Chef Berman writes: A long journey, both in time and energy made up our day. With planning for this trip starting nearly two-years ago, the endless flight and amazingly beautiful (but nearly as endless as the flight) drive brought us to the village of Ripatransone. All of us gave up our ‘European’ ghosts as we all shared crossing the Atlantic for the very first time. Smooth sailing on the nine hour flight, but cramped quarters made for antsy travelers. Add a good mix of “what time is it here? there? Wait, where are we?” and our adventure begins!
Entering the Fuciomi Airport, a rush of “oh my god, we are in a foreign land” swept over me. Every sign, every moniker, every announcement – pure Italian. This certainly was not a landing in Philadelphia! We made haste to grab our bags, all present thank you very much, and got on board our little bus/big van/NASCAR for the three hour bus ride across Rome, through L’Aquia, San Benedetto and Ascoli Piceno to Ripa. Sure, there are some pictures and there is certainly colorful verbiage, but there is no adequate way to put into words the sheer beauty in the surroundings we are all encountering. There are mountains that appear chiseled from the clouds from which they seem to meet. There are winding roads that serpentine, crawl and curl through tree-speckled hill after tree-speckled hill.
Remarkably, the pace in which we traveled would frighten the most hardened of New York drivers; the motorcycles and scooters zip between everything moving. There is a remarkable absence of turn signals and any discernable speed limit. Surprisingly, there is little traffic frustration, in that the traffic congests and clogs, creeping to a poured-molasses pace and poof! the race is back on. With so much amazing scenery, the view may grow old for the locals, but our bus ride was hectic with students racing from window to window, trying to capture exploding scenery.
Our arrival in Ripa was in a glorious fashion; the steep grade and blind curves revealed the landscape that we had all grown accustomed, from seeing the photographs to hearing the many descriptions over the last two years.
The food has already begun to inspire! Our accommodations are aptly suited; we have taken up residence at a convent established in the early-thirteenth century. Our authentic accommodations include meals prepared by the nuns in residence in the convent. We started with a devastatingly hungry crew. At this point, we had to take a moment to realize the impact of the next few moments; we are in Italy, as a group at a family table, high school students and instructors, partaking in pasta and a simple tomato sauce. Ethereal. Earth-moving. The palpable quality of the emotion was obvious and, almost, overwhelming. We feasted on the pasta, subtle sauce of tomatoes and house-cured olives; I may have an olive as good as what we experienced today, but probably none better. Our first mistake, though, that the pasta is merely a primi – the first course. We were famished so we feasted. Segundo, pork saltimbocca – a paper thin pork cutlet, a with a fresh leaf pegged to a blanket of pancetta, garnished with roasted red and yellow peppers. By the way, the peppers are from the city and the age came from the convent’s garden. Again, amazing. Simple, clean, delicate, perfect. A salad of romaine, tomatoes and cucumbers, olive oil and salt. Being that we are residing in the City of Wine and Oil, the dressing was indescribable! All the food was unpretentious and spoke volumes about what we should (and will be!) eating. And, yes, of course the salad greens were pulled from the convent garden. That’s how you should eat.
The sun is setting as we totally, indefensibly indulge in gellatto that is not the overly sugary stuff I have supped in the past. Rather, as Mayor Paolo D’Erasmo holds court with us, engaging our broken Italian, with his insight on the city’s history and gastronomic landscape, he tells us of the Orange Flag that holds high regards amongst the townspeople. You see, the orange flag hanging in the town square tells the country, the world, that the land is well preserved, the city is clean and kempt, the agriculture in penultimate. This is going to be an amazing adventure, indeed.