Virtually untravelled by Toscana-happy Americans, Le Marche is an excellent culinary example of cross pollination. The inherent richness of northern neighboring Emilia Romagna is made evident through rich pasta dishes like Vincigrassi, a kind of lasagne made with chicken liver ragù and black truffles; and another dish called Passatelli, bread crumb, egg and cheese dowels served in rich chicken broth with lots of grated cheese on top. The relatively spare cucina of western neighboring Umbria is more obvious in dishes like Potacchio, a spicy stew of rabbit or lamb (or even monkfish), or the simple charcoal-grilled meats that appear on every trattoria menu. The more south central bent is also evident in products like the simple soft salami made in Fabriano, the excellent dried pasta made by the Latini family in Osimo, or the farro produced by Fattoria di Montesecco.
As in all of the Italian penninsula, the more local you eat, the more art you can find. Here in le Marche, the cuisine is quite different in the micro regional sense, particularly between the more experimental and modern touches apparent in the coastal cuisine versus the neoclassical cooking of the interior Apennines. My faves start on the southern coast, where several towns house nearly all of the great restaurants, the first of which is San Benedetto del Tronto. One of the most enticing things along the entire Costa Marchigiana is the offering of what is one of my favorite meal starters, raw or marinated seafood. The raw bounty of the Adriatic is well represented on many menus, particularly at Messer Chichibio (via Tiepolo 5 …tel 0735584001). Do not let the decor keep you away; the food is really good here. I love the marinated tuna with wild fennel, the great pastas, and the fact that the secondi, whether grilled or sautéed, often come with contorni and the odd vinaigrette. On the Piazza Nardone, number 8, is Ristorante Roma, a classic since 1948, where, apart from the sushi rice on one appetizer, I loved nearly everything. In particular, I loved the maccheroncini with cuttlefish and the mind bending eggplant involtino with monkfish and basil. They also served me a wacky dessert wine called visciolato, a kind of a cherry infusion that paired beautifully with a prickly pear sorbetto.
Up the coast a touch is the town of Grottamare where Lacche (via Procida, 1 tel…0735582728), is right on the lungomare and serves simple classic seafood at fair prices. Up the hill, a bit off of the tourist path, is Osteria dell’Arancio (piazza Peretti tel…0735631059), where they offer a killer prix-fixe menu for about 35 euro that may begin with a combo of local salumi, alici marinati, and some great takes on vegetables; followed by simple pasta and a choice of the main course of the day, which can include fish, guinea hen, or goose or other game. The meal finishes with delicious desserts.
Up past the not-so-pretty port town of Ancona is another treasure of a town, Senigallia. The guidebooks rave about La Madonnina del Pescatore, but I did not enjoy my experience there. I loved Al Cuoco di Bordo (Dante Aligheri 94 tel… 0717929661), where the verbal menu changes daily and always includes some interesting crudo and spectacular pastas.
Further north is truffle country, particularly white truffle country, as well as the zona di produzione di prosciutto carpegna and the cooking matches the ingredients. A place I did not want to like but could not resist is called Symposium Quattro Stagioni, in Serrungarina (tel…. 0721898320). Pricey and tiny at 36 seats, you definitely need to call in advance and bring plenty of money. The 5 menus are at least 110 euros each plus wine, and you will want wine. There are the oddities like foie gras, but the vast basis of the menus is local with a capital L. I still dream of a meal that started with a simple lentil soup with breast of thrush and truffles, followed by a dish of potato pappardelle with game bird ragù and lemon thyme, continued on with wild boar with an ethereal potato and celery puree, then a taste of some pecorino that had been buried a couple of months in a divine ditch, and finished with a cool zabaglione on a piece of bitter chocolate. After a meal here, spend a couple of days on the prosciutto carpegna diet at an osteria called L’Angolo Divino (via Sant’Andrea 12 tel…0722327559) in Urbino and your wallet may heal.