Updated: Aug 26, 2021
The largely vacant interior of Abruzzo is criss-crossed with ancient sheep droves (recipe link), well-worn paths trampled by flocks through centuries of seasonal migrations. During their travels, the sheep feed on the wild grasses and brush of the Campo Imperatore, which imparts an unmistakable tenderness and flavor in the lamb's meat. Abruzzo's cuisine, especially in the more mountainous areas, is dominated by lamb. If there's a singular, unifying dish of the region, it would be arrosticini: skewers of cubed lamb grilled over hot coals. The fattier, tougher cuts of lamb are used for a ragu as a primo piatto with pasta.
Inhabitants of the Italian peninsula have observed a series of local festivals in mid-August, known as ferragosto, for over 2,000 years. This festival season coincides with the peak harvest time for peppers, which are often featured in mid-August dishes; the Romans make a special chicken and pepper ragu for ferragosto. Naturally, Abruzzo adds peppers to it's lamb ragu and tosses it with the local spaghetti alla chitarra.
I ordered this dish for the first time at the Hostaria la Vecchia Lanterna in Ortona. This was the kind of restaurant where you know immediately that you're in for unforgettable meal: the owner greets you at the door, the walls are covered in Polaroids and photographs of generations of families and VIPs, and the only clientele are locals. The version at the Hostaria used rintrocilo, which is a hyperlocal Abruzzese pasta, long and fat, and named after it's requisite rolling pin.
For my recreation, I extruded spaghetti, which creates a texture not too distant from the spaghetti alla chitarra: rough edges, perfect for absorbing the flavorful ragu. I used lamb shanks, the same cut used for osso bucco, which is tailor-made for low-and-slow preparations. Ace peppers from our garden stood-in for those used at the Hostaria, which were likely bell peppers; feel free to substitute those. Overall, the copycat worked out well and was a close representation of the original dish. I hope you give this one a try; it doesn't get much more "Abruzzo" than this.
YIELD: 6 servings
2 lamb shanks (or lamb shoulder, 1 lb.)
1 med yellow onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 bell peppers (or 3 ace peppers), cut into strips
28 oz canned San Marzano tomatoes, hand-crushed
1 cup red wine
3 tbsp evoo
1 tbsp tomato paste
Pinch crushed red pepper
3 sprigs of rosemary (2 for garnish)
2 bay leaves
s + p
1--- Preheat the oven to 300F. Season the lamb shanks generously with salt and pepper, and allow the meat to come to room temperature. Then, in a dutch oven or heavy-bottom, oven-safe pot over a medium-high burner, heat the olive oil until just shy of smoking. Sear the shanks in the oil until a nice crispy brown is achieved on each side (the meat should not still be sticking to the bottom of the pan when moved). Set the shanks aside.
2--- Add the onions to the pan to soften (about 4 minutes), stir with a wooden spoon to distribute any rendered lamb fat. When softened, add the pepper strips and stir with the onion for a few minutes. Toss-in the crushed red pepper and garlic, stir once or twice, then add the tomato paste. When the tomato paste is evenly distributed throughout the vegetables, and begins to burn on the bottom of the pan, pour in the wine to deglaze while using a wooden spoon to scrape up any burnt bits. After the wine has reduced by 2/3rds, pour in the tomatoes and lower the heat under the pot to low.
3--- Return the lamb shanks to the pot and submerge in the sauce. Add the bay leaves and one (1) sprig of rosemary, cover the pot with a lid, and place into the oven for 2 hours. After 2 hours, test the shanks with a paring knife. If the meat is separating from the bone, and a paring knife goes into the meat without any resistance, the lamb is ready.
4--- Pull the meat off the bones, and cut into bite-size chunks or shred if extra tender, and return to the sauce. Remove and discard the rosemary and bay leaves. Toss with your favorite pasta.