This is the view from my bedroom window. Not the one in Princeton, New Jersey, but in Italy, at least for the first week of my trip. I'll bet you didn't even miss me, since I set the blog to automatically publish new posts while I was away. For the last three weeks, I've been traveling from Abruzzo to the Piedmont region with a few stops along the way to visit friends and relatives, relive old memories and make some new ones too.
I've returned with lots of inspiration for writing, for recipes and for great places to visit. One of them is Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a charming medieval village in the region of Abruzzo, located about two hours east of Rome at the edge of the Gran Sasso national park, home to the eponymous mountain range.
The town has only about 180 permanent residents, and like many small villages in Italy, most of its young people left to take jobs in other, more urban places. At one point in recent years, its population had diminished to only 70 people. To the rescue came Daniele Kihlgren, a wealthy man whose Italian mother's family made its fortune in the cement industry. Kihlgren bought many of the town's buildings and set about restoring them and creating an "albergo diffuso," or "diffused hotel" called Sextantio. Sadly, the crenellated tower that dominated the skyline crumbled during the 2009 earthquake in Abruzzo, while a metal scaffolding now defines its outline.
Here's what the tower used to look like before it succumbed to nature's forces.
Despite the scaffolding in some parts of the town, Santo Stefano di Sessanio remains a beguiling village and has been named one of Italy's prettiest villages - "I Borghi Piu' Belli D'Italia." A walk down its cobbled streets or into one of its restaurants is enough to charm anyone.
In an albergo diffuso, rooms are scattered throughout the town, unlike traditional hotels that have all rooms in one building. Here in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Kihlgren was meticulous in maintaining the medieval character of the town, which means no plastic, no aluminum or other modern day materials sullying the rooms and common meeting places.
Here's a look at my bedroom, for example. It's ascetic in the way a monk's cell might be, with centuries of layers of whitewashed walls instead of painted wallboard. Out of view is the huge stone fireplace and bathroom with modern fixtures, an exception to the more primitive furnishings. The bed is covered in a bedspread woven by the local women.
My sheets were made of handwoven linen, embroidered with the initials of someone I'll never know.
Even the key that unlocked my door looked like it came from an antique shop.
And of course, you know I couldn't omit some reference to food, especially since I ate some wonderful meals there, including fettucine with truffles -
really fresh truffles, that had just been gathered that day -
The town is known for its small lentils, so naturally I sampled them a couple of times.
Plus spaghetti alla chitarra (guitar), made by extending the pasta over a rectangular stringed implement and pressing on the dough with a rolling pin - a dish closely associated with Abruzzo.
Followed by a lunch of pappa al pomodoro, barley risotto and asparagus soup - in other words, a warm, delicious welcome. And you've just been given some clues about what I was really doing there - all to be explained in my next post.
Until then, here's a recipe for pappa al pomodoro. For those of unfamiliar with it, be warned, it's not at all liquidy - it's a very thick tomato soup - almost more of a bread pudding with tomatoes - perfect for when those red beauties start ripening in the garden. The recipe below is from Napa Valley's Michael Chiarello, one of my favorite chefs.
Pappa Al Pomodoro
Printable Recipe Here
Stir in the basil. Season, to taste, with pepper. Add extra-virgin olive oil, if desired. Let the soup continue simmering for 10 more minutes, then serve immediately in warmed soup bowls. Garnish, to taste, with Parmigiano-Reggiano.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped
3/4-pound day-old Italian bread, roughly sliced
2 cups water
1 cup basil leaves, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, optional
In a 12-inch saute pan, heat the olive oil over a medium-high flame until hot but not smoking. Add the onion andgarlic and saute for a few minutes, until onion is translucent. Add a pinch of salt. Add the chopped tomatoes and their juices and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and let cook until the tomatoes begin to soften and break down, about 5 minutes.
Place the bread slices in a bowl and cover with 2 cups water. Tear the bread into rough pieces and add to tomato mixture. Add the remaining water from the bowl. Continue simmering until all the bread has absorbed as much liquid as possible, yielding a baby food-like consistency.