A view of Sassoferrato, Italy from the hilltop Albornoz FortressPick a town in Italy’s Le Marche region, just about any town, and you’ll find a castle and a piazza or two for enjoying a cappuccino or glass of wine. If you are fortunate, enthusiastic locals will show you around. Earlier this summer, after a week’s stay in Puglia, Tom and I traveled north and spent a glorious week a bit off the beaten path in Le Marche, exploring its nooks and crannies from our base in Mondavio. It was all good, but a day trip to Sassoferrato was memorable. There, we admired vistas of a region whose history comes in textured, multi-faceted layers.

Sassoferrato, with its many churches, museums and the Roman ruins of Sentinum, offers a fascinating sampler of Le Marche’s slow rhythms, churches and castles. After walking the hills and parks in the town, we enjoyed some very good food. Our hosts were Rita Sacco and Umberto Balanti, tireless advocates for central Le Marche’s many charms. Thanks to their congenial hospitality, it felt like a family outing.

Albornoz Fortress, symbol of Sassoferrato, overlooks the town
The 14th century Albornoz Fortress, symbol of Sassoferrato, overlooks the town
Leafy courtyard in Sassoferrato, Italy
Leafy courtyard in Sassoferrato, Le Marche, Italy

Churches and museums of Sassoferrato

The palazzi of Sassoferrato house a surprising trove of archeological items, art, and cultural memorabilia. Options for art lovers include a contemporary art gallery, and museums exhibiting Sassoferrato’s Civic Art Collection and the “Engravers of the Marches” Collection. The Civic Archaeological Museum displays finds from Roman Sentinum as well as a collection of reliquaries. The Church of San Pietro—one of 12 churches in town—has a permanent exhibition of devotional paintings, engravings, and liturgical books. The Palazzo Montanari complex is home to the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, where we had a guided tour.

Ancient hand written book
Memorabilia of times gone by in the museum of San Pietro church
Graffiti-covered cell
Graffiti-covered cell in the Church of San Pietro
Man's and Women's outfits
Lifestyle display in the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, Sassoferrato

Archaeological Park of Sentinum

The Aion, a polychrome mosaic floor at Roman Sentinum
The Aion features a hoop decorated with the signs of the Zodiac, and Fertility, seated with her four children: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter

The Archaeological Park of Sentinum is just outside the modern town of Sassoferrato. Covering roughly 15 hectares, the windswept park was the site of the Battle of Sentinum in 295 BCE, a decisive moment in Italian history. Victory over a tribal coalition eventually led to Roman consolidation of this part of Italy.

The site was strategically located for crossing the main passes through the Apennines, linking the Umbrian, Etruscan, Gaul and Piceni tribes of pre-Roman Italy. Remains of the ancient town served as a quarry for materials used to build Sassoferrato.

Most of the finds unearthed here are displayed in the Civic Archaeological Museum in town. One of the most prestigious, the Aion (“eternity”), a mosaic floor from a wealthy Roman home in Sentinum, is housed in the Glyptothek in Munich, Germany.

For us, though, Sentinum had more to offer: a private luncheon at Agriturismo Antico Muro, located in the archeological park itself.

Roman ruins of Sentinum in a field of green
Sassoferrato, from the Roman ruins of Sentinum

A “0 km” lunch

Restoration of the Antico Muro farmhouse revealed archaeological finds and caves, and some of these were incorporated into the layout of the restaurant. We dined at a table placed smack atop exposed pieces of Sentinum’s walls, which just added to the atmosphere.

Chef Guido Mangarelli before a painting
Chef Guido Mingarelli, owner of Agriturismo Antico Muro, Sassoferrato, Italy

“eating, respecting and rediscovering ancient traditions”

Non-industrial food that supports the local economy and values local culture is the norm here, and “Zero km” (0 km) food got its start in Italy. Happily, the farmhouse kitchen at Agriturismo Antico Muro is a showcase of respect for the harmony of local flavors and culinary traditions. All products served at the farm are “Zero km”, sourced either on the farm itself or from neighboring producers. Everything is produced using traditional methods of outdoor grazing and cultivation to guarantee authenticity.

Chef Guido Mingarelli bases his dishes on recipes handed down through the generations. Pigs, sheep, poultry and rabbits are bred on the farm. The house specialties are pork or rabbit in porchetta, and traditional regional dishes such as tripe with sauce and savory guinea fowl with olives. After a meal served family style , the chef joined us for coffee, and shared his passion for this land and its homely cuisine. From start to finish, the meal was a delicious journey through the flavors of the Apennines.

Colorful plates of traditional Apennine dishes
Porchetta rabbit and Pincinelle with asparagus and sausage at Agriturismo Antico Muro
Coffee with liquor and Castignole di Sassoferrato with honey
To finish: Espresso with anise liqueur and Castignole di Sassoferrato with honey

If you go

Le Marche is still a bit of a frontier for Italian tourism and delights with its unspoiled landscapes, artistic and natural treasures. The region also offers superlative food and wine, and our short time in and around Sassoferrato with Rita and Umberto had us eager to return for another taste.

We visited Sassoferrato on a day trip, but with much to explore in and around town, a longer stay is highly recommended!

*  *  *

Six diners posing with chef after a bountiful meal
Time for a group photo with Chef Guido Mingarelli and our Sassoferrato hosts!

Thanks to James Martin of Wandering Italy and Martha Bakerjan of Martha’s Italy for introducing us to Rita and Umberto, and to Chef Guido for a marvelous luncheon!

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