Since I’ve come back from Italy, I’ve received a ton of congratulations from so many friends and industry peeps. Thank you, it means so much. I’ve also been continually asked for more details of the trip and more insight into all the food that we ate. It’s almost like all the pictures I’ve posted on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were just a tease and now they want want the real skinny. So I’ve decided to blog about our Italian adventure (with a focus on what we ate) and the following is a recap of our first 7 days in Abruzzo.
Rustichella d’Abruzzo, an artisanal pasta company, invited chefs, journalists and key partners/importers from around the world to come celebrate their 90th anniversary and Primograno summer wheat harvest. The 2014 Primograno Tour included tours of their operation and key partners, while showcasing the beauty, culture, tradition and food of the Abruzzo region. One of the highlights of the tour was the International Primograno Pasta competition which was held on August 3,2014. As one of Rustichella’s strategic partners, La Grotta Del Formaggio was invited to attend this event, I was selected to compete in the Chef’s competition and “Follow Me Foodie” was selected to come celebrate and document this 90th anniversary celebration.
Early morning, almost no sleep the night before. Big day of travel ahead, with 9 hours of time change to boot. 9am flight from Vancouver to Montreal and then a 9 hour flight from Montreal to Rome. I got to the airport, met up with “Follow Me Foodie” and the first thing I noticed was her superb choice of footwear. Me, my comfiest pair of flip flops. Her, a rather fashionable pair of 4 inch heels. This isn’t “Fashion Police,” so that’s enough about shoes. Eventually, after clearing security (we were detained briefly, because CATSA received a tip that she’s an illegal arms dealer) we ate our first meal of the trip. “Follow Me Foodie” (I will refer to her as FMF for the rest of this piece) was kind enough to pack me breakfast and spoiled me with incredible Greek yogurt with almonds and honey, along with killer baklava and kataifi. So tasty and exactly what I needed for the first leg of travel. 5 hours later, we arrived in Montreal and were facing a 4 hour layover. We considered catching a cab into town and scarfing down a couple of Swartz’s Montreal smoked meat sandwiches, but instead, we played it safe, settled in to the Maple Leaf Lounge and I watched in amazement as she “systematically annihilated” the snack buffet. We charged our devices, told a few ‘gun running” stories and prepared ourselves for the second leg of travel. As we prepared to board our next flight, we met up with my La Grotta Del Formaggio cohorts “Dome” and “Ricky Bobby” and we settled in for our overnight flight.
Upon landing in Rome, after a bit of a debacle finding our driver “Renzo,” we finally got on our way to Abruzzo. The first thing I ate, on my first trip to Italy, was a panini and an iced Illy coffee from a highway gas station. Can I tell you something? It was perfectly delicious. Good bread, speck from Alto Adige and Trentino cheese. Toasted perfectly, super tasty and all from a highway gas stop. Why can’t we have good quality highway stop food here in North America? “FMF” didn’t like her sandwich as much, but only because she lacked the knowledge and experience to select the most appropriate roadside panini. She ended up eating most of mine, forced me to eat the rest of hers and we got back on the road.
After a few hours, the scenic, but curvy drive ended as “Renzo” delivered us to the beautiful Castello Chiola in Loreto Aprutino. We settled in to the gorgeous castle and were immediately greeted with some lovely snacks in our rooms. Later in the day, we cruised the village, “FMF” ate her first of an unfathomable amount of gelato during this Italian sojourn., we enjoyed some sunset poolside cocktails, a light dinner at the castello and relished an in-depth introduction to Abruzzo wines and Amaro. A late, but perfect ending to this lengthy travel day.
Feeling a little hungover from the previous evening’s wine indulgence, I was a bit tardy meeting up with the Canadian contingent. I quickly inhaled the cornetto and espresso they generously reserved for me, because soon we were off on an excursion to an organic farro farm and mill located in the hills around Penne. After touring the facility and learning about this ancient grain, we sat down to a beautiful lunch at the mill. I love the way they eat lunch in Italy; a drawn out affair including red and white wines from the region, freshly baked bread, multiple courses and espresso to finish. We started with a trio of farro, followed by a simple pomodoro farro pasta, roasted Abruzzo meats and potatoes, insalata and finally a perfect shot of espresso. This trio of farro was delicious and one of the most memorable dishes I ate the entire trip. Perfectly seasoned and very tasty; there was a salad preparation with the whole grain, a polenta of ground farro and a risotto-y preparation. So memorable, that I can’t even remember the different components and garnishes, but I do remember how distinct and enjoyable the flavours and textures were. I’m excited to test the farro polenta further in our La Grotta Del Formaggio test kitchen, when it arrives from Abruzzo this fall. My only concern about lunch was a lack of dessert and I soon realized that “FMF” must never be denied her dolce.
After a quick jaunt to Pescara, we enjoyed a lovely sunset reception poolside at the castello with an amazing view of Loreto around us. It was great to meet and get to know many of the members of the Peduzzi family along with the other importers, journalists and chefs from around the world. It was a really fun night, with too many tasty cicchetti to remember, followed by copious amounts of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo with the Korean delegation.
Woke up early, had a quick breakfast with “Dome” and “Ricky Bobby” and we were off on a longish journey to San Severo , home of state of the art Molino DeVita, an artisan mill partnered with Rustichella d’Abruzzo to grow, harvest and mill the best semolina from the region. After an informative and educational tour, we devoured a buffet lunch featuring locally made ricotta and mozzarella di bufala made fresh that morning, bruschetta, foccacia, salumi and a selection of many other tasty foods. The highlight was definitely the ultra fresh mozzarella di bufala, but when the dolce was served, “FMF” insisted we taste every dessert, including numerous delicious sfogliatelle and their “offspring.”
Moving on from the mill, we enjoyed some freshly churned gelato in Vasto, along with some spritz and aperitivo on a slanted patio in Vasto’s main piazza. Dinner that night was a traditional Abruzzese meal of Arrosticini at a restaurant called Margherita Due in the town of Pianella. As the Italian journalists and the rest of the Peduzzi clan joined us, dinner was served. We started off with delicious bruschetta; two in particular stood out with one being a spread of pork fat and cured minced pork while the other was an unique pickled local green that is native to the region. After some other tasty bits, we were served the Arrosticini, the star of the show, the grilled mutton skewers. Slaughtered the day before, the sheep was diced up and skewered with diced fat and then grilled over super hot charcoal. Served piping hot off the grill, the meat was perfectly seasoned and ridiculously delicious. Me + good meat on a stick = HAPPY. I must have ate 20+ skewers myself and paired with the drink of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Gazzosa Peduzzi, it was absolutely perfect. The chef also brought out a few skewers of grilled sheep’s liver and I found those skewers to be the highlight of the night. After the mutton and vegetables and all the other food we’ve been indulging on, there was gelato, dessert wine and finally coffee. Like most of our evenings, dinner tended to start around 9pm and would not end until roughly 12am, definitely a big difference from the dining culture back at home. We headed back to Loreto, at which point “FMF” and I strolled the village inquisitively searching for porchetta trucks. No luck on the porchetta and I can’t remember if she ate more gelato, but the smart money would bet that she did.
Breakfast with the boys (guess who slept in) and then an early morning olive oil tasting. We learned about the attributes, components and conditions of high quality olive oil. I prefer doing tastings in the morning because my palate is awake and unbiased, but it’s definitely challenging sipping oils in the morning after consuming the extensive amount of wine the night before. We then made some gorgeous chitarrone with a traditional chitarra, beautiful eggs and Primograno semolina. Tons of fun, with an interesting mix of pasta makers; let’s just say some noodles were nicer than others. Then a quick lunch was made with the fresh chitarrone in a simple pomodorro sauce and then a tasting of local honeys, different ages of Abruzzo pecorino and local salumi highlighted for me by the Prosciutto d’Abruzzo.
After a well deserved nap, we headed into the hills of Abruzzo for an amazing night. We were told we were going to thresh the summer wheat and enjoy an outdoor dinner in the field. We arrived at a breath taking location, a wheat farm where there was panoramic views of the mountains and valley. We watched them harvest the summer wheat in the setting sun, enjoyed a spectacular reception of canapes and Prosecco and eventually sat down to a delicious meals, in one of the most beautiful settings I’ve ever dined in. The meal was great, but the stand out for me was a course of Vestina beans, braised greens and semolina croutons. Such simplicity, such depth, with perfect seasoning and balance. I could have eaten this dish all night. After dinner, the party really kicked into high gear, with a traditional fireworks display, live music and some pretty “intense dancing.” Towards the end of the night, our driver “Renzo” singled out Team Canada and presented me with a porchetta sandwich and a “special” dance for “FMF.” What a perfect evening, followed up with a stroll through Loreto and go figure, some gelato for “FMF.” I believe there was some late night swimming and indulgence in Pecorino wine, but at this point, it’s all a little fuzzy.
Woke up after literally no sleep. Enjoyed a quick breakfast with the Americans. Today was the big day. The “Boss” picked up all the chefs and drove us to the state of the art ReDCulinary facility. We familiarized ourselves with the kitchen, set up our stations and enjoyed a quick lunch of pasta and caponata. Quite honestly, I didn’t eat much, was pretty focused on the task at hand. When the judges, journalists and all the invited guests arrived, the competition began. 2 dishes in 1 hour, a gorgeous selection of local seafood, meats and vegetables were available to everyone, and the only rule was that two different cuts of Rustichella d’Abruzzo Primograno pasta were to be used. I listened carefully to the judging criteria when it was explained to us earlier in the day and built my game plan around that. I felt good, I liked my set up and had a pretty concise idea of what I wanted to do. I felt my dishes exemplified the simplicity and refinement of Abruzzo cuisine, while bringing my own sensibilities and interpretations to my dishes. My first dish was Rustichella d’Abruzzo Primograno Traghetti with guanciale, corn, cherry tomato, fried parsley, sunny side egg, aged Pecorino d’Abruzzo. All the ingredients were from the area; super simple, very tasty, but maybe a little unusual for the local palate. I personally love a runny egg and how the yolk interacts with the pasta and guanciale, kind of like a lighter interpretation of a carbonara. I tasted everything numerous times, was overly concerned about cooking the pasta perfectly and was very happy with the first dish I presented. The second dish was Rustichella d’Abruzzo Primograno Spaghettoni with Pescara shellfish, sausage, pepperoncini, roasted tomato, Intosso olive oil. Again, after continually tasting and checking the pasta, I was very happy with the second dish I presented as well. At this point, my job was done, it was out of my hands and in the hands of the judges. Fortunately, head judge, Michelin starred Chef Gianfranco Vissani, along with David Rosengarten, Mama Peduzzi, Stefania Peduzzi and Rolando Baremendi tallied the scores in my favour and when it was all said and done, I had won the best dish of the competition and the overall title. I was so happy, so humbled and it really kicked in when I was making a short speech how much of an impact this trip to Abruzzo has made on me and the way I approach and consider Italian cuisine and culture. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my family, my La Grotta Del Formaggio team and especially “FMF.” They all played a huge role in this special day and I am very grateful for their unbridled support. After many more glasses of celebratory wine and a couple quick interviews, we were off to a special dinner that I’ll never forget.
Dinner was an amazing dining experience on a fishing hut on the Costa dei Trabocchi. They serve whatever seafood they catch that day, from the nets and lines from the hut. It was magical; still fully adrenalized from winning the competition and then being placed in a surreal environment, serving the freshest seafood in numerous small courses of modern and classic seafood preparations. Exquisite food, delectable wines, stunning atmosphere and outstanding company; this was easily one of the most memorable meals of my life. I’d describe each course, but I can’t remember. I do know there was a mind blowing prawn crudo and I learned what “true” Italians consider al dente pasta. After a leisurely dinner, we eventually made it back to Loretto; there was a late night pool party and we celebrated the day with new friends and many Campari and sodas.
By this point, I’m totally used to getting no sleep. I think “FMF” and I caught up on all our sleep deprivation during the bus rides and transportation to all the different events and locations. This morning, we toured the Rustichella d’Abruzzo plant and saw first hand where the magic happens. Long story short, the best local semolina is used in their artisanal pasta recipes, the pasta is then extruded through traditional bronze dies, then a lengthy and controlled drying process with full attention to detail allows for some of the world best dried pasta to be produced. Sure, we do business with Rustichella and they hosted us on this trip, but in my house, long before leaving for Italy, I only serve Rustichella pasta to my family and friends. Why? Because you can taste and feel the difference. And now that I’ve gotten to know the family more, have experienced Abruzzo, the culture, the mindset and their dedication to excellence, I will do my part in spreading their story and getting Canadians to fall in love with Rustichella d’Abruzzo like I have.
Lunch was at a local restaurant in Pianella, where we were served delicious bruschetta with tomato, a few courses of pasta and some local fruit. Part way through the bruschetta, I found out the tomato on the bread, the pasta and pasta sauces were all Rustichella d’Abruzzo Primograno products. Not a word of a lie, all completely delicious and I was astounded that the tomato mix and pasta sauces came out of a jar. The flavours were great and I can’t wait to get a few jars of these products for my own pantry.
After an afternoon at the castello, catching up on some email and packing, I snacked on a plate of gorgeous local prosciutto and pecorino. Our final dinner was at Ristorante Carmine in Loreto, where the focus is on local seafood. What a great dinner, with amazing new friends and the entire Peduzzi clan. The food was lovely with a couple of different highlights. A seafood soup with farro pasta had such depth and a course of local turbot absolutely floored me. So simple, roasted on the bone with some potatoes and tomato. I ate all of mine and I begged “FMF” for some of hers. There were so many wines, I couldn’t keep track, but what an emotional and delicious dinner this was. After the meal, we strolled the village again, and “FMF” must have had some more gelato, but I can’t be sure. As we stayed up into the wee hours of the morning planning the next phase of our adventure, some more local wine was drank and we polished off “FMF’s” salumi plate and fruit from earlier in the day.
Woke up way too early, caught the sunrise and said a few goodbyes. We were driven to Pescara where “FMF” was up to her usual tricks, ordering a half dozen different breakfast pastries to try. I threw back a pair of double espressos and we were off on a bus to Naples.
Grazie mille Abruzzo. Grazie mille famiglia Peduzzi e Rustichella d’Abruzzo. You’ve changed my life and I will cherish this experience forever.