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!