Destination Europe

Tourists flock to farms in Italy

Stay shows off food, culture and people

September 17, 2006|By Carol Pucci | Carol Pucci,THE SEATTLE TIMES

When my husband and I decided to take four family members from Ohio on their first trip to Italy, we wanted them to experience more than just the tourist sites in Venice, Florence and Rome.

We hoped to share with them what we've always considered to be Italy's greatest treasures -- its culture, people and food. For this, we headed to southern Italy, where 80 percent of Italian-Americans have their roots -- including our family.

Our relatives not only survived Naples, a city some consider to be one of the country's roughest, they loved it, mostly because they loved our hotel, the Pinto-Storey, a 16-room hotel in an 1878 building overlooking a square near the historic center.

Would we be as lucky for the next three nights at the agriturismo I booked in Molise, a rural region so small and unknown that most guidebooks leave it out?

La Sorgente was about four miles from Macchiagodena, a village between the cities of Isernia and Campobasso. The location was perfect. It was a few miles from the towns where my husband's grandparents were born.

Everyone in our group was happy about the price -- $120 per couple including dinner and breakfast -- but booking anything sight unseen over the Internet is always a risk. And in Italy, an agriturismo, the Italian equivalent of a farmhouse inn, can be anything from a working farm or fancy villa with a pool to a few motel rooms added onto someone's house.

My reputation as our group travel planner was on the line.

We followed a sign down a dirt road to the bottom of a hill and spotted a stone farmhouse with a little wooden bridge, a water wheel and sheep grazing in the meadow -- just as advertised.

Luciana Ruscitto, who runs La Sorgente with her brother Carlo, greeted us and showed us to the rooms they remodeled a few years ago in her grandparents' 200-year-old farmhouse. Everything inside was new, including the bathrooms with wooden shutters that opened to mountain views.

Long popular with Italians looking for a weekend escape from the city, agriturismo inns such as La Sorgente cater to a desire among more foreign travelers to connect with local residents and find alternatives to impersonal hotels.

"Price-wise, they're great values," said Karen Brown, publisher and author of Karen Brown's Guides. Her 2006 Italy B&B Guidebook lists 260 inns, from simple farmhouses to country villas.

Brown published her first guidebook in 1992 with 129 listings, after the Italian government began offering tax incentives to owners who opened their homes to tourists.

Now there are so many, "we find that it's important to stay selective," she said. Some, she warned, are run more as businesses, and are losing their personal touch. "You really want to stay somewhere where they really want guests, not just with someone who hands you a key and you never see [them] again."

One of the best parts about staying in an agriturismo is the food. Dinners are usually four-course affairs with wines, meats, cheeses and other specialties produced on the farm. Italian breakfasts, on the other hand, are sparse, and it's rare to be offered more than some toast, a little jam and coffee.

At La Sorgente, Carlo and Luciana's mother and sister were cooking the night we arrived. Luciana set out ceramic pitchers of wine and plate after plate of homemade antipasti, including three types of cured meats and freshly made ricotta cheese.

After that came a choice of pasta, either penne with local truffles, or gnocchi in tomato sauce, then baked chicken and a mixed grill of pork, sausage and lamb, all from animals raised on the farm.

"We've got to figure out a way to eat here again," someone in our group said. And we did. Despite an invitation to dine from our Italian relatives, we managed to squeeze in another dinner at La Sorgente.

Organic experience

Anyone who's trolled through the "Italian Agriturismo" listings posted by travelers on guidebook author Rick Steves' Graffiti Wall has probably noticed the buzz about a place called Italy Farm Stay, an organic family farm on the edge of Abruzzo National Park, between Rome and Naples.

Most of the talk revolves around energetic Antonello Siragusa, 28. After earning a degree in English and Spanish literature, and working as a waiter in San Francisco's Castro district, he returned home to central-southern Italy wondering what he could do to make a living there.

That led to his idea to convert his family's farm into a different kind of agriturismo -- not a resort or an inn that emphasizes gourmet meals, but a working farm where travelers can take a break from the cities and spend a few days hiking, learning to make pasta and getting a taste of rural life.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.