When Emilio Zecca invited my friends Piero and Grazia Nucci for a weekend at his mother's home in Abruzzo, Piero asked some of us to come along too. Never one to stumble over a small detail like where we all would sleep, Piero insisted that having six unexpected guests wouldn't upset Emilio in the least.
It was almost November and really cold. We drove straight across the boot to a little town slightly beyond Sulmona, arriving on Emilio's doorstep freezing...and very hungry. When the poor man saw us, he was a bit rattled. After all, our group added to his family made us fifteen! But with true Italian graciousness, he quickly recovered and welcomed us with open arms.
It was a sleepy little town; at the time, no one even locked their doors. There were only two social activities. The first was the passeggiata, where you link arms with friends and stroll to the main square, looking and being looked at. The second was mangiare, where you link appetites with friends and eat as much as you can.
The biggest meal I can remember sitting down to in my lifetime was in the trattoria Emilio took us to. I didn't know it at the time but years later, I read that the Abruzzese were famous for the panarda, a huge feast that was served on special occasions. That was certainly a panarda we had that day.
The owner didn't blink an eye when he saw fifteen hungry wolves troop in. In moments, he had six tables strung together and was shouting to the kitchen to bring out the antipasti.
Let me tell you, it was simply the absolute best down-to-earth food in the world. Peppers, eggplant, zucchine, roasted scamorza cheese, grilled mushrooms, crispy peasant bread, wine and more wine. When they brought soup, I was already full. But next came pasta, three different kinds! Not wanting to seem rude, I tasted each, especially the Abruzzese specialty, maccheroni alla chitarra. After that, I really was finished. It was at this point that the owner came over and asked, "E cosa si mangia oggi?" (So what will you be eating today?) Evidently, only now were we really going to eat!
Right about here, Piero and Emilio lost their heads and gave the owner carte blanche. How blanche? Indecently, outrageously blanche. He brought us every meat and game dish in the book, two different kinds of lamb, a highly spiced, garlicky porchetta, racks of ribs, grilled chicken, rabbit, quail.... And let's not forget the delicious 'ndocca 'ndocca, a true specialty of the region, a kind of boiled, stewed pork mix of various parts of pig--the snout, tail, ears, etc. I know it sounds kind of horrible but, trust me, it was to die for.
During four hours of constant onslaught, I threw down my napkin many times, vowing never to eat again, only to pick it up again as yet another wonderful dish was passed around.When we got back to the house, a huge thunderstorm came up and blew out all the electricity.
We went out to buy candles and discovered that the whole town was dark. Thunder boomed all around us, lightning cracked and, in spite of all the weight I had put on at lunch, the icy wind actually blew me across a road!
Emilio got a fire going in the fireplace because the heaters were out too. In two minutes, backed-up smoke forced us from the house and out into the storm, choking and shivering. Eventually the fire was extinguished and we sat bundled up in blankets until the lights--and the heat--came on a couple of hours later. When at last the storm subsided, places were found for everyone to bed down and we all drifted off to sleep.