Mountainous Abruzzo might just be the Italy that time — and tourism — forgot. This under-visited region is a sprawl of Apennine landscapes dotted with lakes. It’s interspersed with medieval hilltop villages that often have pre-Roman, tribal origins. It’s also home to extensive protected areas of land and three national parks, including the Parco Nazionale della Majella. And it’s in Italy so, of course, there are incredible culinary experiences on offer, such as saffron-steeped risotto and liquorice-filled sweets.
Hearty mountain fare dominates in Abruzzo: sausages, porchetta, legumes and sharp pecorino abruzzese cheese made from sheep’s milk. Arrosticini, skewers of roasted sheep morsels, top nearly every menu. Head to the national parks to score saffron, lentils and artisanal cheeses straight from the source, or visit idyllic towns such as Casoli, Sulmona or Chieti for gluttonous lunches with mountain and valley views. Every meal starts with a bold local wine and ends with bracing shots of genziana liqueur.
Organise your stay from one of the region's most spectacular mountain towns, Casoli. The historic enclave is home to palace-turned-private residence club Palazzo Ricci, through whom you can arrange all of your Abruzzen excursions.
Try three unique Abruzzo products on these food excursions
Zafferano (saffron) has been cultivated in Abruzzo since the Middle Ages, principally for its potent medicinal properties. Although the rise of modern medicine caused a drastic drop in demand, Abruzzo saffron production has made a comeback thanks to the Fondazione Silvio Salvatore Sarra, a co-operative dedicated to conserving this slice of Abruzzese heritage and promoting the highest standards of production.
This renewed appreciation has introduced the fragrant spice to the region’s gastronomy scene and you’ll now find it lending its sunburst-yellow colour to many dishes, including risottos, pastas and even sweets. Shops sell the pistils and powder, but if you want to get personal with Abruzzo’s “yellow gold”, make like the locals and participate in the autumn harvest, from late October to the middle of November. A well-timed trip to areas such as the Navelli Altiplano will reveal dramatic fields of purple blooms. Join a daybreak expedition arranged by your concierge at Palazzo Ricci, armed with a wicker basket, as local experts show you how saffron flowers are separated from their red dust-covered pistils and allowed to dry.
Like saffron, liquirizia (liquorice) was first used in medieval Abruzzo for medicinal purposes. But since 1836, this invasive shrub has been inextricably linked with delicious sweets and the tranquil town of Atri, which is home to the Menozzi de Rosa liquorice factory. The building is, sadly, closed to visitors, but can get your liquorice fix at Atri’s historic Willy Wonka-like Bottega della Liquirizia, where you’ll get a quick history and botany lesson as you browse (and sample from) vats of liquorice sweets, metres of liquorice rope and massive raw liquorice chunks. While you’re here, try Atri’s liquorice-infused artisanal products, such as the delectable ricotta stagionata alla liquirizia — an aged ricotta produced by local dairy Azienda Agricola D’Amario e Feliciani.
For something sweeter, stop by Pasticceria Giorgia to try its popular and highly delicious liquorice-flavoured cantuccini biscuits and deep-fried zeppole di san giuseppe (sweet doughballs often stuffed with jam, custard or honey). Elsewhere, the pristine village of Sulmona is famous for liquorice-filled confetti sweets.
3. Wine and genziana
Abruzzo’s mountains, rolling hills and dry soil make for pure grape magic. The dark, dramatic Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is the region’s most prestigious wine by far, but you’ll also find many other exceptional varieties, including the crisp Trebbiano, fruity Passerina and floral Pecorino. Time your stay for grape harvest from September to early November. Also known as the estate di San Martino, this is the perfect time to visit one of the region’s many cantinas, such as Azienda Agricola Olivastri Tommaso, in hilltop San Vito Chietino. Here, you can tour tranquil vineyards and partake in tastings with the breathtaking Majella mountain massif as a backdrop.
For something even bolder, try some genziana — a classic Abruzzese digestif made from the gentian herb. Ask your waiter for a shot at the end of your meal, or stock up at Scuppoz, an artisan distillery in Campovalano that produces all manner of Abruzzo-made liqueurs.
Plan your trip
Food-fuelled excursions and hands-on local experiences can be arranged in-house when you plan your accommodation with Palazzo Ricci. The Ricci family’s former palace in hilltop Casoli is now a private residence club, where travellers can buy fractional ownership in the historic property. Palazzo's concierge is also available to book a variety of activities.
Get to Abruzzo via plane, with regular flights from London to Pescara Abruzzo Airport, or via Rome and then a regional train. Hiring a car is recommended for accessing smaller villages like Casoli, perched at the edge of the Majella massif.
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