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I'm happiest when the food I make becomes a backdrop to a lively conversation. When I'm not cooking, I'm traveling or dreaming about travel. Come sit with me, and enjoy! Read more here.

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« eggplant parmigiana: perfect for the eggplant-shy | Main | salsa romesco: do like the spanish do and make extra »

chicken cacciatora: simplicity and goodness at italy's fontana del papa 

We stop the van for cigarettes. “Do you smoke?” asks Assuntina. “No,” I say, wishing I did so that I could join in the ritual of my new host. Her daughter Emma, looks back at me with her big, brown Disney eyes, and then hops out of the car and disappears into a convenience store. I had just arrived by train from Rome to the small, coastal town of Civitavecchia, where they picked me up to take me to their farmhouse and cooking school, Fontana del Papa, a half hour away.

The idea of spending three days chopping vegetables and rolling out dough with a charming Italian family seemed impossibly idyllic. But there I was – jet lagged but happy – in the van of a real Italian family on my way to a real Italian farm.

Emma jumps back in the van with her cigarettes and we take off down a two-lane country road that spirals endlessly into a rolling green landscape. After a half hour of listening to their rhythmic Italian from the back seat, Assuntina pulls the van up to a large, stone, Etruscan-style stone house surrounded by olive trees.

We’re home, I think, at least for three days.

A golden retriever runs up to me and barks. I’m afraid of dogs but this one has kind eyes. Emma tells me his name is Guglielmo. I try pronouncing it three times and then just say, “Hi, Puppy!”

I follow Assuntina through a giant wooden door into a room with a canopy bed, peach-colored walls, and a large oil painting. "This is your room," she says. The painting looks like a post-modern interpretation of a dream where characters blend with color, light, and emotion. I drop my bags and feel the chill of an old-fashioned stone house. This is country living. I unpack my things, layer up, and walk outside to the patio near the kitchen where it’s warm.

A barrel-chested man with dark eyes and a salt and pepper beard appears. “Claudio!” I call out. I recognized him from Fontana del Papa's web site. “You’re the wine guy." He smiles, looking bewildered at my excitement. "Yes." A family of white doves flutters around the patio. The primping birds with fan-like tails make the already charming scene impossibly perfect.

We stroll into the kitchen where an attractive blond in a green checked apron introduces herself as Adria. She's preparing a lunch of fresh asparagus and pasta. The asparagus spears, hand-picked from the garden, are propped up in a jar. “They’re so thin,” I say, amazed at their delicacy. Claudio selects a spear and hands it to me. “Try it,” he says. I bite into it and taste a peppery, bitter, bright flavor with a nice crunch. It tastes nothing like asparagus I’ve had in the United States. In fact, the flavor barely resembles the mild-tasting spears I purchase back home. These pack twice the flavor.

Assuntina, the humble, kind administrator of the family, rings a large bell in the kitchen that can be heard from all over the property. Emma and her lean, handsome older and younger brothers, Luca and Andrea, enter the sun-filled kitchen, grab a paper plate, and take a seat at the long wooden kitchen table. The muscled, sleeveless gardener named 'Stefano' follows their lead.

“What kind of wine would you like with lunch – red or white?” Claudio asks. I don’t normally drink wine at lunch but today was not normal. “White,” I say. He pulls out a grillo and begins to uncork it. Adria scoops rigatoni-style pasta onto each plate, giving me extra asparagus and bacon from the bottom of the bowl. “Yum, I love bacon,” I say. Claudio waves his finger. “No, it’s not bacon. We do not use bacon. This is pork cheek.”

Welcome to Italy, I think, pondering the difference between bacon and cured pork cheek, which I later discovered was called guanciale.

The conversation turned to wine and Claudio asks me how many grape varieties I can name. I barely name a handful, starting with “merlot and cabernet." “We have more than 300 in Italy,” he says, which is no surprise after my bacon epiphany. I take the last swig of grillo and wander back to my room where I fall into a deep sleep. When I wake a couple hours later, I feel refreshed and walk around the property. I find a rock covered with moss and sit on it for nearly an hour.

I feel the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the breeze on my face and begin to notice the small things around me -- the ants on the rock, the individual blades of bright green grass, and the sturdy, gnarly, and wise looking branches of the olive trees. For the first time in a long time I feel like I am present.

Rested and happy, I head back to the house, ready to cook. Matilde Viozzi, the 60-year-old chef for that day from the nearby town of Tolfa, is already prepping in the kitchen. I enter, introduce myself, tie an apron around my waist, and start salting slices of eggplant for eggplant parmesan.

For the next three days, I make -- and eat -- everything from handmade fettuccine to involtini with my new Canadian friend and fellow guest, Kelly, and enjoy noticing all the tiny details that come with slow living.

Chicken Cacciatora

This simple recipe, from Matilde, is one of my favorites and seemed to define the simplicity and goodness at Fontana del Papa.


8 skinless drumsticks
5 sprigs of fresh sage
3 sprigs of fresh rosemary
2 garlic cloves
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 cup red or white wine

With a meat cleaver, chop off the nubby ends of the drumsticks and then chop in half.

Add the drumsticks to about 1/2 cup water to a non-stick pan and cook on medium heat for about five minutes.

Meanwhile, in a wooden morter and pestle, pound the garlic, rosemary, and 1/4 cup of olive oil until it's chunky and pulpy. (Wooden morter and pestles allow you to pound and crush herbs better than marble ones).

Add the white wine vinegar.

Drain the water in the pan with the chicken and add 1/4 cup of the olive oil and the fresh sage. Stir the chicken around for the first few minutes so it doesn’t stick. Matilde really shakes up the chicken -- almost like a stir fry -- with two wooden spoons.

Matilde Viozzi

Continue cooking for about five minutes.

Add the rosemary mixture to the pan and let it simmer with the chicken for about five minutes. Add the wine (Matilde and Claudio like red wine in this recipe but I like white wine because it doesn't color the chicken and has a clean, crisp flavor). Let the wine and rosemary mixture simmer together until liquid is silky and chicken is cooked through.

Serve as a main course after pasta.

More from Fontana del Papa:

Assuntina and Claudio

Reader Comments (17)

How beautiful! What a great place.

May 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPia

Angela, what a nice post. I enjoy the photograph, how beautiful! The chicken look so fresh, and delicious too.

May 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterelra

Thanks, Pia and Elra. Fontana del Papa is an incredible place and the food was amazing. Thanks for visiting!

May 3, 2009 | Registered CommenterAngela

Wow!This looks as easy as a French Stew. I for sure will make it.
Thanks for those great pictures!

May 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMely

Glad you liked the photos, Mely. Thanks!

May 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

Enjoyed this post! I was lucky enough to visit Fontana del Papa a few years ago and enjoyed Assuntina, Claudio and everyone so much. I am longing to return--would love to visit during harvest!

May 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Thanks, Kate! Isn't Fontana wonderful? As you can tell from my post, I absolutely loved it. It was the best vacation I've had in years. Nice to meet another fan!

May 9, 2009 | Registered CommenterAngela

Angela, I just read all your posts about Fontana del papa while drinking my morning coffee, what a wonderful experience! I was day dreaming about cooking there, I'd never want to leave!

September 15, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermarie

Thanks for the nice note, Marie! I day dream about being there all the time. Luckily, I've got another trip planned soon!

September 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

Oh Angela...Love it, love it, love it! I wish I could have stayed longer! I

November 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGeralyn

Me too! It was so nice meeting you and spending time with you at Fontana. I look forward to seeing more of your delicious Fontana posts on Facebook! Hugs, Angela

November 8, 2009 | Registered CommenterAngela

Your post and beautiful photos brought back wonderful memories - I spent a few days at Fontana del Papa in September and loved every minute. Do you by any chance have more recipes and photos of food that you cooked there? I was too "in the moment" to take any notes...

November 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAgnes

When I read your blog and saw the pictures, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven! I always remind myself if there is any chance of me visiting Italy in the futrue, it would not be to do the touristy stuff. I most certainly would Love to spend a few days at Fontana Del Papa! Thank-you !

November 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChee Packer

Thanks, Agnes! You can find eggplant parmigiana here:


... and a lovely bell pepper salad here:


Chee: I'm so glad you enjoyed the post! Fontana is a very special place. I hope you make it there one day. All the best!

November 13, 2009 | Registered CommenterAngela

Agnes -- It looks like the links did not post properly but you can do a search for eggplant parmigiana and italian roasted bell pepper salad in the search area of my blog and find them that way. Let me know if you have any trouble. Cheers!

November 13, 2009 | Registered CommenterAngela

The photos are breathtakingly beautiful. That is my idea of the perfect vacation. It has been a dream of mine to do just what you did. Would you mind clarifying how to prepare/cut the chicken? The recipe looks amazing and I can't wait to try it, but I wanted to be sure I understood it correctly. Thanks!

December 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSusie

Thanks, Susie! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. You would love Fontana! I hope you get to go one day. For the chicken, you'll need a sharp cleaver. Matilde, the cook, chopped off the nubby, narrow end of the drumstick and then chopped the drumstick in half. I have made it without chopping it in half and it turned out just fine so if you don't have a cleaver or only a dull one, just use the whole drumstick. Enjoy!

December 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

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