Twelve years ago, the villagers of Anversa degli Abruzzi, Italy, population 350, witnessed the debarkation of 13 Americans and 42 pieces of luggage.
“We basically invaded this village,” said Bob Marcelli, whose grandparents hailed from there. In 1916 his grandfather left the poor, depressed Abruzzo region for America and never came back. “Why did you leave?” Bob remembers asking his grandfather. “He looked at me [and said] ‘To eat.'”
Anversa is only 75 miles east of Rome, but in a sense it is worlds away, perched on a rock outcrop overlooking the Gorges of Sagittarius, and sandwiched between the Abruzzo and Majella National Parks.
The village counts two churches, a pharmacy, two bars, a store that sells tobacco, and a bank that opens infrequently. Bob estimates the median age to be about 60; people often left Anversa to seek a better life and usually never came back.
On the occasion of their first ancestral trip to Anversa, the American Marcellis were welcome with open arms by the Italian Marcellis. Of the 300-plus inhabitants, Bob jokes that the family is related to about half of them. This is “Marcelli Kingdom,” as his daughter Christina calls it.
Bob met his cousin Nunzio, who was running an agriturismo and making cheese from sheep’s milk. Bob, a self-described “recovering chef,” (he was a 1990 James Beard Foundation Rising Chef) was intrigued.
“We tasted the cheese and I said, ‘Oh. You don’t make cheese. You make cheese. I was completely blown away by the quality of the flavor and the variety.”
It took about the better part of two years for Bob to convince his Italian relatives that they could make a go of exporting their raw milk sheep’s cheeses to the United States. They now do business under the company name of Marcelli Formaggi, with a warehouse in Montclair, N.J.
They are humble cheeses to be sure—mostly pecorino and ricotta—evoking at first sight nothing but the memory of ho-hum mass produced commercial versions and maybe at worst, some uneasy memories of chalky textures.
The family’s smoked ricotta is a modest thing: a white, vaguely dome-ish shape, with traces of ridges left from the baskets where they were aged.
But lo, one bite is enough to dispel middling expectations: this cheese is truly transcendent.
Chef Marc Forgione has said of these cheeses: “”Each bite tastes like Abruzzo. If you close your eyes while you eat it, you can actually see the sheep!”
The sheep! There are 1,300 sheep of the local ancient Soppravizzano breed gainfully employed by the Parco Produce cooperative, which Nunzio co-founded, grazing on mountain grasses and over more than 120 types of wild herbs and flowers. This ancient breed produces just about one-fifth of what a conventional breed produces.
Bob compares it to driving a car that gets 2 miles per gallon versus 50 miles a gallon. Why on earth would you opt for a less productive breed? “It’s a whole concept of respecting tradition, preserving history. At one time in Abruzzo there were 3 million of these kinds of sheep and today there are a couple hundred thousand,” he said.
Their constitution is hardier. “They’re really bred for that kind of environment,” Bob said.
A few times a year, sheep, dogs, shepherds, and guests at the agriturismo partake in the “transumanza,” or “crossing the land,” a centuries-old tradition where sheep are herded between lowlands and highlands. By car, it would take an hour; on foot it takes about three days. The sheep are slow and besides, are busy munching on the herbs underfoot along the way—mint, fennel, juniper, and thyme.
The words to describe the Marcelli family’s smoked ricotta come to me as pure and innocent—a clean milkiness perfumed ever so slightly by the juniper wood smoke.
The ricotta passita (or dried passita) is covered with the mountainside herbs that the sheep feast on, such as rosemary, thyme, sage, and for good measure, some pepperoncino. This version almost made me weep with happiness. It is that good: creamy, intense, pungent, spicy, alive.
And then for a palate jolt, there’s the bright-red pepperoncino ricotta (a chefs’ favorite).
Another incredible cheese is the organic Pecorino Gregoriano, a cheese made by Nunzio’s neighbor Gregorio, half an hour away. First of all, it is a soft pecorino, and second, it is buttery and funky. And what about the Pecorino di Parco? Nutty, rich, slightly crumbly, and only slightly salty.
Made from raw organic cow’s milk, the remarkable Caciocavallo Podolico Colantuono is made by Carmelina Colantuono, a fourth-generation cheesemaker and one of the few women Italian cheesemakers. Known as the “Last Cow Girl” in Italy, she shepherds the cows on horseback during their annual transumanza.
Restaurants such as Del Posto, Maialino, and Locanda Verde have served the cheeses from Marcelli Formaggi—and the majority of the time not cooked into dishes—heavens, no—but simply cut and served as they are.
If there can be any improvement on the cheeses, it would be to pair them with honeys made from the same region, such as sunflower honey, chestnut honey, cherry honey—the sweet liquid gold made from the same flowers that the sheep so love.
These days, the word is getting out about Anversa. And often in the same breath as “cheese,” all for good reason.
Cheese prices range $16–42.95. Gift sets available, as well as olive oil, pastas, and sauces from Abruzzo. marcelliformaggi.com. Cheeses can also be found at Eataly.