Arrosticini on the Gran Sasso d’Italia

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While millions of people spent July ogling the David in Florence, the Pietà at the Vatican, and the Trevi Fountain in Rome, I was sighing over a different work of art made out of stone ~ the Gran Sasso d’Italia.

This spectacular Apennine mountain range, whose tallest peak, the Corno Grande, rises to 2,912 meters (9,554 feet), is visible from almost anywhere in Abruzzo and serves as a dramatic backdrop to the medieval mountain villages that dot the region.

The  Gran Sasso ~ the name means ‘big rock’ ~ is both famous and infamous. Next to the Alps, it boasts the highest peak in continental Italy (Mt. Etna in Sicily is somewhat higher at 3350 m/10,924 ft.), and is a destination for skiers, mountain climber, and cyclists. At 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) lies Campo Imperatore, a vast plateau and alpine meadow where sheep and cattle graze in the summer, and where a bunch of Spaghetti Westerns have been filmed over the years. The plateau is a place of stark beauty. It is nicknamed “Little Tibet” and even if you’ve never been to Tibet (I haven’t), you can see why:

The ‘infamy’ part dates back to 1943 when Italian dictator Mussolini was being held prisoner at the remote hotel at Campo Imperatore. On Hitler’s orders he was sprung by the Nazis in a high-risk operation involving crash-landing gliders and spirited off to Germany to be proclaimed “leader” of the puppet Italian Social Republic (we all know how well that worked out). The hotel, originally a resort for skiers and mountaineers, is still operating (though it could use a paint job).

In spite of its claims to fame and infamy, the Gran Sasso remains largely unknown, at least among foreigners; a refuge, especially in summer, when tourists take over the cities and Italians head for the coasts. On the day that we drove up the mountain, with our friend Marcello behind the wheel, there were almost no other cars on the old two-lane state road leading up to Campo Imperatore, though the hotel itself had a few visitors.

Marcello grew up in the shadow of the range and knows all it has to offer. It was his excellent idea to engage in a favorite local pastime on the way back down ~ eating arrosticini. These skewers of grilled castrato (castrated ram) or mutton are an Abruzzese specialty, and, in my opinion, required eating if you visit the region. (And if you are wrinkling your nose right now at the mention of castrato or mutton, then perhaps you need to get thee to the mountaintop to see what I mean.)

Making arrosticini is an art. We got a tutorial from Marcello’s friend Giulio, who owns La Baita della Sceriffa (The Sheriff’s Chalet), a casual spot where you can buy ready-to-grill arrosticini and cook them yourself, and then enjoy them in a covered picnic area.

It starts with the meat, which is meticulously cut and tightly threaded so that if you lay the skewers out in a row you can actually see the pattern of marbled fat that runs through them. This job of cutting the meat into small uniform cubes and then threading them used to be done by hand, though now there are machines that accomplish both simultaneously. (A few places still boast hand-cut arrosticini as a point of pride and authenticity.)

Arrosticini require a special grill, a contraption on thin legs, with a long, narrow trough for the coals ~ actually chunks of charred wood. When you set the threaded skewers on the trough, the handle part of the wooden skewer, the part you grip, remains off the flame and therefore does not char. There are  a number of these grills set up around La Baita’s grounds. When you’re ready to grill, Giulio comes around with a blow torch and blasts the coals to life.

When the coals are hot, you arrange the skewers side-by-side on the grill, salt them ~ not too much ~ and let let them do their thing. You turn them once, after the pink juices have pooled to the surface, salt them on the other side, and let them finish cooking, fiddling with them just a bit to make sure the skewers don’t get stuck together. The ones that are done first are placed atop the ones that are still cooking, so they stay hot but don’t overcook. At the very end, Giulio sprinkles a little sauce on his arrosticini, a mixture of wine and herbs, which he keeps in a fancy bottle.

Eating arrosticini is something of an art, too. They must be eaten hot, while still juicy and tender. You hold the skewer horizontally and slide each little nugget off with your teeth. Although minimally seasoned, arrosticini have loads of flavor. It’s impossible to stop at one skewer, or two, or three, or four…If you don’t watch yourself you’ll put away a dozen before you can say Gran Sasso d’Italia!

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22 Responses to Arrosticini on the Gran Sasso d’Italia

  1. thetobykennedy August 5, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    Arrosticini!!! Mi piacciano tantissimo!!

    All shops in abruzzo are filled with these in the summer – and there’s a restaurant near our house where you have to order a specific amount per person! that always causes an argument as you invariably eat more than your share!

    Great post! xx

    • Domenica August 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

      Thanks for reading, Toby. Yes, arrosticini are one of the (many) wonderful things about Abruzzo. I loved watching Giulio grill them with such a sure hand. We almost bought one of those grills when we were over there a couple of weeks ago. Forse alla prossima…

  2. Barbara | Creative Culinary August 5, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    What a feast for the senses. The photos alone are enough and then the tale of the arrosticini seal the deal. I did notice and I do love the fancy bottle for the sauce. 🙂

    • Domenica August 8, 2012 at 11:57 am #

      Thanks Barb. I had such a good time taking pictures on this last trip.

  3. Laura (Tutti Dolci) August 5, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

    Abruzzo looks well worth a visit. I’m up for trying arrosticini – the wine and herb sauce sounds incredible!

    • Domenica August 8, 2012 at 11:58 am #

      Recreating that sauce is on my to-do list Laura, so please stay tuned.

  4. ciaochowlinda August 5, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

    Oh Domenica – I’d love to be back in the Gran Sasso enjoying those arosticcini. I wondered how they got them to be so square – now I know! Lovely post filled with history, scenery and great food.

    • Domenica August 8, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

      I’m already dreaming of my next trip back, Linda. Thank you for reading.

  5. Frank August 5, 2012 at 8:06 pm #

    I have an Abruzzese friend who is always singing the praises of her father’s arrosticini. One day I’ll get to try them, but in the meanwhile I have these photos to drool over….

    PS: Love the fancy bottle. ;=)

    • Domenica August 8, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

      You will love them Frank, I am sure of it.

  6. Elisa August 6, 2012 at 8:33 am #

    Beautiful area! When I was a kid my parents used to send me “in montagna” to learn how to cook and become a “campagnola” for awhile. I remember eating arrosticini, but I also remember my aunt used to put rosemary branches in between.
    Maybe you can have your own arrosticini grill from Italy…

    • Domenica August 8, 2012 at 12:03 pm #

      We thought of buying one of those grills and having it shipped back. Maybe next time, though it wouldn’t be quite the same. P.S. It sounds like you had my dream childhood…

      • Walter August 27, 2012 at 6:47 pm #


        I have a business in Montreal, Canada where I sell arrosticini bbqs and the machines to make them. Please take a look at my website and you to can have an arrosticini BBQ .
        Any questions please let me know.


  7. janie August 6, 2012 at 10:46 am #

    Great photos and description of the arrosticini. What a wonderful day it must have been!

    • Domenica August 8, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

      Thank you Janie. Yes, it was a memorable day for sure.

  8. Bodach August 7, 2012 at 1:56 am #

    Gran Sasso, Campo Imperatore, arrosticini…I never tire of the experience.

    But not today.

    Being about 2,500 km from Abruzzo right now makes it a bit hard. 🙁

    Great post and many thanks.

    • Domenica August 8, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

      And thank you for reading!

  9. Jamie August 8, 2012 at 7:20 am #

    You are funny. This was an enjoyable post. I have never visited this area of Italy and I am not sure if I ever ate castrato but as we always said when living and traveling around Italy “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” and we would have gladly joined in! This reminds me of all of the summertime grills set up in villages we visited and loved.

    • Domenica August 8, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

      Thank you my friend. Glad to know there is someone who gets my odd sense of humor!

  10. nancy baggett August 14, 2012 at 6:24 pm #

    Wow, that shot at the top takes my breath away. As for the castrato, I believe that some rural Americans eat the same parts of neutered calves–and call them country oysters 🙂 I imagine that rams would have a strong flavor, so I believe I’d pass….

  11. Helen August 25, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    The first time I enjoyed arrosticini was in a rifugio near Lake Campotosto. They were served after a very long meal but before dessert, of course. Saving the best for last I guess. Thanks, Domenica, for providing the setting and unlocking the secrets to these grilled treats.


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