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A Town With A View
Le Marche in Italy has a changing landscape of mountains, hills and sea forming a quilt of green, yellow, gold and blue, with many destinations far from the beaten path.
Castel di Croce is not in any guide you can buy. A small gathering of about twenty homes, a medieval tower, a stone church and a small chapel, it sits on a mountain 2500 feet above sea level and overlooks the city of Ascoli. Originally created as a lookout point protecting Ascoli from the neighboring rival of Fermo and other outside enemies, it probably remained a strategic outpost until the unification of Italy, and with good reason. From here you can see over forty miles in every direction, with Monte Conero to the north, Ascoli and Gran Sasso to the South, the Sibillini mountains to the west and the Adriatic to the east. On a really clear day beyond the sea, you can even make out the outline of the coast of Croatia over 126 miles away.
With its year-round population at around thirty, this humble hamlet never developed into a larger community like nearby Force, Castignano or Montedinove. There are no shops or restaurants, not even a single bar. The most excitement in a given week might be the firemen stopping by to close up a wasp nest. But what this borgo lacks in services it makes up for in views that would have made the Romantics swoon and a powerful silence that invites deep sleep and lazy naps.
It was the childhood home of my father-in-law, and my husband’s family still holds onto the four-floor property that spans from a cellar and well at its deepest point to the upper portion of the town with a balcony looking towards Monte Ascensione and the green and blonde sea of rolling countryside and cultivated fields. It was where I got married, and during the pandemic the whole family was thankful to have this place to vacation after lockdowns in Bologna, Rome and Ascoli. We were not the only ones who rediscovered this forgotten corner of Le Marche. Castel di Croce was pretty much abandoned year round until Covid came along. With not many options, considering the travel restrictions in place, magically the former homes of grandfathers and grandmothers were populated in August of 2020 and 2021 with new generations as an inexpensive holiday far from the crowds.
Summer at Castel di Croce tastes like peperonata and pomodori in porchetta, halved tomatoes slowly cooked in a pan with olive oil and rosemary, or tomatoes roasted in the oven with breadcrumbs, garlic and parsley, made by the capable hands of my sister-in-law. The abundance of eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini and peppers that grows in this area turns lunches into a colorful still life.
Although Castel di Croce itself doesn’t have any stores or restaurants, at the neighboring town of Force excellent produce can be found at Grazioli’s fruit and vegetable shop, and the local bakery has heavenly maritozzi for breakfast and a treccia bread made with olive oil that always seems to disappear once we bring it home. To beef up our meals, we might pick up some porchetta, thin slices of juicy roast pork, or ciauscolo, a soft salami that spreads like butter on bread, or head on over to Matilde’s butcher shop in Comunanza and Force to choose from her impressive selection of meats, with everything from local lamb to Wagyu. We normally stock up on local caciotta and mozzarella or hightail it to Le Capre di Capradosso for excellent goat cheese made by a couple with a small herd of goats and a handful of cows that graze in the fields sloping up towards Monte Ascensione. Homemade ciambellone or a peach cobbler offer a sweet start or finish, depending on whether you have them at breakfast or after dinner.
The biggest event at Castel di Croce is the celebration of Beata Assunta Pallotta, a native nun who became a missionary in China and is currently on her way to sainthood. On the first Sunday after August 15 there is a procession around town with a statue of Pallotta and the public water fountain magically pours out red wine, which is served with cantuccini. Otherwise life is pretty quiet, with interruptions of children playing hide and seek or tractors on their way from one field to the next.
Cabin Fever Solutions
The other great advantage of this area of Le Marche is that in forty minutes you can be either at the beach or in the mountains, or you simply can meander from one little town to the next discovering the unique charm of each. From the Appenines and the Sibillini that form the region’s western border with Umbria, a series of river valleys spread out like fingers east towards the Adriatic. The most prominent valley peaks are dolloped with churches, tall bell towers and castles. Follow Val Tesino for Montedinove, Cossignano, Ripatransone and Offida, or Valdaso to get to Montalto delle Marche, Montelparo, Ortezzano and Montefiore dell’Aso.
You can admire Renaissance polyptychs and frescoes by artists like Carlo Crivelli in Montefiore dell’Aso, Massa Fermana and Monte San Martino and Pietro Alemanno in Montefortino, Montefalcone and Lapedona. Or explore the miniature historical theaters of Amandola, Offida and Ripatransone built between the 1700s and 1800s, each with a U-shaped floor plan and pastel painted interiors. Go hiking in the Sibillini Mountains among the striking gorges of the Infernaccio or to Lago di Pilato, a mountain lake named after Pontius Pilate who, according to legend, was executed and buried under this remote body of water.
Day trips go hand in hand with eating out, and the territory offers everything from simple local fare to restaurants with adventurous menus. We have enjoyed the mountain-influenced cuisine at Le Logge in Smerillo with salumi, fried quail eggs and pancetta, pastas served with summer truffles and grilled lamb. For a more innovative menu, you can’t go wrong with I Piceni in Ortezzano, a small town closer to the coast with pretty brick Baroque architecture and stone medieval buildings. Sit outside in the covered terrace with views of the surrounding countryside and dine on Giampiero Giammerini’s inventive creations like risotto with melon, green peppercorn and prosciutto powder; rigatoni with zucchini blossoms, pecorino and guanciale; tartare with grated summer truffles; roasted pork fillet with black sesame seeds and ginger-infused caponata, and a matcha tea tiramisu. Our seafood picks this year were Don Diego in Grottammare, which offers a fixed dinner menu of small dishes elegantly prepared, and Il Faro in Pedaso, which serves superb fish. No summer would be complete without a pizza or two and our two usual stops are Al Tempo Perso and Il Gufo e la Civetta.
Juggling nuance between Italian and English, Tatiana lights up her five-burner kitchen top with nostalgia for American food, Bologna-inspired fare and cross-cultural inventions. She and her husband endlessly debate on cooking with or without a recipe. Their son just hopes that dinner will either be plain or have chocolate in it.