I had the chance of living abroad for most of my studies and the more I was away, the more I developed a sort of “Italianity”.
I was cooking typical recipes from Abruzzo while listening to Jimmy Fontana’s lyrics and watching old Italian movies, crying towards the end, but at least, feeling almost at home. I sort of became Italy’s greatest groupie.
Our region is such a shy place, If Italy were a school class, Abruzzo would be that typical little girl with braces and a funny haircut; after a couple of years she’d become a beautiful smart woman, without you really realising it’s the same person you’re looking at. Our territory is definitely quite unique, it can be bucolic and urban at the same time, although I must admit, I’ve always been much more intrigued by the folkloristic and old fashioned side of our region; those kind of “Under the Abruzzo’s sun” moments and places.
There’s nothing better than driving around and losing the sense of where you are, admiring the surroundings, maybe visiting an old Church or a village and then of course stopping for a meal.
During my little trips across Abruzzo, I have been searching for authentic, traditional Italian restaurants that wouldn’t just cook good food, but would serve recipes that in some way reflect the history of a territory; places that have always been where they are today, shielding generation after generation of cooking techniques and recipes.
Not a long time ago, I discovered a restaurant called La Bilancia.
Nestled in the village of Loreto Aprutino, the area is known for excellent wine and olive oil production. The road to reach the restaurant is incredibly beautiful, surrounded by countryside and mountain ranges. La Bilancia is that kind of restaurant that looks untouched from the past and exactly how I wished all restaurants would look like nowadays; a perfect balance between elegance and rusticity. Waiters twirl while serving warm bowls of pasta directly from the pot onto everyone’s plates, as if it was some sort of play and I was one of its hungry audience. It’s just a matter of a few moments and the table is filled with all kinds of primi; from sagne with beans, “olive leaves” pasta with vegetables, chitarra with tiny meatballs and tomato sauce or ravioli, everything just tastes incredible. The house speciality is a classic mugnaia, served with garlic and dried red pepper flakes. It’s the only true version, that doesn’t use tomato sauce, unlike what you would usually get nowadays.
My grandmothers are not the typical “ Italian nonna” cliché, they taught me latin and english, but didn’t really set a foot in the kitchen. In some ways, I believe it makes me appreciate dining at la Bilancia even more; everyday feels like a traditional Sunday lunch at home with your family. They respect traditions and share them with others, also hosting popular festivals from countryside old culture. I love the feeling of sitting there, surrounded by a mixing pot of people, like hunters, chefs, local producers, and the best wine and olive oil makers of the area. They come to enjoy a simple yet sophisticated meal, prepared as the tradition would expect you to.
A restaurant so pleasing and idyllic could only reflect the nature of the family behind it.
Antonietta is the grandmother everybody would want (but unfortunately, she’s taken already). She’s the chef and master of the kitchen; she works tirelessly everyday, always with a beautiful smile on her face. Her wise hands work all kinds of food, one moment she’s cutting homemade pasta, the second after she’s blanching cime di rapa or frying cacionetti. She’s a ray of sun in the kitchen, who works with her staff every day and can cook for over 300 people effortlessly in one go, delivering appetising and delicious meals every single time.
Sergio, Antonietta’s husband is the propeller of the entire restaurant and hotel. His idea is to preserve culinary traditions and culture from Abruzzo, never making a compromise with the quality of the ingredients and restaurant meals. He always makes sure that everything is perfect and at its highest standard. People who know him, (me included) care about his opinion; every time me and his daughter Ute visited a farm or a producer they would only give us things Sergio “approved”. Lara is the eldest daughter, she lives in Milan, but often comes with her family to visit and surprises the whole restaurant. She grew up at La Bilancia, with her sister Ute. Just like Sergio, everybody trusts her opinion for food and restaurants in general. She is what we call in Italian a “buongustaia”.
Ute, the youngest daughter, is the sweetest and kindest woman I know. She works at La Bilancia every day, helping her family to manage the whole restaurant and hotel. She allowed me to spend time “behind the scenes” of the restaurant and made me really feel part of the staff. I feel like if we were in the same class, she would be the one passing me the answers for each question of the test. We share incredible curiosity for food and different cuisines. I really enjoy being with her, any excuse is good enough to stop by La Bilancia for a meal and chat with her.
Every time I walk in the restaurant I discover something new about their philosophy. They love to get ingredients farmed and sourced locally, some of them actually grown in the restaurant’s vegetable garden, where they have lots of beautiful greens they use for their side dish called “misticanza”. They buy other ingredients, from delicious cheese and eggs to different types of meat from a local farm called del Proposto, where animals graze freely, looking over the Majestic Gran Sasso a few kilometres behind them.
La bilancia is probably the only restaurant where I sit down and enjoy every single dish, not allowing my sweet tooth to prevail over the rest of the meal. However, I must admit, I’m always really happy to end each lunch or dinner with a delicious dessert made by Maurizio, the Sicilian chef of the restaurant who has honed every possible skill for traditional sweets; his pesche dolce are renowned in the area and the restaurant’s pannacotta with mosto cotto is my favourite amongst all of the other desserts. Every time my sister Athina comes with us to the restaurant, she loves to order pesche dolci and carefully removes all the custard from them with her little fingers and then eats the rest of the small sponge cakes, It’s funny to see her doing it and even funnier to see my mum looking at her.
Living abroad for quite some time allowed me to see things from a different perspective. I am so glad to have discovered La Bilancia, I believe that places like these should be protected and supported by all of us. I’m truly happy to share my whole knowledge about it and give a little insight into how many wonderful realities like that are scattered around our region. We often take things for granted and don’t really realise how special they are until they’re not there anymore. I believe that we can all make a small difference by buying products and services from local businesses in order to help our whole community. You can buy anything you want on the internet, but places like this, especially when they’re owned by incredible families, are simply priceless.
Now, I just can’t wait to be back there.
Ricetta pasta alla mugnaia: Servings 4
Ingredients for the dough:
500 gr of mixed flours ( 250 gr of 0 flour and 250 gr of “granito”, a type of durum-wheat semolina)
500 gr of fine semolina to work the dough
Mix the two different types of flour, slowly add the water until you get a soft dough. Let it rest for about an hour before working it again. The dough should be shaped into a doughnut and then slowly enlarged by hand until it gets bigger and has to be rolled on a wooden table to reach the thickness of a pencil. The last step in to make the string finer and finer through the use of extra semola.
The pasta shouldn’t be cut, it should be one long single piece.
Boil the pasta for about 15/20 minutes. In the meantime, prepare the sauce:
In a large pan, sautèe 100 ml of extra vergin olive oil with 5 cloves of garlic; once golden, add 15 gr of sweet dried pepper flakes.
Add the pasta to the sauce, mix well together and serve immediately.