Uncovering Family Roots in Abruzzo

In the first days of my honeymoon, I traveled to Abruzzo in central Italy to retrace the steps my great-grandmother Filomena walked after her own wedding, almost 100 years earlier. Everywhere we went in the town of Vasto, I thought of Filomena. Had she felt her first born kicking while walking along this stretch of the Adriatic Sea? Who taught her how to make her signature homemade bread? What piazza was her favorite for meeting up with friends?

I recently wrote about the experience of traveling to Vasto to dig into family roots for BBC Travel in a story called: The Secret of Uncertainty. While I aimed to capture some of the spirit and culture of the town, I also wanted to tackle how travel can force us to face certain issues that are simmering beneath the surface. In this story, that meant exploring what it means to be married and whether or not it’s necessary to have a clear plan for a shared life.

On our first day in Vasto, my quest to learn about all things Abruzzese began with getting my stomach acquainted with local flavors. When my husband and I told a waitress that we wanted to put our meal in her hands, to taste the best of traditional food, a smile spread across her face. She quickly returned with an ice bucket and a bottle of Pecorino, a crisp and fresh white wine (pecorino translates to “little sheep” and is the same word as the popular sheep’s milk cheese). Next came a local salami called Ventricina del Vastese, flavored with chili and fennel, and aged for at least three months.

Of the hundreds of shapes of pasta on menus throughout Italy, the shape most associated with Abruzzo is spaghetti alla chitarra, or “guitar strings.” These fresh egg noodles are made with a pasta-cutting tool called a chitarra, a wooden frame with metal wires stretched tightly across it. The wires cut sheets of pasta into square-shaped strands with a texture that encourages sauce to cling to the noodles. The final piece of our meal was brodetto di pesce alla Vastese, a large crock of fish stew with whole fish, mussels, and clams in a tomato broth spiced with hot pepper.

After our meal, the waitress pointed us towards a nearby piazza where a screen was set up for a big soccer match. We took a seat at the edge of the rowdy crowd and ordered a drink. While Filomena wouldn’t have been familiar with this spectacle—fans shaking their fists and shouting at a car-sized projection on a screen under the stars—she undoubtedly spent countless evenings in this piazza, maybe gossiping with friends after early dates with my great-grandfather Domenico.

Before arriving in Vasto, I had never pictured Filomena in her youth, but drinking a negroni in the piazza that first night, this image came into focus. She sat here, on these stones, with her new husband unaware of all life would bring, just like me.

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