Food and Wine Trails of Italy: Abruzzo

The next stop on our Italian road trip is Abruzzo, home to Montepulciano grapes. In this abundant land fed by four rivers, life seems barely changed since the days when villagers shared an oven and soup stocks passed from house to house

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Stepping on to the terrace of the Cerulli Spinozzi estate, bathed in golden autumn light, something magnificent awaits. The massif of the Gran Sasso dominates the horizon in its grandeur, and below lies a waving expanse of hills where the geometry of vineyards alternates with olive groves. This magical land, half-way down the boot of Italy in the northernmost part of Abruzzo, is squeezed between the mountains and the sea – beyond, hidden from view yet so close, gleams the deep blue of the Adriatic.

‘Sometimes it feels like living in a spa. You can go hiking or skiing in the morning and swimming in the evening,’ smiles Enrico Cerulli Irelli, the wine maker behind the estate.

During the vendemmia (harvest), the tractor cart can be seen moving slowly along the rows of vines to be filled with carefully hand-picked ripe red grapes. As in the rest of the region, the focus is on montepulciano grapes and, consequently, the wine produced, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. These wines must be made from at least 90 per cent montepulciano grapes, with sangiovese being the only other permitted variety. Montepulciano should not, however, be confused with the Tuscan village of the same name, which is famous for its Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (made from sangiovese grapes).

This particular production area, known as Colline Teramane due to its proximity to the city of Teramo, was the first in the region to obtain DOCG status in 2003. ‘It’s our note of distinction,’ says Enrico, before rattling off all the factors that contribute to its success: a clay and limestone terroir, good ventilation, abundance of water – supplied by four different rivers – and a marked day/night temperature fluctuation thanks to the vicinity of the Apennines.

The human element is not to be underestimated either, in the form of a generation of vintners fiercely proud of their territory. Enrico, a native of Rome, moved to the region of his ancestors some 20 years ago. ‘This is an “island” of authenticity and unspoilt environments,’ he says. ‘What you see in this corner of Italy connects you to the past. It’s almost like a time capsule.’

A short distance away, in quiet Teramo, La Cantina di Porta Romana, a quintessential trattoria housed in a former stable, proves Enrico’s point. The welcoming owner, Marcello Schillaci (‘Yes, like the striker!’), was born and bred in the neighbourhood and represents a sort of historical memory of the place.

‘I remember the people, the smells of my childhood,’ he says. ‘People would grill anything up, from freshwater fish to peppers – and food was meant to be shared. There was a real pleasure in that. It was right after the war and poverty could only be fought off with solidarity. This is why I opened this place, two decades ago – to share those memories, those flavours.’

Marcello’s daughter Paolina ladles out generous bowls of tajuline e fasciule, a nourishing noodle and bean soup, accompanied by glasses of ruby montepulciano. The broth is particularly flavoursome, thanks to the addition of garden herbs and a succulent ham bone, and Marcello explains how the latter used to travel from household to household, as part of that precious sharing culture.

More delights follow, including the unmissable ventricina teramana, a spreadable pork sausage best enjoyed on warm, crusty bread. Those simple flavours reveal a deep bond with the past, but in case you feel the need to spice them up, Marcello may well slip you a small plate with a pair of safety scissors and a chilli pepper with the invitation to help yourself.

The following morning, it’s time to head to the mountains. The scenic SS80 winds its way up to the ‘Big Rock of Italy’ and boasts breathtaking views of dense woodlands and bare rocks. A quick stop for gelato is recommended in Montorio al Vomano, a sleepy town topped by a grand yet unfinished Spanish castle. Bar Gelateria Benignetti, an unpretentious café dominated by Juventus posters and other soccer memorabilia, has the most delicious liquorice ice cream, almost with a sorbet consistency. Their 164-year-old recipe earned them fourth place in the ranking of Italy’s best ice creams.

Continuing along the uphill road to Pietracamela, with hairpin bends worthy of a James Bond movie, you’ll find one of the least densely populated villages in the lap of Gran Sasso – only 25 souls permanently live there. ‘There are certainly more wolves than people,’ exclaims Linda Montauti, owner of restaurant #Il Pranzetto in Bottega. ‘They roam the streets after dark, especially in winter, standing out in the dazzling snow and staring at you with those incredible yellow eyes.’

Linda’s menu is comfort food at its best, reflecting her culinary roots as well as a passion for local produce – be it chestnuts from the nearby hamlet of Intermesoli or olaci, a local variety of spinach that grows at 1,800m. She mixes these with ricotta and makes pallotte cheese, bread and egg balls, the same way shepherds used to.

Linda’s grandfather opened the hotel next door in times when alpinism was still an elitist thing, and hundreds of guests’ details are neatly noted down in a century-old hotel register. Among them, merchants, students, mountaineers and even a few giramondo – globetrotters – and each line tells a different tale. A certain Mr Bonaccorsi, a Milan-born engineer, was a regular. ‘He was the one who first brought skis to these peaks. Locals said he was “flying over the snow” and he was perceived as a sort of a magician,’ says Linda.

Travelling is still slow-going but distances are short and, with the sea only an hour away, it makes a natural finishing point to your journey. The coast features a string of small towns with long sandy beaches and, if the newer developments by the seaside are modern and rather unattractive, the quaint old towns perched on hilltops behind them are definitely worth a visit. From the panoramic viewpoint of Giulianova paese (the historic part of the town, up in the hills), for instance, the ordered expanse of beach chairs and umbrellas of its lido seems a world apart.

A smooth drive along the A14 coastal motorway takes you to Arca, where owner and chef Massimiliano Capretto is taking tradition into the 21st century. In business for the past 24 years and certified organic for more than half of them, his love for healthy food drove him behind the hot stove. ‘I call it Mediterranean organic cuisine, born out of my passion for macrobiotic food, revisited in a happy, gourmet version,’ he says.

Brivido d’estate, one of Massimiliano’s long-standing signature dishes, delivers exactly what he says: cold, soba-style spaghetti served on a gazpacho made with Pera d’Abruzzo tomatoes and enriched with 15 types of herbs, from aniseedy warm chervil to bittersweet tarragon. Give it a moment and something happens – a tingle throughout the mouth and then down to the throat, leading to the most pleasant aftertaste. Your palate will appreciate these aromatics – in fact, you could say the culinary future of the region has this exact refreshing taste.

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The route

Day 1 Canzano to Teramo Start your journey at Canzano, in the heart of Colline Teramane production zone, where art lovers should plan a short diversion to the 11th-century abbey of San Clemente al Vomano. Make room for traditional turkey dish tacchino alla canzanese before heading to Teramo to explore the city’s artistic heritage. Highlights are the 12th-century cathedral, the nearby ruins of the Teatro Romano and, further on, Santa Maria Aprutiensis, the ancient former cathedral.

Day 2 Teramo to Pietracamela Take the scenic SS80 up the narrow upper Val Vomano to the north. En route to the mountain village of Pietracamela, plan a couple of stops to visit Montorio al Vomano and the peaceful hamlet of Intermesoli.

Day 3 The ‘Great Rock of Italy’ Pietracamela is the perfect base for hikes, cycling and climbing excursions. Stride out over the Sella dei Due Corni to Campo Imperatore, Italy’s Little Tibet, where the view opens up to an immense plateau ringed by bare mountains. For skiing/snowboarding, head to Gran Sasso’s biggest resort, Prati di Tivo.

Day 4 From the mountains to the sea Explore the heritage of the rural area on the slopes of Gran Sasso. Visit the charming town of Castelli for ceramics, then head for the Adriatic via Atri, built on three hills overlooking the sea and famous for the calanchi (badlands), a geomorphological phenomenon that sculpted the slopes over thousands of years.

Day 5 The Adriatic coast Discover the small towns dotted along the coastline, from Roseto degli Abruzzi to Alba Adriatica. From Roseto you can head up the valley (on the SS150) to see the Romanesque gems of Santa Maria di Propezzano, an abbey dating back to the 12th century. Stops along the coast include the historic centre of Giulianova and the hilltop town of Tortoreto, with its fortified medieval centre and splendid 13th-century frescoes in the church of Santa Maria della Misericordia.

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Where to eat

Prices are per person for a three-course meal, excluding drinks, unless otherwise stated

Arca Chef Massimiliano Capretta’s restaurant is all about tradition revisited. Macrobiotic cuisine is his lifetime passion as well as his main source of inspiration, combined with a focus on local produce. Start with the perfectly tender sous-vide polpo (octopus) with green apple and pinzimonio (fresh vegetable) salad, continue with the Japanese-inspired brivido d’estate spaghetti with gazpacho, and finish with a delicious dessert prepared by Massimiliano’s sister, Dalila. Choose from several tasting menus or a la carte. From £44. Via G Mazzini 109, Alba Adriatica, 00 39 0861 714647,

#Il Pranzetto in Bottega Linda Montauti transformed her small family restaurant combining traditional mountain food with a farm-to-table approach. Try zuppa di ceci, castagne e funghi porcini (chickpea, chestnut and porcini mushroom soup) and panzé con patate, baked egg wrapped in bacon. Don’t forget to ask for the red marker to leave a message of appreciation on the restaurant’s white-washed walls. From £18. Via XXIV Maggio 8, Pietracamela, 00 39 0861 955109,

La Cantina di Porta Romana Housed in a former-stable-turned-inn, this iconic place in the heart of Teramo has been under the lead of Marcello Schillaci and his family for the past 20 years. Under porticoes in the dining room, surrounded by knick-knacks and family pictures, traditional cucina teramana is served, with the likes of timballo alla teramana (a local version of lasagne, made with scrippelle crêpes). Marcello is a connoisseur of his region’s cuisine and chances are you’ll leave the place feeling more like a friend than a customer. Two-course menu £13. Corso Porta Romana 105, Teramo, 00 39 0861 252257,

Per Voglia An osteria where locals come for traditional fare such as tacchino alla canzanese – a dish that dates back to the days when each village had a communal oven and, one time, because of a blizzard, the food had to be left overnight. In the morning, the women found the turkey had gone cold and the broth had become jelly. From £30. Strada XXIV Maggio 25, Castelbasso, 00 39 0861 508035

Tagliato A budget-friendly address in the old part of Giulianova. Try the addictive formaggio fritto (fried cheese) and arrosticini skewers served in copper jugs. From £22. Via Tito Acerbo 13, Giulianova, 00 39 328 453 8092

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The producers

Barone Cornacchia One of the oldest wineries in the area. At the beginning of last century, Filippo Vizzarro Cornacchia was a pioneer of wine production in the region, selecting ancient clones and planting new vineyards. Several generations later, the family legacy lives on with his great-grandchildren, Filippo and Caterina. Today all farming is organic – not just vines but also olives and cereals grown on the estate. Wine tasting from £22pp. Booking required. Località Villa Torri 19, Torano Nuovo, 00 39 861 887412,

Podere Colle San Massimo A small producer that takes its name from the scenic San Massimo hill, overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Originally from Piedmont, Salvatore Salinitro relocated here in 2008 after a long period in Switzerland and his 7.5 hectares – of which four are vineyards – have been fully organic since 2011. In addition to montepulciano, he also produces passerina and pecorino. Wine tasting from £9pp. Booking required. Via Colle San Massimo 16, Giulianova, 00 39 339 851 2963,

Tenuta Cerulli Spinozzi Located near the town of Canzano, the estate extends for over 180ha and includes vineyards, olive trees and other crops. Make sure you try their Torre Migliori Colline Teramane DOCG, the winery’s cru, made exclusively with montepulciano grapes from their oldest vineyards. The farm’s produce includes a variety of organic products such as DOP olive oil and tomato sauce and can be purchased in the shop on the estate or in the new store inside the 16th-century Torre del Salinello (via Galileo Galilei, Giulianova), a splendid watchtower by the sea recently re-opened to the public after a long restoration period. Wine tasting from £18. Booking required. SS150, km17.600, Canzano, 00 39 0861 57193,

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Where to stay

Casina Margherita This country house is surrounded by the vineyards of the Cerulli Spinozzi estate, where everything speaks of former grandeur, from a splendid wall of ceramic tile work accurately reproducing the landscape outside to the elegant vintage furniture of the sitting room. Lovingly restored and turned into a charming guest house, it offers five rooms named after as many typical herbs. Views all the way to the Gran Sasso are the icing on the cake. Doubles from £113, including breakfast. Località Casale 15, Canzano, 00 39 0861 57193,

La Nostra Magione Husband and wife architect duo Francesco D’Angelo and Francesca Catania, originally from the south of Italy, fell in love with the fortified little town of Montepagano and embarked on a careful renovation of some ancient buildings. The result is four rooms and three fully-equipped apartments spread between the bastion and the watchtower. The interiors reflect Francesca’s impeccable taste, and include objects she brought back from her wanderings around the world as well as others she designed herself. The use of a small spa is also available upon request. Doubles from £116 including breakfast. Corso Umberto I 106, Montepagano, Roseto degli Abruzzi, 00 39 335 665 3270,

L’Orso e l’Ape Owned by winemaker Salvatore Salinitro and wife Cinzia Vurro, this B&B has the most idyllic of settings, surrounded by olive groves, cypress trees and a priceless view that goes from the sea to the Apennines. The house, built on the ruins of a former country mansion, has six guest rooms and is made entirely from wood – anti-seismic and eco-friendly to tie in with the couple’s sustainable life philosophy. Doubles from £64, including breakfast. Via Colle San Massimo 16, Giulianova, 00 39 339 851 2963

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