There’s not a whole lot to do in little towns in Le Marche, like the one where we live, Penna San Giovanni. Especially if you don’t have a job, which we, as expats, do not.
If it’s summertime, there are a lot more options. I can happily spend days at the beach and never be bored. My family is not quite so enthusiastic. But on the days we do go, we rarely get out of the house before 11 or 12:00. You have to water the plants first, poke around the garden, empty the dishwasher, eat breakfast, read a little, call up the beach concession where we generally go and reserve the lettini and ombrellone, plus a table for lunch. They know us as “Brooklyn”– like the Italian chewing gum. It’s always interesting to see how they spell it in the ledger book.
My husband Jesse will usually ride his bike to the beach– about a 40 kilometer ride, leaving my daughter Sophie and me to drive in the car. It takes about 45 minutes– enough time for both sides of a Beatles or Beach Boys album– along the commercial road where we discover new stores to buy things for the house. I love the ride to the beach. Except for the time we almost got killed by a crazy Italian driver, but that’s another story.
We park the car in the town of Porto San Giorgio. We trudge to the beach, claim our lettini, slather on sunscreen and go for a swim. Dry off, read, take a short walk and Jesse will arrive about an hour later. Lunch at Quadrifoglio is always eagerly anticipated. They have the best spaghetti vongole, bar none, I would venture to guess, along the entire Adriatic. Just the right balance of brothy, buttery, garlicky sauce, loads of tiny vongole clams, al dente pasta and marjoram– who knew? I thought it was parsley. Whoever’s mama is back in the kitchen is a genius. That spaghetti is to die for. Sometimes when I’ve reached my pizza/pasta saturation point, I go for the insalatona— a giant salad with tuna, fresh mozzarella, mushrooms, arugula, olives, tomatoes and… canned corn. Why? I don’t know, but it tastes amazing with lots of oil and balsamic. For dessert, there’s cafe del nonno— a sort of drinkable coffee sorbet served in a champagne flute with a straw. Is your mouth watering yet? It is nature’s perfect lunch with a little white wine, after which a nap is the only logical choice, followed by another swim, a walk on the beach, the daily blasting of radio advertising at 5:30, the sun begins to set and we ride back to the mountains, all sticky and salty, relishing the cooler air as we make the ascent back to our town. The whole experience is my idea of heaven…
However, in the fall and spring months, the beach is obviously not an option. Without swimming for exercise, I try to walk into the center of our town every day. It takes just under 30 minutes and if you take the shortcut, it’s steeper and you get a pretty good workout– at least enough to justify pasta almost every night and a cornetto and cappuccino as the fruits of your labors. On Sundays, we always walk to town and meet up with our friend Alberto at Bar Centrale on the main piazza adjacent to the church. Alberto steers clear of church, but is always at the bar to hang out with the guys he’s known since infancy. He is hilarious, a great and curious storyteller, and is careful to slow down his speech when he’s trying to talk to us, while warning us that half of what he says is true and the other half… hard to say. He leaves the bar promptly at 1:00 for the big Sunday meal. We may wander down to the bakery and the grocery store to pick up a few things for our own lunch before a leisurely stroll back down the hill to get home. Sunday afternoons are always quiet– a good time to sit under a tree and read.
Every other Monday, and every Monday in July and August, there’s a market in the town of Servigliano. I love the markets. Even though each town has pretty much the same stuff and the same vendors, I never get tired of it. We almost always visit the market in Sarnano on Thursdays. The ritual consists of a cornetto and cappuccino at the bar of the Hotel Terme; and then stops at the bakery that sells the most delicious pane Arabo; my favorite fruttivendolo (the zucchini flowers are from his own garden, picked that morning!); the tiny grocery that always has excellent cookies, spices and embroidered sachet bags that make for charming and portable gifts; and a recent discovery– a fresh pasta store, fatta in casa with superb tagliatelle and other cuts of pasta. You choose the shape you want, tell the owner how much, and they go in the back and crank it through the machine.
It is also obligatory to browse the endless tables of 2-3 euro clothing where I’ve found brand-name sweaters, skirts, loads of gardening clothes, the occasional embroidered napkin set, and of course doilies– the country’s awash with them. Then we head down to the lower part of town where all the food vendors are set up. It’s all there– any vegetable or fruit you may have forgotten above, fried fish and salted cod if you’re into that kind of thing, but I make a beeline for the porchetta. This roasted hog is about a meter long and a foot in diameter, rolled with fennel, garlic and spices, sliced thin with that crunchy, crusty skin on the outside. You order in euro’s– about five euro’s worth will feed 3-5 for lunch. We pile everything in the car and return home with just enough time to start a gardening project before I make lunch. Thursdays are a good night to stay home for dinner and have company. With so many treasures from the market, dinner is a cinch.
On Tuesday mornings, we go to Gualdo. It’s a sweet little manicured town just 10 minutes’ drive from us. It’s where we bank, there’s a bar with four generations of ladies running it (now, unfortunately down to three), there’s a small market on Tuesdays, the forno has a decent integrale, and the fruit truck is there so we can pick up supplies for the day. If we have guests, there are two things to do on the way home: One, is to stop at Maria Burocchi’s to buy a pecorino. Maria is some sort of middle person in the production process of making pecorino, or sheep’s cheese. She has a room full of them on long tables, and she knows each one intimately. I’ll ask for one that’s dolce and morbido. She heads right to it, plucks out a tiny sample for me to taste, and then plugs it up again. I don’t think she usually sells retail, but she’s nice enough to open her gate for us, let us pet her enthusiastic dog, Billy, and be on our way with an unequalled cheese that will last us three weeks.
The second thing to do with guests on the way back from Gualdo, is to take a walk on the country road past Villa Pilotti. Villa Pilotti is a tiny borgo, or cluster of houses, technically part of Penna San Giovanni. Its perfect, miniature Baroque church was damaged beyond repair during last year’s earthquakes, a terrible tragedy and loss of patrimony for this tight-knit community. If you continue on the road past the church, you will be on a lovely, gently undulating country walk with stunning views of Penna and the surrounding landscape, some beautifully restored homes, the occasional friendly resident, or friendly dog. It’s quiet, scenic and peaceful.
There are several other nice towns to visit. Monte San Martino is on the “beautiful” side of the valley and the 10-minute ride to get there is a stunner. The town is picture-perfect with a lovely sunken piazza and a church with two paintings by the relatively famous Crivelli brothers. Worth a visit if you can find the guy with the key to the church that houses the Crivelli’s. Once, we encountered the Alpini– a club of sorts, made up of former Alpine border guards who wear jaunty caps with pheasant feathers and carry rifles. They were all too pleased to tell us their stories and the history of the Alpini. There’s also a restaurant, which some people swear by, but we’ve never found particularly intriguing.
Santa Vittoria in Matenana is a lovely, tiny town, with one straight, cobble- stoned, cafe-lined street. A friend of ours once had an exhibition of his sculpture in one of the renovated spaces there. Gave us a good reason to go and experience yet another picturesque, medieval town.
One of the best day trips for the tourists (i.e. house guests) begins with a ride past the town of Servigliano. Just on the outskirts, we like to stop at the Oleificio Miconi, where our neighbors (and us when we have enough) go to have our olives pressed into luscious oil. Last year (2016) there were no olives in most of Marche, due to overly wet, cold weather conditions that bred destructive worms that ruined the crop. So Sr. Miconi is a tad bored and dying for customers. The few times we’ve stopped by, the press (or frantoio) and its tiny shop are closed. But hang around the parking lot for a few minutes and Sr. Miconi will happily come downstairs from his house next-door, open up and give you a tour. He’s got oil for sale, plus vinegar, lentils, honey and local wine. He loves what he does, and the more interested the tourist, the more animated the conversation. We last went there in April with two of my friends, who both happened to have purple/pink hair at the time. Miconi was enthralled and almost followed us home.
Next stop: Amandola, a beautiful town with some arcaded rows of buildings on the square and a bar worthy of the best of Bologna and Florence. Even on fall days it’s usually warm enough to sit outside on the sunny terrace for a coffee and croissant. Across the square, there’s a bakery that makes an unparalleled Pugliese and mini-sfogliatelle filled with Nutella. They are nothing short of divine.
On several occasions, we’ve then driven further up into the mountains, taken a few wrong turns and come to the Angolo di Paradiso, an azienda agricola that makes cheese and other dairy products. There’s a long barn and you can sneak a peek at the big-eyed lazy cows munching on hay. These must be very happy cows, because their cheeses and yogurt are sweet, rich and flavorful. We’ve twice arrived when no one was around to open the shop. But, again, if you hang around for a few minutes, someone is bound to come by and sell you whatever hasn’t been delivered to surrounding restaurants and stores. It’s worth the wait and the trip– this is food that is made with loving care, respect for animals and the environment, and a true commitment to living off the land in the best possible way. You can taste that authenticity in every spoonful of their award-winning yogurt, and every bite of their fabulous cheeses.
Well, dear guests, we’ve about run out of things to do. So, the remainder of your stay will have to focus on reading under a tree or by the stufa; seeing an American movie dubbed into Italian at the cineplex in Monte Urano; lighting a fire in the camino; making dinner reservations at a favorite restaurant or cooking something together; watching a movie projected onto the wall of the den, or in summer, the side of the house; visiting the outlets (where I got my Prada bag); or meeting our fabulous neighbors. One way or the other, you’ve gotten a taste of Italy NOT as a tourist. Bet you’ll be back!