Beat that, Bourdain.

No, I'm not fool enough to go toe to toe with Anthony Bourdain.

First off, he's my culinary travel hero. He's real, raw and adventurous. Second off, he's a snarky fuck, and I doubt even I could hold my own against him in a competition, verbal or otherwise. (Although, it might be close.) And third off, well, he's Anthony Bourdain. And I'm Linda Plazonja. That pretty much says it all.

But in the spirit of channeling my inner Anthony Bourdain, I did invoke the "What Would Tony Do?" mantra more than once when planning my culinary anthropology expeditions to deepest, darkest Italy. I took a liberal page from his books, and his TV shows. Anthony Bourdain is the king of no-holds-barred, complete immersion. He'll go anywhere, meet anyone, eat anything. Me, I like to think I live by the same code. But truth be told, tripe will stop me dead in my tracks and expose me as a wimp. I'd be shaking my head in the universal language of "not on your life," while between bites, my hero would be asking "Which part of the cow's four stomachs is this particular dish from?"

So, I'm the first to admit, I'm a poor imitation. But I'm also the first to admit that the travel I plan is not the norm. It is out-of-the-way without being over-the-top. The local folks I meet passionately and joyfully immerse me in their culinary and agricultural traditions. I can enjoy the experience without requiring a lawyer, production crew or a hospital visit. And best of all, the food I eat sates my curiosity as well as my appetite without qualifying me for an episode of Extreme Eating Disgusting Edition.

More than once over the last three weeks, my groups and I experienced many "Bourdain moments." So, for the next few weeks, or for as long as they last, I'll serve you up one a day.

La Bettola di Geppetto

In the the hilltop town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, we're the only folks in the small, homey restaurant cum butcher shop, La Bettola di Geppetto, Geppetto's Tavern. Geppetto, whose real name is Francesco (don't ask) seats us, serves us a local Pecorino wine, and, without our saying a word, brings out steaming bowls of lentil soup. Like magic, saffron and ricotta ravioli and tagliatelle with funghi porcini and guanciale, both homemade, appear on giant platters on both ends of the table.

Presidium lentil soup in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo.
Presidium lentil soup in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo.
Saffron and Ricotta Ravioli in Santo Stefano di Sessanio.
Saffron and Ricotta Ravioli in Santo Stefano di Sessanio.
Tagliatelle with Porcini and Guanciale at La Bettola di Gepetto.
Tagliatelle with Porcini and Guanciale at La Bettola di Gepetto.

Curious about the origins of this lavish feast, I pretend to use the bathroom and peek into the kitchen. A small, grey-haired lady in a pink housecoat is at a four burner stove, calmly preparing a five course meal for our group of 10. This is Lena, Francesco's wife and partner of 60 years. After additional courses of house-made grilled sausages, veal chops, arrosticini, formaggio in padella, cicoria and tiramisu, Lena appears from the kitchen, no worse for the wear, to join us in a glass of of genciana, a local digestif made from gentian root. It ain't called the Devil's Taint for nothing.

Lena and Francesco at La Bettola di Gepetto
Lena and Francesco at La Bettola di Gepetto
Francesco and the Genziana at La Bettola di Geppetto.
Francesco and the Genziana at La Bettola di Geppetto.

One of my guests, Bonnie, is from a farming family that dates back 15-generations. That's about as old as American farming gets, my friends. She asks me to ask Geppetto about the grains in the pasta, wanting to see Italian farro and grano duro up close and personal. Stop back tomorrow afternoon, Geppetto says. I'll bring you some.

The next morning, we're up and at 'em early, walking the fields that dot the hillside, watching the early morning dance of farmers tending their fields. A tractor rolls up, and lo and behold, Geppetto is in the driver's seat, wielding a bunch of farro like a bouquet of flowers picked for his first sweetheart, which he shyly presents to Bonnie.

Francesco and his tractor in the fields in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo.
Francesco and his tractor in the fields in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo.

After a discussion of the grains, he doffs his cap, hops into the cab, and rattles away, giant tires grinding into rocky, boney earth. Earth that has yielded grains that have sustained generations through brutal winters, and left us just a little warmer, too, in the fall chill of an October morning.

Alessio, Francesco and Bonnie check out the grains in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo.
Alessio, Francesco and Bonnie check out the grains in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo.