I had some of the best meals of my life deep in the ‘middle of nowhere’ in Italy

As we bounce along a muddy dirt road alongside a river filled with bathing-suit-clad Italians trying to cool off on a hot August day, my husband is concentrating hard, trying to keep our borrowed jeep upright. We’re in Castel di Sangro, a small town deep in the mountainous part of the Abruzzo region of central Italy. About 200 kilometres east of Rome and 125 kilometres north of Naples, this is the Italian equivalent of “middle of nowhere,” both in terms of geography and glamour.

Not blessed with the fame or romance of Tuscany or the Amalfi Coast, rural Abruzzo isn’t typically a must-see for either international or domestic travellers, though that’s changing as already well-trodden destinations become increasingly oversaturated with tourists.

“We can’t possibly be going the right way,” I say, glancing at the GPS, but he pushes on even as the road disintegrates and the jeep creeps onto a bike path to avoid crashing into the trees. Then suddenly, we come to a paved driveway that leads uphill towards a gleaming white building surrounded by vineyards and pastoral landscaping.

We’ve reached Reale, one of only 11 three-Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy, currently ranked 15 on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Located in a restored 16th-century monastery, the restaurant and hotel are headed by chef Niko Romito, an Abruzzo local who opened the first version of Reale in 2000, in what used to be his family’s bakery, moving to the monastery in 2011. Romito swiftly built a reputation as a champion of Abruzzo’s traditional flavours and ingredients through his highly technical but simply presented dishes.

As with all of Italy, food is a key part of Abruzzo culture, and Reale is a high-end and ultra-finessed reflection of the locally sourced food philosophy that has traditionally guided countless other restaurants in the region.

We’re ushered in by a smartly dressed host and deposited at one of eight white-tablecloth-covered tables, all facing a picture window exposing the greenery of the Abruzzo countryside. The 13-course tasting menu is currently all vegetarian selections and, at 170 euros (about $225) per person, relatively affordable by Michelin standards.

Romito’s bread deserves particular attention, as does a shockingly complex single-ingredient carrot dish, but the crowning achievement of his on-site kitchen laboratory is the capellini in tomato water. A swirl of seemingly undressed pasta, it bursts with almost overwhelming tomato flavour, even though there’s not a speck of red in the bowl.

The famous chef comes to our table as he works the room midmeal, his sister Cristiana translating his Italian to English. I mention we’re staying an hour and a half away in the village of San Nicandro with family, which warrants a raised eyebrow — he seems surprised and impressed that two Canadians would spend their summer vacation in a random Italian hamlet.

It’s not as strange as it may sound: Abruzzo has a strong Canadian connection. In the years after WWII, there was significant migration from the region, with many Abruzzese landing in Toronto and Montreal. Abruzzo also contains the town of Ortona, site of a key war battle and home to the pristinely maintained Moro River Canadian War Cemetery.

There are overlaps when it comes to food, too: Montreal restaurant Gia Vin & Grill was just named to enRoute magazine’s longlist for Canada’s Best New Restaurants 2022, in part thanks to its arrosticini, slender skewers of cubed meat traditionally made with lamb. Arrosticini are a novelty in Canada but a cornerstone of central Abruzzo’s cuisine. Here, the skewers are made by special machines to guarantee uniformity and meet demand from grocery stores and casual restaurants.

The very best way to enjoy arrosticini is to drive up to Campo Imperatore, a plateau in the heart of mountainous sheep country. As we drive through the rolling hills, I spot shepherds and comically bossy sheepdogs ushering their flocks towards lakes and grassy meadows.

We arrive at Ristoro Giuliani and buy a tray full of raw arrosticini, bottles of beer and huge hunks of house-made pecorino cheese. It’s a cook-it-yourself situation, so we claim a narrow brazier designed specifically for arrosticini and grill up our bounty, eating at rustic picnic tables while watching tourists trot along on horseback and day-trippers roar up on motorcycles.

The food of the mountains is matched by the food of the sea. Abruzzo lays claim to a stretch along the Adriatic known as the Trabocchi Coast, named for the spiderlike, stilted fishing platforms called traboccos that sit just off the rocky shores. Over the years, smart trabocco owners have wisely converted their platforms into open-air restaurants.

I visit Trabocco Punta Isolata near the town of Rocco San Giovanni and indulge in a fixed-price meal filled with plates of seafood antipasti, pasta covered with tomato sauce and fresh mussels, and a chickpea stew studded with shrimp and other shellfish, all caught in the waters directly below where I’m sitting.

Of course, wine is also a going concern in Abruzzo. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is the region’s most famous variety, with rosés being most ubiquitous during my summer visit. Back at Reale I fell in love with the white Trebbiano d’Abruzzo from the Azienda Agricola Valentini winery that was offered as a pairing.

Despite Valentini’s reputation as one of Abruzzo’s best wines, a bottle to bring home proves difficult to track down, until a sommelier friend finds a lead and directs us to the small city of Sulmona, a bustling arts-friendly town best known as for its “confetti” candy-coated almonds. We hit pay dirt in a small deli where, in a corner past glass cases of meat and cheese, we find the treasured wine sitting plainly in a cardboard box alongside some equally appealing bottles of Emidio Pepe, another coveted Abruzzo wine.

This is how Abruzzo rolls. Careful explorers will find sought-after wines tucked in a box behind a salumi counter, and one of the world’s top restaurants at the end of a dirt road. And you can have equally memorable experiences grilling sheep skewers in a mountain meadow or eating fish pulled straight from the sea. Abruzzo is off the beaten path, as are its culinary gems. The magic lies in the knowledge that there are still so many things to discover, even in a well-travelled country like Italy.