Rieti, Spicy Heart of Italy
You know you’re headed towards Rieti’s peperoncino festival, Rieti, Cuore Piccante, as soon as you cross the Velino River and enter Via Roma: huge green and red chili peppers meet in a sort of triumphal arch over the street (and you’ll see people coming towards you with peperoncini plants in their arms, on their way home from the festival). The peperoncino theme continues all the way up Via Roma, fiery red bunches and strings of peperoncino adding color splashes to many a shop window: red swatches of peperoncino set off polished black boots in a store window, necklaces of peperoncini drape blouses in a store next door while bunches of red chili peppers in a vase with palm fronds highlight a boutique window displaying a red coat, red leather handbag. A wreath woven with chili peppers hangs on a shop door, a chili pepper plant welcomes you into a bookstore (where a display of books on the salubrious properties of peperoncino fans out on table at the entrance) and the cosmetic shop displays peperoncino body creams, shampoos and face creams.
Next door, red pepper bunches add spark to the display of eyeglasses, sunglasses and a scarlet chili pepper bouquet tied with a red rhinestone bow catches the eye in the adjoining jewelry store.
You’ll pass the florist with cheery peperoncino plants of every imaginable color – vases wrapped in colorful shiny paper with perky bows – in the front row, all the other flower varieties taking back seats during the festival. Right across the street, the cafe’ offers wines with antipasti highlighted with peperoncino and if you’re craving something sweet, crepes with crema di cioccolato al peperoncino. And as you enter the main square, you’ll pass a man on your left with shelves of peperoncini plants for sale and surrounding the fountain in the piazza center, festive booths – with red (what else?) the dominating color – offer every imaginable peperoncino enticement to taste (and take home, hopefully!)
Our first stop? The booth of the Calabrian vendors of spicy sauces, cheeses and salamis with peperoncino and of course, ndjua, the famed Calabrian spread of smoked ground pork with abundant Calabrian peperoncino. Alessio (from Florence – “I’m a northerner who went south”) offered us a taste of nduja (sold! and not only. Rosa was in the next booth and of course, we had to taste her nduja and other spicy sauces, too… and then came Alessia’s nduja displayed in an eye-catching flaming red booth. Angela’s stand was next (where red reigned again), offering us tastes of her pecorino cheese with hot red pepper before we moved on to the Sardinian booth where two smiling young women urged us to try their peperoncino goats’ milk cheese. At nearby booth, young Giada sells the jewelry she makes on the peperoncino theme.
Across from the booths encircling the main piazza, enter a narrow backstreet to walk through the exhibition of paintings – from as far away as Iraq – with peperoncino as the main theme. On the other end of the alleyway, blaring disco music competes with the shouts of the announcer urging the crowd to applaud the tricks of Italy’s Bike Trial champion, young Diego (from Rieti) as he leaps on his bike onto huge red tires, rears his bike up on the next obstacle and spins around the track. And not just sports events add spice to the peperoncino festival: over the three days of the festival, theater (in rietino dialect), dance, song, concerts, guided walks through underground Reati (departure point: the 1st c AD. Roman bridge), lectures on the salubrious properties of the chili pepper, a photographic exhibit, a display of over 400 varieties of the plant (from five continents), cooking shows and pasta dinners (main ingredient in the sauces? peperoncino!) draw the visitors.
While in this Latium town for the 4-day Rieti, Cuore Piccante (“spicy heart”) festival, meander the narrow alleyway to Piazza San Rufo, the “heart of italy.” Just follow the sign pointing you to “umbilicus italiae” and you’ll come to a small piazza with a double-layered limestone orb (like a stage) in the middle, chatting young people seated on it: your destination, “Italy’s navel.” Foligno and Narni – Umbrian towns – claim to be l’ombelico d’Italia, too.
Is the center of Italy actually in our region of Umbria or in neighboring Latium? I’m not sure which of the three towns is truly Italy’s geographic center.
But there’s no doubt about it: Rieti is Italy’s spicy center.
Read about an Umbrian festival where peperoncino reigns
Read about a favorite eating spot near Rieti
Read more about La Baita
Read about my favorite sandwich at La Baita
Read about a stop at La Baita enroute to L’Aquila
Read about a sagra near Perugia starring peperoncino