Italy’s Secret Countryside
Published: September 2010
By Maria Shollenbarger
Author Marella Cracciolo and photographer Oberto Gili reveal the countryside’s best <em>agriturismi,</em> hotels, and villas.
In their new book For the Love of Italy: Rural Pleasures and Hotel Estates (Clarkson Potter; $60), Marella Caracciolo and Oberto Gili travel from the tip of northern Italy to the southern Salento region to the island of Sicily in search of authentic and often overlooked places to stay. The result is an insider’s take on a country still very much engaged with the land, where artisanal cheese producers, oil purveyors, and winemakers continue to embrace Italy’s long-standing rural traditions. “We’re both deeply tied to the countryside,” Caracciolo says, “in part because we spent a great deal of our childhoods on farms.” (Caracciolo lives in Rome; Gili in Piedmont.) Here, they share eight of their favorite places found along the way.
For History Buffs
Caracciolo and Gili fell in love with Piedmont’s 15th-century Castello di Bagnolo (rentals from $430 per week), which holds an 800-year-old family archive. But, Caracciolo says, “Art historians must visit Padua’s La Montecchia (doubles from $308, including breakfast, two-night minimum)—a 16th-century folly designed and frescoed by Dario Varotari, a pupil of painter Paolo Veronese.
Seeds of Love
The sheer beauty of the gardens is the real reason to see many of these villas. “I am, of course, partial to mine,” says Gili, speaking of his own Piedmont villa Il Picot (doubles from $257). “I have vegetables, fruit trees, roses and peonies, and aromatic herbs.” Caracciolo also cites Consolata d’Isola’s garden at Castello di Bagnolo, which is based on an original 18th-century plan.
Meal with a View
On the Sorrentine Peninsula, Don Alfonso 1890 (dinner for two $335) is a standout for its classic Italian dishes with a twist: “Definitely the most amazing food and impressive wine list I’ve ever encountered. Try the linguine con vongole veraci e zucchine with whisper-thin slices of zucchini,” Caracciolo says.
A Romantic Escape
Sextantio (doubles from $283, including breakfast), in the mountainous Abruzzo region, is the ultimate 16th-century borgo turned luxury resort. “Intimate rooms; crackling fireplace; discreet service,” Caracciolo says. “And all in a very remote landscape just over an hour from Rome,” Gili adds.
Old Meets New
At Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita (doubles from $353, including breakfast), prehistoric cave dwellings have been reimagined with spare, sleek interiors. “Architect Laura Einaudi did a great job preserving the original patina of Matera while adding modern accents by Philippe Starck, among others,” Caracciolo says.
Best for an Italian Cooking Class
Gili and Caracciolo were impressed by Fabrizia Lanza, the teacher at Sicily’s Case Vecchie di Regaleali (one-day lesson with lunch from $193 per person), a 19th-century country house with four rustic rooms. “She is a well-traveled, warm-hearted polyglot who turns very basic but high-quality Sicilian ingredients into delicious cooking,” Caracciolo says. “You’ll learn to make a sweet cassata, a traditional sponge-cake dessert filled with ricotta cheese and covered with candied fruit and a sugar glaze,” Gili adds.
Most of the farms featured in For the Love of Italy apply the rules of organic agriculture, though some take eco-practices a step further. Great Value Lama di Luna (doubles from $180) is “a temple to feng shui, renewable energy, and biodynamic agriculture,” Caracciolo says. Gili recommends Case Vecchie di Regaleali, whose proprietors are producing top-quality oils, sheep’s-milk cheese, and vegetables with the same care and techniques that have been used for hundreds of years.