Some of the best and most surprising meals I’ve had in Italy have been on road trips. Getting from point A to point B allows for stopping off in a place you may never had thought of visiting. Yes, you know there is a great restaurant there, but it’s just too far to get to from home, and maybe not quite worth the trip on it’s own.
In July I got in the car with Rolando (yes, again with the Rolando) to head to Abruzzo to learn all about pasta from from Rustichella pasta makers. Our point A was Rome and our point B was Loreto Aprutino. But it was the midpoint that got Rolando all excited.
“I can’t wait to share Caldora with you!!!” he started saying 2 months in advance. Nothing much about our destination, but lots about where we were going to stop for lunch on the way. He was literally gushing about a little town, and a little restaurant that he said I would die for, it was so good.
As we started off from Rome in our rented car, Rolando was driving, but talking the entire time, mostly about what we would be eating and drinking. When he got to the description of the third bottle of wine we’d be trying, I kindly offered to stop at two and take over the driving after lunch. He could go on to all three…but someone had to show a little restraint, right?
Well, restraint isn’t exactly how I’d describe our meal.
After driving through the increasingly dramatic landscape of Abruzzo, with the weather changing from sunny to stormy several times, we finally arrived in Pacentro. A tiny stone town, clinging to a side of a steep hill with views out over the planes. Walking under several arches and up and down some stairs, we finally arrived at Il Caldora.
Rolando had been here many times, and after being warmly greeted by the owner, knew to just leave everything in his hands. Within seconds a cold bottle of Pecorino arrived along with a crystal pitcher of water. While I fully expected Rolando to get excited about the wine, I didn’t expect him to say, as he poured the water “Just taste this! The best water ever!” (Rolando speaks with a lot of exclamation points, it’s not just me adding them) And it was incredible water: crisp, clean and icy, it came straight from a faucet on the wall that is fed directly by mountain springs.
If I hadn’t taken photographs and notes, I would not have believed we ate as much as we did. First off, before any food arrived, a basket of just baked, still warm bread. And then, just a small, light pre-antipasto: deep fried lamb served atop a bed of mashed potatoes and topped with home made pickled vegetables. The lamb, potatoes and vegetables all local, and tasting of exactly what they were. Although I am pretty sure they added extra lamb fat to those potatoes, because they tasted that sinful.
The rest of the antipasti included deep fried zucchini blossoms as well as four tiny dishes containing marinated zucchini; grilled eggplant; cauliflower salad and panzanella. But the most incredible dish was a small basket of freshly made goat milk ricotta. I’m not sure how to describe it, but the closest I can come is to clouds floating across my tongue.
That same ricotta was mixed with cracked black pepper and then stuffed into ravioli bathed in a rich tomato sauce. Our other pasta was bright yellow pappardelle topped with a mixture of porcini and chanterelles, and garnished with ribbons of deep fried zucchini flowers.
At this point we were on wine number 2, a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from (if I’m remembering correctly) Valentini. And yes, I did have a half glass.
You’ll be happy to know we shared our main course. Just a couple of grilled lamb chops and one little sausage. Those lamb chops? Even though we were both beyond stuffed, we picked them up and chewed off every last bit of fat , meat and gristle.
I had no intention of drinking the dessert wine. Until I tasted it. Ratafia, made with cherries and cherry leaves. Not really a wine, but more of a digestivo, I decided it was medicinal. And maybe so were the home made biscotti.
A small slice of pizza dolce, an Abruzzese version of zuppa inglese. Made of sponge, the alchermes gives it the bright red hue, and the pastry cream and chocolate just make it impossible to say no to.
After lunch, which we had on the closed in terrace in full view of the dramatically changing landscape, we toured the back dining room, which must be very cozy in the winter. But even if it’s not winter? Go back there anyway, just to see the owner’s collection of Gabriele d’Annunzio memorabilia. It includes (I kid you not) vintage photographs of every woman d’Annunzio slept with.
A coffee and then a walk around the town, which deserves its title of one of the worlds most charming Italian hill towns. By then we were ready to continue on our way to our destination. Or at least I was. I drove. Rolando napped. (!)
Taverna de li Caldora
Via Umberto I
Pacentro, AQ 67030
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