Luisa Donati continues as our (fearless!) driver and host. She takes the three-hour twist-and-turn route from Villa Pipistrelli——through rolling hills, fertile valleys and budding vineyards to Mercatello sul Matauro and Palazzo Donati, the 17thC family “home” in a tiny village nestled between Tuscany and Emiglia-Romana in the Le Marche region.
She pulls the van up to the palace, alights, swings the Palazzo’s hefty bolted door wide and lets our gang loose.
Despite website photos and what’s been described to me, I am utterly unprepared for the handsome, genteel interior that lies behind Palazzo Donati’s stern façade. The broad stone staircase heads up and down and off in all directions. The high-ceilinged dining/reception lounge is framed with heavy frescoes. Eight spacious bedrooms are kitted out with modern ensuites. And there are two kitchens; one boasting an enormous wood-fueled hearth large enough to spit roast a small beast (which it no doubt does) and another with a more conventional layout where a snoop-about reveals nests of fresh-made noodles arranged neatly on a baking sheet. Copper cooking vessels (very old I suspect) are displayed on the wall outside the kitchen entry. There’s also the walled garden perfect for a quiet read and enough nooks and crannies in this grand house for a good game of hide and seek.
Each of us claims a bedroom. I opt for a twin-bedded room offering a bird’s eye view of the church campanile in the town square. Palazzo Donati is well suited to culture vultures who love Renaissance history, fine galleries and museums. (The famous Italian painter, Raphael, was born in the nearby town of Urbino). But, as usual, my mission is nose out the food and wine. Good thing it’s time for lunch.
The pasta nests I spied earlier are lifted, detangled, from a boiling water bath, swirled gently into bowls and laced with a delicate tomato sauce. (Italians tend to avoid heavily sauced noodles.) Accompanied by a simple salad of red and green tender lettuces napped with Montestigliano olive oil, wedges of local Pecorino cheese, (made locally from ewe’s milk), and Rosso Piceno, a little gem of a red wine made from local sangiovese and montepulciano grapes, this modest repast hits all the right gustatory notes.
Lina the Pasta Queen
After lunch we meet Lina, the town’s and palace’s pasta queen and the lady behind those fabulously feathery noodles. Capped and aproned, Lina show us the ropes, or should I say noodles; how to make “real” pasta. No short cuts. No machine.
She fashions and flattens a ball of dough from regular, not the usual hard semolina (Durham) flour used for pasta, then rolls and rolls and rolls it with a wooden rolling pin as long as your arm, until the orb becomes an enormous silky sheet. She then slices it into wide-ish ribbons which are let dry for an hour or so before twirling them into nests.
After our lesson, we all vow to buy one of those pasta rolling pins. Unfortunately, they do not include Lina’s talent.
Fancying a late afternoon stroll, I venture beyond the walled town. The April air is fresh and sweet and the Metauro river slices through rock and rushes-past tile roofed houses and terraced gardens. Hoe in hand an elderly chap readies his modest plot for planting. I wonder what–tomatoes, squash, beans? A woman sweeps her driveway with considerable fervor and an enormous whiskbroom. She catches me with my camera and puts the broom to use to shoo me off. I retreat pronto lest I receive the business end of that brush.
Life on the Farm
That evening supper is at Castello della Piave La Torre, an agrotourismo (farm stay accommodation) on a steep hillside above Mercatello. As darkness descends, lamplight leads our merry band down a narrow cobble path to this warm and welcoming restaurant.
Dishes here are rustic and robust. Hosts, Bernardo and Lucia, start us off with a platter of radicchio, pecorino cheese, prosciutto and crisped flatbread; roasted chickpeas tossed in a meaty ragu follows. We are in the heart of truffle (funghi not chocolate) country, but it will be another six months until those precious and pungent funghi can be shaved over pasta. That doesn’t stop Lucia from instead, piling a medley of sautéed local spring mushrooms atop wedges of creamy polenta. Guerrieri Bianchello del Matauro, a crisp aromatic white, and Guerrieri Colli Pesaresi, a Sangiovese-based red are local wines, both new to me. Well-made yet easy-going, they are the perfect quaff for such a cozy, memorable meal.
Pieve del Colle, our lunch stop the next day, is an organic farm in the Urbania hills. Senora Isabella and her family mill their own flour for pasta and wood-fired breads (among the best I’ve had—particularly the flatbread). They grow and dry the area’s ubiquitous chickpeas, cure their own pork for salumi, and make their own pickles, preserves and wine–all of which we leisurely enjoy on a misty-mid day. (Cheese and olive oil are sourced from a neighboring organic farm.)
Local Linens and Pottery
Should table settings and ceramics factor into one’s food fetishes then hand- stamped linens from Antica Stamperia in the nearby village of Carpegna and Ceramica Casteldurante in Urbana fit the bill. I buy a patterned block-print table “runner.” (No fear–when laundered the pattern does not run.)
Then I slip away to nose out the local salumeria. I leave with rosy-pink, paper- thin slices of prosciutto and dried salami for my picnic on the train next evening.
Ceramica Casteldurante specializes in Majolica pottery, a craft that hearkens back to the Renaissance. We toddle to this outstanding ceramics shop after lunch, but I back slowly out from the crowded shop without purchase in case my chunky pack encounters a 300 € intricately painted vase.
Back “home” at Palazzo Donati, a snooze is in order before I join the downstairs kitchen party. This is our final repast prepared by the Accademia de Padlot, a sort of guys’ social club. This band of jovial fellows cook, laugh, cook, drink, cook, serve–and sing—in rousing harmony I might add— for guests and on special holidays.
The cooks have spent all afternoon at hearth and stove, shelling beans, grilling radicchio, making bruschetta, concocting sugo cingale (meat sauce made from pork cheeks) to ladle over pasta, slow-simmering a stew of animal innards, and baking crostata, a marvelous jam tart with a lattice-work biscuit crust. Accompanying wines are vino rose, vino verdiccihio (the white wine of Le Marche), vino rosso, vino rosso and more vino rosso–finishing off with vin santo, a not-too-sweet elixir made from dried grapes.
I skip out on the fireworks display, which from all accounts the next morning was most impressive, in favor of sleep. I hear neither bang, boom nor the bell that tolls every 15 minutes, outside my window from the church’s campanile.
Before our little troupe heads off in separate directions the next morning, we head to Caffe Rinaldi, the mid-town espresso bar. Owner Franchino has set us up each morning with steaming cappuccinos and flaky pastries. Today and he’s ready much-needed double-shot espressos before we hit the road.
Two couples are off to points south. Some folks are heading home. One traveler is going to Greece.
I’m off to catch a mid-night express to France via Florence to Milan with salumi, bread, cheese and wine in hand. – Story and photos by Julie Pegg, RFT Senior Wine & Spirits Editor
IF YOU GO
Information about the Marche region. en.visit.marche.it
Palazzo Donati www.lemarcheholidayvilla.com
Ceramica Casteldurante www.ceramicacasteldurante.com
Pieve del Colle www.pievedelcolle.com/en/
Castello della Piave La Torre www.castellodellapieve.it
If you didn’t read Part I of Julie’s Italy adventure, read it here.