Food  |  Travel

Ovindoli: The great outdoors (and cool temperatures) at Rome’s doorstep

Posted on August 24, 2017

We had come to Ovindoli to escape.

It was the beginning of August, and as is tradition, Rome was beginning to empty itself steadily, disgorging its residents in the annual exodus towards other, more appealing holiday destinations while sweaty tourists flowed in to take their place. A heatwave named Lucifer (Italians like to name their heatwaves) was also set to descend on the country, pushing temperatures up beyond the 40ºC mark and well beyond the possibility of tolerance.

We headed for the mountains – not the taller, more famous peaks up North with the spectacular skiing in the winter and lush green meadows in the summer, but the older, softer hills in the centre of the country; Abruzzo.

A friend of ours has a summer home in Ovindoli, a small but not tiny town perched at the edge of a deep valley and overlooked by an oddly triangular mountain. She invited us to come stay for a while. We needed no convincing – the fact that the temperature there was a solid ten degrees less than in Rome spoke for itself.

There are, basically, two things to do in Ovindoli: Take part in nature-based activities, or eat. Arguably, if you want to enjoy the latter, you should also participate in the former. If you’re an outdoorsy person, or someone with kids, or even just someone who feels most at home when gazing out at pine-covered slopes, Ovindoli is pretty close to perfect. There are a million routes to hike, from sun-drenched meanders through meadows to nearly-vertical slopes to scramble up. There are rocks to climb. Mountain bikes everywhere. Horses to ride. More space than you’d ever need to spread out a picnic blanket. And there are children all over the place, running in packs, free to roam the town at will and congregate in the pinetina – the miniature pine grove on the edge of town – free to careen around the piazza at midnight on their bikes, free to be free in a way that could never happen back in the city.

Ovindoli is also one of the few places I’ve seen in Italy where everyone walks around in hiking boots and zip-off quick-drying pants, an extreme outlier in a country where women tend to wear high heels even on the most hostile terrain and probably don’t own many pieces of clothing that would fall under the category of “active wear”.

I am not a particularly outdoorsy person. I don’t have kids. I don’t own a pair of hiking boots, I find the idea of mountain biking off-putting, and there are few feelings I find more annoying than that of dust settling onto sunscreened and sweat-coated limbs. I am not at one with the mountains. There is not much that I find relaxing about a picnic blanket spread out in the middle of a sun-baked, cow-dung-studded field. To be honest, I’m just not part of Ovindoli’s target audience.

That being said, I do enjoy a good, hard hike; the kind that’s steep and challenging but also mercifully quick – sweat it out, get back down the mountain, jump in the shower, feel accomplished. I like the way the morning breeze is chilly even in the middle of a record-breaking heatwave, I like the view of that oddly triangular mountain framed by the bedroom window, and I like the way the smell of wood smoke and sun-warmed pine floats over the town in the evening. I appreciate falling into the slowed-down rhythms and the simplicity of small-town life, seeing doors propped open, bikes left unlocked and laundry racks set up along the edges of the street.

But most of all, I enjoy the food. You don’t come to Abruzzo looking for delicate flavours and light sauces, because the cuisine here is hearty stuff, intended for icy winter evenings and shepherds who’ve just spent their entire day outdoors. There is a lot of meat – grilled, stuck onto skewers, stuffed into sausages, cured, or stewed into falling-off-the-bone oblivion – and a lot of cheese, with a healthy appreciation for pasta (often with an intensely meaty sauce) to round things out.

There are a few restaurants right in the town of Ovindoli – one, La Stozza, is actually exceptional, the kind of place where you reserve a week in advance and then spend the days leading up to the dinner envisioning what you’re about to eat and preparing your stomach to be stretched to its limits. But in general, the best food in the area can be found outside of the town, in homely, casual little structures known as rifugi.

The general idea is that a rifugio acts as a mid-hike place of rest and nourishment, somewhere to refuel before you head out again. In reality, if you can manage to continue hiking after devouring a grilled sausage and pan-tossed broccoletti topped with melted, smokey scamorza cheese – all stuffed into a bun – then you are a stronger person than I am. I like to think that there’s a reason why all the rifugi have reclining lounge chairs outside; the only place I’d hike after a lunch like that is directly down the mountain.

The rifugio closest to Ovindoli offers a multi-course, fixed-menu lunch so abundant that it’s no wonder most of their customers arrive by car, not on foot. In the kind of building that looks like a converted barn – uneven cement floor, rough exposed beams, creaky tables and chairs crammed together wherever they’ll fit – you get a pasta, made freshly by the owner’s stoop-shouldered nonna that morning, tossed in a simple tomato sauce and served family style out of a massive plastic serving bowl. The pasta alone is more than enough for a decent lunch, but then the platter of grilled meat – steaks and sausages and skewers all glistening and still spitting hot fat – makes an appearance, along with bread and roasted peppers and the kind of rough and delicious red wine that has your head pleasantly fuzzy two sips in. The whole thing ends with slices of homemade crostata and cups of bracingly bitter espresso followed by little glasses of home-brewed elderflower liquor, thick and sweet and deadly.

The next morning, a hike seems (quite urgently) like a good idea. Movement, a hard uphill trail, kilometre after kilometre of putting one foot in front of the other. You ate all that food; now you have to pay for it. Although it just so happens that at the top of the trail you’re sweating your way up there’s yet another rifugio…

The real beauty of Ovindoli though, apart from the food or the scenery, was that while Rome – just an hour and a half away by autostrada – was melting under day after day of a brutal heatwave, Ovindoli was cool enough to permit activity other than sitting motionless in front of a whirring fan all day long. And so we came to Ovindoli to escape Lucifer, but we left with stronger leg muscles, stretched stomachs, and a dose of the kind of laid-back tranquility that only a small town in the mountains can provide.


Restaurants mentioned in this post

La Stozza

Via del Ceraso 3, Ovindoli AQ · +39 08 63705633

A small, cozy restaurant on a side street off the town’s main piazza. Start with the venison carpaccio and bruschette with goose breast and truffle, then move onto the pasta with wild boar sauce (a classic) or the intensely flavourful pasta with porcini mushrooms, potato and truffle. Share the “stinco” – a slow-roasted, fall-off-the-bone veal shank draped in lard and smothered in truffle (note: You should call ahead to order this dish, as they need advance notice to prepare it. It’s well worth the caloric assault). Reservations, as much in advance as possible, are a must.

Chalet del Lago

Campo Felice ski area, between the “Gigi Panei” and “Capricorno” slopes · +39 339 8980398

A small, no-nonsence rifugio with picnic tables and lounge chairs beside a small lake. They mainly offer panini – opt for the grilled sausage with broccoletti, and ask to add on the melted scamorza cheese. Accessible in the summer by hiking or taking the ski lift up from the Rocca di Cambio side of the mountain then walking down a small hill, or by hiking up from the Campo Felice parking area.

Rifugio La Serra Ovindoli

At the end of an unpaved street that begins where Via della Fonte turns an abrupt corner · +39 328 3448261

The €20 fixed-menu lunch includes homemade pasta, a selection of grilled meats, grilled vegetables and dessert. Everything is served family style and the atmosphere is boisterous and casual. During high season, be sure to reserve a table (there are also a few tables in a shaded overhang outside, which are pleasant when the weather is nice). Open at dinner on request for large groups of people.

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Comments on this post

shannon broderick 24 August 2017 at 5:40 pm

what a beautiful town [and beautiful photos, too]–strange to think of a town in Italy where people where zip off pants!

Lenka 26 August 2017 at 10:58 am

Such a dreamy place! I never heard about it, but after reading your post I need to go there, thank you very sharing this. And I admire your photographs!

Chiera 26 August 2017 at 11:05 am

Your pictures are absolutely beautiful! Really make Ovindoli seem like a lovely, peaceful place :)

Tamsin Grainger 26 August 2017 at 11:26 am

Gorgeous photos. Looks enticing!

Jess 26 August 2017 at 11:48 am

What a stunning place!

Ameeta 26 August 2017 at 2:04 pm

Ovindoli looks gorgeous! I am not a very outdoorsy person either but would definitely consider it as a lovely day trip option from Rome, for the food and scenery and that quintessential Italian countryside charm 😊

carlinn 27 August 2017 at 8:09 am

Haha its funny that you said you are not part of their target audience. I definitely am! Can we swap :P It does looks super beautiful though!

Gabbski 27 August 2017 at 8:48 am

This looks beautiful! I’ll definitely add it to my ‘hidden gems’ list!

Stephanie Chiuchiarelli 28 August 2017 at 4:10 pm

This is my family’s village, my grandparents were born there and I still have family in town. You described it beautifully! I only visited once, but it changed my life. So naturally peaceful and beautiful! It is perfectly picturesque and decidedly quaint, the ideal Italian countryside village. Thank you for writing such a lovely article about the place I dream of going back to.

Vicki viaja 28 August 2017 at 5:18 pm

Looks great! I love being outside in the nature and seeing new places. And even more I love italian food. Seems like the place to be! Thank you for sharing this :)

Diana S. Buchanan 29 August 2017 at 4:54 am

Beautiful photos and writing that brings the reader along with you.

Marsha Sices 29 August 2017 at 3:28 pm

Love this article! Beautifully written and photographed it really made me want to visit. And it definitely made me hungry but disappointed knowing I could never replicate those fantastic meals! Yum!

Vincenzo Rinaldi 29 August 2017 at 11:44 pm

Great article about my hometown of Ovindoli. Definitely one of the best kept secrets in all of Central Italy.
The sites and the food are amazing, especially La Stozza. My cousin Enrico works there and the owner Osvaldo is a genius using only local ingredients to make the some of the most creative meals I’ve ever had. The town is situated such that you can even make a day trip to the Adriatic for some beach time since it’s only 45 minutes away. Summer time in Ovindoli is unbelievable with the mild climate and fresh air. If you’re a skier the Magnola ski area is superb. Very proud of our beautiful paese.

Marie Giovanna Moretti 30 August 2017 at 12:14 am

Thank you for your article about Ovindoli. We recently returned from this beautiful village, where my father was born and many cousins reside. Your article captures some of the beauty and novelty of Ovindoli. Alas, what is missing in your story is the most important part of the village: the people. Open arms with warm hugs and beautiful smiles abound. Ovindoli, my heart is there.

Patricia butticci hilpert 1 September 2017 at 5:25 pm

Thank you for sharing gina.. it’s on my bucket list to return to ovindoli.. again …. however to stay for several months ..and do more research on my parents

Patricia butticci angelosante 1 September 2017 at 5:47 pm

I agree Marie moretti…. all beautiful… the people are the best … my mother grew up there and my father grew up in a neighboring village… Angelosante and Butticci’s …

Stefano 13 October 2017 at 11:34 pm

Bell paese, aspeto di rivederlo pronto

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