Aside from maccheroni alla chitarra, if there's one dish that's synonymous
with Abruzzo, it's arrosticini, succulent skewers of lamb cooked over an open fire. Called rustelle or arrustelle in the local dialect, arrosticini are part of the foods that shepherds ate while they were leading their flocks along the transumanza - the seasonal migration of sheep from the high pastures to the lowlands closer to the sea. Perhaps that's why the lamb is typically cut into small pieces. Shepherds didn't have many resources available to them and smaller pieces of meat would be more tender and cook more quickly.
You can find arrosticini in many of the mountainous villages and towns throughout the region, especially near the Gran Sasso mountain.
I've eaten arrosticini in many places in Abruzzo and I've always wondered how the pieces are cut so uniformly.
I found out a few days ago when I asked the owner of "Lu Gattone" in Manoppello, who showed me the implement used in creating the skewers. The lamb meat is first layered into a square metal contraption, alternating occasionally with layers of fat. All parts of the lamb are used, he said, from the shoulder to the leg. Leave the skinny sheep out to pasture, since they don't contain enough marbling to ensure juiciness. Traditionally, castrated sheep were used, but that's not always the case today.
After the meat is stuffed up to the brim of the container, wooden skewers are inserted. A knife is run down through the slots, slicing the meat into uniform skewers. The plastic lid is raised and slid away from the meat and what remains are 225 perfect skewers of lamb.
I haven't taken a survey across Abruzzo, but each time I've asked the restaurant owner if he marinated the arrosticini first, the answer was always "no." Just a little salt is added and that's it. They've always been tender and succulent, but if you want to marinate them first to ensure success, the arrosticini police won't come after you.
They're cooked outdoors over hot coals, but at home you won't have one of the square gizmos for cutting the meat, so improvise as needed. Use a knife to cut the lamb into small pieces by hand, and thread the pieces through wooden skewers that have first been soaked in water. A gas grill will work just as well as charcoal, but make sure the temperature is really good and hot, since they should take only a couple of minutes on each side. This narrow grill - called a "canale" because it resembles a gutter, allows the skewers to stay off the heat while the meat cooks, and is typical of what you see at large gatherings and restaurants. This photo was taken as our lunch was prepared one day at the "Let's Blog Abruzzo" conference in Santo Stefano di Sessanio.
The traditional way to eat arrosticini is to just pick up a skewer and bite, as these two women are demonstrating. No forks or knives needed.
Just add a good glass of Montepulciano D'Abruzzo wine.
Cut small pieces of lamb, from a piece of meat that has some marbling. Otherwise, thread the lamb alternately with pieces of fat, on skewers that have been soaked in water. Grill over a hot fire for a couple of minutes on each side. Season to taste with salt. Serve with bread drizzled with olive oil and a good glass of Montepulciano D'Abruzzo wine.