In Italy’s Maremma, it’s all going swimmingly

On a summer evening at La Pineta, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the area of Tuscany known as the Maremma, Mick Jagger put down his fork, leaned back in his chair and appraised the surf and turf around him.

“A lovely area,” the Rolling Stones frontman exclaimed when I parted with my fish stew to ask him what he thought of the local environs. “Full of history, and fish, and wild boar.”

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And, these days, full of people like Mick Jagger.

Maremma, from the Latin word meaning “of the sea,” is a long stretch of land along the Tyrrhenian coast that starts about a two-hour drive north of Rome. It’s a part of Italy where my wife spent her teenage summers, where friends hoisted us up on chairs at our wedding and where our daughter plucks tomatoes from the garden with her grandparents. But nowadays, it’s also a destination for both wealthy Italians and the internationally fabulous, so that running into rock legends like Jagger is increasingly likely. (“BONO e gli U2 in Maremma” blared an August headline in the local newspaper, Il Tirreno).

More than anything, Maremma owes its present bloom to its longstanding reputation as Maremma l’Amara (Bitter Maremma), the place that Dante dissed as the stomping ground of thieves and wild beasts, the coast that mosquitos cursed with malaria until the 1950s. All that has changed as new hotels and luxury resorts have sprung up over the years. But as a result of its centuries of squalor, Maremma is thankfully less up to speed than the rest of the country’s prime destinations. Its main artery, despite endless talk of a super highway, is a two-lane road along the ancient Via Aurelia that follows the sea, past old Etruscan towns, medieval abbeys and dense woods.

Maremma’s present position off the beaten or well-paved path has protected it from the overexposure of other sun-kissed Italian shores and imbued it with an authenticity equally accessible to those with or without platinum albums on the walls. Its appeal lies in the contrast between Michelin stars and plastic plates, starchitect wineries and family-run cellars, private pools and public beaches. For now, it occupies the fleeting space between the overly opulent and the underdeveloped. It is, in other words, ripe for a visit.

On an otherwise secluded side of the Argentario promontory in Porto Ercole, a port town where the painter Caravaggio died and to which Rome’s radical chic now flock, Roberto Scio, the owner of the luxury hotel Il Pellicano, and his daughter, Marie-Louise, regaled my wife and me with semi-apocryphal stories about Scio’s accidental discovery of the hotel in 1974. Seasickness led to the search for shelter, which led to a meeting with Charlie Chaplin, which led to his encounter with the British couple who owned the small hotel and his decision, years later, to buy the place. All this led, as we sat there, to his pausing to call over a guest he had spotted walking up from a swim.

“Mario!” Scio called out to the acclaimed chef Mario Batali. Scio had just opened up a good bottle of wine and wanted to share it with his guests. Batali, wearing Hawaiian shorts and flip flops (not his trademark Crocs) came down the stairs with Mike Mills, a member of R.E.M., whose bandmates were resting in their rooms (U2 arrived the following day). Batali and Mills then added their own lore to the conversation, recounting their afternoon trip to the nearby island of Giglio, one of the southernmost islands in the Tuscan archipelago, where they tasted the local Ansonica wine. Batali enthusiastically reported that the local winemaker professed that he could never leave Maremma because he was “like a stone.”

Batali said that he, too, prefers to stay put, but in his case, on the terraced grounds of Il Pellicano, with its turquoise water and Michelin-starred restaurant. He only ventures out if a place is nearby and really warrants it. The restaurant Da Maria, he said, qualifies on both counts.

For more than six decades, Da Maria has stood just outside the city walls of Capalbio, a preferred destination of the hipper evacuees from Rome. The town itself is a medieval gem, and while it boasts a Lower East Side-worthy boutique, it’s also a place where, a few years back, an old man with roughly the same number of teeth as eyes sat under an archway twisting twigs into baskets, and where kids still whittle sticks on the street. Da Maria’s veranda looks out on the surrounding hills below, but the view isn’t as good as what arrives on the plate. Arguably the area’s best iteration of Maremma cuisine, Da Maria serves up slices of wild boar prosciutto, homemade pastas with hearty ragus, stuffed pigeons and a panna cotta flavored with saffron that, for the feasters who flock here, is the main attraction.

Further up the Aurelia, along the sandy strip connecting mainland Italy with the rocky Argentario peninsula, is Orbetello, another ancient Etruscan town that today is home to a lively weekend market, busy shops and streets ideal for people-watching. Locals come from miles around to hit I Pescatori, a bare-bones fish spot on the lagoon. Despite the mosquito repellent offered along with the menus, I Pescatori is always packed. The locals consider a bite on their ankle or wrist an acceptable price for fresh bass, gilthead sea bream and the mix of small fried fish.

I Pescatori stays humming throughout the summer, but a lot of restaurants here complain that their regular clientele is thinned out by the sagre, or country fairs, dedicated to local gastronomic specialties. Along the Aurelia, pine trees are pocked with neon orange and green placards advertising the sagra for polenta, acquacotta or other local specialties. Fonteblanda, a two-street town farther up the Aurelia, featured the Sagra of cacciucco, a salty fish soup. The food at a sagra is not the attraction. You come to get a taste of local life. People in these small Maremma towns, which nearly close down in the winter, wait all year for the chance to line dance, put on their best dresses and kick soccer balls around with the kids. A cynic might consider it townie hokum. But if you want a glimpse of authentic Italian life, it’s required viewing.

So, of course, is the beach. While places like Il Pellicano offer the rich and famous monastic seclusion, the ribbon of pine woods between the Argentario and Fonteblanda, and all up Maremma’s 60-mile coast, offer sandy beaches teeming with Speedo-clad Italian humanity.

After paying a couple of euros to park and lathering our uninitiated Washington complexions with sunscreen, we followed my wife’s family through the pines and out onto the beach, where our daughter joined kids making sand castles, teenagers whacked soccer balls through fallen branches they had stabbed into the shallow water, bronzed women worked at making themselves more bronze, and rotund couples left the packed coolers under their umbrellas to hold hands and wade into the water. In Italy, the water is usually a place for frolicking, not for swimming.

A quieter option is a five-minute drive from Fonteblanda in Talamone, the port town where Garibaldi stopped in 1860 for reinforcements in his effort to unite Italy. Talamone borders the southern end of Maremma’s regional park, which encompasses a wide swath of territory around Grosseto, the area’s capital, and is cloaked in heath and juniper woods and brimming with wildlife. The trademark butteri, sort of Italian cowboys who still gallop through the grasslands and marshes and tend to herds of white cattle, are a reminder of the era when only horsemen and shepherds dared settle here.

In Talamone’s Bagno delle Donne, a small, rocky cove under the Talamone castle, locals reclined on rented lounge chairs while other visitors and I settled like seals on the public rocks.

One evening, four generations of my wife’s family piled into cars and drove from Fonteblanda up to the hilly hamlet of Collecchio, where a local wine producer, La Fornace, had organized a sort of cookout. Tractors pulled scores of giddy Maremma farmers and shopkeepers past corridors of grape vines and up the hill for wild boar (what else?), fried dough, beans and bottles of strong red wine. La Fornace is one of the scores of small podere, or farms, that crisscross the hills around Magliano di Toscana, where roughly 80 producers are growing grapes for the increasingly popular Morellino di Scansano red wine. Only about 30 of them bring their wine to market; the rest sell their grapes — often at cut-rate prices — to larger producers.

The quality of Maremman wines has shot up since the introduction of the Super Tuscan wines in the late 1960s. In the ’90s, Maremma vineyards were all the rage, and a few years ago, the famous architect Renzo Piano built an $11 million winery for Rocca di Frassinello vineyard, in Gavoranno, as a sort of temple to the high wine culture. The roof of the winery, which is painted a burnt-sienna red to reflect the surrounding soil, and bright green to evoke the surrounding vineyards, offers a sweeping view of 800 olive trees, sunflower fields, peach orchards and more than 180 acres of vineyards.

“It’s to suspend you on the Maremma terrace,” Simone Mariotti, the winery’s agronomist, told us as we admired the view. “It’s a natural amphitheater.”

The real spectacle of the cellar is below ground, where eight rows of full oak barrels rest around an empty lighted stage, as in a theater. (On special occasions, soloists perform for audiences seated among the barrels.) The yield, including the Baffo Nero, a superior pure Merlot named after one of the hunters with whom the winery’s owner chases wild boar, reflect Maremma’s sophistication.

The ultimate expression of Maremma’s new air of luxury is located farther north, a few miles inland from the limpid beaches of Castiglione della Pescaia. L’Andana, an exclusive boutique hotel, was once the summer residence of the Habsburg Grand Duke Leopold II of Tuscany.

These days, the lord of L’Andana is Alain Ducasse, the celebrated French chef, and the property is significantly expanded. A golf course is planned for 2012 and a helipad sits next to the parking lot. On a recent afternoon, the chef of Ducasse’s Michelin-starred Trattoria Toscana, Cristoph Martin, sat in his whites working on the menu, while Pippo D’Alessando kept an eye on the estate’s wine cellar. When it came time for lunch, D’Alessandro opted to leave the luxury of L’Andana and drive down to the Ristorante Macchia­scandona, a simple roadside joint where a pair of sisters serve up their mother’s fresh, fist-sized tortelli in basic butter and sage sauce to the regulars.

Spotted at the restaurant, D’Alessandro smiled and swept his arm around the room. “You’re in the right place,” he informed us.

 
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