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The most beautiful borghi of central Italy

Where to eat in central Italy's most beautiful borghi

by Great Italian Chefs 25 August 2017

We talk to some of Italy’s most celebrated Michelin-starred chefs about their favourite borghi, the charming historic villages found throughout the centre of the country, and where to eat whilst visiting them.

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Whether you’re amongst the hustle and bustle of Rome or out in the rural countryside soaking up the sun, one thing’s for sure – Italy is a beautiful place to be. Grand architecture steeped in history, sweeping vineyards as far as the eye can see and azure blue coastlines create the perfect setting for indulging in the country’s world-famous food and drink. But while you’ll find picture-perfect scenes in all corners of Italy, stopping off at one of the many borghi found throughout the country guarantees fantastic food, rich culture and beautiful views all in one.

But what are borghi? Essentially, they are hamlets or villages from the Medieval or Renaissance eras that are known for their charm. They tend to be built around old castles, palaces or noble houses, and often have walls surrounding them. A borgo (the singular term) represents everything great about Italian culture – beauty, history and heritage. More often than not, they’re also where you’ll find some of the best examples of regional, traditional Italian cuisine, making many of them a must-visit for intrepid foodies. That’s why we asked four of the country’s most celebrated Michelin-starred chefs for their tips on the best borghi across Abruzzo, Marche, Umbria and Lazio. Read on to find out where and what to eat in some of Italy’s most beautiful villages.

Scanno, Abruzzo

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Scanno sits in the middle of an old nature reserve, home to deer, wolves and even bears
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The borgo lies next to Lake Scanno, famous for its heart-shaped appearance

This medieval town can be dated right back to the Bronze Age, and is built around a lake by the same name. Buildings sit on terraces and narrow alleys wind around the various shops, houses and restaurants. It's famous for its historic connections to Asia, as well as the traditional gold and lacemaking industries based here. The food of Scanno is centred around the classic dishes of Abruzzo, so expect plenty of lamb, lots of skewers and cured meats, washed down with lots of Montepulciano wine. Caterina Ceraudo – the head chef of Dattilo in Calabria – has fond memories of the borgo, which she often visited when working in the area.

‘My favourite place in Abruzzo is the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Reale, where my great teacher Niko Romito is chef. When I was studying and working there I often visited Scanno, a borgo located 2,250 metres high in the National Park of Abruzzo. It’s in the centre of the second oldest nature reserve in Italy, where bears, deer and wolves roam free. Lake Scanno and the town are surrounded by wilderness and rugged, wild mountains.

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Maccheroni alla chitarra is a local pasta similar to spaghetti, but square instead of round
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The winding streets are home to rustic, authentic restaurants serving the best Abruzzan cuisine

‘In the borgo you can find homemade meats and cheeses – the fresh ricotta is particularly good. Dishes to look out for include sagne e fagioli (fresh pasta and borlotti beans), maccheroni alla chitarra (a type of pasta similar to spaghetti but square) and cazzellitti con le foglie (semolina dumplings with local leaves and vegetables). The local desserts are my favourite – mostaccioli (small truffle-like sweets flavoured with chocolate, Montepulciano wine, coffee and citrus), amaretti biscuits and pan dell’orso (a sort of chocolate-covered cake) are the highlights. My favourite dish, however, has to be Carciofo e Rosmarino (artichokes in rosemary) from Niko Romito in Castel di Sangro. I have wonderful memories of eating it.’

Ostia Antica, Lazio

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Ostia Antica is built around Castello di Giulio II, a fifteenth century fortress
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The borgo's proximity to Rome makes it a popular spot for tourists

Ostia Antica is known for being the harbour city of Ancient Rome, and there is a huge archaeological dig based there that’s bigger (and for many, much more important) than Pompeii. But the nearby medieval hamlet of the same name is worth a visit, too. Home to Castello di Giulio II (or Rocca di Ostia), a beautiful fifteenth century fortress, the entire borgo was restored in the twentieth century and is now a hotspot for tourists after a spot of history and something delicious to eat. Being based by the sea means fish is the speciality of this area (particularly sea bass and grouper), served with either pasta or polenta, although influences from Emilia-Romagna mean filled pastas are also popular.

Ostia Antica can be reached by train from Rome – which is just 30km away – and has a very unique local cuisine. Daniele Usai, head chef of the Michelin-starred Il Tino in Rome, visits whenever he can, whether it’s for the sightseeing or just a bowl of cappelletti in brodo.

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Michelin-starred chef Daniele Usai visits Ostia Antica often
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The most popular dish is cappelletti in brodo – a stuffed pasta soup usually associated with Emilia-Romagna

‘My favourite borgo is Ostia Antica, home to the Castello di Giulio II. My father was born there and it is an amazing place. It’s very close to my restaurant Il Tino and the big Roman archaeological area of the same name, which is bigger than Pompeii. The local cuisine is heavily influenced by the Ravennate, who came from Emilia-Romagna at the end of the nineteenth century to help drain the swamps in the area. That’s why the most popular dish is cappelletti in brodo.

Bargni di Serrungarina, Marche

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Serrungarina is a beautiful little village in the countryside of Marche
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Nearby lies Bargni di Serrungarina, a tiny hamlet that's home to Antica Osteria Da Gustin

Serrungarina is a remote little village in the countryside of Marche with under 3,000 inhabitants, surrounded by rolling hills, vineyards and ancient brick buildings, famous for its Angelica pears, which simply must be tasted if you're in the area at the end of August. But that’s nothing compared to Bargni di Serrungarina, a few kilometres west. This is a tiny, tiny hamlet with a population of twelve that’s the perfect example of Italian countryside living. The main attraction? A small bed and breakfast called Antica Osteria Da Gustin, which also serves and sells traditional Marche produce – bread, truffles, mushrooms and jams made from local fruit are the highlights. It’s where Mauro Uliassi, a two-Michelin-starred chef in Ancona, always stops off for a bite to eat.

‘My favourite place in the area is Da Gustin, a shop and restaurant run by Virginio Bandelli and his wife Catia. It’s based in Virginio’s grandfather’s workshop, which was the first in the neighbourhood. With typical Marche hospitality, they serve strictly local cuisine and sell local produce. Surrounded by countryside, it’s a place where you can discover the food in a relaxed atmosphere and everything is served with a mix of tradition and creativity. It’s also a bed and breakfast, with three bedrooms upstairs if you need somewhere to stay.

‘Try the homemade cured meats and cheeses, accompanied by jams, chutneys, bread and breadsticks made in-house. Everything on offer can be bought to take home or enjoyed in the restaurant, where you’ll also find lots of handmade pasta: tortellini stuffed with cream, pecorino and porcini mushrooms being one of my favourites. For dessert, there are ice creams flavoured with inventive ingredients including tobacco, along with tarts and seasonal fruit. The one dish you cannot miss is the spelt farfalle with creamy beans.’

Piobbico, Marche

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Piobbico is slightly larger than the average borgo, but its stunning beauty makes it a popular spot
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The thirteenth century castle was home to the Brancaleoni family, who ruled over the area for 500 years

As well as Bargni di Serrungarina Mauro loves to visit Piobbico, 80km west of Ancona. The jewel in its crown is the castle, which was built in the thirteenth century and is surrounded by borghetto, small medieval houses built into the surrounding hillsides and mountains. History fans are in for a real treat – Piobbico was home to the Brancaleoni family, who ruled the area for five centuries, and there are ruins and baroque churches to explore. It’s also home to the Brutti (ugly)club, which has over 30,000 members and has existed since 1879. Every September they hold a festival in the town dedicated to everything ugly.

When it comes to food, Marche’s most famous produce takes centre stage. Mushrooms and black truffles adorn all sorts of dishes, and homemade pasta, grilled rabbit, fried breads and cured meats make up the majority of menu options when eating out. Keep an eye out for the local digestif, too – pruspino, a liqueur made from sloes. If you’re looking for a good restaurant in the area, Mauro recommends Il Burchio.

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The restaurants in Piobbico celebrate Marche produce – which means there are plenty of truffles and mushrooms on the menu
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The iconic buildings add to the charm, and have been kept in fantastic condition over the years

‘Nestled in one of the narrow streets in the charming old town of Piobbico, between the shingles and historic palaces, you’ll find the small family-run restaurant Il Burchio. Exposed beams, stone walls, terracotta flooring and a warm-hearted environment will welcome you – it’s a cozy retreat where you can taste the very best of Montefeltro cuisine. It’s run by Andrea and Marcello Paiardini, who source the famous truffles, mushrooms and other local produce themselves, all found and harvested in the woods around the borgo. Dishes include pasta with truffles, dumplings with duck sauce, pork fillet with pumpkin cream or grilled meats. The whole experience is made all the more delicious by the fantastic wine selection, all of which are made in Marche. Their black truffle carbonara is not to be missed.’

Castiglione del Lago, Umbria

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Castiglione del Lago is built around a huge fortress, with walls surrounding the entire village
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The borgo stretches out into Lake Trasimeno, which is home to pike, carp and plenty of other freshwater fish that feature prominently in the local cuisine

On the beautiful shores of Umbria’s Lake Trasimeno lies Castiglione del Lago, home to the Fortress of the Lion, built by Emperor Frederick II in the thirteenth century. The entire borgo is built around this, surrounded by walls and fortifications. The whole village juts out onto the water (it was originally built on an island) and is home to around fifty restaurants, the majority of which specialise in freshwater fish from the lake. Tegamaccio is probably the most iconic dishes of the area, which sees all of Lake Trasimeno combined together in a beautifully fragrant broth. Francesco Bracali, the head chef of two-Michelin-starred Tuscan restaurant Bracali, has fond memories of spending his childhood there.

‘Castiglione del Lago reminds me of my childhood when I used to visit with my family. We loved the lake and the events hosted during the summer, as well as the cosy restaurants in the winter. I also spent a lot of time there when I was working with Gianfranco Vissani, a local chef with two Michelin stars.

‘Freshwater fish is a must-try here, and typical of the local cuisine. In particular, visitors should try the Regina Porchetta, a large carp baked with fennel, garlic, pepper and salt, served with excellent red wine from the hills of Trasimeno. Castiglione del Lago is also famous for its beans, legumes and lentils, which are used in soups and stews during winter.

‘My favourite restaurants include Enoteca Battilani, which is more of a wine bar with food but it does both very well. I don’t like to sit down for too long when I’m at the lake, so this place is great for easy-going classic Umbrian cuisine. For something a little more rustic I’d recommend L’Acquario, where you can enjoy local pike and game from the nearby hills. The chefs work closely with the farmers in the area and it’s one of the oldest restaurants in the borgo.’

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