Here are the words I never thought I'd utter: I think I will die if I eat another plate of pasta. Shocking and sacrilegious? Sure is. Heretical, really, since I consider pasta a religious experience. All those old adages about too much of a good thing? Well, they're true. Just how much pasta must one consume to pass the "good thing" threshold? My marker came midway through the second week of Morso Soggiorno's Abruzzo Tours this fall. Perhaps you felt it, the moment the Earth briefly stopped spinning on its axis.
Let's just say that if all the linguini, tagliatelle, spaghetti, and vermicelli I ate were strung end to end, I would have had a veritable lifeline from Abruzzo back to Boston. And if all the filled pasta I was served were stacked one atop the other, the moon would have been within my grasp. Imagine a colorful, flavorful tower of ravioli, agnelloti, and sacchettini, propped on a luscious foundation of crespelle, tortelloni and pasticcio. You get the picture.
So, when I return to visit the lovely and talented Pietrantonj sisters, Alice and Roberta, at their family's 200-year old winery, I was worried. Very worried. The week before, their mother had prepared our group a traditional Italian Sunday dinner, on a Thursday, that featured a bountiful pasta course. I hope that the trek through their 60 hectares of vineyards might motivate my appetite. Only time would tell.
After hugs and kisses all around, Alice guides us into the heart of the vineyard, our 9-passenger Mercedes Vito, never meant to stand in as a 4x4, bumping, thumping, and bottoming out occasionally on rutted dirt roads. Even the shepherds and white, wooly sheepdogs give us the hairy eyeball. No matter. The guests are enthralled, their attention captivated by deep purple blue, lush and plentiful bunches of grapes nearly ready for the vendemmia.
Alice explains that, while not "properly" religious, she did journey this past weekend to Assisi, along with 1 million other faithful, to see the new Pope, Francesco, say mass at the 13th century Basilica di San Francesco. Pope Francis, the pope of the people, has gone a long way, even in all-Catholic-all-the-time Italy, to bring faith back into the lives of a struggling people. Italy's unemployment rate is 12.5%, and a staggering 40% of young people are unemployed.
Along with other intentions, she prayed for warmth, sun, and dry weather, just for another month (she would take two weeks, even, she bargained). In those few weeks, the grapes would boast an ideal sugar content and other flavor and aroma compounds that develop late in fruit ripening. At stake is the production of the jewel in the vineyard's crown, the Montepulciano d'Abruzzo D.O.C. Riserva.
Back at the cantina, the tour and a lovely glass of Spumante Pecorino Temé sipped in the family's 19th century garden behind us, we're seated at the family's "tasting" table. Platters of polpette arrive, and Roberta explains that her mother is not feeling well, so a friend has prepared a traditional Abruzzese campesino lunch for us.
I've eaten at this table often and the sisters, knowing how much I love experiencing new foods, are attentively anticipating my reaction to the meatballs. Hmm. They're meatballs. Is this a test? I look warily from the sisters to the spheres. The sisters smile. I break my meatball apart, a finely-grained creamy off-white interior emerges against the simple red tomato sauce. Aha. A clue. Veal, I say. No, they say. Fish, I say (hoping for anything but). The sisters raise their eyebrows. Taste, they say.
So I do. Bread and cheese dumplings! I say, with far too much enthusiasm, since I instantly realize this course stands in for pasta. Brava, they reply, nodding appreciatively at the knowledge my mouth has provided my brain. Bread, egg and cheese balls, known as cacio e uova, part of the tradition of cucina povera. A tradition that makes use of every last morsel found in the family's larder: the day or even week-old bread, the last hard rinds of the cheese, the eggs from the chickens. The food of hard-working poor people with limited time and resources, but excellent taste and hearty appetites.
And so mine returns, and I gluttonously eat three. Their appearance and simplicity are deceiving: they are light, fragrant, flavorful and satisfying. Its seems every cook in Abruzzo boasts "the best" recipe. The basics stay the same, but the technique varies. Bread and fry and serve without tomato sauce? Drop the dumplings in the sauce "as is?" I've even read about families who bake them first, to create a crisp outer layer.
For me, simple is always best. I roll the mixture between moist palms and drop them nude into simmering red sauce. There's real alchemy in the symbiotic exchange of flavors, transforming the most quotidian ingredients into something truly special. They make a great meal, with a salad. I've made smaller ones to serve as appetizers along side a glass of robust red wine. Simple, surprising and satisfying. As I'm often reminded often on my trips, it doesn't get much better than that.
Cacio e Uova
- 1 cup grated cow's milk or sheep's milk semi-soft cheese, like cacio di roma, or any semi-aged pecorino.
- 1 cup freshly made bread crumbs or good quality store-bought
- 1 handful of Italian parsley, finely chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 7 whole eggs
- salt and pepper to taste
- Place all ingredients into a large mixing bowl.
- Mix well, preferably by hand, until a homogeneous mixture forms.
- Allow to sit 10 minutes.
- Form mixture into balls.
- At this point, you can fry the balls in hot oil to brown them, or you can broil or bake in a 500° oven until browned.
- Simmer balls in tomato sauce of your choice for 15 minutes.
- Serve, with sauce, and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.
A recipe for my favorite tomato sauce can be found here.