Five Best Special Abruzzo Restaurants

Time to revisit places to eat in our corner of Abruzzo.

I’ve blogged on the subject before, but that was quite a while ago, and in the meantime new places have been discovered and old favourites have developed.

And I’m presenting my choices in a slightly different way too. To start with, five terrific places to eat grouped under the heading, Five Best Special Abruzzo Restaurants.

Not Five of the Best Special Abruzzo Restaurants – if for no better reason than Abruzzo’s way too big to submit any definitive, subjective suggestions under that heading, but instead five restaurants, all – with one exception – within half-an-hour of us, where you can eat exceptionally well in an Abruzzo style a long way removed from the more usual offerings you might’ve had before when eating out in the region; in exceptionally nice surroundings; without paying an exceptionally large bill at the end of the evening.

And if such things are important to you, all are exceptionally well-reviewed on TripAdvisor.

All regular haunts of ours. All unhesitatingly and enthusiastically recommended.

And because I think they’re all great and would happily eat in any of them at any time, listed in strict alphabetical order

Ai Vecchi Sapori (Lanciano)

Inside Ai Vecchi Sapori

If you – like chef/patron Davide – are a devotee of Italy’s ‘Slow Food’ movement, you’ll love Ai Vecchi Sapori. In summer you’ve a choice between dining inside – or outside in a rather romantic covered courtyard.

Tucked away in Lanciano’s old town – but easy enough to find – Ai Vecchi Sapori will always have a special place in our affections, because – as unashamed foodies – it was the first place we found on moving to Abruzzo in 2007 that offered something completely different to the more usual eating-out offerings we’d been finding of variations on antipasti; pasta; and char-grilled meat.

Yes, there are antipasti (especially good); yes, there’s pasta too. But what you come here for – and this is actually quite unusual in Abruzzo restaurants – are the main dishes.

Chef/patron Davide is a devotee of Italy’s ’Slow Food’ movement – set-up as a direct counter to fast-food culture – and that philosophy’s embodied here by long, slow-cooked, main course braises of beef (in Montepulciano); lamb (in a paper bag !); pork; and – especially – wild boar flavoured with juniper and rabbit with truffles. All are meltingly tender, flavourful and delicious.

In the colder months, eat in the small, alcoved main restaurant, with the kitchen actually tucked into one corner.

In summer, ask for a table in a small, covered, (and rather romantic) courtyard outside.

The house red’s well above average here (and the rest of the wine list is good too) and a meal for the two of you should come in at around €60-70.

Dei Pani e Dei Pesci (Pescara)

Antipasti at Dei Pani e Dei Pesci

A selection of the antipasti at Dei Pani e Dei Pesci in Pescara – a cut above most of the other (very many) fish restaurants you’ll find in the city. Excellent menu and buzzy atmosphere !

My ex-BBC colleague Phil and his camera operator Rose were both in Pescara covering the Giro d’Italia cycle race last year and on a rare night of down-time, they asked to go to a good local fish restaurant.

In one respect, an easy request to meet as there must be at least 100 fish restaurants in the city; but in reality, quite a difficult ask, because most of the choice on offer is of a uniformly decent standard, with only a few standouts.

And Dei Pani e dei Pesci, (literally ‘Loaves and Fishes’) fitted the latter bill perfectly.

You’ll find it in a central, though much lesser-known, non-touristy, part of Pescara, across the road from the city’s old covered market, but just moments away from the city’s principal street, the Corso Umberto.

It’s actually fairly small – so it’s an absolute must-book – stylish, slick, modern and buzzy inside. A bit like its clientele !

The mixed antipasti starters are inventively prepared and perfectly presented, along with little pots of dips and sauces. The home-baked bread is exceptional. Passed on pasta and went – predictably but justifiably – straight onto a delicious squid frittura. A bot of local Pecorino was a perfect accompaniment.

We all ate – and drank – extremely well. Service was willing and cheerful from young staff. The bill for the three of us, around €100.

For the combo of setting, food and buzz,  Dei Pani e dei Pesci is a real standout.

La Grotta dei Raselli (Guardiagrele)

Tables for two in the Grotta's grotto !

Tucked away at the back of the Grotta dei Raselli is the small grotto from which it gets its name. Just a handful of tables for two – and it’s where we like to eat when we’re here !

I have to admit that our initial visit to La Grotta back in 2009 wasn’t a huge success. It had been highly recommended to us, but to be honest, we found it excessively precious and much too far up its own rear end for a relaxing evening out with easy eating.

We didn’t go back until 2015 – actually, dragged back by by friends who insisted we give it a second chance – and whether due to a change of ownership, staff or attitude, we instantly and happily revised our initial judgement and have been regular return visitors ever since.

Most of the tables are in the cool, light, stone-walled main restaurant, but if you book early enough, ask for one of the three or four tables – fittingly, for couples only – set into the little grotto at the very back of the restaurant and from which it gets its name.

They’re where we always try and sit !

Food is modern Abruzzese. Traditional local dishes maybe a little lighter; a little less full-on; a little differently interpreted to the originals. (But for all that, instantly recognisable for what they are. Like a refashioned Pizz’e Foje – one of of Abruzzo’s traditional favourites).

Hot and cold antipasti are opulent and really very good; as is the (home-made) pasta. I’ve generally steered away from beef/pork/lamb main dishes in favour of venison or rabbit; desserts are reworkings of semi-freddo and other familiarities.

If you’re not a carnivore, there are always specifically vegetarian options. (Quite unusual. Though vegetarians are catered for everywhere, it’s not always as accommodatingly as this). Service is slick and friendly. The wine-list – as you’d expect – very strong on local wines with (as is common throughout the region) a tiny price mark-up. Which means you can drink very well and very reasonably. Depending on what you do drink – and whether you dive straight in with four courses, or throttle back to just three, think in terms of around €60-€80 for two.

Villa Maiella (Guardiagrele)

The Tinari family, who run the Villa Maiella

The Tinari family – Abruzzo restaurant royalty at the Villa Maiella. From the left – Pascal, the Restaurant Manager; Arcangelo, the young, rising star chef; his mother Angela, one of Italy’s top female chefs; and the inimitable Peppino – a great chef himself, and now the genial front-of-house host.

If there’s such a thing as Abruzzo royalty in the restaurant world, it’d have to be the Tinari family, who’ve run the Villa Maiella just outside Guardiagrele for some 50 years.

Starting off as a little local trattoria, the Villa Maiella is now one of only six Michelin-starred restaurants in all Abruzzo.

It can be undeniably expensive. Very much a birthday/anniversary/special occasion treat. It’s also undeniably smart, but also as warm-hearted and welcoming as you could wish for.

And that’s really down to Giuseppe ‘Peppino’ Tinari – the Villa Maiella’s former chef (and to whom it really owes its current status); now worldwide public face; and regular meeter-greeter.

He has that rare and happy knack of making you feel like a treasured regular – even if it’s your very first visit – and that warmth percolates down through the front-of-house staff, headed by one of his sons – Pascal.

Peppino’s other son Arcangelo works alongside his mother Angela in the kitchen and is regarded as the rising next generation star. And the food that comes out of kitchen really does take Abruzzo cooking to unprecedented levels, somehow managing to combine an earthy authenticity with a confident lightness of touch that takes genuine skill to achieve.

A multi-course tasting menu, including a selection of different wines, will cost you a shade under €100/head. A more modest meal about €75/head. But a visit to the Villa Maiella needn’t cost anywhere near that.

Nobody will bat an eyelid if you order – say – just some pasta and a dessert and a modestly-priced bottle of wine. Go in summer; sit on the outdoor terrace, with wonderful views over the Majella National Park, and just enjoy the experience.

ps. The Villa Maiella closes for two weeks each July.

Vineria di Salnitro (San Martino sulla Marrucina)

The Vineria's 'deconstructed' cheesecake

The Vineria’s justly-famous ‘deconstructed’ (and downsized) cheesecake – which is all you’ll have room for after making your way through the rest of the menu !

It’s a fairly safe bet to say that you won’t have found – or find ! – any other restaurant in Abruzzo anything quite like the Vineria. A former olive oil press, (which is still there in the ground floor eating area), and built into the walls of the old town of San Martino sulla Marrucina, the Vineria redefines quirky; is atmospherically designed and lit; plays great music; and offers wonderfully good food, all under the benign and slightly roguish control of padrone Angelo.

No menu, but an often-changing list of starters, pastas and mains – or rather one main – that Angelo will recite to you.

One of the starters is a signature dish. A baked onion. I can’t begin to describe how it’s cooked. Angelo’s explained it to me (several times), but although I understand how it’s made, I still don’t get how it turns out the way it does. Just have it. And follow it with a sublime Montepulciano Risotto. The main course is unchanging. A perfectly cooked piece of organic pork fillet. Rounded-off with a kind of two-mouthful, deconstructed cheesecake, which is all you’re really going to want to end your meal.

The Vineria is the least typical; least ‘Abruzzese’ of this selection. Rather than re-interpret local classics, Angelo uses local ingredients the way he feels like using them – and the result is invariably innovative and successful.

And the unique surroundings just underline the pleasure of the whole experience.

ps. There’s an upstairs and a downstairs here. Downstairs is nicer.

Around €60-70 for two.

Anything else in the same league as the above ? Allegedly the best in all Abruzzo is the much-lauded Reale in Castel di Sangro, about an hour south of us and one of just a tiny handful of Michelin 3-star restaurants in all of Italy. When ever – if ever, LOL – we have the cash to spare, yes – we’d like to go. Natch !

Elsewhere, you’ll very, very rarely get a bad meal – (and if you do, odds-on it’ll be somewhere on the coast at the height of the tourist season there in August). But one of the inland area’s great joys is that there are plenty of places to eat very well – and very reasonably.

And sometimes – very memorably.

All are open for lunch as well as dinner, but this being Italy, opening days/times vary considerably. They all have websites (some not that informative, it has to be said), but you will find details of opening times/contact numbers easily enough from their respective TripAdvisor entries.

Having featured Five Best Special Abruzzo Restaurants this time round, next time, I’ll soon be looking at Five Best Everyday Abruzzo Restaurants. Including – according to no less an authority than Gambero Rosso –  ‘Italy’s Best Pizzeria 2016’.

Can that be true ? Wait and see…


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