Donatella Versace she's not.
Among fashion designers—especially hard-boiled, out-there, Italian fashion designers—Alberta Ferretti is an anomaly. The windows of her car aren't smoked (although she does drive a Jaguar, bottle green with a beige glove-leather interior). A stranger to TV fashion awards, she doesn't hang with a retinue of hot-tempered supermodels. And she dares to live and work where the action isn't.
Milan is Italy's style capital, but Ferretti is based some 200 miles to the southeast in her native Cattolica, on the Adriatic coast between the larger and better-known resort towns of Rimini and Pesaro. Pleasant, familial, and price-aware, with a charm that has everything to do with its lack of sophistication, Cattolica is like an Italian South Beach waiting to happen.
"There's no frenzy here, and I think that's reflected in my designs," says Ferretti, who thrives on detachment. She cannot imagine life away from the local farmers who press small-batch oils from a single variety of olive, or from the fishermen who bring in the Adriatic's famously sweet baby sole.
But Ferretti's strong ties to Cattolica, which glances across the border of Emilia-Romagna to Le Marche, have allowed her to flourish as more than a creator of unapologetically pretty ready-to-wear for strong but tender millennial heroines (Andie MacDowell and Liv Tyler are customers). In 1988, Ferretti and a handful of co-investors came to the rescue of a ruined palace in the medieval hilltop village of Montegridolfo, nine miles inland from Cattolica. Six years later they opened it as the Palazzo Viviani hotel.
Ferretti charted the decoration of the hotel's eight guest rooms, casting them in the delicate, romantic, luxury-is-in-the-details image of her fashions. Heloise, her favorite room, is snuggled under the eaves, with its own entrance hall, skylit bathroom, and decorative antique blue-and-white apothecary jars. Baldacchino has linen curtains printed to match the walls' hand-painted scrollwork, and a wrought-iron canopy bed whose snowy, lacy hangings end in huge pools on a basket-weave terra-cotta tile floor. Thanks to an eleventh-hour cancellation, I slept in Affreschi, the largest and most desirable room, which has trompe l'oeil moldings, Aubusson-style fabrics, and windows on three sides. Naïve frescoes depict angels and supplicants in a biblical landscape. At bedtime I closed the shutters not against the dawn light, but for the excitement of rediscovering the views every morning. One window framed a stand of cypresses and a lone parasol pine on the brow of a distant hill.
The Viviani's atmospheric effects are easy to measure. From the guest book:
"Darling Meli, will you marry me?Brian." "Yes, I love you. XXXXXXX Melissa."
"Grazie ancora, amore, per il week-end magico. Ti amo tanto! Francesca."
With assistance from the regional government, but without substantially altering Montegridolfo's original footprint, Ferretti and her local partners went on to restore the entire town, including its magnificent clock tower and defensive walls. "Everyone said we were crazy, but being from here, we saw it as our duty," she remembers. "For us it was a crusade." When the dust settled, the 20 inhabitants who had been displaced by the work returned to their houses, now spruced up and fitted with every turn-of-the-century convenience. Any doubts that Montegridolfo is a working village are dispelled by the post office (where many locals do their banking), fully staffed municipal building, vigorously attended 14th-century Church of San Rocco, and dimly lit tabacchi.
Five village houses were acquired by the Viviani as apartments. These are ideal for long stays, especially since they have full kitchens. Still other buildings were turned into boutiques, restaurants, and a gelateria; like the hotel and apartments, they are managed by the company formed by Ferretti, in which she is a majority shareholder. Italian day-trippers, reloading their cameras for yet another shot of geranium-filled window boxes, handsome brickwork, and expertly laid red-tile roofs, aren't stingy with their approval. But many seem to be thinking, "Why can't they do this to my village?"
Montegridolfo is minuscule, about as long as a New York City avenue block. The town's riches, however, are out of proportion to its size. San Rocco has a wonderful School of Giotto fresco. The chapel buried away in the Viviani is graced with a dazzling mosaic altar. From the terrace of the Osteria dell'Accademia, diners seated under giant orange-canvas umbrellas gaze over a quilt of rolling olive groves to the inky sea. The corkscrew roads leading up from the Conca Valley are fringed with wild fennel and farmhouses selling acacia honey and ricotta made that morning (terrific together).
Beyond Montegridolfo, Le Marche also holds more treasures than you'd expect for such an inconspicuous, inward-looking place. Neighboring Urbino is one of the great legacies of the Italian Renaissance. A visit explains why schoolchildren all over Italy (Continued from th-century castle of Gradara, the setting of the fifth canto of Dante's Inferno, in which a pair of lovers are condemned to hell. In Pesaro you can visit Rossini's birthplace and attend performances in the opulent opera house during the summer festival that honors him.
But since everyone in Montegridolfo is so friendly, leaving it can produce separation anxiety. From the postmistress to the nonna who rolls out the pappardelle, everyone has all the time in the world for you. As I inched my car nervously through the narrow opening in the clock tower for the first time, a waiter came out of his restaurant to guide me, sparing my fender a nasty swipe. Later, the hotel's doorman insisted on walking me to the Osteria. His pride in Montegridolfo was palpable. Signora Ferretti is a familiar presence in town, he told me, and the villagers regard her as their godmother. But he hadn't seen her in a while. Was she all right?
In fact, it was Ferretti's responsibilities that had been keeping her away. In addition to her namesake collection, she designs the younger Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti line. And with her brother Massimo she owns and operates AEFFE, the factory in Cattolica that manufactures her collections and those of Jean-Paul Gaultier, Moschino, Narciso Rodriguez, and Rifat Ozbek. When the hotel project came up, Ferretti loved the idea of "giving back" to her homeland in a second wave.
Like every child in the region, Ferretti grew up on tales of Montegridolfo's embattled past. Throughout its early history the village was a pawn of the area's powerful military families, the Malatestas and Montefeltros. (Federico da Montefeltro built the Palazzo Ducale.) The fortress that became the Viviani was begun by the Malatestas in 1337.
Strangely, Ferretti had never visited Montegridolfo until she began shopping for a second house. A friend suggested the Viviani, which a down-on-his-luck painter was selling at auction. "I was instantly struck with nostalgia—overwhelmed by how much this region means to me," recalls Ferretti. "Most of the roof was gone, and I saw that it would be too costly and grand for a weekend place. My next thought was to use it for meetings, but that seemed too narrow. Once I hit on the idea of a hotel, the decision to rehabilitate the whole village followed naturally. To restore the palazzo without restoring Montegridolfo would be selfish."
Local culinary traditions shape chef Maurizio Salvigni's menu at the Osteria. Antipasti feature squacquerone, a fluffy cheese that is a vehicle for other flavors. Salvigni pairs it with a tangle of peppery arugula and blends it with roasted peppers for a sweet-and-smooth crostino. Tomatoey castello soup is bolstered with chickpeas, split peas, barley, and farro. Strips of beef are sautéed in white wine, garlic, and fistfuls of fresh bay leaves.
Montegridolfo's pizzeria, Il Ritrovo del Vecchio Forno, plays the rustic card—stucco walls, pierced-metal sconces, linen cushions embroidered with griffins. While it's impossible to make a bad choice, the pizza called il bosco puts Naples on notice: layered with tomato, mozzarella, sausage, and porcini, it's finished with truffle oil, whose expensive perfume romances your nose at 20 paces.
In summer, postprandial activity centers on the village shops, which stay open past 11. La Bottega delle Mura sells chunky ceramics, wire baskets, and checked tablecloths that would look great in a country setting anywhere in the world. Segreti di Giuditta is devoted to honey items (grappa, soap, candles). Every article in La Bottega delle Vivande is carefully chosen: porcini polenta, juniper digestive, boiled candies. Best of all, says Ferretti, is the rare unfiltered olive oil drawn from a stainless steel canister. As with wine, some experts insist filtration removes the oil's nuance.
It's all a long way from Milan, which is just how Ferretti likes it. Sketching at home—senza telefono—under an ancient walnut tree, on a carpet of tiny daisies, is her idea of a perfect workday. Montegridolfo's tabacchi, which is furnished with a pre-World War II telephone booth and stocks emergency items like espresso-pot gaskets and geranium fertilizer, is her concept of a great shop. As the village catches on with designers and fashion editors, locals are getting their first taste of modaioli—fashionistas. But nobody uses the word modaiola to describe Alberta Ferretti.
Albergo di Palazzo Viviani, 38 Via Roma; 39-541/855-350, fax 39-541/855-340; doubles from $165.