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.
Time for another batch of local recommendations! This time for San Marcello – a tiny, authentic Italian town perfect for slow travelers and practicing your Italian. Today’s interviewee is Mauro Piccotti, a world-curious software engineer and Marche native.
First, tell us about you.
I have always lived in my beloved San Marcello. I did some studies with my sister and we discovered that our ancestors lived here since 1830, always in San Marcello and often in the same street.
I like a lot of different activities. Some days I read and experiment with computer stuff because of my job. Sometimes I play poker with my friends. For some months, I took dance lessons. For a couple years, swimming lessons. I tried climbing…
When I can, I try to help my family with our vineyards and olive trees, but, unluckily, I’m lazy and I haven’t enough time.
If someone is visiting San Marcello for the first time, what do you recommend they see or do?
If you are in the middle of Marche, the best thing you can do as tourist is hike Mount Conero Park; there are a lot of trails with wonderful views of the sea.
The second must-do is, in my opinion, the Frasassi caves. They are some of the best caves in the world, very well maintained, and, if you like adventure, you can visit some parts not open to the public with a speleologist.
What neighborhoods or parts of town are best to stay in?
Usually tourists come to le Marche in summer for our beaches, so perhaps the best option would be to stay along the sea. The Portonovo and Sirolo areas of Ancona are very nice, but also expensive.
You can also stay in the villages not too far from the sea, like Morro d’Alba or Camerano. Morro d’Alba is a nice village very close to mine; it’s famous for the Lacrima di Morro d’Alba grape variety and wine, and it’s close to beaches of Senigallia (less than 20 minutes by car). Camerano is very close to the Conero area, as well as the beaches of Portonovo, Sirolo, Numana, and Marcelli.
If you prefer the mountains, Serra San Quirico, Genga, and Cingoli are very good.
Let’s talk about day trips…what nearby places should everyone make sure to visit?
Visit the Frasassi caves first, pass through the “Balcony of the Marches,” Cingoli (so-called for its great views of the region), and then head to Camerano and visit the Conero area.
Tell us about the local dishes. What should people try here?
In Marche, there aren’t particular dishes that you should try, but it’s very difficult not to find great wine or food.
Italy is full of little villages and usually people live in families like mine that produce wine, have a kitchen garden, and, very often, people breed and kill little animals for kitchen use. Usually people have lunch and dinner at home—and the quality of the food is very high—which is why restaurants that want to sell to the people of Italy must also keep their quality very high. We are too well-fed at home to put up with mediocre restaurant food.
The direct consequence of this is that even a cheap dish like a kebab is very good. In other words: anywhere and anything you eat will be very high quality here.
That said, here are some specific dishes: olive ascolane (fried olives filled with meat), brodetto all’Anconetana (fish soup), vincisgrassi (a kind of lasagna), and coniglio in porchetta (rabbit filled with pork rind and other things).
Be aware: if you are vegan, you cannot live in Marche; if you are vegetarian, you’ll have a hard life.
What are your top three favorite bars and restaurants?
Bars in Italy are very different from foreign bars. My favorite bar is the one where I have gone since when I was a little child, where I go when I want to meet my friends without needing to call them, where I go to play cards with somebody I know or simply chat a little with the bartender, who is my friend. It’s called Bar David and it’s the only bar in my village. (Address: Via Ring Road 28.)
My favorite restaurants, in order, are: my house, where two of the best chefs in the world live (my mother and my aunt); Pulcinella (in Senigallia at Lungomare Mameli 265) for fish dishes; Le Piane (at Via S. Giuseppe 31 in Camerata Picena) for fish dishes; Vintora (at Via Circonvallazione 23 in San Marcello), which is a very nice restaurant where you can eat products from the hills; and Chioschino della Buona Piadina (at Viale Don Minzoni 20 in Jesi), a piadineria where you can eat the best piadina romagnola in the world (this last restaurant is a small, one-room place where workers eat their lunch – very authentic).
Is there anything tourists do that locals find rude or strange? What can we do to better fit in with the culture?
Italian cities aren’t so different from other cities in the world, but something weird happens when tourists come to little villages like mine, because a little village is like a family. When a foreigner comes into a bar here, everybody looks at them. My point is that a foreigner in a little, not-so-touristic village is something incredible and wonderful, so it’s impossible to act like he isn’t there. The best thing a tourist can do is try to chat with the locals, ask for info, even if it’s difficult (because in villages there aren’t a lot of English speakers and we mostly speak dialect rather than Italian).
What is the best way to meet locals and make friends?
Join a sport club. Take dance lessons. Go to a climbing gym.
If you are here more long-term, start going to the same bar; you’ll start to see the same faces and get to know some locals. In an Italian bar, there are always people that are playing card games, darts, table tennis, or foosball, and playing against locals for a beer or a glass of wine could be great. You could also join a local “pro-loco,” a local association of people that organizes celebrations and parties in the village.
Why should people make sure to visit San Marcello?
If you really want to understand Italy, you should speak with locals where there isn’t tourism. Tourism in Italy is almost everywhere, but in Marche there aren’t big and famous cities and, if we exclude our beaches, Frasassi caves, and Urbino, we don’t have any famous tourist spots.
The point? We are authentic. Here you can meet people who cannot speak English, that never travel, people who live in their houses for their whole life. Passing your time with these Italian men and women could be the most amazing thing you do in Italy, and in this area there are a lot of these people.
What is the best place to go take beautiful photos of the city?
Our hills are breathtaking. And you will love the views from almost any hilltop village. One of the best places for taking pictures is at the beginning of Passo del Lupo in Conero Park.
Anything else you want us to know?
Marche is as pretty and hilly as Tuscany. Our wines are delicious. Everything is cheaper than in other regions like Tuscany, Lazio, or Emilia-Romagna because there isn’t tourism.
Everybody knows cities like Roma, Venezia, and Firenze, and almost every tourist goes there. If you want something more challenging, authentic, and meaningful, Marche is your place.