In normal times, finding Ascoli-Piceno’s culinary specialty in its historic center is no real challenge. But these are not ordinary times.
My son loves olive ascolane – olives stuffed with meat and deep fried. This is a common appetizer at restaurants throughout Italy, although, all too often, they are simply the frozen variety.
In the place of their birth, visitors can watch the freshly prepared olives fried before them – and eat them in restaurants or in paper cones as they walk around admiring this spectacular medieval town.
Despite the driving rain on a trip back to Rome following a race in Ancona, my son reminded me I had promised many times I would bring him to Ascoli-Piceno to show him the town and buy him his beloved stuffed olives. So we detoured off the highway to drive to Ascoli in search of a food much better enjoyed after a 400-meter race than before.
I’d only been to Ascoli-Piceno once, many, many years earlier.
The name derives from the Piceni population – one of the many peoples conquered by the Ancient Romans, in 89 BC, and absorbed into the Roman Empire. Although the city was laid out by the Romans and has preserved that urban structure, visitors today marvel at the beautiful medieval architecture for which the town is known.
Despite the silence of the town when we visited during the Corana era, we stood – virtually alone – under the rain in awe of the spectacular Piazza del Popolo, with its San Francesco church and baptistery (unfortunately, closed!) and the imposing Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo.
I’d last been to Ascoli when it was full of life, with people chatting on the piazza and tables spilling out of the eateries and onto the lively piazza, so the silence was odd.
More worrisome, all the eateries were now shuttered, so we started a treasure hunt for the famous stuffed olives.
For it is in Ascoli-Piceno where this culinary tradition began. It is said that this preparation was common for the cooks of aristocratic families in town, considered a common way to use up excess reserves of meat by stuffing green olives also grown locally. In this way, olive ascolane became a popular regional specialty.
In 1875, a local businessman set up a factory to produce these stuffed olives commercially and to distribute the marchigiano specialty around Italy. And the rest is history.
Luckily, our search was not in vain.
We did find the only shop open selling olive ascolane on that rainy, COVID lockdown day. Unfortunately, official rules did not allow us to eat there, but, at the same time, the rain made it impossible to stand outside.
In the end, we took our cones over to stand under the portico of the Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo (also illegal with COVID rules, but there are limits to everything).
From there, we stayed dry under the eaves and watched the rain pour down on the postcard-perfect medieval piazza as we ate our piping hot olive ascolane.
So much so that we returned to that only open shop and ordered a few dozen more to take home with us to Rome for a ready-made dinner later in the week.
Mission accomplished, we made a break back to the car for the long journey back to Rome. We’ll definitely be back, although next time I hope we’ll be ordering our stuffed olives and enjoying medieval Ascoli with all its other admirers.