Just an hour-and-a-half outside of Rome, Abruzzo is an agricultural breadbasket that doesn't make the itinerary of most tourists to Italy. "It just seemed like it was hidden in plain sight," says Adam Leith Gollner, a contributing editor at Saveur who explored the region for "The Road to Abruzzo."

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You picked Abruzzo as a place to explore. Most people have not heard of Abruzzo; it’s not the most famous part of Italy. What’s the draw?

Adam Leith Gollner
Adam Leith Gollner (Photo: Michael James O'Brien)

Adam Leith Gollner: Isn’t it crazy that it’s just an hour-and-a-half away from Rome and it’s this agricultural breadbasket? It’s famous for all sorts of dishes, all sorts of cheeses, cold cuts, meats, wines, truffles and wild mushrooms, and yet nobody goes there.

It just seemed like it was hidden in plain sight. It’s this place that has remained pristine; it has tons of wildlife and nature preserves. One-third of its territory is national parks and wildlife preserves. They call it the greenest region in Europe, which you can really tell when you’re driving through it. It’s just all these wild places. That’s a great thing for somebody who wants to travel there today.

LRK: There’s something I realized when I did a lot of exploring in Italy, which is true of anywhere you go: If you are really looking to get the true feel of a place and truly understand it, the greatest thing that you can do is find that person who understands that place right down to the fiber of their being. I understand you found such a person. Who was it?

ALG: The baron Luigi Cataldi Madonna is a winemaker whose family has been making wine on the plain of Ofena, which is about an hour away from the Adriatic coast. His family has been making wine there since time immemorial. He was this wonderful character who had an incredible sense of style. The way he dressed was just -- you know Italian men are so stylish sometimes.

He greeted us with a glass of his cerasuolo, which is what they call their rosé wine or roseto wine. It’s not exactly rosé. It looks like cherry juice. In fact, the cerasuolo is a reference to that cherry hue.

He came out with this incredible cherry-colored wine, a pastel blue sweater, yellow pants and Ray-Ban sunglasses. He had this gravelly voice and this incredible laugh. He said, “The road that brought you here is very similar to the road that shepherds would have taken over centuries as they were enacting the rights of the transumanza."

He said, “That’s everything to Abruzzo. If you want to understand this place, everything we do comes back to the seasonal movement of herds and flocks of sheep and goats up and down the mountains.” The second he said that, I was like, “OK, that’s what we came here to learn.”

(Photo: wolfango / Flickr)

LRK: I understand that path, which is thousands of years old, is this wide, wide swath. It goes through forests and plains from north to south.

ALG: It goes all the way down to the coast. It goes to Puglia; it goes up into the mountains. It’s about moving the sheep through areas where they can graze. It’s a nomadic, itinerant kind of lifestyle. What we set out to do is echo that in a road trip.

LRK: What about the food?

ALG: My favorite meals by far were the ones that we had at Emidio Pepe winery. Emidio Pepe is still alive. He’s in his 80s, and he’s still very much active in the vines, as are his daughters and his granddaughters. There are three generations of Pepes, mainly women. I don’t know if he has any sons. I think he has three daughters, and then they all have more daughters. There are just many women there.

But at the head of all of this is Rosa, his wife. She is the classic archetypal Italian grandma who spends all of her time cooking food for this large family. She just wants you to eat it. Even when you’re full, she says, “The main dishes haven’t even come out yet.”

Porchetta-Style Chicken
Recipe: Porchetta-Style Chicken (Photo: Saveur)

She has this incredible garden. Everything they make is very natural. One of the things that makes the Emidio Pepe winery so special is their emphasis on the fact that they’ve always been without any chemicals; they never use pesticides or fertilizers. They have their hens out back, then the shepherd who brings them lamb and then the wild game that comes in from the hunters.

They have this little agriturismo where you can stay for 40 euros a night, which is probably the best deal in the universe. If you want, you can also contact them and ask about getting on a meal plan, which I would highly recommend. That way you can taste some of the wines from the winery and see how they pair those wines with their regional foods, their specialties.

One dish that Rosa made blew my mind because it really was what Abruzzo is all about. It was something called mazzarelle. When they had been speaking about it, I thought they were saying “mozzarella." I thought, "OK, great. Fresh Mozzarella sounds great." But it’s not mozzarella; it’s mazzarelle.

It's like these large lettuce leaves that they fill with lamb offal -- so with little slivers of heart, liver and lung -- with a little sliver of carrot, a little sliver of onion, a little sliver of garlic, a sprig of parsley and some oregano. Then they wrap them up like vine leaves and tie them together with a neat bow made from lamb intestine. They braise that in their white wine for 2 or 3 hours with a little olive oil, then add more water if it starts drying out.

I remember thinking, “There’s no way this is going to be good. There’s no way that lamb lung wrapped in lettuce leaf and tied together with lamb intestine could be anything other than what it looks like,” which is not that appetizing. But then when she brought it out, they transformed and they shrunk and they looked like dolmas. They really looked like that.

The taste was astonishing. I was like, “Whoa, this is a secret that the world needs to know. This is a triumph.” I remember I came home and I told some chefs who are friends of mine about it. They were so excited that they tried it out. But of course, they weren’t able to really replicate it. It’s hard. You need to know how to do it, and she knew how to do it.

LRK: She’d probably been doing it since she was a girl.

ALG: She had been.

While she was showing us how to make it, she was also showing her granddaughter Chiara how to make it. She said to Chiara, “This is one of the three dishes that you’re going to need to master if you want to get married. In our family, this is the thing that gets you your husband.”

When I tasted it, I was like, “I can see why.”

[More from Adam Leith Gollner: The fruit underworld: Fruitleggers, organized crime and intellectual property theft]

Lynne Rossetto Kasper

Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.