An Expat in Rome Suggests Ten Marvelous, Under the Radar Destinations in Italy for 2020
By John Henderson
I don’t remember if it was sipping a nice Complexus in a 320-year-old wine tasting room in the Alban Hills outside Rome or looking down from a road at the kaleidoscope of colors that is the harbor of Procida. But sometime during my 7 1/2 years living in Italy, a revelation hit me.
It’s not hard to find paths off Italy’s beaten path.
Traveling in Italy is like eating in one of the thousands of family-run trattorias around the country. Everything is good. You just need a little adventure to try something different. The reward of a new discovery is every intrepid traveler’s Holy Grail.
A Treasure Chest
Italy is a treasure chest of little-known paradises, from Sicily to the Dolomites. If every beautiful place was a painting, the Vatican Museums wouldn’t be big enough to hold them.
Yet so many people, particularly Americans, follow the same tired road: Milan-Venice-Florence-Rome with maybe a side trip to Cinque Terre or the Amalfi Coast along the way. I know. I made the same trek as a 22-year-old backpacker when I spent a year traveling around the world.
It took me living in Rome to discover places I’d never heard of before. Through living in Rome over two stints and multiple visits in between, I have been to 17 of Italy’s 20 regions.
The following are 10 of my favorite underrated places. I gleaned them from an annual top 10 list I’ve blogged for the last four years.
It took hours to cut the list to 10. I won’t bother putting them in order. Thus, they are listed alphabetically. So if you dream of Italy, stop thinking of gondolas in Venice and ruins in Rome. Get a map and a rail pass and explore.
Archipelago de La Maddalena
If you go to Sardinia, skip Costa Smeralda and the snooty yacht crowd. Continue up the northeast coast and take the ferry to La Maddalena. It’s a collection of seven islands with some of the most secluded beaches I’ve seen in Europe. The ever-present winds carved natural formations in the granite cliffs, producing individual bays and romantic, sandy beaches. The water is so clear, from the cliffs I could see 50 feet down to the ocean floor.
Locals say the presence of a U.S. naval base has kept tourism down but the military men have a good reputation and you won’t know they’re there, other than the huge anchor you’ll see as you arrive.
The town of La Maddalena is a series of orange-roofed houses with a pleasant piazza. B&B Petite Maison is five minutes from the piazza and has a great breakfast.
Another reason tourists haven’t spoiled the place is it’s not easy to reach. Take a train to Civitavecchia, 50 miles northwest of Rome, and take a boat seven hours to Sardinia. The island’s public transportation is spotty and renting a car is highly recommended. Drive along the northeast coast to the port town of Palau and take the ferry 15 minutes to La Maddalena.
It will be worth it.
Resting on the border of the lightly trodden regions of Le Marche and Umbria, this town of 50,000 is the perfect stopover on a journey to the Adriatic Sea. Ascoli Piceno can be used for a base for day trips to the beach only 15 miles away.
Ascoli Piceno dates back to the 9th century and Piazza del Popolo is one of the prettiest piazzas in Italy with its massive yet handsome 13th century Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo. The piazza has been the heartbeat of Ascoli since the Roman Empire.
It’s a terrific eating town. Ascoli is the birthplace of the olive all’ascolana, the famous veal-stuffed, breaded and fried olive that’s served in aperitivos from Sicily to Turin. Come in April during Fritto Misto, a nine-day stuff fest where you can try fried food from all over Italy, ranging from cannoli to arancino (fried rice balls) to fried pizza.
Stroll down the beautiful, flower-lined road of Corso Mazzini where you can stay at homey Il Decumano B&B and dine nearby at Del Corso, which serves fresh fish from the nearby sea. And don’t miss its fish soup washed down with a local Pecorino white wine.
Ascoli Piceno is an easy three-hour bus ride from Rome.
Favignana, off the coast of Sicily
Italy is dotted with underrated islands and this is one of my favorites.
Located just four miles off the west coast of Sicily, Favignana (pronounced fa-vin-YAH-nah) is only 14 square miles and surrounded by what the Weather Channel ranked 13th on its 2016 World’s Clearest, Bluest Water list.
It’s true. The waters around the island, particularly in spring, are the turquoise of French Polynesia.
This former tuna fishing island has few cars. No need. The narrow roads that slice around the island are perfect for rented bikes that lead you to various unspoiled beaches. Try Cala Azzurra, the beach that the Weather Channel named on its list.
Favignana’s pulse is Piazza Madrice, where locals sit around gossiping, sipping Sicily’s trademark Nero d’Avalo wine and eating some of the best pistachio gelatos in Italy. The seafood is fantastic.
Try busiate, Western Sicily’s thick twisty pasta with shellfish, at Trattoria da Papu’, just off the piazza and lined with fishnets, anchors and seashells.
Our base was Isola Mia, quiet bungalows with a killer breakfast run by Jose Tammaro, a hip, 70ish local musician.
Favignana is easy to reach: a 70-minute flight from Rome to Trapani and a 30-minute ferry ride. But go in the fall, when the water temperature is still warm and the Italians have gone home from their August break.
If you come to Italy, you must like wine. If you want to try wine, at its roots, come to Frascati. It’s the center of Lazio wines, maybe the most underrated wines in Italy.
Frascati (pop. 22,000), only 12 miles southeast of Rome, is beautiful in itself. It’s surrounded by 16th-century villas built by the Roman and Vatican aristocracy. That includes Villa Aldobrandini, a massive, majestic outlay as you enter the town.
Gather a picnic lunch, which MUST include porchetta, Frascati’s famous sizzling, suckling pork, perfect for sandwiches. Walk up the hill and dine in the statue park surrounded by giant marble gods. Or go to the grassy park not far from Aldobrandini. The joggers won’t bother you.
But be sure to bring Frascati’s white wine. Then you’ll get a taste of what lies around town: numerous vineyards eager to show the most improved wine region in Italy. About 20-30 years ago this region went from quantity, and its need to fulfill the daily wine needs of the masses in Rome, to quality.
Young entrepreneurs came around at about the same time as new wine technology.
Cesanese. Trebbiano. Bellone. Those are just some of the Lazio wines few outside Italy have ever tried.
Rent a car and visit Cantine Santa Benedetta, a 320-year-old winery and the oldest in Lazio. Have a wine tasting in its 320-year-old tasting room. Or go to Cantina del Tufaio and try one of the best Merlots you’ll ever have.
Frascati is easy to reach. It’s a 30-minute train ride from Rome’s Termini station. But rent a car if you want to tour the vineyards.
Lenno, Near Lake Como
If you’ve heard of Lake Como, you’ve heard of Bellagio and Menaggio, the stars of Northern Italy’s famous lake. However, few have heard of Lenno. The lovely lakeside village of 1,800 people gets overshadowed by Bellagio across the lake and Laglio, the nearby town famous for George Clooney’s huge estate and the tourists and paparazzi who pass by it on the ferries.
Lenno is lined with quiet lakeside eateries for romantic aperitivos. The lake is warm enough to swim in the summer and Lenno is one of the few towns on the lake with a sandy beach.
Go tour Balbianello, a villa built in 1787 one kilometer from Lenno’s main square. With one of the most dramatic vistas on Lake Coma, the villa was used in “Star Wars Episode II” and the 2006 remake of the James Bond film “Casino Royale.”
For a superb view from above with great food thrown in, dine at Al Veluu, up the hill in the neighboring town of Tremezzo. But don’t go alone. It’s so romantic you’ll throw yourself off the cliff.
I stay in Hotel Lenno, a four-star hotel across the street from the dock with a beautiful pool and big patio for a morning cappuccino or afternoon glass of wine.
Lenno is a 30-minute ferry ride from the town of Como, at the south end of the lake.
This is another prime wine destination. Montefalco is in the center of Umbria, a region that’s underrated in its own right. It’s called “Tuscany Light” as it has everything its glamorous northern neighbor has (except beaches) at half the cost and a quarter of the tourists.
Umbria is also home to the Sagrantino grape. It’s been around since the 16th century and is only grown in Umbria. The wine it makes is making inroads in Italy and on the world scene. Around Montefalco are 63 wineries, all serving their own version of Sagrantino and no wine-tasting room is overrun with tourists.
The town of 5,800 people is also worth a visit. Inside a 12th century wall, its narrow cobblestone streets all lead to a piazza where the Chiesa di San Francesco honors St. Francis, whose church he founded is only 20 miles away in Assisi.
Go to the many restaurants to try their take on Sagrantino, such as Olevm (Latin for “oil”) which makes a great chicken soaked in Sagrantino sauce.
Stay at the four-star Villa Pambuffetti, in the middle of 27,000 square feet of gardens just outside the city walls. Come in February for the annual Anteprima Sagrantino Wine Fair where all the area vineyards come to town for a weekend of wine tasting.
Rent a car if you want to tour area wineries as it’s only a 90-minute drive from Rome. The town can also be reached by train and bus from Rome’s Tiburtina station.
Ever see the movie “Il Postino”? It’s an Italian love story that was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture in 1994. It’s set in 1950 and filmed on Procida (PRO-chee-duh). That’s because Procida today still looks as if it’s 1950.
The 1.6-square-mile island of 12,000 people gets overshadowed by glamorous Capri 10 miles to the south, but Procida beats Capri in Old Italy atmosphere.
One of the most picturesque ports in Europe is lined with pastel-colored buildings where villagers sit on stoops and talk about nothing and fishermen mend nets next to their boats.
Try the Neapolitan-style pizzas (thicker crusts) along the port or take a bus to the north end for the beach or a drink next to the boat harbor. The Bay of Naples is warm enough to swim in summer but in spring you’ll feel you have the place — and the beaming sun — to yourself.
Stay at the four-star Albergo La Vigna which features a spa you can reserve for private use (wink!), a vineyard, a garden for a late afternoon glass of wine and a great view of the gulf.
Procida also features maybe my favorite restaurant in Italy: La Lampara, which overlooks the harbor and is so romantic it should have blankets instead of napkins. Its seafood ravioli filled with ground shrimp and ricotta cheese is the best ravioli I’ve ever had.
Procida is easy to reach. Take a 70-minute train ride from Rome to Naples, a cab to the boat dock and a 30-minute hydroplane ride to the island.
If your life-long obsession with Italy begins with Cinque Terre, spend some time in Santa Margherita. It should be the sixth town on that well-beaten slog up the Ligurian coast.
But Santa Margherita is thankfully too far away. It’s 45 miles north of Monterosso, the last town of a Cinque Terre that has become so crowded officials now limit numbers of visitors.
Santa Margherita is right out of an Italian romance novel. It has 18th-century lanterns illuminating palm trees that line the promenade next to a harbor where million-dollar yachts bob in the Gulf of Tigullio. The cruise ships and tourist buses skip right past it on the way to Cinque Terre and nearby Portofino.
Santa Margherita is a former fishing village that has become a leading retirement spot for well-off Italians. The crystal-clear waters of the gulf also make it ideal for scuba diving, water skiing and sailing.
The Hotel Continental features a private beach and swimming pool with great views of the harbor. Hit Da Michele for the best grilled fish in town.
This walled town of 15,000 is the jewel of Le Marche. It sits high atop a hill 30 miles inland from the Adriatic. It’s so well-preserved, UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1998. But hurry. It may get more attention this year. The New York Times just listed it on its 52 Places to Visit 2020. (Blame me. I contributed it as a Times correspondent.)
However, 2020 is timely for a visit. It’s the 500-year anniversary of the death of Raphael, Urbino’s proud son and one of Italy’s greatest Renaissance artists. His childhood home, just down the street from romantic Piazza di San Francesco, is open to visitors and features one of his early works on the first floor. Many of Raphael’s paintings are in a show Urbino will have until Jan. 19.
But Urbino is more than Raphael. Piazza della Repubblica features the 15th century Palazzo Ducale, built for Urbino’s ruling class during the Renaissance. Urbino also is an education center as the University of Urbino is one of Europe’s oldest universities, having opened in 1506.
Dine on Le Marche’s signature strozzapreti (priest stranglers) pasta, a thick, twisty pasta named for its ability to strangle priests. Or go to Le 3 Piante where you can eat pizza while overlooking the beautiful Marche countryside. Wash it all down with a local Verdicchio wine.
Puglia is the heel of Italy’s boot and one of Italy’s most overlooked regions by Americans. Vieste is my favorite place in Puglia. It’s on the edge of Gargano National Park which forms an outcropping into the Adriatic Sea.
Vieste (pop. 14,000) is a lovely seaside spot with two beautiful sandy beaches. One gold-sand beach is at the base of a giant white rock formation called the Scoglio di Pizzomunno.
The old town is a series of narrow, cobblestone alleys with a piazza that’s filled with locals doing their evening passaggiata (stroll). Go up tiny Via Alessandro III to Osteria al Duomo, one of the most romantic restaurants in Puglia with white candles in a cave-like setting. Try Puglia’s local orecchiette (ear-shaped) pasta with squid and broccoli and sprinkled with bread crumbs. Or order the seafood salad with big chunks of octopus.
A great place to stay is Rocca Sul Mare, in a 1,000-year-old building that once served as a monastery. You can take your meals on its huge roof with a beautiful view of the Adriatic or go up for a glass of Puglia’s rich Negroamaro wine.
Vieste is not easy to reach. Most fly from Rome to Bari then take a bus 3 ½ hours from the airport to Vieste via the Gargano line.