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?”

“Napoli.”

“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

Gl’Uomini Degli Dei – The People of the Gods 4 July 2011

Last year we did an amazing walk above the Amalfi coast, Il Sentiero Degli Dei, “The Path of the Gods”. This ancient path was used by shepherds and traders from a mountain top village called Agerola (where, you ask?) to Positano (everybody knows where), a picturesque seaside village on the Amalfi coast and setting of the beautiful film, “Il Postino” , about a postman in love who is counselled by the greatest love poet , Pablo Neruda. The walk ends with two thousand steps descending into the village.

The views along the way are breathtaking, as your eye corners cliffs and swoops down like an eagle to the bay five hundred meters away and seven hundred meters down.  Along the slopes are olive groves, vineyards, vegetable patches and patios that absorb the light showered down by the gods. The path is marked by some CAI (Club Alpino Italiano or the Alpine Club of Italy) Rosso Bianco markers. CAI members express their individuality by making new, and I am sure they think better, paths with some other combination of Bianco Rosso.  You can easily lose your way at some intersections, so you have to pay attention to commune signs and old hand carved signs in wood, hung framing the island of Capri in the haze.

Everyone knows about the Amalfi coast. Everyone knows of the jewels that sparkle in the stunning vistas. But the real treasure is hidden. Walk through the arches into the main piazza of Amalfi. There is a church to your right with high steps and the large tourist outdoor cafes. I was there last year and my eye caught a young Italian beauty dancing through the crowds holding a tray of three espresso cups. I rushed to follow her under an old arcade and walked into Titziano’s pasticerie. Last year his sister was helping out as his wife had just delivered twins a few days earlier. He baptised us as travellers, not tourists, a badge we proudly wear. His miniature tarts and sweets exploded with flavours as big as mountains in your mouth. His coffee made with old plunge pressure espresso machines announced that this was historic for its difference.

Look skywards from Amalfi after a ride by tragetto (ferry) from Positano and you catch a glimpse of San Lazzaro and the edge of an old Saracen fortress. San Lazzaro is a frazione of the rough diamond of Agerola. Although it is only 5km away as the eagles swoop, they town lies 25km away by hairpin bends and narrow tar road. Last year we arrived in the pouring rain and eventually made our way to Da Ginanino’s, a restaurant just down the road where we stayed at Il Principe, a refurbished floor of rooms in an old apartment block. Named after Toto, a famous Italian comedian with a long nose and longer list of comedies, including one called “Il Principe”. At Da Gianino we met Salvatore, the son of famous Gianino, the chef who has appeared on RAI (Italian TV) cooking shows. He has designed his own special pasta, a rotella. The rotella arrived, a Swiss roll of double pasta with mozzarella and bathed in a chunky vegetable broth .Last year Salvatore would not accept a tip, and gave us a whole lot of local cheeses, including fior di late from his brothers cheese farm, and this year he just served us a meal we did not order and then the next night took us out to a slow food restaurant in Sorrento where he learned to make pizza.  And drove us back home.  And delivered even more cheese to Il Principe the next morning while we slept and he started his cheese delivery rounds along the coast on a Wednesday. A package of biscotti, bagels, cheese and his own aromatic and not too sweet limoncelo from trees in his own garden. His wife Monica popped in and out of our lives in Agerola, bubbling with joy and passion, adding colour and laugher to a memorable visit to the Amalfi coast.

As you enter Sorrento there is a viewing pint over the Gulf of Naples. We watched a stunning sunset and focussed on the padlocks fixed to the railing engraved with the names of couples, engaged, married or in love. Sometimes all three. I felt like leaving one there, from us to them. Instead I wrote this to let you know about these incredible people and this amazing place.

The Power of Love: Padlocks on the Bay of Naples