By Matt Colangelo
Updated December 04, 2015
© Matt Colangelo

An hour northeast of Rome, on the A24 autostrada, you enter what the writer Primo Levi called the “strong and gentle” region of Abruzzo. Suburbs shrink into villages. Hills grow into mountains, with their craggy peaks sticking out of low-lying clouds. Suddenly you go from driving on land to driving in and around it, as the highway becomes a series of never-ending tunnels and towering bridges designed to keep you on level ground.

Pitched onto the western slope of one of these mountains, accessible only by a long, narrow road hovering over a 300-foot gorge, is the fairytale town of Scanno. Art lovers might know it from the iconic photography of Mario Giacomelli, whose black-and-white images captured an authentic, medieval antiquity that was insulated from modern Europe for years. But locals know it as Abruzzo’s biscotti mecca. The cookies, and not the photography, are the reason my friends and I are here.

A couple streets off the main piazza, tucked into an anonymous alleyway, is our destination: the tiny 100-square-foot Biscotteria Artigianale di Liliana Rosati, widely considered the best cookie shop in town. From the piazza, getting there is easy—you simply close your eyes and home in on the smell of freshly-baked chocolaty dough. When you open them again, you’re standing under a circular sign that says “Biscotteria Artigianale” and a line of people who, like you, have traveled several hours for the biscotti. You hear the slurred accent of a Roman delivery man mixing with the aspirated c’s of a Florentine accountant, both of them mulling their orders. Do you want the amaretti (a medieval almond macaroon), or the biscotti al mosto cotto (an equally old cookie made with a traditional Abruzzese grape syrup)?

These biscotti, and Italian biscotti in general, are not always synonymous with the rock-hard, American coffee-shop variety. Those exist in Italy too—they’re called biscotti di Prato, after the Tuscan city considered the birthplace of biscotti. But in modern Italy, biscotti refers more generally to cookies, of all shapes and sizes. Literally, the word biscotti, like biscuit, means “twice-cooked,” but most of these biscotti are once-cooked, fresher, and softer than the ones we’re used to.

Picking a single cookie from the display counter at the Biscotteria Artigianale is nearly impossible, so most people end up getting a few. Their two most popular cookies, though, the ones that everyone seems to order, are the biscotti di prato verde and the mostaccioli (pictures below). These are must-haves, but the others look good too. Paralyzed by choice and famished by possibility, we order everything on the menu, and the total comes out to 13 Euros.

The soft-centered Prato Verde

The name biscotti di prato verde is a play on the original biscotto di Prato (named after the city) and prato verde (which means “green meadowland” and refers to Scanno’s verdant surroundings). Like the original, it’s made with chopped almonds and cut into long pieces; unlike the original, it has chocolate and a melty, nutella-like center.

The equally good Mostaccioli

Mostaccioli are the Biscotteria Artigianale’s second most popular cookie and, not surprisingly, also made with chocolate. They are named after an Abruzzese grape-must syrup—i.e. mosto cotto—with which they’re traditionally made. This ingredient gives it a subtle earthy sweetness that pairs nicely with the chocolate, almond, and hints of spice.

Don't dunk anything but these in your coffee.

The biscotti al latte are made with milk and are the only cookies at the Biscotteria made to be eaten with your morning coffee. Though many Abruzzese grandmothers make a softer version of the cookie, these are super crunchy and capable of withstanding a few bleary-eyed dunks into your cappuccino.

As its name suggests, the biscotti al mosto cotto are also made with the ubiquitous Abruzzese grape syrup. They aren’t particularly sweet or savory—more of a soft, starchy canvas for the cookie’s eponymous ingredient.

The owners of the Biscotteria Artigianale are Ilario Notarmuzi, biscotti chef, and Luna Piccinini, his wife. They invite me behind the counter to see what’s cooking. Pans of pre-cooked biscotti are stacked on wall-mounted racks, ready to go in the oven, which is currently occupied by slowly browning amaretti. “Can I ask you for a recipe?” I propose, and Ilario smiles, “You can ask, but I won’t tell.”

While he doesn’t furnish a recipe, Ilario does offer some historical background on the shop. He explains that he learned the basics of baking from his grandparents, who owned one of the only private ovens in town and ran an all-purpose bakery that sold breads, cakes, and cookies. Ilario used to shadow them in the bakery, watching his nonna cook and his nonno work the cash register. He harkens back to a time when most families used communal ovens and distinguished their baked goods by branding them with family crests. “That way, no one would take your biscotti,” he explains.

“So your recipes are traditional?” I ask, expecting his response to be in the affirmative. To my surprise, though, he’s adamant that they are not. “I started with my grandparents’ recipes, but I made them better,” he says this with a glint in his eyes, betraying a likeable cockiness not uncommon among successful chefs. “The old recipes had the ratios a little wrong.” When he says this, I believe him. It’s hard to imagine a platter of biscotti looking better than the one I’m holding.

If you find yourself within a couple hours of Scanno (if you’re in Rome, Abruzzo, Molise or elsewhere), ponder the scenic drive down the highway, over the gorge, and up to the iconic village. I recommend lunching at one of the nearby agriturismi, visiting the Biscotteria Artigianale for dessert, and swimming in the beautiful, mythic lake below town—supposedly a supernatural creation to protect the town from foreign invaders. It might be the best day of your trip.