The Town That Became a Hotel
Ancient Italian villages are being turned into a new kind of hotel, where the rooms are spread out across town and you share the streets with residents. One of the best of these alberghi diffusi is Sextantio, in the Abruzzi mountains.
Giovanni proudly points out that the builders attached the thick wooden doors to the frames using hand-cut nails and a weaver made the sheets and bedspreads on looms after interviewing local women about their traditional patterns and uses of the textiles.
Because few guests would be inclined to use a chamber pot, however, Daniele made a few allowances for modern amenities. He added bathrooms in some homes and outfitted them with Philippe Starck–designed toilets and oversize showerheads. In other houses, he wedged the toilet and the bathtub behind a new wall or screen in the bedrooms because he couldn't build an adjoining room without altering the structure of the buildings.
The builders also tore up the original floors—many of which were in terrible condition—and installed electrical wiring, fiber-optic cables, and radiant heating before replacing the floors with period-appropriate terra-cotta tiles, or chestnut or spruce planks. They put all of the wiring and heating in the floors to avoid drilling into the walls, which have been blackened over the years by the smoke from fireplaces—a feature Daniele wanted to retain. His lighting choices are likewise subtle: a single halogen light aimed to reflect off a gold-leafed disk on the wall, or a light nestled amid a cluster of glass globes arranged on a table like grapes. There are no TVs, telephones, or minibars in the rooms.
Although the majority of the guests are from outside the country, Daniele says about 30 percent are Italians who are "nostalgic for the Italy of 30 years ago." One woman who grew up poor in the region told him: "You gave dignity to something I was always taught to be ashamed of."
Sextantio's commitment to the past extends to its restaurant, which was built in an abandoned room within the town's 16th-century defensive walls. The restaurant has been run since last spring by Niko Romito, a self-taught local chef whose restaurant in southern Abruzzi, Ristorante Reale, has earned a Michelin star. Niko, who was looking for new opportunities, jumped at the chance to work at Sextantio when Daniele told him he wanted to revive traditional Abruzzesi recipes.
The $63 prix fixe dinner begins with a flute of spumante (Italian sparkling wine) and a bottle of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo red wine. For the antipasto course, there are three kinds of salami and prosciutto (all made in-house), a small bowl of zucchini soup, aged and fresh pecorino cheese, a dollop of fresh ricotta and grape marmalade, and irresistable tiny fried pizzette puffs topped with thin slices of sharp pecorino.
Then comes a trio of first courses: bruschetta with a soup of lenticchie (tiny mountain lentils), farro (a barley-like grain) with mushrooms and saffron, and homemade chitarrini, a kind of square spaghetti that's hand cut with an implement called a chitarra (Italian for "guitar")—a rack with closely spaced wires the chef presses down on a sheet of dough. The second course is grilled lamb with roasted potatoes, red peppers, and a salad on the side. And for dessert, Niko serves sliced strawberries and a saffron-flavored ricotta meringue with a glass of bitter digestivo di genziana, a liquor made from the roots of a local herb.
The menu may change to include other fare as Daniele and Niko learn more about the food of the region. But Daniele stresses that the restaurant will only serve dishes using ingredients that people in the area have survived on for centuries. "The dishes are tied to the most practical needs of a population that had to grow whatever they ate," he says.
Although he was careful to consult residents about how best to represent their traditions in everything from the decor to the recipes in the restaurant, Daniele could easily have been branded a carpetbagger and run out of town. "I lived in fear that I would come off as a neocolonialist," says Daniele, who is half-Swedish and half-Sicilian and was raised in Milan. "But because I empowered the people to rediscover their heritage, they soon got behind the project"—even if some grumbled about how many newspapers ran stories giving the impression that Daniele had "refounded" the town by opening the hotel.
Sextantio has brought many benefits to Santo Stefano, though. Giovanni says that before the hotel opened, local nightlife consisted of "just the little bar on the square and an osteria for the priest." Now, Santo Stefano has seven restaurants, three bars, and a half-dozen B&Bs, inns, and agriturismi (farms that welcome tourists). The town has become a base for people to explore the surrounding Gran Sasso National Park. What's more, property values have increased fivefold.
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