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A Week In A Magical Italian Village

 Have you dreamed of publishing those family stories that might otherwise be lost in the future? What about those travel experiences you always wanted to put to paper, or those food memories from childhood? Now, how many times have you told friends to go for it, using the phrase “You only live once”?
Well, how about following your own dream for one week while learning how to polish your prose, eating fabulous food and living in a magical village in an unspoiled region of Italy?
It’s a village where road signs might have distances between towns measured in the time it takes to ride a horse.
It’s a village that has quiet, secret corners and small treasures waiting to be discovered.
Why not do yourself a favor and sign up for “Italy, In Other Words,” a memoir writing workshop?   It takes place from June 15 to June 21st,  2014 and is held in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a medieval village in the Gran Sasso National Park. Located in the region of Abruzzo, Santo Stefano di Sessanio has been named one of Italy’s prettiest towns, or “I borghi più belli d’Italia.” You’ll stay in Sextantio, a unique hotel with rooms dispersed throughout the town. Yours might be warmed by this rustic fireplace (but don’t worry – you’ll have modern Phillip Starck bathroom fixtures):
This is the view from one of the rooms:

 

The wild poppies and mustard should be in bloom when we’re there in mid-June.

 

 

Kathryn Abajian, college professor, author, and writing teacher, will lead the writing workshop, and she is gifting at elevating pedestrian words to poetry.
You’ll get plenty of daily, helpful feedback from the other participants in the workshop too.

 

 

 I’ll be your cultural guide, taking you on nearby excursions. Some of the places you’re likely to visit are Rocca Calascio, a mountaintop fortress dating back to the 10th century.
We’ll pass by the church of Santa Maria della Pietà, built to commemorate what legend says was a victory of the locals over a gang of bandits.

 

We’ll walk along ancient sheep trails where you might even meet a modern day shepherd:
 It’s not unusual to have to stop along the road for a sheep crossing.
 
The bedspread in your hotel room is likely to be hand woven by women from the local area, and you’ll see a demonstration on a centuries-old loom:
 We’ll take an excursion to see how pecorino canestrato (sheep’s milk cheese) is made – .
 And how maccheroni alla chitarra is made – an Abruzzo specialty.
 
 And you’ll have plenty of opportunity to eat it at dinner.
But before dinner, have a seat in the cantina with your fellow students and enjoy a glass of wine with some cheese and locally made sausages.

 

 At dinner, take the opportunity to savor conversation and delicious food.
 Like these affettati (sliced, cured meats):

 

 

or  ravioli with gorgonzola and walnuts:

 

 

Or arrosticini – succulent skewers of grilled lamb.

 

Get your feet tapping at the finale concert with DisCanto and their fabulous Abruzzese folk music:

 

 You don’t have to be an experienced writer to sign up. You just have to have the desire to improve your writing.  Although we’ve had participants who were accomplished, published writers, we’ve also had homemakers, a postal worker and an artist in past years too.
Want more information? Check out all the details here on the Italy, In Other Words website. You’ll find contact information to register.  Hope to see you there in June. It’s a week that will stay with you forever.

Missing Italy

 I’ve been back for only a few days and I’m already missing all the places I visited in Italy — from the mountains of Abruzzo … to the beaches of Anzio…
From Rome’s well-known tourist sites…
to some hidden gems shown to me by a curator friend at the Palazzo Barberini…
From working with a serious but fun-loving group of writers at the “Italy, In Other Words” workshop…
To shopping time with them at the ceramics town of Castelli…
From the dazzling mosaics at Santa Maria in Trastevere of Christ the shepherd and his sheep…
To an encounter along the ancient sheep trails in Abruzzo with a modern-day shepherd and his dogs tending his flock…
From all the kitsch-y souvenirs along the streets of Rome…
To looking for real treasures in the city’s antique shops…
From a concert with the fabulous Abruzzese folk musicians DisCanto…
To the incomparable Riccardo Muti conducting Attila at Rome’s Opera House…
From my rustic room at Sextantio that still looked as it did in the middle ages:
To the beautiful patio of my blissfully quiet Rome hotel room.
From churches in far-flung places…
To participating in mass from behind the altar at St. Pietro in Vincoli, seated in a choir stall with a view of Michaelangelo’s “Moses.”
From the wonderful food I ate – cooking with Fabio in his Rome palazzo:
To watching Liliana make her spaghetti alla chitarra in Santo Stefano di Sessanio:
From pizza:
to pasta…
to meat…
to fish:
pastries…
and gelato too:
….How could I not still be longing to be back in this beautiful country and the people I spent time with in the last few weeks? Once I’m caught up with things on the home front, be on the lookout for future posts about recipes, sights and sounds I encountered during the last few weeks — and a giveaway too. Stay tuned ….

Le Virtu, DisCanto and rabbit too!

Doesn’t this look like a lovely pastoral scene — a picturesque Italian village, people dressed in traditional costumes, dancers swaying as musicians play in the background, and a picnic spread on the grass? You’d think it’s a painting, and it is — sort of. But it’s not hanging on the wall of any museum. It’s a mural ON a wall along Passyunk Street in Philadelphia. It also happens to depict Santo Stefano di Sessanio – the village where I’ll be co-teaching a writing workshop with Kathryn Abajian called “Italy, In Other Words.”
I was flabbergasted when I saw it for the first time last week, right next to a restaurant called “Le Virtu” where I went to hear a group of musicians from Abruzzo called “DisCanto.” They had performed in Princeton years ago at the Italian cultural institute I’m involved with, and I didn’t want to miss the chance to hear these talented musicians a second time. Drinks and munchies would be served and I was eager to try some of the restaurant’s food, focusing on the cuisine of Abruzzo.
I met up with Helen Free, who came up from Washington, D.C. for the evening. I’ll be taking over her role this year in the Italy, In Other Words workshop, leaving her the time to organize a new blogging workshop in Santo Stefano for later in the year – Hands on L’Aquila.
Many of the walls at the restaurant are decorated in ceramics made in the town of Castelli, one of the excursions planned during the writing workshop in Italy.
The evening started out with wine and small bites of delectable offerings, including succulent lamb spiedini, and these outrageously delicious stuffed olives.
The star of the show however, (food-wise) was the roast suckling pig, prepared by Chef Joe Cicala, whose culinary talents have been honed in restaurants in Salerno, Italy; Washington, D.C. and New York City (including Del Posto, one of my favorites).
Everyone was salivating at the first smack of the knife, when the crackling skin gave way to the tender, well-seasoned meat inside, infused with rosemary and sage.
The authentic regional food set the stage for the talented musicians, who alternated among a myriad of instruments, including guitar, cello, mandolin, clarinet, accordion, violin and bagpipes. Yes, that’s right — bagpipes — or zampogne — as they’re called in Italian. Scotland has nothing on Italy when it comes to bagpipes.  Southern Italy has a long tradition of bagpipe music, hailing back to shepherds who were away from their families tending their flocks for long periods of time. They would descend from the mountains at Christmas time, surrounded by their sheep as they played the instruments they made using available materials. The well-known Italian Christmas carol “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle” (You came down from the stars) is traditionally accompanied by bagpipes.
 Members of DisCanto in the photo below are, Sara Ciancone on the cello, Michele Avolio on guitar, Antonello Di Matteo on clarinet and Domenico Mancini on violin.
Here’s a video of the group that night, performing “La Luna Si Fermo'” (The moon stopped.)
It was a fun-filled night of great music, delicious food, renewing old friendships and making new ones.
Among the new ones were Francis Cratil (below) and his wife, Catherine Lee, owners of Le Virtu who were instrumental in bringing DisCanto to the U.S.
We ate a limited sampling of Le Virtu’s food, but it was enough for me to know that I want to go back again and again to try everything on the menu. The flavors were so evocative of real Abruzzese cooking, even though some of the dishes take a more modern twist, but always using authentic ingredients from the region, like saffron from Navelli, and lentils from Santo Stefano, for example.
On the way out, the mural looked even more magical, as decorative street lights provided drama.
And if you zoom in on the mural, take a good look at who’s playing the ciaramella,  that wooden instrument that looks like a recorder (but is really related to the oboe). It’s a member of Discanto – Michele – whom the artist used as a model.
The musicians have gone back to Italy, but you can still feel the Abruzzo vibe on Passyunk Ave at Le Virtu. If you can’t get to Philly though, Francis was kind enough to send me a recipe – coniglio in porchetta — or rabbit rolled and cooked in the style of a porchetta. So now you can have a little bit of Abruzzo and Le Virtu in your home too.

Coniglio in Porchetta
photo and recipe courtesy of Le Virtu
printable recipe here
1 whole boneless Lancaster County rabbit (available from Sonny D’Angelo on Philadelphia’s 9th St.)
3 sprigs of rosemary
2 cloves of garlic
1T kosher salt
1/2 T black peppercorns
1/2tsp red pepper flake
4 oz extra virgin olive oil
1 bay leaf
2 juniper berries
2 cloves

  • In a spice/coffee grinder pulverize the black pepper, bay leaf, juniper berries, and cloves to a fine powder. set aside.
  • Lay the boneless rabbit flat over plastic wrap. cover with a second sheet of plastic and lightly beat with a meat mallet until a universal thickness of about 1/2 inch.
  • Season liberally with olive oil, salt, spice mixture, red pepper flake. Roll the rabbit into a roast, tucking in the sides as you go.
  • Tie the roast up with butcher string and season the outside with any remaining spice mix and salt in a hot saute pan add 2 oz of extra virgin olive oil. when the oil starts to smoke add the rabbit.
  • Let sear heavily on one side for 2 minutes or until golden brown.
  • Flip the roast and sear for an adittional two minutes.
  • Move the hot pan into a preheated oven at 350 degrees
  • Cook for an additional 20 minutes
  • Remove roast from oven and let rest for 10 minutes at room temperature
  • Remove butcher strings and slice into medallions.
  • Serve immediately
Chestnut-lentil ragu:
1 small carrot
1 onion
1 stalk of celery
2 cloves of garlic
2 bay leaves
2 oz extra virgin olive oil
3 sprigs of thyme
1 sprig of rosemary
1 sprig of sage
500 grams brown lentils (from Santo Stefano di Sessanio…or castelluccio lentils if S.S. di S. lentil not available)
1 kilo (2.2 lbs.) shelled chestnuts (either roasted or boiled and peeled
salt and pepper to taste
1 gallon rabbit stock (chicken stock works just fine)
  •  Peel onion and carrot and place them with the celery and garlic in a food processor and pulse until you ahve a fine mince.
  • In a large pot sweat the vegetable mixture in the olive oil on low heat until they become translucent.
  • Add chestnuts and cook for an additional 5 minutes until the chestnuts become tender and start to break apart
  • Add lentils and stirr with wooden spoon to mix.
  • tie the herbs together with butcher string to for a bouquet garnis, add to the pot.
  • Add the stock and season with salt and pepper
  • Cook over low heat (a light simmer) until the lentils are tender (about 30 minutes)
  • if additional liquid is needed add water a little at a time until the lentils are cooked. (much like the style of a risotto)
  • serve immediately under roasted rabbit in porchetta, or add additional stock to make a great soup. Garnish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.