Eating out in our bit of southern Abruzzo had always been one of the true pleasures of living here.
Because it’s an absolute favourite Abruzzese activity, there are restaurants galore. And because this is still a decidedly untouristy part of Italy, 99% of the clientele in any given restaurant is local – so if anywhere starts to serve below-average food food at above-average prices, they’re not going to last long.
Word will get around.
What this all means – as pretty well all of you who’ve holidayed here have discovered – is you can eat very well for very little money.
But there’s a catch…
Because all the places to eat round here are primarily for locals, it’s not altogether surprising they’re set-up for how local people want to eat. And that closely follows the traditional Italian menu of antipasti; primi; secondi; dolci.
What does all that mean ?
Antipasti are the pre-main event nibbles. The starters. These can be extraordinarily lavish: plateful after small plateful of little local delicacies – and they can be the best thing on the whole menu.
Primi are the pasta courses. You’ll be offered at least half-a-dozen choices. Usually quite a few more.
Secondi are the main courses. If it’s meat – usually beef/veal; lamb; chicken and pork; less usually rabbit – it’ll be char-grilled. If it’s fish – and by-and-large we’re talking Adriatic/Mediterranean offerings, not nice big chunks of North Atlantic white fish – it’ll be fried or maybe steamed or baked whole.
Dolci are the desserts.
And the over-riding rule is – there are no rules. Have just one course. If you’re v.hungry/greedy, have four. Or any other combo in-between.
Sounds great – right ? Well…no actually.
Problem is that when you walk into virtually any local eaterie, you’re going to know pretty much what’ll be on the menu.
And while that can be safe and reassuring, it does – especially when you’ve lived here as long as we have – tend to get a bit same-old, same-old after a while.
Sometimes, it’s exactly what you want. Sometimes, it’s exactly what you don’t.
Which is why we love finding new places that are a bit – or a lot – different.
So…in no particular order, here’s where we go when we want a change. We’ve included one or two before in previous restaurant round-ups. But as they’re terrifically good, no apologies for mentioning them again…
La Vineria di Salnitro (San Martino sulla Maruccina)
Last time I looked, La Vineria was ranked #9 out of 1185 restaurants in the Province of Chieti. Top 1%.
What’s Different About It ?
It’s like no other restaurant I know of around here. Maybe in all Abruzzo. Perhaps in all Italy.
Built into the original town walls of the splendidly-named San Martino sulla Marrucina, not only is the food decidedly anything but standard Abruzzese fare, but the whole place is so delightfully quirky, unexpected and endlessly laid-back, that it’s simply captivating.
Wonderful atmosphere. Great music. Comfortable and relaxed. Zero dress-code. And the food…
A regularly-changing fixed menu with enough choice to avoid having anything you don’t really fancy. (Though it’s usually a case of having to make tough choices between what you do…)
Recognisably Italian, with an Ossobucco ragu for pasta and a fantastic Montepulciano Risotto. Unrecognisably Italian with something of a signature-dish baked onion among the antipasti and a light, deconstructed cheesecake as the single dessert.
Just a couple of mouthfuls to round off the three sensibly-portioned previous courses.
Angelo will look after you. In fact, Angelo looks after everything. His slouch-hatted presence and roguish twinkle are the icing on La Vineria’s rather magical cake…
Dei Pane e Dei Pesci (Pescara)
The literal translation means ‘Loaves and Fishes’. It’s one of (very) many fish restaurants you’ll find in Pescara.
What’s Different About It ?
Abruzzo’s Adriatic coast is lined with fish restaurants. Most are ‘traditional’; fairly formulaic; and most are…well…fine, in a kind of ‘we don’t have to try too hard, because you’re basically paying for the view – and you’re also probably on holiday, so it doesn’t really matter if you don’t come back’ sort of way.
Some, I should rapidly add, are really, really good. Worth ferreting out. And Pane e Pesci is one of the very best.
Easy to find next to Pescara’s old covered market, just a short walk away from the city’s main drag, what sets this place apart is that it’s decidedly stylish; very buzzy; small and noisy (doesn’t really come to life until after 9); with a really excellent blend of traditional and innovative on the short menu.
Antipasti are inventively prepared and presented. A good mix of hot and cold fishy mouthfuls. Not so much they’ll kill your appetite. Not so little you’ll feel short-changed.
It’s in the primi where ancient starts to meet modern. A seriously traditional Abruzzo staple of sagne e ceci – pasta and chickpeas – appears with frutti di mare. Then inventiveness takes over with a much lighter dish of pasta teamed with red mullet and citrus.
As you’d expect, the secondi feature a calamari frittura – practically mandatory on any Abruzzo fish menu. It’s well above-average and extremely good. (And great value too at €11). At the the end of the scale, lash out €50 and share a wild seabass.
And did I mention they bake their own bread ? It’s where the ‘Loaves’ of their name comes in – and it’s also very good.
You can lunch here (and very nicely too), but it’s really in the evening that the food, the atmosphere and the clientele make a very good – and very different – place to eat even better.
Chef Nestor (Pescara)
…and while we’re in Pescara, let me tell you about Chef Nestor. It’s a chain eaterie with – at the last count – three outlets in/around Pescara. The one I visit regularly is just a few minutes walk from Dei Pane e Dei Pesce.
What’s Different About It ?
It’s a sushi bar/Japanese restaurant ! Because much as I love good Italian food – and even though it’s not hard to improvise your way round a curry and get hold of a good steak – there are times you just want something utterly and absolutely off-piste.
And at times like that, a proper Japanese restaurant of outstanding quality and great value is a find to be treasured and trumpetted.
I’ve never eaten what might be called pinnacle-quality sushi, so I really have no idea whether a sushi purist would tuck in enthusiastically at Chef Nestor, or turn up their noses and go off in search of a cheese sandwich. (And good luck with finding one of those in Pescara btw…)
All I’ll say is that the chefs at work in the open-plan preparation area are all Japanese – all insouciance; fierce concentration; and astounding dexterity.
And the fish is squeaky-fresh; beautifully prepared and presented; and sublimely delicious.
Best value is a Bento box containing 16 pieces of mixed sushi. Supreme value at €18.
If you’re not a fish fan, you’ll be happy to come across Chicken Teriyaki and Vegetable Tempura. (Fish and shellfish Tempura on offer too).
Japanese beer; Italian wine; cheery waiting staff; a mixture of seating areas from traditional chairs/tables and (surprisingly comfortable) high bar stools. Open for lunch and dinner.
And here’s something to nb…
Every time I’ve been here – and I mean every time – it’s been booked-out and we’ve been the only people there under 35. Definitely a young and cosmopolitan clientele – but not their mums and dads.
If you’re looking for anything non-Italian to eat in this part of the world, Pescara’s the only place you’ll find where bucking the traditional trend is wholeheartedly embraced.
And no, we didn’t feel remotely out of place…
Lu Pennese (Casoli)
But if we’re talking full-on, no prisoners traditional Abruzzese, nowhere comes close to a place just down the road from Villasfor2, called Lu Pennese.
What’s Different About It ?
Though it’s primarily a bar, it serves food. More to the point, it serves just one kind of food – an Abruzzo speciality called Porchetta.
And if you’re a place that serves just one thing, you’d better make damn sure that the one thing is extraordinarily good in every way.
What’s Porchetta ? It’s a young pig; boned and with its legs removed; and then slow-roasted in a clay oven for up to 12 hours. Then it’s sliced – not too thinly/not too thickly; and eaten – (best with fingers) – with nothing more than bread and oil; beer or wine; and maybe a few tomatoes.
Porchetta suppliers – and there are many, because Abruzzese love Porchetta with an undiminishing ferocity – each use their own unique signature blend of herbs, spices and additional other ingredients. Lu Pennese’s are a well-guarded secret, but by common consent, their Porchetta is the best in all Abruzzo
They’ve been going since the mid-60’s, and though the outside gets a new coat of paint every so often, the inside looks as though it’s firmly resisted every attempt at redecoration or modernisation in the intervening half-century.
You can eat inside – or outside in summer. The former will appeal to anyone wanting a giant hit of full-on authenticity with no frills and few concessions to such fripperies as comfort. Outside, on what can be a thunderingly busy main road connecting Casoli and Guardiagrele, isn’t too much better.
On the other hand, if you do dine-in, you can take full advantage of the full menu which – Porchetta aside – comprises three other items:
- Arrosticini. (Not always available, this is another local delicacy. Pencil-thin mutton kebabs).
- Cheese and salami.
- Bread and oil.
So what you do, on a Friday or Saturday, is order take-out. Yes, you have to order this 24hrs in advance. Yes, it is absurdly cheap. €10-worth would feed two ravenous hyenas.
Yes, it’s also absurdly delicious, and made all the more-so because until you take your first bite of pork that’s unlike any other piece of pork you’ve ever tasted, there’ll be this nagging doubt in the back of your mind that a place as…well…plain as this, offering cheap eats handed over the counter to you in a foil dish inside a paper bag, simply can’t be up to much.
The fact it undeniably is allegedly starts with Lu Pennese being unique in raising their own pigs. And that they’ve had half-a-century to tweak and refine their porky product – which truly is as good as it gets.
It’s never going to win any Michelin stars. But it goes on making a lot of people very full and very happy.
La Sorgente (Guardiagrele)
You don’t need me to tell you about the relationship between Italians and pizza. It’s a sacred and unbreakable bond, so woe betide anywhere that allows even the tiniest deviations from the usual standards of good/better/even better.
But while it’s actually quite rare to find a genuinely bad pizzeria-made pizza – (and even the big squares/triangles you get in fast food outlets and bars are usually kind-of OK) – it’s even more unusual to come across one that starts to challenge your preconceptions of what a pizza actually is.
Which is where La Sorgente comes in. I’ve previously devoted an entire enthusiastic blog to it, so yes – I do think it’s rather good. But love it or not, it’s decidedly different, hence its inclusion here…
What’s Different About It ?
Well…it’s a pizzeria. But the pizza are definitely not what you’d expect…
Gambero Rosso – the Italian equivalent of the Good Food Guide – chose La Sorgente as one of their ‘Best 7 In Italy’ in 2016 – and made it the only pizzeria in Abruzzo to which they gave their maximum score.
Gambero Rosso also decided that a pizza on offer called ‘La Provocazione’ – (none of your tomato/mozarella/spicy salami/mushroom/olives here thank you very much) – was worthy of one of their 2016 awards for ‘Best Pizza in Italy’.
And when they came back this year to see how things were going, they came across a new addition to the menu called ‘Omaggio a Sicilia’, and a bite or two later decided here was one of the winners of ‘Best Pizza in Italy 2017’
You get the drift…but enough of bandying about awards and fancy names. More to the point, what are you actually going to eat ?
Let’s take ‘La Provocazione’. The base is smoked buffalo mozarella cheese. On top of that are little nuggets of Ventricina, which is a very spicy Abruzzese salami; slivers of red onion; a little sprinkling of chopped toasted almonds; a few leaves of wild fennel; a little trickle of orange blossom honey; and a final drizzle of local extra-virgin olive oil.
And what you get when you take a bite is the warm richness of the cheese, with a little smoky hint. Then onion. Cheese-and-onion. Legendary combo. The Ventricina provides little explosions of spicy heat, offset by a tiny touch of sweetness from the honey. The toasted almonds provide crunch and texture. The wild fennel just the merest hint of aniseed.
It’s sensational. It truly is. And the rest of the pizza on the menu are similarly inventive.
It’s not cheap either.
At pretty well any ‘regular’ pizzeria round here, you’ll get a handful of change from €30 for a couple of pizza, with some beer or wine.
At La Sorgente, make that something between €50 and €60.
But looking at that in context, as a rule of thumb that’s also what you’d pay to eat at most top-end local restaurants. So if you can get over the mental hurdle of paying that amount just for a pizza, you’re actually not shelling-out any more than you’d pay to go anywhere else.
La Sorgente’s perhaps best enjoyed in the company of friends, because four – or more – of you can each order a pizza, with each one then being served as a separate ‘course’ so you can all try a slice or two.
But even just two of you sharing two pizza won’t come off too badly – and it’ll be the perfect excuse to then go back and try any others you like the look of…
All Abruzzo food needn’t necessarily always be the same…