Il Ciavarro di Ripatransone

Perhaps the most fascinating and wonderful aspect of studying Italian cuisine is how it varies so widely, not only region to region but town to town. As one explores the countryside, uphill, then downhill, one hilltop battlement to the next, there’s always some delicacy, secret recipe or traditional dish to discover.

As recounted in Positively Piceno, I recently spent some time in Ripatransone, a hill town located in southern Marche, beautifully situated between the Adriatic coast and the inland mountains. Here I discovered lu ciavarre (or ciavarro), a traditional vegetable dish that speaks to the tradition and toil of this small area.

Made primarily from a variety of legumes and grains, lu ciavarre, like so many other recipes, evolved out of necessity. In the spring season, as new crops begin to produce, farmers needed to make space in their stores, so they cooked a simple stew of the previous year’s leftovers. (The word ciavarro, in the local dialect, essentially means a set of different things with each other.)

Historically, ciavarro was eaten on May Day, or May 1st, a longtime European holiday or festival to celebrate the arrival of spring, now Labor Day in Italy. Today, it’s prepared in town during La Passatella, a food & wine walk that takes place on some summer Friday nights.

My own first taste took place at Ristorante Lu Cuccelò (the snail), a small pizzeria near the center of town. We went for lunch thinking pie, only to find that the lunch menu didn’t include it, something that’s relatively common in Italy and (I suppose) sensible considering the heat of a wood oven at midday. Instead, I found myself digging into a hearty, soul-affirming bowl of ciavarro, blown away by its depth of flavor and comforting essence.

ciavarro from lu cuccello

Though I wasn’t aware at the time, Lu Cuccelò owner/chef Paola is known around these parts as an expert in the dish, and she was kind enough to share the technique with me.

Basic ingredients:

  • Grains such as bulgar wheat, barley, polenta, corn, farro.
  • Legumes such as chickpeas, field peas, peas, kidney beans, white beans and lentils.
  • Paola suggests about 50g of each ingredient per person, 200g for 4 people.

Other ingredients:

  • 200gr of lean pork (Many recipes call for bacon or “pork rinds”, though ground pork can also work well)
  • 400gr soffrito (mirepoix; finely chopped onion, carrot and celery)
  • 200ml dry white wine
  • 400g peeled tomatoes
  • Some recipes also call for adding a bit of garlic, bay leaf, chili to the sauce

Technique:

The legumes and grains should be soaked in different containers and boiled in different pots, cooked to their own directions. (In a pinch you can use canned, cooked beans.) Save some of the bean water to use in the sauce to achieve the proper texture.

  • Brown pork in a large stockpot with some EVOO
  • De-glaze pan with white wine
  • Add tomatoes (crush if not already)
  • Add cooked legumes and grains (plus some extra water)
  • Simmer for 15-30 minutes to thicken and combine

Serve with warm bread, hard cheese and a nice Rosso Piceno (such as Rupe Nero Gold).

Here’s a video from an Italian-language cooking show of Paola preparing the dish: