“Forte e Gentile,” strong and gentle. That’s the motto of the people of Abruzzo, the region of Italy where my father grew up. As a kid, I would fall asleep every night to stories of his hometown in the southern mountains, where he would walk miles to get to school and where he was so poor he was sent to ask the neighbors for food. But despite this, he reflects on his childhood as if it was the happiest of times, full of adventure. Running through the pitch black mountains with his friends, dancing on table tops to make his mother laugh, a woman who was dealing with her own hardships having a husband off in the army, no steady income and losing two children. I go back to Abruzzo every summer, and each time, the older women take my hands as they reminisce about how generous my grandmother was, and how she was always smiling. That is exactly what “Forte e Gentile” means to me.
I met Tommaso Conte, chef and owner of D’Abruzzo NYC when I was doing pretastings with vendors for “The World’s Fare,” an international food festival in Queens. He invited the team and I into his home and prepared a hearty meal of polenta with sausage, pollotte, arrosticini, baccala, and other delicious Abruzzese dishes. It felt like home immediately, the sheer amount of food, the aromas, the energy, the conversation. I held my second glass of homemade red as we went outside to check out the grill where the star of D’Abruzzo NYC, the arrosticini, (lamb skewers) were being cooked. I’d only ever seen and eaten arrosticini in Abruzzo so I was incredibly excited that Tommaso was on a mission to bring this authentic regional cuisine to NYC.
The lamb is 70% meat 30% fat, butchered and skewered by hand. It’s assembled in a meat fat meat fat pattern, grilled to tender perfection with a hit of salt, and completely melts in your mouth. I can almost guarantee you haven’t had anything like it before.
As if that’s not enough to make your mouth water, he created a “lamb sammy” with the arrosticini, using grilled ciabatta bread, melty stracchino cheese, sweet housemade fig jam, olio santo (for heat) red onion and arugula. It’s an incredible flavor profile when it all comes together in that first crunchy melty sweet bite, and it perfectly encapsulates the “salt, fat, acid and heat” combination
He also sells pizzelles, an Abruzzese cookie that looks a like a thin waffle. I grew up with these at every family occasion. Eating them after dinner as the adults had their coffee and the cousins ran around chasing each other. They are light and airy and you can eat them by the dozen. D’Abbruzzo NYC has them plain or sandwiching fresh Nutella.
What I love more than anything about D’Abruzzo NYC, is that Tommaso carries on his grandfather’s traditions by making his own wine and tomato sauce, and growing vegetables in his garden with actual seeds passed down from his Abruzzese grandfather. I’ve seen first hand that this is much more than a business; it’s passion, it’s sacred. It’s keeping a family legacy alive, and every single arrosticini is skewered and cooked with an immense amount of love and care. Though they are sold in batches, Tommaso leans over the fiery grill overseeing that each one is roasted perfectly. I recognize that passion when I watch my grandmother in her garden. She’s 88 years old and the joy she gets from growing her vegetables and feeding her family is unmatched. It’s a gift to experience something so special.
Abruzzo is a region known for the strength of it’s people through hard times, and a place where nothing goes to waste. My dad told me that he ate stale bread every night because even if his mother was able to buy a fresh loaf, they would always finish what they had yesterday first. It’s so important for Italians, immigrants and first generation people like me, that this food that is so valued by its people, is being introduced and respected by a new international audience.
Thank you Tommaso!
In 2018, D’Abruzzo NYC won the Vendy award, and Best Vendor at The World’s Fare. These arrosticini are NOT to be missed!!
Catch D’Abruzzo NYC at Bryant Park’s Winter Village until January 2nd, and Saturday’s at Smorgasburg.
Follow D’Abruzzonyc on Instagram for more details!