Abruzzo is outlined by the Apennine Mountains. The mountains that run through the region include some of the highest peaks in the chain: both Gran Sasso and the Maiella group are over 8,000 ft high. The landscape flattens as you move eastward towards the sea. Rather than mountains, you find soft hills, often covered by forests. Abruzzo was originally home to the Piceni population, who also occupied the southern part of the Marche.
Abruzzo was conquered by the Romans, who divided the territory into two parts. With the fall of the Empire, Abruzzo fell under the control of the Byzantines, the Lombards and the Franks. The region later became part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and was under the Norman domination when Emperor Frederick II united the area and founded the city of L’Aquila. During the successive battles between the French and the Spanish for control of the kingdom of Naples, until the unification of Italy, Abruzzo experienced a long period of unrest and emigration.
The gastronomic culture of Abruzzo is made up in large part by the influences of the surrounding regions, especially the Marche. Abruzzo, itself, is considered a frugal, pastoral place and the food is generally very simple and inexpensive. However, during times of celebration, the cooking becomes more elaborate, as in case of the Panarda, a feast consisting in around 50 courses.
Maccheroni alla chitarra is a classic first course in Abruzzo. Maccheroni are squared spaghetti-like noodles made from fresh pasta dough. The pasta is often served with a traditional lamb ragu cooked in a catturo, or copper pan, with onions and diavolillo, the ubiquitous dried chili pepper. In Abruzzo, you will also find crespelle, savory Italian crepes, stuffed and cooked in the oven with meat sauce or on the stovetop in a simmering broth. However, Abruzzo is famous for its excellent dried pasta, the best of which is made by local artisans.
When it comes to meat, lamb is often prepared using a recipe called Cacio e uova, meaning with pecorino cheese and egg, and the lamb intestines are used to stuff meat roll-ups. Pork is used to prepare ’ndocca ’ndocca, a stew of boiled meat that includes all the parts of the pig, from the snout to the tail.
The fish and seafood dishes are usually more fanciful than the meat. The recipes tend to rely less on tomato and more on pepperoncino, especially in fish stews.
Abruzzo is also known for a number of unique, regional products. Cicerchia, or grass-pea, is a regional specialty, as are truffles and saffron from L’Aquila, red garlic from Sulmona and the diavolillo peperoncino that is used to flavor just about any dish. Abruzzo is also a big producer of extra virgin olive oil. The region has three classified DOP varieties.
Sheep’s milk cheeses dominate dairy production. Caciocavallo and Scamorza are two local favorites that can be found young and aged. Ventricina is a pork sausage found in both Abruzzo and Molise and stuffed into a casing made from pork stomach, rather than intestine. Look for ventricina from Teramo, it is thought to be the best. Soppressate and mortadelle are also produced in Abruzzo, and should be eaten with a glass of local Montepulciano d’Abruzzo or Trebbiano wine.