Why is this little trattoria you’d easily miss if you didn’t know exactly where to look to find it one of my favorites? One reason: The Di Pietro Family. Enzo, Teresa, Anita, and Pasquale. They embody what makes Irpinia so great, their commitment to preserving the local dishes and traditions that have defined lunch and dinner in Irpinia for centuries, their passion for the best local products, and their unyielding love for the land they call home.
The trattoria first opened its doors in 1934 with Enzo’s father and mother at the helm. Through the nearly 100 years since, the food has remained deceptively simple, and above all mouth wateringly delicious. That’s why a century later in 2020 they have been named the Osterie d’Italia: Best Regional Italian Cuisine (a huge honor). But this family doesn’t care much about the Michelin recognitions, which they have, or the awards from Slow Food and countless other organizations that honor the best food from around Italy and the world.
This was one of the first restaurants I visited in Irpinia outside of Gesualdo. On that very first visit, I let my eyes wander around the walls of the restaurant, and it was as if they were coming into a new focus. From the first moment you step foot across the threshold and into the restaurant, it’s a jarring juxtaposition to the town outside. You’re transported into a time capsule of celebration of the traditions of Irpinia, not just food, but culture and family too. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of what would become an amazing friendship and collaboration.
Enzo’s father and grandfather had run the restaurant and hotel before he took over the family business in the 1970’s with his wife Teresa. Teresa later told me how she wasn’t a chef when she married Enzo, but marrying into the family business meant she’d quickly be learning to cook the traditional dishes where she’s now been head Chef these last 40 or so years.
Now Teresa is joined in the kitchen by her daughter, Anita, who is brilliant in her own right, creative, willing to experiment, but totally 100% committed to bringing out the very best of Irpinia through food. She explained to me early on that the people of Irpinia were never rich, and they lived off the land because there were no other options for them. As a result, the traditional dishes of the region reflect that “poor persons” reality. I thought to myself, “if this is poor man's food, what did everyone else eat??” because while seemingly simple, the food was beautiful, savory and delicious.
My first meal was a multi-hour feast of traditional plates that started with handwoven taralli with fennel (a hard preztellike cracker traditional to Irpinia), there was sopressata, prosciutto, cow's milk cheese, sheep’s milk cheese, and a caciocavallo (typical cow’s milk cheese) aged for years not months. But that’s not all, there were plates piled high with local vegetables prepared in a variety of different ways as they’d been making them for generations, handmade pastas and ravioli, homemade focaccia bread baked to perfection in a wood-fired oven, all paired with a vibrant violet Aglianico crafted by Anita’s brother, Pasquale. I’d never eaten so simply and deliciously in my life. No foam to be found, no small portions, just amazing Irpinia cuisine.
And I was totally enamored with Anita, her colorful red traditional headscarf so commonly worn by women of past generations, her impeccably bright white chef’s coat, and an apron wrapped with a towel tucked into the strings hugging her waist. Her smile was infectious. The only thing missing I now realize looking back at photos of the day we met, was her signature one big dangly earring hanging from her right ear and a brightly colored stud in her left. She patiently explained to me all things Irpinia food that day and how these traditions were an integral thread in the fabric of Irpinian culture. I quickly realized just how much I had to learn.
Since that first meal I’ve been back more than a few times. Sometimes with friends and family, sometimes just to have coffee or to invite myself to hang out in the kitchen with Anita and Teresa, hoping to learn through osmosis. The passion they have for promoting the territory, for keeping alive the traditions that have defined generations, well it’s contagious. And I can’t get enough of being around them.
I’ve also brought some of the most discerning palates to the restaurant, namely my outspoken Uncle Domenic and my father, to visit Anita, Teresa, and Enzo in the restaurant. My hope was that they would be transported back to their childhoods in Grandma Rose’s kitchen in New York, where my great-grandfather had settled after he left Irpinia. It was a huge risk for me because these guys had no filter when it came to telling me if a plate or a meal lived up to their outsized childhood memories or not, and of course I’d done nothing to lower expectations for these guys. In fact, I just kept building up what amazing traditional plates were in store for them when we came to eat.
These two grown men had tears in their eyes. They couldn’t get enough, and every dish that came out was met with the praise “It’s just like at Grandma’s!” In our family, that’s the ultimate compliment you can give to Italian food. I was beaming with pride as if I’d made the food myself.
But here’s what’s really at the heart of what makes eating at Antica Trattoria di Pietro so special: the foods you luxuriate in for hours are and were to this day considered peasant food. Food for the poorest of the poor. Yet these dishes, these recipes are the richest in traditions and cooked with such love and care by the Di Pietro family (and other amazing chefs of Irpinia at some of my other favorite spots), you’d never think to consider these dishes had been created by those who were always looking to stretch every single item that could be eaten and the money used to buy them as far as possible.
These were some of the best things I’d ever eaten. So authentically Irpinian. What more do you want from me? Yes, it’s clear I’m an Irpiniaphile. Did I just make that word up? Who cares. Once you come and see what it’s like here, you’ll be saying the same thing.
I guess the real moral of the story is that Irpinia was hundreds of years ahead of its time having just lived the farm to table, the local sourcing, the forage for spontaneous herbs and greens, and utilize every singly part of an animal before it became so en vogue in the USA and beyond. Before this type of eating and cooking became a status symbol for the wealthy, Irpinians were unintentionally setting a trend that took a few hundred years to catch on around the world.
Anita and I are still dreaming up ways we can keep working together beyond the cooking lessons in Irpinia every visitor loves. We want to bring these generations of knowledge, this passion for food and quality ingredients to more people all around the world. I can’t wait for the day she and I can tour the USA and Europe together bringing the traditional dishes of Irpinia to life at every turn. Until then, we’ll be hosting cooking classes online. And if we show up in your neck of the woods, you won’t want to miss the chance to miss learning to cook from Anita. I promise.
If you can’t wait that long, send me a message so we can set up an online cooking class for you and your friends! You won’t regret it for a second.