Agriturismi: Italy's Best Affordable Spots
“I cried when I saw the stream of green liquid emerge from the centrifuge,” confesses California-born Pamela Sheldon-Johns about her first batch of organic olive oil made at her Tuscan estate. Known among fooderati for her excellent cookbooks, Sheldon-Johns moved to Tuscany with her family 10 years ago after falling hard for a 17th-century stone sharecropper’s house shaded by huge olive trees just south of Montepulciano. The Johnses converted part of the structure into three antiques-filled apartments—plus a small double room—where guests are encouraged to cook using fava beans and cavolo nero (black-leaf kale)from their garden. Sheldon-Johns is happy to arrange a Sangiovese tasting at her friend’s enoteca near Montepulciano or a lunch at nearby Avignonesi, producer of the world’s most prized vin santo. For her cooking classes, guests gather in the kitchen, which is anchored by a wood-burning stove. She might share minestrone secrets—start with only olive oil and add veggies one at a time—or explain how a soffrito of carrots, onions, and celery will add flavor to any soup or sauce. Poggio’s biggest allure is its family vibe: Sheldon-Johns’s teenage daughter, Alaia, draws up activity-pac
Piedmont: La Traversina
Deep in the wooded hills of Southern Piedmont, Rosanna and Domenico Varese Puppo run a retreat straight out of a fairy tale. The air surrounding the 300-year-old, vine-draped, part-stone house is thickly scented with roses. Inside, four wood-beamed guest rooms and three small apartments are decorated with the owners’ travel mementos and auction finds. La Traversina trades not in cattle or crops but in flowers—which means that the garden is a fragrant riot of 200 kinds of flora, including some 50 species of irises. Rosanna is a former architect, a dog breeder, and a kitchen genius; Domenico is an expert in heirloom tomatoes; and at their side is their “adopted son,” Vijaya, a charismatic, multilingual Sherpa in his late twenties who came from Nepal for a visit and decided to stay in Italy. At night, an equally colorful crowd congregates around the superlong wooden table for Ligurian vegetable torte and pastas swathed in emerald pesto with thyme, basil, and marjoram from the garden. Over grappa, Vijaya spins yarns about Himalayan mountaineering disasters, and Rosanna explains the origins of Monteboro, a local sheep’s- and cow’s-milk cheese shaped like an elaborate wedding cake. Sign up for a gardening, yoga, or cooking class, or just perfect the art of dolce far niente by the flower-fringed pool.
Great Value 109 Cascina La Traversina, Stazzano; 39-0143/61377; doubles from $148; dinner for two $80.
Veneto: Tenuta La Pila
“I admit I’m a little Swiss,” jokes the former textile entrepreneur Alberto Sartori, explaining why everything runs like clockwork on his 108-acre farm in the green Veneto plains between Verona and Rovigo. But the ebullient welcome he and his wife, Raimonda, give guests here is purely Italian. At Tenuta La Pila, things are done big: the fertile farmlands yield corn, wheat, and soy; the enormous orchardproduces many apple varieties and every conceivable stone fruit; and row upon row of kiwifruit vines—Italy is one of the world’s largest producers—flank a 50-foot-long swimming pool. The architecture is just as impressive. Converted from a 1733 rice mill and fronted by a pebbled courtyard, the property includes a graceful Neoclassical casa padronale (main house), a mustard-colored barchessa (an arcaded barn where guests sleep), and an Art Nouveau carriage house that functions as an office. Raimonda has outfitted the five guest rooms and seven apartments with lighting, linens, and incredibly comfortable mattresses sourced from across Italy. Veneto being maize country, expect plenty of smooth, fluffy polenta for dinner, served with a rustic stew of farm goose and braised wild greens. Sartori and his wife offer dinner just twice a week so that guests can explore the area’s Slow Food restaurants—the perfect end to a day trip to the nearby Palladian villas or the art-filled cities of Verona, Vicenza, Ferrara, and Padua, all less than an hour away.
Great Value 42 Via Pila, Spinimbecco; 39-0442/659-289; doubles from $118; dinner for two $59.
Friuli: La Subida
The first thing to know about La Subida, in the northern Collio wine region bordering Slovenia, is that it houses the best Michelin-starred restaurant in the area. Hosts Josko and Loredana Sirk match quirky details with updates of rib-sticking Friulian specialties such as zlikrofi (potato dumplings), plum gnocchi scented with cinnamon, and an epic veal shank, slow-roasted in an old bread oven and then paraded around on a cart under a copper lid. The Sirks prefer to use the phrase vacanze verdi (green vacations) to refer to their 16-cottage property. The shingled-roof mini-chalets, scattered along a slope at the edge of an oak forest, espouse an Alpine-Zen aesthetic with swaths of blond wood, sleigh beds, and plenty of firewood for the fogolars, or traditional fireplaces. Spend an afternoon at La Subida’s aromatic acetaia (vinegar factory) where Josko produces an extra-puckery, barrel-aged vinegar from local wine grapes, or hop on one of the property’s bright-yellow Vespas to visit the terraced vineyards on both sides of the border: Venica, in Collio Gorizia, and Movia, in Dobrovo, Slovenia.
Great Value 52 Via Subida, Cormons; 39-0481/60531; cottages for two from $172; dinner for two $172.
Le Marche: Locanda della Valle Nuova
You can’t help wondering what a woman like Giulia Savini—fluent in three languages and with two international master’s degrees—is doing living in Le Marche raising white Marchigiana cows and pampering guests on her 185-acre farm. But Savini and her parents, who also live on site, are as passionate about the environment as they are about hospitality. A short drive from the Renaissance town of Urbino, their 1980’s farm, with six modern guest rooms and three apartments, is as eco-conscious as it gets: crops are strictly organic, the stove is fueled by tree prunings, and electricity is generated by photovoltaic panels on the roof. If you don’t care for morning horseback rides or excursions to artisanal producers, stay here for the food. Loyal to her Piedmontese roots, Giulia’s mamma, Signora Adriana, makes an unforgettable beef bollito misto as well as a rich tagliatelle, made with eggs from her henhouse, that’s tossed in a deep-flavored wild-boar ragù. The best she saves for last: some two dozen house-made liqueurs culled from the pantry, crammed with colorful jars of elderflower and sour-cherry preserves.
Great Value 14 La Cappella, Sagrata di Fermignano, Pesaro e Urbino; 39-0722/330-303; doubles from $166; dinner for two $89.
Campania: Le Tore
Between chatting with guests, canning tomatoes, and pressing award-winning olive oil—and disciplining Tex, a frisky Labrador—when does Vittoria Brancaccio find time to relax? “Sometimes I forget my own name!” admits the vigorous agronomist turned contadina, who also serves as president of Italy’s 5,000-member Agriturist association. Back in 1982, when Brancaccio’s father bought her the rambling 35-acre property—elevated above Santa Agata Due Golfi, in the Sorrento Peninsula—agricoltura, she says, was considered a dirty word in Italian. Now, she notes, it’s positively glamorous. Named for the ridge dividing the Sorrento and Naples peninsulas, Le Tore has a sunny, slightly ramshackle authenticity: crates of Amalfi lemons are scattered around the property, free-roaming speckled Livornese hens peck away, and operatic arguments take place in the kitchen over what to serve for lunch. The eight guest rooms in an 18th-century villa are just as autentico, with terra-cotta floors, cheery bedspreads, and frescoes by a friend of Brancaccio’s. Meals here are long affairs, served under a grapefruit tree that borders a lush vineyard. What to expect? Plates of cloudlike ricotta and mozzarella produced nearby, handmade pastas dressed with Brancaccio’s vibrant tomatoes, and platters of garlicky vegetables. If you’re lucky, there’ll be Campanian pizza rustica, too, a sweet, crumbly dough filled with basil-scented cheese and salumi. Guests are welcome to help work the fields during harvests, but Brancaccio jokes that “bad workers” are fired immediately. Instead, she suggests picnicking in the property’s olive grove, which faces the Mediterranean—or playing with Tex.
Great Value 43 Via Pontone, Massa Lubrense, Penisola Sorrentina; 39-333/986-6691; doubles from $130; dinner for two $120.
Anya von Bremzen is a T+L contributing editor.