Arrosticini: flavors from Abruzzo

If you’re craving a trip around the world – or even just outside of Rome, you may be experiencing “travel fever” along with thousands of other expats, nomads, and free spirits internationally.

While any and all jet-setting plans may need to be put on the backburner for the time being; what better way to look forward to future travelling than to learn about what to expect at your next destination? Today’s spotlight is on Abruzzo, a region of Italy famous for just about everything – parks, cuisine, wine, confectionaries, and culture.

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One deliciously enduring tradition is that of arrosticini, or roasted meat skewers. The history of this common dish comes from the longstanding practices of farming and raising livestock in the Abruzzi mountains, where shepherds have led sheep for centuries. Arrosticini are considered a pastoral delicacy enjoyed originally by peasant cultures that has now become a widespread culinary staple.

Traditional arrosticini are prepared using lean sheep’s meat, sometimes lamb, cut up into small, uniform cubes. The pieces of meat are stuck onto skewers with pieces of fat placed in between. In large-scale production, fattier cuts of meat may be used, but the time-honored method acknowledges the harmony and excellence created by mixing flavorful bits of fat with the tenderness of lean meat while also avoiding shortcuts.

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When trying to prepare traditional arrosticini at home you might find yourself missing one key element: a specialized grill-brazier that perfectly fits your meat-filled skewers. Called furnacella, this cooking apparatus is a long and thin trough balancing on four long legs that carries smoldering coals for an even and flavorful roast.

The width of the metal basin is just long enough to hold the top half of the skewer while letting the rest hang over the edge, as to not burn the exposed wood. This contraption also allows for easy turning – no hot sticks to fumble with – and is a staple in any abruzzese household. 

The furnacella grill

The techniques and history of dishes like arrosticini align with the “Slow Food” movement that was inspired by the way in which Italians respect and preserve culinary traditions and turn eating into less of a physical necessity but more like a social and cultural ritual.

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While Slow Food is now an international organization funded by the European Union, its origins and philosophies are distinctly Italian-esque. The idea came from demonstrations against the building of a McDonald’s establishment in the heart of Rome and has now moved internationally to fight the fast-food lifestyle and identify regions and populations who still value food culture in thought and practice.

Every year, Slow Food publishes their top choices for Italian Osterie by region, all of which they feel respect and uphold la dolce vita philosophy that drives the passion for slow food. In Abruzzo, most of the picks for 2020 have held their ground for four years, also appearing in a feature article of 2016’s top Abruzzi eateries branded with the esteemed “snail” of approval (the organization is represented by a snail logo). Among the reigning establishments include Borgo Spoltino, Vecchia Marina, and Zenobi (in Teramo), Font’Artana and Taverna 58 (in Pescara) and Taverna de li Caldora, in L’Aquila.           

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The latter of the options lies in the heart of the area where legend says arrosticini come from. The green pastures, hills and valleys of L’Aquila have seen shepherds and flocks making movements about the land for centuries. 

This makes it the perfect place to find typical rustic cuisine so authentic you can taste the love and labor put into the preparation of the various dishes. At an osteria, tourists and local patrons alike can expect to find their arrosticini paired with fresh bread and a red wine and soda mixture that is typical of the region.           

For those who are itching for a taste of Abruzzo, waiting for the world’s tourism industries to open their arms yet again, try making arrosticini at home. While you may not have a furnacella on hand, arrosticini above all must be made with love and care, simply seasoned, and enjoyed alongside good company and fine spirits.

One brand of wine that I have seen available in both the U.S. and Italy is Masciarelli – their Montepulciano d’Abruzzo might just be the perfect fit for your culinary getaway (without actually having to leave your home).