Abruzzo, Italy (Part III of IV) – Eccentric Dining at La Vineria di Salnitro
Touring castles and wineries can really work up an appetite and such a thirst, but not just for anything (read my prior posts in this series Abruzzo, Italy – The Local Wine (Part I of IV) and Castello di Semivicoli (Part II of IV) to learn about what castles and wineries I toured). Thanks to Italy, my palette has become a bit spoiled. More than ever before, I appreciate savory fresh foods and lush intoxicating wines, yet not just in and of them-selves…food and drink in Italy is all enhanced by a deep magical touch – the atmosphere it is enjoyed in and it’s reflection of the people and their passions. I experienced this firsthand in the home of my gracious hosts, the Di Crescenzo family and in the vineria of their good friend, Angelo Di Girolamo.
When I first stood in La Vineria di Salnitro, I asked the owner what music was playing. “Mario Biondi, a Sicilian jazz singer,” responded Angelo. Having just stepped inside, I could have been content to not even take a step further. So I stood there, rooted to the beautiful floor. Everywhere I looked, from top to bottom, was stone and brick that flowed seamlessly from floor to ceiling in shades of bluish-grey, sandy beige, worn reds and faded browns. From outside, the narrow antiquated building disguises itself as simple and quiet. Yet I could see and feel that it is everything but that inside. The natural materials of the time-worn stone and brick are not left to be cold and unfeeling. Instead, they’re brought to life with the splashes of loud colored paintings and antique pieces of furniture in heavy fabrics that are affectionately worn. The building has no choice of staying quietly in the ancient past and is instead thrown together passionately with erratic steel frames that are set in stone alcoves in the wall. These form shelves that suspend bottles of wine in the air, the hidden lights tucked to the back revealing their tasty liquid inside and making them look like floating glass bubbles. The only thing interrupting the arching contour of the brick ceiling is a large wood beam aged to the color of dark brown and with a couple rusted iron rings that hang from it, giving away that at one point in time, it was decorated with hams being cured.
There was a creative energy in this place. Not only was it romantically ancient and mysterious, it was mischievous and playful, artsy and eccentric. You could tell that the owner goes out of his way to be shocking and different. Perhaps the t-shirt he was wearing also added to this…To understand and really enjoy La Vineria di Salnitro, I have to tell you about its owner Angelo. The shirt he was wearing had a retro picture of a tricycle on it with letters above it reading “F*#@ your Harley”. Yep…and that’s just from what he wears…getting to know his vineria was excitedly what I imagine it’s like to step into the rabbit’s hole in “Alice in Wonderland” – only a lot tastier and fantastically better music.
The idea of combining the ancient and historic with the modern and eccentric seems so simple, yet for me produces such a powerful combination and creative result. Even better is when one comes across it surprisingly, in the most random of places and remote areas, such as this… San Martino sulla Marrucina is a very small and even older village in the special Italian area of Abruzzo. My first visit to La Vineria di Salnitro was during the daytime and Angelo was kind enough to invite us back that night, opening up the restaurant just for us to enjoy his amazing wine selection. Private tour by day, private wine-drinking party by night…no wonder I want to return to Abruzzo!
I love getting to know an establishment by getting to know its owner. During both visits, I got to enjoy talking with Angelo and asking him questions as he toured us through the two floors and four rooms of the vineria and the kitchen. Along with different styles of music, the visual arts displayed sporadically throughout are a diverse array of styles and mediums. Angelo gathers the art from a mix of local and foreign artist, all whom he knows and makes a point to learn about their particular passion communicated through their art. In this way, the vineria embraces how wonderfully art communicates and how diversely we each interpret it…even in silence, the vineria was not quiet. His collections produce an invisible buzz of its own that made me feel like we were amongst a friendly crowd of different people rather than paintings and objects, all of us representing our own perspectives, opinions, and beliefs. Add to all this, the anciently old building and you can start to believe in ghosts! Friendly ghosts, that is. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the portrait of the Queen of England with devil’s horns on her head. An old olive mill stone is still situated in the center of the first floor dining room and surrounded by a great looking assortment of fedora hats. Random corners have small naked cherub statues blowing kisses and one corner has a hair salon chair to twirl around in. All throughout the vibe pulsing from every fiber of the place, ancient and contemporary, was busy having fun and being passionately authentic.
In the evening when we returned, Angelo served us different tastings of red wines and whites. I settled on a particularly delicious red wine from the region that, please forgive me, I do not have the name of anymore…I know, I know, but can you blame me? I was busy drinking wine! With the dark starry night outside and the dim lights inside complimented by candles casting their flickering glow, my friends and I sat in the lounge area at the front part of the restaurant. We had the entire restaurant to ourselves and got to focus entirely on the wine since it was technically an off-season time and the kitchen was not open and it was actually Angelo’s usual day off. Talk about loving your work when you come in and open the place up for friends on your day off! Lounging on one of the Victorian era chases, I talked with Angelo and learned about the history of the building and the vineria. The word salnitro refers to salt mining, which for ages has been taking place in the area. The building now housing the vineria was used for storing and selling sal or salt, as well as for other tasks like milling olives for olive oil and curing meats. Opened in August of 2005, the vineria now features local and international wines, live music on occasion, and serves traditional local foods that are expounded upon with small innovative touches and artistic flair. After all, even the food wants to join in on the exuberant visual conversation taking place between the exhibited works of art.
Towards the end of our evening drinking wine, I was impressed and inspired. And yes, wonderfully relaxed from the fantastic wine. One last story was to be the highlight of the night. Angelo gifted me with a beautiful large white plate that had imprinted on it the vineria logo – in black and white is a sketch of George Sand, an 18th century French author who was known for being one of the rare female cigar-smokers along with being a female author respected amongst many male authors of her time. In the image, she her languid feminine form is lounging in a high-back chair aside a stack of books, a cloud of smoke in between her and a male fellow-author who she seems to be having a discussion with or perhaps offering her a light to extend the life of her cigar…
Angelo steers his restaurant away from the commercial and focuses on expressing his passions through the art, music, food, hats and fashion he houses. This is the means through which he carries out his mission to teach his customers about the wine and history of this amazing area that he is from and that he loves. Ultimately, his approach and style is to be himself, alternative and peculiar, and in this way, to make an impact that can hopefully influence and change the culture of his clients. His business strategy…for his niche to direct his company, rather than the market trends.
Times change, history remains in the buildings and land, and art invites in the contemporary and future. La Vineria di Salnitro taught me this in a way that I had not experienced elsewhere before. I think the mission of its owner is being accomplished quite well. (Enjoy more pictures by visiting my photo album: Eccentric Dining at La Vineria di Salnitro)
Stay tuned and visit back soon for part IV of IV, featuring the post My Hosts in Abruzzo – the Di Cresenzo Family (postings will be published every other day).