Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town. The following interview was originally published in my Italy guide.
Today I’m happy to introduce you to Peter Farina, American expat, entrepreneur, and founder of italyMONDO! here to tell us all about Campobasso – an authentic, off-the-beaten-track town featuring a hilltop castle in a region famous for truffle mushrooms.
First, tell us about you.
I have been in Italy on-and-off for over eight years and have been in Campobasso for the past year.
I’m originally from upstate New York and, though the concept of free time is fairly foreign with an ever-growing business, lately I’ve been finding the time to rediscover my passion of for fishing.
If someone is visiting Campobasso for the first time, what do you recommend they see or do?
Campobasso has a wonderful historic center, complete with cobblestone alleyways, Medieval gates, and a castle overlooking the entire city. The shopping is great and, since it’s not a traditional tourist destination, the prices are reasonable. The food is absolutely mind-blowing. It also makes a perfect base camp for exploring the entire region of Molise, of which it’s the regional capital.
What neighborhoods or parts of town are best to stay in?
There are plenty of B&Bs popping up in the historic center of town and, although there are a few three- and four-star hotels in the city, what makes Campobasso and the entire region of Molise wonderful is the warmth of the people, which is better experienced via B&B.
Let’s talk about day trips…what nearby places should everyone make sure to visit?
You can’t go to Campobasso without visiting the Medieval city of Termoli. What Termoli lacks in Campobasso’s green hills and nearby snowcapped mountains, it adds with sandy beaches and the blue, clear waters of the Adriatic.
In addition, there are the villages of Oratino and Sepino—both registered as one of the Borghi Piu’ Belli d’Italia (most beautiful villages in Italy). Sepino also offers one of the best-preserved Roman cities in Italy: the ruins in Saepinum (also known as Altilia).
For fishermen, skiers, hikers, and other nature-lovers, nearby Guardiaregia—another picturesque Medieval village sitting over 2,000 feet above sea level—serves as the region’s gateway to the Matese Mountains. The World Wildlife Foundation protected area above town is also the second largest wildlife preserve in Italy.
From there, you can then head into the highlands of Alto Molise in the province of Isernia (the other province of the region of Molise). Here, every village is like a postcard.
If I had to pick one place in Isernia, the area known as Alto Volturno, where the Volturno River begins to flow, is a perfect day trip with something for everyone: fantastic restaurants, beautiful walled Medieval villages, charming, perfectly preserved castles, snow-capped mountains, and crystal-clear streams boasting some of the best fly fishing in southern Italy. This area is always a client favorite.
And no trip to Campobasso and the region of Molise is complete without a cheese tasting in Capracotta (the Pallotta Caseficio dairy at Via Nicola Falconi is a particular favorite), a visit to the Marinelli Bell Foundry and the rest of the historic center of Agnone, and a stop at the Samnite/Roman ruins in Pietrabbondante.
The region also has countless traditions and festivals that are mostly undiscovered and, thus, authentic, so the to-do list varies by time of year, too. The above are year-round staples, though, and are a must for anyone planning a visit.
Tell us about the local dishes. What should people try here?
Where do I begin? The ideas of organic and farm-to-table are a way of life in Campobasso and Molise and, as a result, you’ll only be eating food that is fresh and in-season. Dishes can change as fast as week-to-week.
It’s hard to beat freshly discovered truffles from the province of Isernia (Molise is the truffle capital of Italy, unbeknownst to most!) or porcini mushrooms picked the in the Matese Mountains by the restaurant owner’s uncle that very morning.
This is still a reality in Molise…and the moment you sip some olive oil, taste a fresh, wild asparagus, or bite into a tender piece of lamb that just came off an open fire, you’ll be in love.
What are your top three favorite bars and restaurants?
How can I choose just three? Anyone visiting Campobasso has to eat at La Grotta, also known as Da Concetta, located at Via Larino 7. It’s the quintessential farm-to-table, family-run trattoria (and you may even find 85-year-old Zia Concetta still working the kitchen!). The beans and greens are absolutely divine and my fiancé can’t go there without getting the lentil soup. Tell Fabio and Lucia I sent you.
Monticelli is also a personal favorite. Located in the heart of the historic center at Via Monticelli 6, the chef and co-owner, Simona, (along with her brother Stefano) offer a seasonal menu focusing on old traditional recipes and ingredients. It’s particularly charming in the summer, when you can eat outside with the Medieval alleyways lit up around you.
Finally, I’m partial to Miseria e Nobilta, located at Via Sant’Antonio Abate 16, which offers a style of cooking called rivisitata, which revisits traditional recipes and flavors, kicking them up a notch to turn them into fine cuisine. This is always a client (and personal) favorite, and owner/sommelier/head waiter, Pasquale—a sincere, genuine, and friendly guy—embodies Molisana hospitality, while the restaurant itself boasts an impeccable, classy ambiance. If you go there, be sure to have a glass of Tintilia, a regional wine that’s rarely exported (and is a secret treasure of the locals, as a result).
Is there anything tourists do that locals find rude or strange? What can we do to better fit in with the culture?
Italians—particularly southern Italians—are warm, naturally social creatures, very generous, and very proud (sometimes to a fault) of their local culture, traditions, and towns. As a result, visitors should attempt to socialize as well as to try local dishes and traditions.
Not a lot of people speak English and the area is not touristy, so don’t expect English-speaking waiters, trinkets to buy, and stores that always accept credit cards.
That’s all part of the local charm, though. It’s easy to find yourself making local friends and eating at people’s houses here. There’s a quote from a recent movie that encapsulates the mentality well. In it, a southern Italian wanted to invite a northern Italian to dinner and he replied: “We don’t even know each other.” The southerner’s response? “Well, we’ll get to know each other!”
So, just try to speak what Italian you can (and always do so with a smile), make it a point to socialize, and enjoy the locals, the culture, and the area in general.
Why should people make sure to visit Campobasso?
Just an hour and a half from Naples and two and a half hours from Rome, Campobasso is an easy destination with all the conveniences of any other major city in Italy, but in an area seldom seen by tourists. If someone is looking for something truly authentic, they simply can’t go wrong with Campobasso and the entire region of Molise.
What is the best place to go take beautiful photos of the city?
It really depends on what you’re looking for. As an amateur photographer myself, I LOVE food photography, while some photographer clients of mine couldn’t tear themselves away from the locals (both in Campobasso and the surrounding villages). In the city itself, though, you have to be sure to get shots of Castello Monforte from below and then of the entire city as seen from the castle. The Medieval alleyways in the evening are a perfect setting for photos as well.
Anything else you want us to know?
Leave Tuscany and Umbria behind and escape the crowds in Rome. Give the real Italy a chance. You’ll thank me later.