Leaving the glamorous Amalfi Coast south of Naples, we drove across the Apennines to the Adriatic side of Italy. Soon we were in the tiny village of Colmurano in the Marche district. What a shocking change! We were in the middle of nowhere.
Imagine our further surprise when we then encountered two chefs who delivered a culinary experience as good as any, if not better, than those in highly rated restaurants in major cities.
Marche is the least well known region of Italy, mostly frequented by Italians themselves. I had rented a country villa there, and we were a day early. On a Sunday afternoon we checked into the only nearby hotel that I had booked months ahead.
Agritourismo Agra Mater was a rustic converted farmhouse with green hillsides all around dotted by scant farm houses. We soon met the only English speaking employee in the place. Matteo Corradini who, it appeared, was the host, manager and chef. He informally welcomed us and after a cursory check-in, carried our heavy luggage up two flights of stairs to our room. He was also the bell boy.
Exploring Colmurano afterwards, we noticed that it was completely shuttered. A few locals, scattered about in the streets, eyed us as if we were from another planet. We began wondering if we would find any dinner here. We regretted not bringing some food with us from Amalfi.
Returning to Agra Mater, we asked Matteo with some trepidation, if they offered any food. No problem, he told us. He would make us dinner. Would eight p.m. be OK? Relieved, but resigned to accepting whatever he would offer, we accepted.
An hour before dinner we sat out on a terrace and sipped Verdicchio, the local white wine, enjoying the green pastoral views, a friendly cat keeping us company. There was no one else there. Soon Matteo appeared and asked if we wanted anything to go with the wine.
After a bit of hemming and hawing we said yes. In Naples and Amalfi wine was served with potato chips, peanuts and taralli (tiny, round bread sticks). Instead Matteo sent us two plates of bruschetta, one with a spread of butter and anchovies, another avocado puree with garlic cream. The wheat sour-dough bread was fresh, crisp and delicious. We would later learn that it was homemade. A bowl of grilled potatoes followed, tiny chunks cooked to crisp, sprinkled with rosemary.
It was all amazingly delicious and went well with the Verdicchio. We began to wonder about Matteo. Could this unassuming young man in this obscure corner of Italy actually be a decent chef?
The Verdicchio and snacks were soon polished off and it was dinner time. Looking inside we were surprised that the reception area had been converted to a small restaurant. The tables were full with Italian guests. Where did they all come from?
The service was slow, only one waiter – he spoke no English – and Matteo in the kitchen. We were on Italian time and we did not mind.
Matteo had to leave his kitchen to take our order. He chose us a local red wine. We accepted without question. The Polesio Poderi San Lazarro, a Sangiovese from nearby Ascoli Piceno, was right on, light and fruity with food friendly acidity.
Perusing the menu, we were surprised. It looked like those in upscale restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area.
We shared an antipasto of artichoke tart and followed with a pasta dish for each, the pasta also homemade. Julie’s was tagliatelle with asparagus and white meat ragu (pork, chicken and rabbit); mine spaghettoni with grilled onions and bacon and a green pea sauce. Each dish was unique and delicious. The Poderi was a good accompaniment to the food.
At this point, Julie finally put to words what were both thinking. After a week of dining in some very good places in the Amalfi Coast, this was the best dinner of our trip.
The next morning we encountered Lara Mancini, another young chef and owner of Agra Mater. She spoke little English and made us a never ending breakfast of yogurt, croissant (typically Italian, sprinkled with powdered sugar and with fruit preserves inside), a cheese and crostini plate, hot prosciutto and cheese sandwich, omelet and crepe-like pancakes topped with fresh fruit, all accompanied with orange juice, tea and coffee.
All along we had not seen the prices of what we were ordering. After breakfast, when we checked out, we discovered that the appetizers, dinner and wine of the night before were in the vicinity of sixty Euros (around $75), unimaginably low compared with the country houses of our own Wine Country or Sierra Foothills in California.
By now we had come to realize that this modest country house I had discovered by happenstance was a well hidden gem. Communicating with Lara with body language and cursory English we arranged for her and Matteo to make us a catered dinner at Casa Tre Querce, the nearby villa we were headed to.
To be continued.