by Gina DePalma
Have you ever heard of La Ciociaria? I’m betting not, for even the most intrepid of travelers are likely to overlook this deceptively modest area of Lazio. Overshadowed by her majestic neighbors, the Ciociaria is a wide, undefined swath of land bordered by Rome to the north, Naples to the south, the Tyrrhenian Coast to the west and the mountains of Abruzzo to the east. The fact that it is completely off the tourist radar is exactly what makes the Ciociaria so appealing and quite worthy of an overnight visit. Those who do venture beyond the tried and true will find sweeping vistas, hidden historical treasures, lively gastronomic traditions and some of the friendliest welcomes in all of Italy.
The Ciociaria derived its name from ciocie, the primitive, sandal-like shoes made of leather worn by the area’s original inhabitants. Replicas of the original ciocie are still proudly donned during the numerous annual folk festivals of the Ciociaria, celebrating the vivid culture of this corner of Italy.
My own adventure in the Ciociaria came courtesy of my Roman landlord and good friend, Alessandro, and his American wife Shelley. Alessandro’s mother grew up in a small village in the Ciociaria, and Ale spent many a summer exploring the tiny towns that dot the area’s countryside. We began at the northernmost tip, just southwest and about an hour’s ride by car from the hustle and bustle of Rome. First on the itinerary was a visit to the spectacular Abbey of St. Benedict in Subiaco, which clings to the side of rocky cliff and offers a breathtaking view of the surrounding, lush, green valleys and towering peaks. The interior of the abbey is covered in perfectly preserved frescoes, and contains the blessed Sacro Speco, a tiny cave where St. Benedict lived as a hermit before founding the Benedictine order.
After taking in the cool, calming serenity of the abbey and its surrounding gardens, we doubled back to the tiny village of Cervara di Roma, where lunch was waiting at Trattoria Rossi (Via Goito,5 Cervara di Roma RM +39 0774 828728) We were led through the small, rustic dining room to the outside patio; once again finding ourselves perched on a cliff, overlooking a deep valley and winding, swooping hills.
Lunch was a parade of Ciociarian delicacies, starting with handmade ravioli stuffed with ricotta from local sheep in a bright, tangy tomato sauce, and fresh fettuccine smothered in butter and wild asparagus. Next, came another specialty of the Ciociaria, castrato agnello, or castrated lamb, subtly seasoned with herbs and wine and grilled over an open fire. It was served with another locally made cheese, scamorza, smoky and charred from the fire and creamy in the center. The accompanying fried potatoes were a vivid shade of yellow like I had never seen; Ale explained that they are particular to the area and a product of the unique soil composition of the Ciociaria. Dessert was a traditional tart of visciole, the tiny, wild cherries grown in southern Lazio.
We spent the night a in the sweet town of Arcinazzo Romano, only to discover that we had arrived during one of the Ciociaria’s most important religious festivals, the feast of Corpus Christi. All across the region, the faithful of every town mark the occasion by arranging carpets of flower petals in intricate patterns through the medieval streets. The next day, white linens are hung from the windows to honor the solemn procession that follows the carpet of flowers, ending with a special mass at the main church.
After watching the procession file past our front door, we headed out for another epic lunch in the pretty town of Piglio, nestled in a ring of craggy hills jutting straight into the spring sky. At Osteria del Vicolo Fatato, (Vicolo Forno Fatato 11, Piglio, FR, +39 0775503035) the meal echoed nearby Abruzzo, served in the format of a traditional Abruzzese panarda, consisting of course after course of small plates. We marveled at hand-cut, locally-cured prosciutto and rich boar salami, tiny artichoke hearts stuffed with mushrooms and vegetables, delicate fried pastry filled with sautéed bitter greens, feather-light gnocchi laced with the fresh local marzolino cheese, and tender rabbit braised in wine and herbs with more of those incredible yellow-hued potatoes. It was all washed down with an excellent bottle of the local DOC wine, Cesanese del Piglio, with spiced ciambelle al vino for dipping.
From Piglio we took a scenic drive into the heart of Ciociaria, passing through tiny towns and hamlets and green hills dotted with flocks of sheep. Driving excursions can be tailored to allow for visits to producers of the region’s many gastronomic delights; detours from the main road lead to samples of Guarcino’s deep-pink prosciutto and characteristic rustic sausages and salami, and on to the heart of the buffalo mozzarella zone near Amaseno. Olive groves are especially abundant around Piglio, producing the a sage-green, peppery extra-virgin olive oil, and nearby are the steep vineyards that are the source of the region’s DOC Cesanese wines. A visit to the weekend markets will divulge other culinary secrets of the Ciociaria; the cornetto is a curvy, horn-shaped pepper that grows in the Liri River valley and is featured in many traditional dishes, as are the special cannellini beans from Atina and the bottoncino, or button beans of Terelle. The Ciociaria is truffle country too. Prized white truffles are celebrated in the fall, but during spring and summer special dishes are showered with aromatic dark brown or black truffles.
We ended our adventure in the beautiful, petite city of Ferentino. The original ancient walls and gates still stand, enclosing the imposing, fortified Acropolis that dominates the town center. If you enjoy Romanesque architecture as much as I do, Ferentino is sure to please, with three exquisite churches to explore including the Cathedral of Sts. John and Paul, built in the 11 th century, and the monastery of San Antonio Abate, which is the resting place of Pope Celestino V. The beautiful Gothic church of Santa Maria Maggiore, is important for being one of the first examples of the Cistercian style in Italy.
The next time you plan a trip to Rome or Naples, do consider a one or two-day detour through the quiet delights of The Ciociaria, for an unforgettable taste of authentic Italy. You just might run into me!