Arrosticini: The Best Italian Food No One Knows About
Arrosticini and their meaty goodness remain off many people’s radars, likely because they come from Abruzzo, one of the biggest regions of Italy that the fewest people know about. Apart from its eastern Adriatic coastline, which is more metropolitan, Abruzzo is a region of undomesticated hills and mountains about an hour northeast of Rome. With a third of its land set aside for parks and preserves, it has the honor of being the “greenest region of Europe,” and its cuisine reflects that with mountain food like lentils, gnocchi, lamb ragù, and other various sheep products. The most popular of those sheep products? Arrosticini.
Especially popular during the festive summer months, when people stay outside chit-chatting and noshing till the early morning, arrosticini are skinny kebabs made from castrato, the meat of castrated sheep (it’s significantly better than it sounds), and grilled on a fornacella, an elongated, charcoal-fired brazier purpose-built to fit the skewers. The width of the grills varies—you can buy them as small as three-feet wide and as big as twenty—but the depth of the grills is always 4 inches—the length of the meat on the skewer. This allows the skewer to rest on top of the metal and the slightly gamey meat of the castrato to hang directly over the coals. If the contraption were bigger, the skewers wouldn’t fit; if it were smaller, the meat would get stuck to the metal.
Making arrosticini is easy if you have the right gadgets. You need the grill, charcoal, some fire starters, and, believe it or not, a hair dryer. To start, you spread the coals on the bottom of the fornacella, throw in a couple fire starters, and set the whole thing smoldering. This is where you need the hair dryer. If you don’t fan the flames pretty consistently for the next ten minutes, the fire will go out and the coals won’t get hot—so to make life easier, people use hair dryers. You could also use a charcoal chimney, but that’s less fun. Once the coals have turned grey and are moderately hot (you don’t want them too hot, because they can scorch the skewers), you take about five arrosticini per hand and place them on the grill. Do not oil or salt them beforehand.
Once they’re on the grill, you can pick up your glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (not to be confused with the more expensive Tuscan Montepulciano) and talk to your friends. Just make sure the fire doesn’t get out of hand when the cubes of castrato fat start to render. The skewers can easily catch on fire, break, and fall into the grill—which is one of the ways to mess up arrosticini. The other way to mess them up is to under or overcook them. Unlike with lamb chops, you don’t want them to be pink in the middle. The goal is to get a nice char on the outside, so you want to leave them on for a few minutes. When the underside looks a little bit charred, flip them all at once and wait another few minutes. Then, right before taking them off, toss some salt on them.
If you can’t make it to Abruzzo anytime soon, and don’t want to shell out $100 for a purpose-built grill, there are only a few places to try arrosticini stateside. If you’re in Chicago, you can go to Bar Toma. If you’re in Philly, try Gran Caffè L’Aquila. For Boston, try Nebo. And for San Francisco, give L’Osteria del Forno a shot. If your city + arrosticini doesn’t turn up anything on Google, try substituting arrosticini for “lamb spiedini,” which is a more widely-used Italian word for skewers.