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Visiting Umbria

Jim Franco

Photo: Jim Franco

VILLA DI MONTE SOLARE
Like many of the world's best innkeepers—the ones behind highly personal establishments worth crossing the globe for—Rosemarie and Filippo Iannarone were destined for other pursuits. She studied to be a math teacher. He went to law school. When they fell in love in Rome 30 years ago (Rosemarie was on a school trip from her native Germany), an inn where they would one day tempt guests with fig jam and mille fiori honey they would make themselves was not on the conversational agenda.

The discussion about breakfast seductions did eventually take place, but not until 1988. That year the Iannarones bought a handsomely restrained 1780 villa, uninhabited for 25 years and hidden on a beautiful and dusty country road that seems to stretch to infinity. Just seven months later the couple hung out a shingle announcing an inn with nine rooms (today there are 20). They called it Monte Solare, after the 1,955-foot mountain—the highest on Lake Trasimeno—that casts its shadow nearby.

The villa has an aristocratic and pleasingly symmetrical façade of creamy yellow stucco. Window and door surrounds are in that most noble of building stones, rich, gray pietra serena. The gay candy box of a chapel, dedicated to Saint Lucia, has a pastel coffered ceiling that was painted in the 18th century, and is the site of classical music concerts in summer.

A limonaia offers the potted lemon trees beside the box-edged giardino all'Italiano a place to wait out the winter. A second, so-called secret garden with a purposely wild, unkept look is planted with viburnum hedges enclosing linden trees, parasol pines, and cypresses. It leads, if you can find your way out of the delightful maze, to a pool (one of two) dug into a natural platform, the perfect perch for studying the rippling silhouette of the hills and reassuring geometry of the olive orchards. I give out pool awards wherever I travel, and if it weren't for the lining material that makes the water such a ridiculous shade of turquoise, Solare's would have taken first prize in the Most Unsplashy category, sub-category Umbrian Countryside. The inn gets special mention, on the other hand, for observing my Plastic Garden Furniture Act: there's not a scrap of it anywhere. A more divinely removed yet civilized setting is impossible to imagine. On the estate's 138 acres, the Iannarones grow olives for their own first-rate oil and grapes for a DOC Colli del Trasimeno red. Almost by necessity, a stay at Monte Solare means becoming intimate with both, whether in the restaurant or cooking classes, or at the Thursday wine tastings. Making easy work of such grassroots dishes as tagliatelle with a sauce of freshwater shrimp and shredded zucchini skins, the restaurant also offers what Filippo says is the world's widest selection of Umbrian wines (more than 140). Unlike many food programs run by European hotels, the classes at Solare are hands-on: you actually get to cook, filling your own ravioli, rolling out your own stringozzi.

I could be extremely happy in any of the guest rooms (all are comfortable and pristine), including the newer ones in a former olive press and a stone outbuilding where silkworms were once raised. But with their novel antique metal beds painted with wood grain or inlaid with mother-of-pearl, their satin-striped coverlets, and their triptych dressing table mirrors, the original villa accommodations are definitely the ones to snag. They achieve a rare combination of sobriety and elegance.

7 Via Montali, Colle San Paolo, Panicale; 39-075/832-376, fax 39-075/835-5462; doubles from $180 with breakfast and dinner.

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