Secret Hotels of Italy
There aren’t a lot of places left in Italy that can qualify as "under the radar." At the farmhouses in the country’s northwestern corner, you’ll not only find room at the inns, you’ll also get a taste of the old country—the wine, the food, the connection to the land and its past—that’s as authentic as the sauce bubbling away on the stove.
Wouldn’t it be easier if Italy were just a bit more boring? The art, the history, the landscapes, the pasta—seriously, you’re always going to feel like there’s more to do (or eat). If actual relaxing is on your agenda, the Piedmont region may just be your answer. Tucked into the northwestern corner of the country, Piedmont pulled the short straw when it came to major Italian attractions. This is nothing but farm country, home to countless hazelnut groves, Barolo wineries, and truffle-studded fields, a place where folks have so much time on their hands, they created Italy’s slow-food movement. Most tourists don’t bother with Piedmont, and those who do have little choice but to stay in unpretentious, family-run inns that serve meals made from what the owners grow and raise themselves. No crowds, authentic farm-to-table cuisine, endless Barolo—wait, that doesn’t sound so bad after all. In fact, it sounds like heaven. Leave it to Italy to make even life in the slow lane completely irresistible.
A winery with a glorious view, and a storied past
Fifth-generation winemaker Alberto Racca left an office job in Turin to return to his childhood home at Tenuta Montanello, releasing his first Barolo in 2001. About 140 years earlier, his great-great-grandfather had founded not only the winery but the first cooperative of local producers. The 99-acre estate has an enviable hilltop position overlooking cascading vineyards in countless shades of green, punctuated by the crenellated fortresses of medieval towns like La Morra and, yes, Barolo, just visible in the distance. Guests wake up to this view each day and taste the estate's wines at their leisure. It's a treat to chat with Racca in the cellar—where his Barolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, and Langhe Nebbiolo wines are slowly coming into their own—way out of earshot of any tour groups. An adjacent building offers five rooms with a polished country look: cotto tiles, plaid bedding, antique wood furnishings, and curved metal headboards. A ground-floor room is wheelchair accessible, and an apartment caters to families; Racca shares two other apartments with his wife, Monica, and their two young children. Everyone can make use of the communal breakfast room—decorated with framed historic maps, a cabinet painted in a harvest motif, and fresh lilac sprigs—and pluck a fig or two from the yard.
Via Alba Monforte, 40, 12060 Castiglione Falletto, Cuneo province, tenutamontanello.it, from $86
Heirlooms and art in a renovated hillside house
When architect Monica Barattieri and her husband, Alessandro, couldn't take the stressful pace of Turin any longer, they knew where to turn: Asti province, about a 75-minute drive to the southeast and their favorite weekend getaway. A farmhouse on a gentle slope surrounded by vineyards for Barbera and Cabernet won them over within a week. The couple left the brick pillars, walls, and floors intact but spent four years on painstaking renovations—enlisting the talents of friends and raiding their family closets in the process. So there's a story behind almost everything in four-room Casa Isabella, named for Alessandro's mother. Her photo rests discreetly on a mantle in the living room, which is painted in pleasantly muted shades of lilac and peach, with a ceiling-high stack of books about the region and design. Alessandro's grandmother contributed the kitchen's 17th-century oil paintings of fruits and vegetables, while Monica's grandparents supplied a bedroom's gleaming art deco headboard and matching armoire and dresser. The masterpiece is the top-floor suite, outfitted with a sink that was once a church's holy-water basin, a modern soaking tub directly below a huge skylight, and a 19th-century barocco piemontese sofa in ornate burgundy brocade. Divided by a deep-red and gray partition, the sleeping area showcases a friend's hand-stitched bed linens. Although hiking paths and day-trip-worthy towns abound, Monica understands why some guests don't venture far beyond the house and its pool, garden, and bocce court. After all, she's more than happy to hang out there, too. "Anyone who comes here to stay with us is looking to find the downtime that they normally don't have," she says. "That's what we want to provide."
Via La Pietra 5, 14049 Vaglio Serra, Asti Province, casa-isabella.com, from $171
CASCINA SANT' EUFEMIA
A rustic farmhouse where everyone is welcome to get their hands dirty
If there's a hospitality gene, Chiara Andreis and Paolo Nasi were born with it. The husband and wife share a down-to-earth nature that puts visitors at ease, even while juggling the upkeep of a hazelnut orchard and vineyard. They work alongside Andreis's parents—and anyone else who wants to lend a hand, particularly during the September and October grape harvest. Whatever the season, the couple gets to know guests over breakfast spreads of local cheeses, salumi, and homemade pastries in the large kitchen, or while lounging by the log burner in the homey living area, formerly a cattle shed. "This work is very nice because you don't have time to visit the world, but you learn different things from people who visit you," reflects Nasi. Since Cascina Sant'Eufemia's 2005 debut, he has kept track by updating a map with flags pinned to guests' countries of origin. When one family from Denmark made a repeat visit, the kids piped up about Andreis's memorable apple fritters—and she promptly enlisted their help in making a fresh batch. Want to ditch the car? Just ask to borrow a bicycle. In keeping with this informal approach, accommodations are comfortable, spacious, and modest. Three rooms and two studios range from the rustic yellow room, with exposed wood beams and a staircase leading up to a loft bed, to the elegant blue studio, with lace-trimmed sheets and a skylight. Andreis and Nasi also tailor dinner recommendations to match varied tastes. Most of the time, they send guests to locavore restaurants that ascribe to the slow-food movement, which was launched just a short drive away in the town of Bra, in the heart of southern Piedmont.
Loc. Sant’Eufemia, 3, 12050 Sinio, Cuneo province, cascinasanteufemia.it, from $86