One night at dinner at Agriturismo Ramusè, I watched with pleasure Paolo Ciccioli spend 30 whole seconds shaving a black truffle on my pasta. (I’m not exaggerating, I have the iPhone video to prove it.) It was just the primo piatto, halfway to a dinner in which all three courses included a sumptuous amount of truffles, during a stay in which every dinner and even breakfast included the same.
Truffles are Ciccioli’s point agriturismo (a particularly Italian type of accommodation linked to agriculture and gastronomy), a charming house that once belonged to his grandparents in these hills around Ascoli Piceno in the Marche, in the central eastern part of the Italy. In the early 2000s, he was working as an exporter of black and white truffles from his region for London restaurants and the Borough Market. Jamie Oliver, Giorgio Locatelli, Gordon Ramsay and Raymond Blanc were among his clients.
So is the famous chef (and mentor of Oliver) Gennaro Contaldo, who decided to spend time at the Italian house for an episode of his famous program. Looking at the footage was enough to make Ciccioli homesick, and he returned to the Marche in 2005 and set about restoring the house, a two-year project.
He lavished love and care on it, choosing original local materials, such as terracotta in the floors and local stone in the bathrooms of the six bedrooms. Then he named it Ramusè, a word that derives from baccaiamento (in the local Forcese dialect) which he says means “friend, let’s go, my friend”.
And yes, he greets the guests like friends, and then they leave together. They go truffle hunting almost every afternoon with one of her adorably excited little truffle dogs. They usually show up enough that he can lavish 30 seconds of shaved truffles at each guest’s dinner, every day during the summer truffle season.
I met Ciccioli through his friend Moreno Morelli, owner of the tour operator Italy charm and prides itself on taking guests off the beaten track and to less visited areas of his country, doing so in luxury and style. Le Marche is particularly close to his heart, as he comes from the nearby village of Comunanza, where his family still owns a farm.
“The Marches are a place unknown to Americans,” he said. “It’s a little gem outside the classic tourist route where agriculture, crafts and local life are at the perfect pace.”
I would add nature to this list. The Sibillini Mountains are magnificent and crisscrossed with hiking and cycling trails, including the Grand Anello ring road, which stretches for some 120 kilometers and passes through many picturesque villages. There are also a variety of charming mountains agriturismos, such as The Castellare, where co-owner Nadia Buratti takes guests on guided hikes, and B&B Borgofortino, whose owner, Sergio Corridoni, also produces excellent honey.
I was hiking with Buratti when we passed one of his neighbors as he was parking in the driveway of his country house. He invited everyone to this backyard, where he took out cookies and large jugs of wine (at 11am) and offered us coffee and a full lunch. The cookies were tasty, but the generosity of the welcome was even better.
The flip side of all this rusticity is the magnificent Ascoli Piceno, a city older than Rome. Much of the city that exists today dates from medieval times, which is celebrated every summer with a real jousting festival. The biggest difference in the pretty town is that it now has very few towers that were once part of the homes of wealthy families. Jealous neighbors knocked them over to make their own towers look more impressive.
A more recent landmark is Cafe Meletti, which has stood at a corner of the main square (one of the most beautiful in all of Italy) for over 100 years. The building had been an earlier post office, and 19th century frescoes depicting newspapers and mail remain. Other than that, it was designed in the Liberty style, a decorative reaction to the industrial development of the early 20th century. (Think of beautifully carved cast iron columns.)
Although the food is quite good (it’s listed in the Michelin guide) you go there for that vibe, both inside, outside on the terrace and especially on the roof. It is on par with the great cafes of Paris and Vienna.
And they come for the story – it was an early entrepreneurial project. Original owner Silvio Meletti earned the fortune that allowed him to buy and build it by selling anise liqueur. Another fresco, near the entrance, represents the anise flower.
Hospitality is very different from what you find at agriturismos. It is a project from another time, carried out according to different standards. But Meletti had a lot in common with Ciccoli and Moretti: dreaming big, using what surrounded him to create something beautiful, and welcoming guests from all over the world and introducing them to his little corner of Italy.