Aged to Perfection: The Wines of Antica Casa Vitivinicola Italo Pietrantonj

Friday, July 29, 2016 | Category: Travel Stories, Travel Tips, Travel Writing

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I like on the table,/when we’re speaking,

the light of a bottle/of intelligent wine. — Pablo Neruda

 

If you’ve been to our house in the last three years, chances are you’ve had a glass of wine or two from the Abruzzese winery called Pietrantonj. Because three years ago is when we discovered we were madly in love with the region, bought an apartment there (in Sulmona) with our friends Lou and Vicky, and dove head-first into all things regional. One of our first discoveries was the wine.

Here in the USA, we have come across whites called “trebbiano” and reds called “montepulciano.” But the trebbianos are often just passable blends of whites from a variety of regions and the montepulciano – if you’re not careful – is not from Abruzzo at all, but from the village of Montepulciano in Tuscany. Our Sulmonese friends taught us about Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and introduced us to some of the finest wineries in the area. My favorite winery, hands-down, is Pietrantonj (pronounce the “J”: like an “I”).

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Located in the heart of the Peligna Valley, less than 30 minutes from our apartment, is this most ancient winery in Abruzzo. Their vineyards lie between the villages of Vittorito and Corfinio and this valley has been famous for making wine since Roman times. Pietrantonj has been a family run operation for more than 200 years and is today managed by members of the eighth generation of the family. Our new friends Roberta and Alicia Pietrantonj take very good care of the operation — and us, when we are there. Roberta is usually the “front of the house” person, with the marketing, tour and sales responsibilities. Her sister Alicia is a degreed viticulturist, a wine scientist who knows everything there is to know about soil, temperature, growing conditions, grape varieties, potential pests and disasters — like the one that happened earlier this year when a false spring was followed by a quick freeze.

IMG_2296Take a tour with either of them and you’ll be charmed by the story of their family’s dedicated to maintaining the ancient wine-making methodologies while remaining on the cutting edge of their craft. Here’s how they write about themselves, being so proud of their history:

The grapes are picked when they have reached the perfect peak of ripeness and exhibit an ideal balance between sugars and acids, thus ensuring that they will express to the fullest the varietal characteristics of the grape and of their individual growing area. The following step of vinification takes place immediately, in the estate cellars, in a careful process that [wisely] combines tradition with innovation. The respect for tradition and extreme reverence for the “past” can be easily witnessed by simply visiting the historic production complex, built before 1830.

This facility, which today houses a small winemaking museum as well, is currently used for the maturation of the winery’s finest red wines, which go into large Slavonian oak [barrels]. In years past, the wines were made and stored here. In 1893, after increases in production, Alfonso Pietrantonj, ancestor of the present owner, enlarged the capacity of the cellar by building, 14 metres beneath street level, two magnificent vats, holding a total of 1402 hectolitres.

Biggest. Barrel. Ever.

Biggest. Barrel. Ever.

These tanks, which had no equal in the world, were a true architectural jewel of the period and testify to Alfonso’s courageous and creative spirit. Their most unusual characteristic was in fact the internal sheathing in Murano glass tiles, which has been admirably preserved and can still be admired, thanks to a convenient entrance-way to one of the vats. The cellars preserve as well fascinating equipment from the ancient distillery that produced a superb aquavit, an activity that the winery continued until 1930, thanks to Nicola Pietrantonj, the first Abruzzo winemaker to graduate, in 1889, from the Regia Scuola in Conegliano, in the Veneto. A renowned winemaking expert, he was responsible for growing and strengthening the winery’s production from the second half of the 19th century on.

Come for a tasting!

Come for a tasting!

Of particular interest too are the old equipment and tools for working the vines and making wines, such as the first crusher-destemmer, dating to the early 20th century, and two imposing wooden wine presses from the 18th century. Crossing the family garden, one returns to the current main production facility where the entire production process is carried out, from fermentation and ageing, to bottling and storage of the wines.

Here, in the underground cellars, are the striking and venerable centuries-old [barrels], in sizes ranging from 32 to 365 hectolitres, crafted of oak and walnut in 1870 by local artisans. Thanks to careful renovations, they are still in use today. The modern winemaking facility rises alongside; it employs the most state-of-the-art technology for vinification, storage, and bottling, with every operation focused on preserving and maximizing the individual qualities of each grape variety. Of particular importance is the considerable investment that went into temperature control of the numerous stages of grape handling, wine maturation, and bottled wine storage.

My favorite souvenir!

My favorite souvenir!

The Pietrantonj production philosophy dictates that the maturation of red wines is carried out in oak casks of medium and large capacity, in order to ensure that the qualities of the grape varieties are faithfully preserved.

 

This combination of old and new — not to mention the Murano-glass-lined barrel —  is just part of what makes Pietrantonj so unique. And it works, because their line of wines, which includes Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, Pecorino, Malvasia and Passito Rosso, are among the finest you will ever have — without breaking the piggybank.

So here’s another reason to come with us to Abruzzo. And another reason you’ll keep coming back!

 

Buon viaggio!

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Off-the-Beaten-Track Italy

Wednesday, July 20, 2016 | Category: Travel Stories, Travel Tips

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First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Your Italy and our Italia are not the same thing. Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages, such as hills in the sunset, olive groves, lemon trees, white wine, and raven-haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. . .  Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis. ― Beppe Severgnini

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The designation

Most tourists go to Italy to see the big cities: Rome, Venice, Florence, maybe Milan. If they are Rick Steves fans, they want to go to Liguria’s Cinque Terre. If they love the sea and don’t mind death-defying drives, they’ll go to the Amalfi Coast. Some folks find themselves in Cortona because they’ve read Frances Mayes’ book, Under the Tuscan Sun.

And all those places are fine. Beautiful, historic, breathtaking, worth seeing. But there is so much more to Italy. And that’s where the association Borghi piu belli d’italia comes in.

Anversa degli Abruzzi/Adopt-A-Sheep

Anversa degli Abruzzi/Adopt-A-Sheep

Established in 2001 with the blessing of The National Association of Italian Municipalities (ANCI), “the most beautiful villages of Italy” is dedicated to promoting the small villages and towns that best represent the authentic, traditional Italy, respecting and, in some cases, reveling in their local culture and traditions. These can include the arts, cuisine, viniculture, historical structures, relationship with the land, etc. ANCI recognizes that fantastic art, culture, traditions and landscapes exist not only in the major cities, but throughout the entire country, and it hopes to draw travelers to these lesser-known areas and help them flourish. 

Tim and I in Introdacqua

Happy in Introdacqua

Here’s what villages need to have to qualify for the designation “Borghi più belli d’italia”:

  • An historical borough can have no more than 2,000 residents and an entire municipality that cannot exceed 15,000 in population.
  • The borough must be home to relevant architectural, certified either by the municipality itself or by the local representative of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities. It is essential that the borough consists mainly of historical buildings.
  • The borough must be vetted and declared authentic and must commit, in case of acceptance, to maintain its appearance.
Castel del Monte -- Italy's "Little Tibet"

Castel del Monte — Italy’s “Little Tibet”

At present, there are 244 villages and small cities throughout Italy with this designation. The ones starred are the ones we’ve visited – and will continue to include on our tours – just in Abruzzo! Don’t worry, we’ll get to the other ones in time!

 

 

Here are the 23 borghi pui belli d’italia in the region of Abruzo . . . come and visit them with us soon!

Abbateggio

*Anversa degli Abruzzi

Bugnara

Caramanico Terme

*Castel del Monte

*Castelli

Citta Sant’Angelo

*Civitella del Tronto

*Introdacqua

Navelli

Opi

*Pacentro

Penne

*Pettorana sul Gizio

Pretoro

Rocca San Giovanni

*Santo Stefano di Sessanio

*Scanno

Tagliacozzo

*Villalago

Pietracamela

*Pescocostanzo

*Guardiagrele

Pettorano sul Gizio . . . in March!

Pettorano sul Gizio . . . in March!

Buon viaggio!

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The Cucina Abruzzese Tour, September 2016

Tuesday, June 28, 2016 | Category: Travel Stories, Travel Tips

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If your mother cooks Italian food, why should you go to a restaurant? — Martin Scorsese

IMG_4188We’ve been working feverishly here to put together a food and wine-oriented tour for you — with just enough history and even a little down time — to keep you all enchanted. Of course, it’s Italy, so how could you not be enchanted?

IMG_3990Here’s what we’ve got so far:

  1. Walking tour of Sulmona
  2. Visit to an olive oil mill from the 1700s, with a tasting
  3. Cooking class at the wonderful Hotel Ovidio
  4. Visit and tasting at the oldest winery in Abruzzo
  5. Food-oriented walking tour of Guardiagrele
  6. Visits to Scanno and Pacentro
  7. Arrosticini BBQ lunch in Italy’s “Little Tibet”
  8. Walk through Santo Stefano and then the amazing Rocca Calascio
  9. Tour of the Abbey Morronese in Badia with the inimitable Novelia
  10. Tour of Campo 78
  11. Three-hour lunch experience at Costa del Gallo
  12. A visit to the Pelino confetti museum and store

IMG_4300. . .  Plus a few other surprises if I can pull them off! What are you waiting for? Air fares are starting to drop now and it’s time to plan your fall getaway.

The price for everything you see here, plus local transportation and many other meals, is a mere $2,495 per person. Airfare is on your own. All I need is a check for $500 by July 15 to reserve your spot.

There are only 4 more spaces available, soIMG_4160 please contact me soon or you’ll have to wait until next year!

Ci vediamo in Abruzzo!

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Buon viaggio!

 

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Italy: Here I Go Again!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016 | Category: Travel Tips

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I love places that have an incredible history. I love the Italian way of life. I love the food. I love the people. I love the attitudes of Italians. – Elton John 

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A good friend of mine has traveled to Italy with me a lot. A few years ago, when she announced to her co-workers that she was going to be on holiday soon, they asked where she was going. She replied excitedly, “Italy.” The group was silent for a few uncomfortable moments, and then one of them asked, “But didn’t you go there last year?” Yes, she had. Last year, and the year before that, and probably the year before that. They were a little dumbfounded.

Like me, my friend gets it. She understands that a 6-night three-city whirlwind tour of Italy is not really Italy. You have to leave the big cities eventually and drive off into the mountains, up to the hill towns, down onto the plains — and unpack and stay there for a while.

You have to find ways to interact with the locals: eat where they eat; be curious about them and engage in a little conversation, no matter how bad your Italian is; buy them a drink or a caffe; shop at the mercato with them. You have to try to not be so obviously American: easy on the short shorts, tank tops, flip flops and OUTDOOR VOICES ALL THE TIME.

You have to not be upset when you can’t get a PB&J for lunch or a Denny’s-style pig-out for breakfast. You have to patient and not complain that you can’t eat dinner at 6:00 in most restaurants. You can’t get upset when the restaurant won’t write individual checks (the phrase doesn’t even exist in Italian) or when too many people want to share plates and rush out in 30 minutes. Dining is an art form, to be savored and enjoyed slowly.

You shouldn’t be surprised to still find the odd “squatter” bathroom in public places . . . and you should learn to always carry tissues for just such an event. You mustn’t be afraid of the drivers in Italy: sure they go fast, but are generally pretty good drivers. On the other hand, if you drive, you shouldn’t be surprised to receive a ticket for some kind of allegedly egregious automotive violation six months after you’ve come home. Consider it a luxury tax on your trip.

I advise travelers to learn a few words before they go: ciao, grazie, prego, arrivederci, piacere . . . dove? Che? Quando? Quanto costa? Dove il bagno? A little attempt is much appreciated, especially once you’re out of the major cities. Heck, you might even enjoy it. I love the sound of Italian and hope to be stranded there long enough one year to really know what I’m doing. But I consider it something of a victory that I have convinced my friend that my favorite Italian word is also hers: cucchiaio (spoon). Don’t ask me why, the word just cracks me up.

So where is all this going? I don’t know. To bella italia, I suppose. Back again, with an open heart and a suitcase full of piccoli regali for old friends and new. And a just-in-time sense of needing an infusion of good Abruzzese food and wine, with a few days in Rome first to get acclimated (and to appreciate the slower pace of Sulmona when we arrive).

It’s always a stunner to drive from Fiumicino to Sulmona — at one point (even if you haven’t been paying attention), you cross into Abruzzo and know that you’ve arrived. You’re somewhere different. Greener, more mountainous, rustic, and that the eyes of 1,000 nonne are probably on you already. And sheep. Lots of sheep.

This New York City girl never thought she’d be this close to where her grandparents hailed from (Siena and Salerno), living a schizophrenic life between two cultures. But here I am. And here I go again.

I would be delighted to escort you some time to meet my friends and see how they make their way in this gorgeous part of the world where food has always been slow and the land is entirely important and la famiglia rules. Think about it.

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Buon viaggio!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Taste of La Cucina Abruzzese

Monday, April 4, 2016 | Category: Salem Stories, Travel Writing

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The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you’re hungry again — George Miller

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It all started with a crazy idea back in Sulmona in the fall: What if we brought over our two chef friends and did a few cooking classes? Would Americans go for it? Would Novelia really board a plane for the first time in 40 years? Could Amalia pull herself away from her busy life in Santo Stefano di Sessanio and leave everything to Nonna Aida? What if we asked Marco at ONDA-TV to come, too, and film it all? Was there a germ of an idea here?

Amalia leading, Tim and Betsy following

Amalia leading, Tim and Betsy following

A few weeks later, back stateside, Vicky and I sent out a “Save the Date” e-mail for a couple of classes that would be scheduled over a two-week period in March. Novelia and Amalia had said yes, and so the gears were set in motion. Within 48 hours, we were more than fully booked. Oversubscribed. People on waiting lists for the one Sunday class. And three classes soon became four. And then the gang down in the North End got involved, and we were happily ensconced in the whirlwind of activities of the Frattaroli family which has deep roots in Sulmona and owns several Boston area restaurants, among them Filippo on Causeway Street.

Marco was there to film it all. And SATV was there for the first installment, so watch for a show some time in April. Even the Boston Globe got into the act with a lovely article about the series.

Word of mouth grew and we were turning people down every day, right up until the last class. Amazing!

Jim rolls while Novelia explains

Jim rolls while Novelia explains

John, with Barbara in the background, really getting into it!

John, with Barbara in the background, really getting into it!

The first obstacle was that our friends don’t consider themselves chefs. They say they’re only “casalinge” (housewives) who learned how to cook from their mothers and grandmothers. Horsefeathers. In addition to working for the Italian government, Novelia runs a B&B and frequently cooks for her guests. And Amalia runs an inn where the kitchen is the centerpiece of the experience. Besides, who needs grumpy Gordon Ramsey when you can have two attractive, enthusiastic Italians who are devoted to preserving the traditions of their native region?

And what traditions they are! In Abruzzo, they include lenticche

Novelia with her chitarra

Novelia with her chitarra

(lentils), miele (honey) and zafferano (saffron) from Santo Stefano, red garlic from Sulmona, pecorino cheese from L’Aquila, wines from nearby Vittorito and the machine that pulls it all together: la chitarra, the traditional guitar-stringed pasta maker of Abruzzo.

The belle donne created a menu that included a soup of lentichhe and volarelle (a small square-shaped cut fetuccini); pasta alla chitarra with white truffle sauce and also classic tomato sauce; grilled sausage with either cabbage or peas; shepherd’s cheese balls; and a torta della spossa (bride’s cake) with marvelous cream in and on it and sprinkled to look like the Italian flag.

Bello Montepulciano!

Bello Montepulciano!

Wines included (thanks to our favorite winery, Pietrantonj), Trebbiano and Cerasuolo with our appetizers and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo with dinner. The appetizers were flown in from Abruzzo: a hearty salumi selection from Pingue and rich pecorino cheese from Castel del Monte And of course, no Abruzzese event is complete without confetti — the candy coated Sicilian almonds (and many newer variations) — graciously donated by Pelino, Sulmona’s star producer.

I will tell you that this was a lot of work on everybody’s part. Possibly the Invasion of Normandy took less planning. In the end, though, our 40+ participants went home happy and sated and delighted that they had made pasta this new (old) way. And our chefs, who were admittedly a little nervous about doing this, saw that they had used their magic to charm even more people on yet another continent.

We were blessed by the welcome given by the four couples who opened

STate Senator Joan Lovely sampling Novelia and Amalia's aperitivi

State Senator Joan Lovely sampling Novelia and Amalia’s aperitivi

their homes and kitchens and pots and pans to us and we will never be able to repay them. We were gobsmacked by the generosity of Pingue, Pelino, Pietrantonj and Sr. Petronio who donated much of the food and wine. We were thrilled by our two videographers, one from Sulmona and one from Salem, who have recorded this for posterity. And we were honored to be recognized by State Senator Joan Lovely and State Representative Paul Tucker, who have declared their intention to work towards making Sulmona and Salem sister cities, thereby beginning an annual exchange based on food and friendship.

Things don’t get any better than that.

Me and my co-conspirator, Vicky Sirianni, with State Representative Paul Tucker

Me and my co-conspirator, Vicky Sirianni, with State Representative Paul Tucker

 

Vicky and I are on a mission to introduce Americans to Abruzzo — to its food, to its warm and wonderful people and to its beauty (stunningly showcased by videos created by Marco and shown at every event). We achieved that here for sure, and it’s only the beginning. We both hope that you will want to come to Abruzzo with us and share in the magic of this region.

So come on a tour with us or stay in Casa Linda, Casa del Cuore or Le Case della Posta. Just come.

 

You won’t regret it and you’ll eat better than you ever have!

Confetti_Sulmona

 

 

Tortadellaspossa

 

Buon appetito e Buon viaggio!

 

 

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