A Culinary Road Trip through Italy

Overlooking Ariccia, one of the hill towns in the Castelli Romani and the supposed birthplace of porchetta.

Overlooking Ariccia, one of the hill towns in the Castelli Romani and the supposed birthplace of porchetta.

The ancient Via Appia was once Rome’s main artery to the Italian countryside, where the roots of the city’s rustic, simple cuisine run deep. Retracing the route today is as appetizing a proposition as ever, as a road trip from the Alban Hills to the remarkable cave-town of Matera attests.

Photographs by Jason Michael Lang

Lunchtime at Il Cantuccio, one of the top trattorias in Matera.

Lunchtime at Il Cantuccio, one of the top trattorias in Matera.

This trip really began five years ago, on the day I drowned.

In the summer of 2011, my friend Paolo Vitaletti and I were planning to open a Roman-style trattoria in Bangkok. Paolo, born and raised in Rome, was an accomplished hotel chef who had worked in some of the top five-star properties in Asia. I was a reformed food writer and budding restaurateur who had recently started my first restaurant, Soul Food Mahanakorn, in Bangkok’s Thonglor neighborhood. But before we could finalize our plans, I hit my head on the edge of a swimming pool, sunk to the bottom, and almost died. The trattoria was put on hold. When I finally recovered, Paolo suggested we go to Italy. To eat, to breathe clean air, and, perhaps most importantly, to clear my troubled head. And so a few weeks later we headed to Rome and sped off in his mom’s Fiat through Tuscany and up to Emilia-Romagna. Originally we had planned to go south, yet somehow we veered north.

Paolo Vitaletti picking fava beans in the fields behind his mother’s house in Rome.

Paolo Vitaletti picking fava beans in the fields behind his mother’s house in Rome.

A month after that trip, Paolo and I were back in Bangkok agonizing over what to call our trattoria. Finally, we settled on Appia, after ancient Rome’s “Queen of Roads”—the Via Appia. It was the road we hadn’t taken, but the countryside it traverses is a wellspring of Rome’s rustic, simple cuisine, and thus the root of Paolo’s own cooking. Appia—it was the perfect name.

An original stone-paved stretch of the Appian Way (as it’s known in English) runs behind Paolo’s family home in the Roman suburb of Falcognana, just 10 minutes outside the city’s third-century Aurelian Walls. From there, the route—now mostly superseded by highways and country roads—rolls south through the hills of Lazio toward Naples, before cutting inland across Campania, Basilicata, and fertile Puglia to its terminus at Brindisi, once a major Roman port on the Adriatic. Paolo and I have taken several trips to Italy in the four years since we opened Appia, but last May we determined to retrace the length of the Appian Way with our friend and photographer Jason Michael Lang. The mission was simple: to eat well, to acquaint ourselves with local produce and producers, and, along the way, to gather material for a cookbook that had been two years in the making.

After a final taste of Paolo’s mother Pia’s peerless chicken soup, we drove out of Rome in a rented Peugeot toward the Castelli Romani, an area of pretty towns and volcanic lakes in the Alban Hills. One of these towns, Ariccia, makes claim to being the birthplace of porchetta—spit-roasted pig that is rubbed with salt, pepper, and rosemary and served in thick, salty slices between pieces of rustic bread. Roman families arrive in Ariccia on the weekends to eat at its famous freschette, traditional taverns that seem more like a picnic with waitstaff than a restaurant, with big jugs of the local amber-hued Frascati wine filling the outdoor tables alongside piles of salami, mortadella, porchetta, marinated peppers, briny olives, and pickled artichokes, which one eats with the local sourdough. As we stuffed ourselves, an accordion player went from table to table, tipsy patrons singing along. The scene was utterly charming, and a little wistful, like looking at a faded postcard.

An original section of the Via Appia just outside Rome.

An original section of the Via Appia just outside Rome.

The Italy of postcards is, in fact, not hard to find, but with its steep, winding roads, it can be a challenge to drive through. Still, the bucolic beauty of rural Lazio helped calm our nerves. Tomatoes, cherries, and grapes grow here in abundance; wild asparagus and artichokes sprout from the rich earth. Ruins dot the hillsides. And whenever we stopped to stretch our legs or investigate a roadside stall, the bells of sheep clanged in the distance as the animals stumbled around in search of the grasses and herbs that, someday, would infuse the pecorino cheese that is served on almost every pasta in Rome.

Rigatoni with anchovies and roasted tomatoes.

Rigatoni with anchovies and roasted tomatoes.

In the Ciociaria, an area know for its ruggedness and as the site of fierce fighting during World War II, we stopped at an agroturismo (farm-hotel) called Casa Lawrence, after D.H. Lawrence, who was drawn to the remoteness of this part of Italy. He wrote about it—and its Etruscan history—in the 1920s. I’m quite certain he also ate well there too.

Nestled in a valley below the Appenine Mountains, Casa Lawrence is owned by Loretto Pacitti, who also happens to be a cheese-maker. Paolo had first met him a year before at the Sunday farmer’s market in Rome, and we’d been bringing his cheeses to Bangkok ever since. Pacitti, however, was late to arrive, so we lounged around on the grass outside his small inn, staring up at the electric-green flanks of the mountains. Bees whirred around our heads, 
pollenating the thistle flowers and apple blossoms.

When Pacitti eventually showed up, he opened his 19th-century villa with a comically large brass key.
We stepped into a kitchen with the subtle, leathery funk of aging hams (from wild black pigs), a simple wood stove, and a room full of maturing cheeses, all of which he produces from his flock of 800 sheep. Some were fresh and others slowly growing mold. A few were enrobed in a local mountain herb,
 santo reggio, whose astringent qualities preserve the sheep’s-milk cheese during the long transhumance. That tradition of migration, still very much alive, takes place when Italian shepherds lead their flocks from the summer grazing areas of Umbria and Abruzzo down to the toe of Italy. As Pacitti led me outside and into the surrounding forest to find some wild rosemary and santo reggio, just up a mountain path, a hard, unripe fig dropped rudely onto my head. He laughed.

The author tackling a porchetta sandwich in Ariccia.

The author tackling a porchetta sandwich in Ariccia.

“The people here are rough,” Pacitti told me, “so I escaped to university. But then I realized I had left a beautiful world behind. And I wanted to preserve it, and the history of the area. What you see now represents 20 years of hard work, to reintroduce ancient cheese-making that was lost, to create a community of shepherds, to support and promote our local culture. My business is flight, escape—it is a resistance of mass production, and senseless regulations, so that someday children might know how real food is made.” That evening, we sat together eating cheeses that hadn’t been made since Roman times. Some were sweet and soft, others hard and sharp. We also ate mutton grilled on skewers, from members of the flock that no longer produced milk. And we understood, keenly, why someone would want to keep traditions like these alive.

The following day, we rose and hit the highway, stopping for coffee at a gas station where a gruff barista mechanically slapped espresso grounds into huge bins—getting a cup of coffee at an Italian gas station takes no more than a minute. An hour south of Pacitti’s farm we drove into the ancient town of Capua, a place that Paolo informed me, with an arched eyebrow, was controlled by the mafia. Founded in Etruscan times, it isn’t much to look at these days, save for the crumbling remains of an amphitheater on its outskirts. Spartacus fought here, at what was once the southernmost point of the Via Appia. History hangs in the air.

Beyond Capua, the landscape opens onto a coastal plain dominated by the broad shoulders of Mount Vesuvius. Naples lay in our path, as did our lunch at the eponymous pizzeria of Guglielmo Vuolo. Paolo, who trained with Vuolo two years ago, says he is one of the city’s best pizzaiolos, and after about seven terrific pizzas—the dough is made with seawater from the Mediterranean—Jason and I could only agree.

The main beach at Cetara, a fishing town on the Amalfi Coast.

The main beach at Cetara, a fishing town on the Amalfi Coast.

We stopped for the night at Cetara, another hour’s drive to the south. Unlike the other towns on the Amalfi Coast, Cetara is populated mostly by locals—many of them fishermen, to judge from the boats on the beach—rather than overrun by tourists. And it is famous for two things. One is anchovies, which are eaten fresh, fried, salted, or pickled and made into a fish sauce called colatura di alici. The other is lemons, and that’s really why we had come: to meet a lemon farmer named Luigi Roberto Di Crescenzo.

Paolo, Jason, and I gasped for breath the next morning as we climbed the hill that rises sharply behind Cetara. Uneven houses eventually made way for the craggy rock-cut terraces where Luigi grows his citrus. “We are blessed with the soul, and the soil, of Vesuvius,” the third-generation lemon farmer told us as Hercules, his Jack Russell terrier, chased lizards along the cliffs. “And with the mountains behind us that block the cold winds of the north, but welcome the warm winds from Africa.” Grown organically, his lemons are big, bright-yellow, and sweet—the best I’ve ever tasted. They were also once shipped across the world, but not after the arrival of the industrial giant Sunkist. “You Americans, you buy with your eyes, not your nose,” Luigi sniffs. “It’s impossible to make a living farming lemons anymore.”

Back in Cetara we had lunch in the breezy portico of the town’s best restaurant, Acquapazza, feasting on fritto misto, pesto alla cetarese, and plates of pasta simply cooked with fish sauce. Stuffed, we climbed back in the Peugeot for a drive around the steep cliffs of the Amalfi Coast to explore the other producers in the area. An hour later, we were sitting in some of the world’s best tomato groves, where the Corbarino tomato plants, shaded by fat-leafed fig, hazelnut, and cherry trees, are grown. We ate apricots and cherries with thick-armed farmers on the slopes of Lattari, and marveled at the richness of the black volcanic soil, which reminded me of crushed chocolate cookies. Then it was back to our cliff-side rental to prepare the dinner we were hosting for Luigi. We drank prosecco from the skins of his massive lemons, which infused the fizzy wine with a sweet, citrus tang. We made a pasta with anchovy sauce from a shop called Nettuno, just a few steps away, and another with a sauce—Luigi’s favorite—that consisted simply of olive oil, lemon juice, and pasta water. The tomatoes we had bought earlier popped in our mouths like little glutamate bombs, sweet and deeply savory, and paired perfectly with some of Pacitti’s crumbly pecorino. And on we ate into the night until the stars came out, glittering above the darkened Mediterranean.

Puglia’s signature “little ears” pasta—with turnip greens and clams.

Puglia’s signature “little ears” pasta—with turnip greens and clams.

Our route from Cetara led us cross-country into the breadbasket of Puglia, which produces some of the country’s best olive oils and semolina. And as if our car wasn’t crammed enough, on this leg of the trip we picked up another passenger: our baker in Bangkok, an Australian named Michael Conkey, who makes some of the finest bread in Southeast Asia.

Bari, the capital of Puglia, is an industrial city on the edge of the Adriatic. It didn’t look particularly promising as we drove into its outskirts en route to our hotel. But the old part of town is magic, with towering cathedrals of white marble and warrens of medieval streets that lead to tiny wine bars and restaurants. Paolo was particularly taken aback by its beauty. “A very important city, once,” he said as we walked its winding passageways. And then we stumbled upon Al Pescadore, a family-run restaurant owned by fishermen whose boats bob in the harbor out front. I urge you to go there, and eat. Our meal began with antipasti of oysters and clams and cozza pelosa, a sort of hairy mussel served raw that is both sweet, briny, and very bitter all at once. The taste was incredible. A fist-sized ball of buffalo mozzarella and a basket of fresh ricotta followed, along with plump, sweet scampi on ice. There was raw tuna and fried baby squid. And all this before the pasta course, which we washed down with a chilled bottle of Minutolo, a fresh, aromatic Puglian wine reminiscent of Gewürztraminer.

The next day we continued across the gently rolling wheat fields of Puglia, passing gnarled olive trees that looked centuries old. Outside Altamura, we stopped by the roadside to buy a loaf of the town’s famous namesake bread, pane di Altamura, which inspired Michael to somehow start a sourdough in the back of the Peugeot. (A hot car does wonders for a sourdough made of semolina). Before long we were into the wilder landscapes of Basilicata, a region at the arch of the Italian boot. In the distance, a dark gray rise emerged. This was Matera, a city of caves; a medieval fantasy. After checking in to a nicely appointed home that we found on Airbnb, we set out to explore. Matera’s picturesque Sassi quarter is like a natural amphitheater; the entrances of centuries-old cave dwellings and churches, cut into the cliffside in a perfect curve, look out onto a steep gorge that is protected by a sharp ridge on the opposite side. It is a powerfully fortified place, and amazing to behold.

Overlooking the Old Town of Matera, whose ancient Sassi district has stood in for Roman-era Jerusalem in films like The Passion of the Christ and the recent remake of Ben-Hur.

Overlooking the Old Town of Matera, whose ancient Sassi district has stood in for Roman-era Jerusalem in films like The Passion of the Christ and the recent remake of Ben-Hur.

Our wanderings led us to a restaurant called Baccanti—itself housed in an old cave complex—where we settled in for lunch. The food was simple and good, but we didn’t linger: the wonders of Matera soon lured us out for another look.

Basilicata countryside.

Basilicata countryside.

That evening, we gathered up all the things we’d bought on our trip: salami made of goat meat, wheels of pecorino, gobs of creamy burrata, anchovies, olives, tomatoes, and a frittata that Paolo whipped up from the rest of the leftovers. Then, as the sun started to creep toward the bell tower of Matera’s Romanesque cathedral, we drove across the gorge for a picnic.

A picnic dinner of frittata and local produce on the edge of Matera’s gorge.

A picnic dinner of frittata and local produce on the edge of Matera’s gorge.

Clouds of mosquitoes besieged us as we hiked to a rocky ledge, so we built a small fire of dried thyme and other mountain herbs to drive them away, something I imagine people have been doing here for a very long time. We brushed off the dirt from our bread loaves and pushed fat slices of salami and cheese between them and drank wine from the bottle, letting it drip down on our chins.

The author and his companions en route to their picnic spot above the gorge opposite Matera.

The author and his companions en route to their picnic spot above the gorge opposite Matera.

Just below where we were sitting, I wandered into an ancient cave that once served as a church, its altar a pile of stones, its walls stained with woodsmoke. Above me, Paolo, Michael, and Jason howled at the rising moon like troglodytes, their voices echoing across the gorge. We added more fuel to the fire and drank another bottle of wine. And suddenly, we’d found what we were looking for.

Fried marinated anchovies at Acquapazza.

Fried marinated anchovies at Acquapazza.

THE DETAILS

Where to Eat

Al Pescatore, Bari

A family-run restaurant since 1968 serving seafood fresh from 
the Adriatic.

Acquapazza, Cetara

A must-hit spot on the Amalfi Coast; be sure to try the house-made colatura (anchovy oil).

Guglielmo Vuolo, Naples

Excellent Neapolitan pizzas with a twist: the dough is made with seawater rather than salt.

Baccanti, Matera

Great food in an even greater setting: a complex of old caves facing Matera’s picturesque rock-cut churches.

Flavio al Velavevodetto, Rome

When in Rome, don’t miss this sprawling, rootsy osteria near Testaccio, the city’s old meat-packing district. The cuisine is as Roman as it gets: think agnello brodettato (lamb stew with egg and lemon) and polpette (meatballs with lentils)

Where to Stay

Casa Lawrence

Loretto Pacitti’s farmhouse B&B near the village of Picinisco (doubles from US$85).

Hotel Cetus

A lovely cliffside property just up the road from Cetara (doubles from US$295).

Palace Hotel

A 200-room landmark in downtown Bari, just steps from the city’s main shopping street and within easy reach of its medieval center (doubles from US$205).

Sextantio le Grotte della Civita

Matera’s most atmospheric lodgings, with 18 spare but romantic cave rooms in the heart of the Sassi district (doubles from US$178).

This article originally appeared in the December 2016/January 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“On a Road from Rome”).

 

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