Summer in Italy doesn’t have to mean standing in line for hours to view a Giotto or a Tintoretto for minutes. With a rental car -- and the stomach for curlicue curves -- you can breeze through Le Marche (or the Marches), a less traveled region on the Adriatic Coast.
The rewards: landscapes worthy of Renaissance masters. Immaculate hilltop towns. Fried olives, creamy prosciuttos, depraved lasagnas.
And outlet shopping.
Some of the most showoffy scenery is in the south, where the Sibylline Mountains rise theatrically behind the green rolling hills.
I stayed at a beautifully restored farm called La Querceta, a few miles outside the placid little town of Amandola (a good place to base yourself), which sits at the edge of the Monti Sibillini National Park. The rooms in the big stone house are large and comfortably appointed. My partner and I rented the nearby two-bedroom house with a kitchen. It had once been the pigsty.
Owner Giovanna Galbiati prides herself on her breakfast tortas. With advance notice, you can also have a dinner that includes campofilone, the region’s egg pasta, and the succulent local lamb. (The great seafood restaurants are on the coast; inland, meat is the mainstay.)
In Amandola itself, the smart, updated Hotel Paradiso sits atop the town. It has an excellent restaurant that -- like just about everybody else -- makes its own homey pastas. For simpler fare, head downhill to Bella Napoli, a classic pizzeria where they keep the good local reds in the fridge: Rosso Piceno, Rosso Conero, Lacrima di Morro d’Alba.
The Marche is dotted with beautifully preserved hilltop villages; as you drive, you can often pick out several in the distance. Each one has its draw.
We drove to Sant’Elpidio a Mare to see its shoe museum, and discovered a good restaurant, Il Melograno, with a fine terrace in the back that looks far out to the sea. It’s a good place to try the ubiquitous local specialty, olives ascolane (stuffed with meat and cheese, breaded, and deep-fried -- why didn’t I think of that?) as well as vincisgrassi, a rich regional lasagna made with cream, veal and unmentionable chicken parts.
The museum itself -- the Museo della Calzatura -- reflects an important local industry: The region’s prosperity derives from its apparel factories as well as its farms. (In nearby Montappone, there’s a hatmaking museum.) The small display traces the history of footwear, from Chinese foot binding to disco platforms, and includes a few famous shoes (Ferragamo’s “invisible sandal” from 1947) and shoes of the famous (popes, singers, athletes).
The same building holds the small Pinacoteca Civica Vittore Crivelli, with an exquisite polyptych and an equally jewel-like triptych by the Quattrocento master the museum is named after. The clump of big outlet stores outside town -- including Prada, Tod’s and Roberto Botticelli -- draws crowds the two museums could only dream of.
Heading south from Amandola for Ascoli Piceno, we stopped in the little town of Comunanza for lunch at the venerable Da Roverino. In addition to plates of cured meats (a universal and dependable antipasto in these parts) and tagliatelle in a slow-cooked ragu, we lucked out with a salad of fresh porcini mushrooms (their usual season is the fall) that was so good we asked for another one at the end of the meal.
Spritz in Square
Ascoli Piceno is the largest town in the southern Marche, and its central square, the Piazza del Popolo, is one of the prettiest in Italy, with loggias along two sides and the art nouveau Caffe Meletti tucked into the corner. Meletti is known for its anisette, but on a warm afternoon a “spritz” -- soda dressed up with a shot of Aperol or puckery Rabarbaro (made from rhubarb) -- goes well with fried olives and people watching.
It’s a longer drive north to Loreto, the second most popular pilgrimage site in Europe after Lourdes. The reason: In the center of its splendid Renaissance cathedral sits the Madonna’s house, originally situated in Nazareth. According to certain authorities, it was flown to Italy by angels, a forebear of Dorothy’s trip to Oz.
The little house -- the Santa Casa -- isn’t much, even with the presence inside of the celebrated Black Madonna of Loreto, and if you suffer from claustrophobia the mob inside may make you feel like one of the damned. The true miracle is the marble casing designed for it in the early 16th century by Donato Bramante, with scenes from the life of the Virgin and the transportation of her home. Tracks carved into the rim that extends from the bottom encourage the faithful to approach the entrance on their knees.
A couple of kilometers away, at Ristorante Andreina, we had the best meal of our trip, which included carpaccio of pork seasoned with fennel, olives, and orange; ravioli stuffed with chicken and a hint of liver; roast kid; and baccala, the traditional dried and rehydrated cod, that was so tender it might have been freshly caught.
After a selection of the region’s legendary pecorinos, paired with honey and marmalades of quince and raspberry, the table was suddenly blanketed with bite-size desserts -- tiny tiramisus, spoon-size raspberry panna cottas, white-chocolate truffles, strawberry marshmallows. We ate them all.
Tracks ought to be carved into the sidewalk outside.
Information: La Querceta Country House, Via Villa Marnacchia 2, Amandola 63021; tel. +39-349-846-5231; http://www.laquercetadimarnacchia.it.
Hotel Paradiso, Piazza Umberto I-7, Amandola 63021; tel. +39-073-684-7468; http://www.sibillinihotels.it.
Ristorante Bella Napoli, Piazza Fratini 1, Amandola 63021; tel. +39-073-684-7619.
Ristorante Il Melograno, Via Gherardini 9, Sant’Elpidio a Mare 63019; tel. +39-073-485-8088; http://www.ristoranteilmelograno.it.
Museo della Calzatura and Pinacoteca Civica Vittore Crivelli, Corso Baccio 31, Sant’Elpidio a Mare 63019; tel. +39-073-485-9279 or +39-073-481-0008; http://www.santelpidioamare.it/turismo.
Prada, Tod’s and Roberto Botticelli Outlets, Strada Provinciale Brancadoro, Casette D’Ete, Sant’Elpidio a Mare 63019; tel. +39-073-487-1671 (Tod’s), tel. +39-073-487-2177 (Botticelli, across the street).
Da Roverino, Via Ascoli 10, Comunanza 63044; tel. +39-073-684-4242.
Caffe Meletti, Piazza del Popolo 20, Ascoli Piceno 63100; tel. +39-073-625-9626; http://www.caffestoricomeletti.it.
Ristorante Andreina, Via Buffolareccia 14, Loreto 60025; tel. +39-071-970-124; http://www.ristoranteandreina.it.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)