We weren’t being fair to Ristorante Clemente. We knew it . . . but we couldn’t help ourselves. We had allotted one night, one dinner in Abruzzo, a region in which neither of us had passed time. We sought to “taste Abruzzo” in that one meal. No small order.
We were in the small city of Sulmona on our way to Puglia. Our Ital’guru Fred Plotkin, author of Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, picks Sulmona as his “Classic Town” of the mountainous region east of Rome. Ristorante Clemente appears first on his “Dining List” and his description appealed to us. For insurance, we inquired of our hotelier and a local barista where we should dine. “Clemente,” they both answered. We even scouted out the restaurant location, tucked on a tiny back street, so we’d have no problem finding it later in the dark.
So it was that Walter roused me from a my nap at 7:15 p.m. so we could arrive when the doors opened for dinner service. He worried that a place this touted would fill up fast. No such problem transpired. Upon entry, we were invited to choose our own table and selected one deep in the rear of the main room under a splendid stone vaulted ceiling. Stone and gesso walls the color of cantaloupe cream, exciting food-related art work, photos of family members and a couple canvasses and prints of Sulmona created a cozy setting.
Chef/owner Clemente Maiorano, with warm brown eyes and salt-and-pepper Julius Caesar haircut-greeted us with a one-page menu. We asked if we could place our appetites in his able hands. He seemed pleased and disappeared through the archway into the kitchen. The waiter took over and reminded us how perfect service in Italy can be. Not obsequious, not aloof, just professional.
We ordered a bottle of the recommended Collefisio 2005 Uno, a DOC Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a red wine made from from Montepulciano and Sangiovese grapes (different from the Tuscan Vino Nobile di Montepulciano). The lush fruit was balanced with structure and integrity.
Very soon, the dishes came and kept on coming.
Salsiccie di fegato, distinctive liver sausage, and a fine prosciutto. A fried pastry called ciambellini. Bruschetta drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and coarse salt. A piadina, flat bread, topped with cooked broccolino. Paper thin strips of grilled zucchini, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil.
Warm fresh ricotta served in a basket, with no embellishment necessary.
Involtini melanzane, thin sliced eggplant rolls stuffed with ricotta, spinach and tomato.
Cuoratello d’agnello, a stewed dish of lamb and onion.
Pecorino arrosto, baked fresh Pecorino cheese that was spongy, tangy and salty.
A lentil and chestnut soup with potatoes.
Paparadelle pasta with broccolino romano, guanciale (cured pork cheeks) and pecorino.
Lamb braised with artichoke, asparagus, carrot, and potato.
The cornerstones of Abuzzese cooking—pork, lamb and sheep’s milk (in cheese), durum wheat and vegetables—were all represented in this cavalcade of dishes.
Glasses of golden Apianae 2005 Muscato del Molise (DOC), with aromas of orange flowers and honey, were proffered for “bathing” some almond biscotti.
The dessert question was settled by sampling one of everything: tiramisu, a lemon cream puff crowned with a spun sugar web, panna cotta, torta della nonna with vanilla/hazelnut/apricot jam overtones, and sliced strawberries with pastry cream.
Clemente emerged from the kitchen to greet his grateful audience of two. Despite Walter’s apprehension of a full house, we were the only diners that evening. Clemente shrugged. The previous night, the restaurant was busy. La crisi, the financial crisis, has made patronage erratic.
He’s in the business for the long haul. He learned to cook with his mother Wanda, who was a professional chef. His son Alessandro, representing the fourth Maiorano generation, cooks with his dad and is also in a rock band.
Clemente’s grandfather, also named Clemente, worked as a contadino for an aristocrat but also became a “norcino,” a specialist in butchering hogs and curing pork products such as salumi and pancetta. Clemente opened a cantina serving salumi and other simple foods. It became a trattoria and then a restaurant in Sulmona.
Clemente is proud of his heritage and his vocation. He recently volunteered for nine months in Cornwall, England, teaching in the Training for Life program which takes an entrepreneurial approach to educating disadvantaged youths in the restaurant industry.
Vico Quercia, 5
67039 Sulmona (AQ)
Telephone 0864 52284