This post was originally published on August 24, 2017 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.
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 scamorzacheese – 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: The details
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.