My Travels: Masterful Menu Mind Games at Campo Imperatore

Summer this year in the Appenines of Abruzzo arrived with hot days and cool nights. We had a new visitor to the Altipiano, a plateau at about 1400 meters above sea level and adjoining part of the National Park of the Sirente-Velino range. A must see for any visitor is Campo Imperatore, another plateau at 2200 meters above sea level at the National Park of the Gran Sassoon d’Italia. There is a cable car from the village of Assergi to the plateau, to access the area for climbing in summer and skiing in winter. You can also drive up to Campo Imperatore.

We usually drive up through the valley of L’Aquila, now three years after the devastating earthquake that ruined this beautiful medieval city. The shorter drive is directly to Assergi then up to the glacier formed moonscape plateau. The longer route to the east is via Rocca Calascio and the Castel del Monte, one of the rugged mountain villages that qualifies as “una dei borghi piu belli d’Italia”. I remember Michelle Pfeiffer as the lead actress in “Ladyhawk” when I was younger. The film was shot on location at the well preserved castle of Calascio. Now I have forgotten the acting and see only a well preserved castle set high on a mountain beneath the shadow of the bulk of the Gran Sasso.

From Castel del Monte we drove along the plateau, high ridges to the north running parallel with the road and culminating in the twin peaks of the Gran Sasso, Corno Grande and Corno Picolo. The hotel at Campo Imperatore comes into view suddenly as the road curls up to a higher level. It is a rectangular structure with small windows for the rooms because of the cold, and a semilunar curved dining room area with larger windows to allow diners to appreciate the magnificent vista.

The entrance of Hotel Campo Imperatore

The hotel is dated. Patches of brown painted plaster scar the facade, evidence of the severe climatic conditions it is exposed to, as well as the lack of funds because of the ongoing economic crisis. The reception area is small with an old high wooden counter housing the reception staff. Photocopied articles on the local vegetation and other interesting things littered the top of the counter. One of these was a recount of the daring German Luftwaffe rescue of Benito Mussolini from his incarceration in the hotel in 1943. Amongst the mountain memorabilia lie quotes and items honouring Il Duce. It costs €2 to visit the room he stayed in, still clad in the original mauve velvet. I visited the room a few years ago.

The receptionist was shoddy, but so was the waiter at the restaurant. He was a young man wearing low hung  jeans with a funny hairstyle and a few body piercings. Little did we know that the hotel was being run by Neopolitans.

The hotel restaurant had a facelift about ten years ago and slowly with neglect the decor has wilted and weathered. The seats are covered with white quilted fittings that are now yellowed and dirty from not being washed. I watched our waiter clear a nearby table of guests that had finished lunch. He removed the cutlery and crockery, returned and picked up one of the used cloth serviettes and dusted the table down inexpertly. Then he folded the serviette, which like ours had long last been starched, and reset the table with dirty linen. I then noticed how dirty our table was.

I took some photographs through the windows and then settled for lunch. The menu was set: pea soup followed by pasta Amatriciana and then deep fried pork steaks with a green salad and grilled vegetables. Desert I saw being served in whiskey glasses: a wet Macedonia, a fruit salad. We all agreed to start with the pasta but Gigi was keen to replace the pork with lamb chops. The lamb is particularly flavourful up in the mountains.

The view through a glass of Pecorino
The moonscape through the glass

“I am not sure if we have any. I’ll go ask the chef” said our waiter.

“OK,” said Gigi, “go see. We’d like them grilled if you have.”

The waiter wandered off in the direction of the kitchen before being sidetracked by another table and eventually returned, confirming that the kitchen did indeed have lamb chops. We thanked him and asked to order drinks. We all took some sparkling water. Then Gigi asked for wine.

“Do you have some Pecorino?” This is a regional grape variety.

The waiter looked blank, then confused. “Eh, no. We serve the pasta with Grana Padana.”

We looked at each other and smiled. Gigi spoke. “What other wines do you have?”

In all honesty he said he was not sure and went off to get the sommelier.

“Sorry, he’s new and does not know the wines.”

“Where’s he from?”


“Where are you from?”

“Also Napoli.”

I spied a wiry energetic dark haired man flitting from the kitchen serving a suspicious looking table. Neapolitans for sure, I thought.

The sommelier brought us a bottle of five year old Pecorino, from the Sophia Estate in Abruzzo.

Gigi was not happy. “this wine should be drunk when it is a year old.”

“No, it has matured and is ready to accompany good cheese and meat. Try it.”

We did. It was a dark dull yellow, like a South African wooded Chardonay. It did not taste of much and it held no aftertaste. We drank it anyway, in lieu of negotiating with the sommelier to get some ham and cheese as an antipasto instead of the soup.

We waited, longer than we should have for a set menu, and then our pasta arrived. The penne were al dente and the sugo was perfect, except that it had peperoncino, or chilli in.

Gigi again. “eh,it is good, but Amatriciana should not have chilli inside.” The chunks of ham were a delight in the mouth, with just enough fat to smooth the crunch as you chewed.

Our waiter returned. He cleared our plates. He came back, looking as if to ask if everything was alright with the meal when he surprised us.

“I will now bring the antipasto.”

He turned on his heels, walked into the kitchen and came out with three plates of prosciutto, salami and pecorino cheese.  It was really good, especially when he brought some rough potato bread to accompany the antipasto that came after the pasta. We said nothing to him.

He came again, slouching from the kitchen. “I am sorry. We have no lamb chops. There was a mistake. They’re all marinaded and ready for frying.”

“OK, we all said. Just bring the pork.”

He served a table that had arrived after us. They were already getting the pork.

As he walked back to the kitchen past us he calmly said “we have found some lamb chops and you will be served what you requested.”

The meat came with limp lettuce cut into strips and a small helping of grilled vegetables. The meat was flavoursome and tender.

The fruit salad was not memorable.

The coffee was good. The wiry Neapolitan came out of the kitchen made went to the bar. He brought three coffees, one normal, one decaffeinated and one ristretto for me. It was perfect, less than a mouthful of full flavour with a thick crema.

The meal took over two hours. It was funny to think my serviette would be used again without a wash. And I was sad we did not take up the offer of the waiter for our guest to see Mussolini’s room at no cost because we had eaten at the restaurant.

The Gran Sasso