of the Adriatic.
We had the pleasure of eating at Trabocco Punta Tufano. The famous seafood stew, La Brodetto, is popular along the Adriatic and varies from town to town. At least seven different types of seafood are used and can include mantis shrimp, mullet, squid, clams, cuttlefish, scorpion fish, sea bream, prawns and mussels. Whatever is fresh that day goes in.
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The broth is flavored with garlic, parsley, chili, tomatoes, olive oil and sweet red peppers. Compared to cacciucco, cioppino and bouillabaisse, brodetto is my favorite with its marvelous aromas, deeply delicious flavors and unusual, distinctive species of fish.
Our final day was spent at Fabrizio’s family farmhouse with a cooking class where we learned how to make two different pastas: chittara (using a guitar string wooden assembly) and cavatelli (by hand).
We all helped to make filled cookies, two different pasta sauces (one meat and one vegetarian), gather the wine from the wine barrel and sit down to a classic Sunday lunch with copious amounts of wine, loud talking, and laughing filled with a joie de vivre and sense of place that permeated the environment.
Eating with an Italian family is an experience to be both savored and treasured — especially in Abruzzo where the people are unpretentious and love life. What an antidote to the crazy world we live in!
IF YOU GO
To fully enjoy the treasures that Abruzzo offers, I’d strongly recommend having a local tour guide who is a native of the province. We looked far and wide to find a company which could provide an authentic Abruzzese experience at a reasonable cost, and the flexibility to create a tailor-made experience. Italia Sweet Italia, owned and operated by Fabrizio Lucci, was hands down the top choice.
Fabrizio is bilingual, flexible, sneaky funny and one of the most serene people I’ve ever encountered. His depth and breadth of knowledge of the province and incredible culinary and cultural contacts provided us with an experience worth savoring for years to come. Even though our trip was fairly food-centric, there were plenty of historical sites and outdoor activities included, as well as an ancestry day for my wife in Villetta Barrea.
A trip for up to eight people (our group was six) can be either a fixed itinerary, or a jointly planned tailor-made trip. We opted for 11 days and 10 nights with five nights in Sulmona in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains, and five nights in Vasto on the Adriatic Sea.
Included was pickup at the airport in Rome, accommodations, breakfasts daily, six lunches, three dinners, wine tastings, olive oil tasting, transportation with Fabrizio throughout the trip, and a drop off back at the airport in Rome — all for around $5,000 per couple. For us, it was an absolute bargain considering the quality of the experiences.
— David Cohen
There are lots of reasons to explore this region in central Italy. Among them:
It’s one of the least-explored provinces in Italy. Rugged and wild, with an abundance of wildlife (think wolves, bears, wild boar and golden eagles). Also fewer tourists.
Considered the “green heart” of Europe, it features three national parks in the Apennine Mountains, along with a beautiful Adriatic coastline — ideal for hiking, biking, camping and swimming.
The Navelli Plateau is a major source of saffron, one of the world’s most sought after spices.
Hearty cuisine abounds, centered on lamb, pasta, wild game and an abundance of seafood.
An array of ancient hill towns, hermitages and castles harkening back to the Middle Ages, which sit on rocky promontories.
Trabocchis, old fishing piers along the Adriatic, many of which have been converted into seafood restaurants.
An emphasis on farm-to-table dining and agriturismos, where you can stay, and partake in everyday farm life — pruning orchards, picking vegetables, sheep- and goat-milking — or wine, cheese and olive oil production.
Hundreds of thousands of sheep and lamb raised in the higher elevations produce milk, cheese and meat products throughout the province.
Famous Majolica ceramics museum, as well as spectacular displays in the Parish Church of San Giovanni Battista.
Home of La Panarda, a 50-course overnight feast with singing, dancing and music held once a year in the towns of Sulmona, L’Aquila, Lanciano and Villavallelonga.
Opportunities to go on black truffle hunts.
Taste the wines of Fontefico in Vasto and arrange to eat a gourmet lunch under their pergola with a view of the vineyards.
Try Selvotta olive oil at the farm where you can tour the processing plant and then taste their extra virgin olive oils (carried by the Italian food store, Eataly).
Many cooking schools can be found in Abruzzo, one of which is Abruzzo Cibus in Carunchio.
The joie de vivre of the Abruzzese people is second to none.
— David Cohen
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