Sunday my in-laws treated my husband and I to a spectacular Sunday lunch at Trattoria La Nostrana, in Montelongo, a hilltop villageabout a half-hour inland from Termoli, Molise. The area is way off the beaten path for most tourists, but well worth the visit.
The owner/chef Maria Concetta Pannunzio has curated every detail of the space and the food to produce what is more of a living archive of Molisana cuisine than an ordinary trattoria. Maria Concetta displays a certificate of recognition as "esperta di cucina molisana" without any exaggeration: she knows the wild herbs of the nearby hills, the exact varietals of semi-dried grapes to use, the lost recipes that even the geriatric locals no longer make. She makes everything possible in house: jams and conserves, breads, sott'oli; and her ingredients are local: typical pecorino at various stages of aging, salumi and cured meats from local producers.
She offered us a couple of choices of primi, but for the most part we ate what she brought us. We began with a series of antipasti that were each more wonderful than the last:
homemade bread and carmelized onion conserves
salumi: prosciutto, pancetta, salsiccia and sopressata
sott'oli: zucchine, eggplant, carrots, cauliflower, wild asparagus, whole picled garlic cloves and olives (all preserved in oil)
eggplant stuffed with breadcrumbs and a sharp pecorino, with thick tomato sauce
savory potato torte
peperoni secchi fritti: dried sweet peppers, crisped in olive oil
local cheeses: several types of pecorino, some with truffles, and caramelized figs
For our primi we decided to taste both options offered which were homemade troccoli with 1) ragu redolent with chunks of pork tripe and other flavorful and rich cuts; and 2) 'con la mollica', a hyperlocal pasta condiment based on a breadcrumbs flavored with garlic, spicy pepper, olive oil and sauced with tomato sauce with salt cod. The ragu was quite good but the pasta con la mollica was outstanding, both as a rarity and as an impeccable execution of strong flavors in balance. The troccoli themselves were fat and al dente, like thicker, toothier spaghetti alla chitarra.
For the second course Maria brought us a brasato di manzo, braised beef slow-cooked in wine and aromatics, with mashed potatoes. What you wish your Italian grandmother made.
To finish she brought us slivers of 'tronco di castagne', a chestnut and chocolate dessert, and a crostata with homemade jam. They were lovely, but not being much of a sweets person I was still overwhelmed by the previous courses to take much note. After coffee we asked for digestivi, and Maria brought us bottles of nocino that her late mother had bottled in 1998, and her own Mistra', an anise and liquorice liqueur. I felt guilty pouring the bottle of nocino, a reliquary more than a digestivo, but I am too big a fan of an aged nocino to pass it up. Well worth the guilt.
Her wine list includes the best of the regional wines, but the house red is very good too. There is really no detail that Maria has not considered, and has somehow arrived at a perfection of a homey local cuisine taken to the level of art. I plan to go back regularly, as I have the good fortune of having family in the area. Go, adventure into the unknown region of Molise and put yourself in the capable hands of Maria Concetta; she can show you some of the best the region has to offer.
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