Like I said here, we did an Ikea run a couple of weeks ago for some odds and ends. This being Italy, Land of Perpetual Roadworks, we hit a couple of detours going and coming. For some reason on the way back, our iPhone’s navigator took us off the highway and routed us through a town in the mountains, in the Le Marche region, just over the border from our Umbria. We couldn’t figure out why exactly we were on a main street in the small city of Fabriano; we didn’t see any obvious road closures.
But we were intrigued by what we saw. Fabriano looked prosperous; there was a mixture of architectural styles, from baroque and older to some strikingly modern blue glass-sided structures. At one point, the road went through a park. Being conditioned by living in and around Perugia, we scouted for parking spaces, saw some, but didn’t stop. Not with a bunch of Ikea booty in the hatch, anyway. But when we got home, we looked the place up and decided to pay it a visit, especially when we realized the city is only 40 minutes from home.
Okay, so now I’ve put my flame shields up and I’ll explain the headline. Making fun of people who do the Rome-Florence-Venice axis is like shooting fish in a barrel; it’s way too easy. But I’ll say this. If you limit a trip to Italy to those places, you’ll “see” a lot, but you won’t really get what this country is about. Stanley Tucci and Rick Steves tried to remedy that in their TV series. But rather than getting people to explore places on their own, Steves, especially, unwittingly created a sort of cult that follows his guidebooks and shows religiously, following his itineraries as though they’ll fall off the planet if they wander off elsewhere. A lot of people here blame him for singlehandedly ruining the Cinque Terre.
I like what I’ve seen of Tucci’s series. (CNN, for some reason, blocks me from seeing it here.) He goes into the social and political aspects of the culture and food here. They’re often inseparable, like why bread can be so bland here in Umbria (the Pope’s salt tax back when is cited as the main reason). But like Steves, his restaurant choices on the show may throw a lot of business to the places, but they have the effect of spoiling them for the regulars. It’s almost a joke, and my favorite YouTube cooking couple, Harper and Eva as Pasta Grammar, make a point of hiding the name of a restaurant they like so that Tucci can’t ruin it.
Back to Fabriano. We’re usually in a hurry going through airports and we’re terrible at window shopping. But you may have noticed shops in Italy that feature paper from Fabriano. We didn’t know it until recently, but artisans in Fabriano over 500 years ago figured out how to produce paper on a large enough scale to make it a regular medium for writing and printing. I won’t go so far as to call it industrial—the process was fairly laborious—but Fabriano paper was once a really big thing and was shipped throughout Europe. The city’s close connections to shipping ports like Ancona made distribution throughout Europe easy and cheap. In fact even now, a lot of the Euro currency notes in daily use throughout Europe are produced in Fabriano, and the city lies on the rail trunk line between Ancona and Orte/Rome.
And so we took off to see what Fabriano is like. Unlike a lot of precious towns and cities in Umbria and Toscana, Fabriano makes it easy; there’s a big free parking lot adjacent to the park I mentioned above. It’s a short walk through shop-lined streets to the main piazza, a large area that features a fountain that was influenced by our fountain in Perugia, in the Piazza IV Novembre. Like any Italian city, the piazza has a vibrant cafe life. We took a break after our arduous (not!) 40-minute drive to sit with the Fabriani and have that second shot of coffee.
The Spartan Woman and I have a non-routine routine when we visit a new city. We ignore the guides for awhile and just walk around. We look at the shops downtown—Fabriano has lots of pretty high end clothing shops. And we look at how people are dressed and the kinds of cars they drive. In Fabriano’s case, there were lots of women in long, flowing, almost diaphanous multicolored dresses. And there was a high percentage of Audis on the streets; Audis being the brand for the upwardly mobile Italian these days.
After all this socio-economic analysis, we had to eat lunch. TSW found a restaurant online on a central square, Nonna Rina, that looked good. I found its Facebook page and texted for a reservation on its day off; the owners responded almost immediately. It apparently featured a fish menu—we’re mainly vegetarians but eat fish and seafood when we want to splurge or feel decadent. But when we arrived we saw that the fish menu was only for weekends. To compensate, the regular menu has lots of creative, and we found out delicious, vegetarian dishes.
Food porn alert: We had a shared appetizer of a fritto misto, crisp fried vegetables, fried mozzarella balls, and the local delicacy, olive all’Ascolana. These last had a little chopmeat in them; I made the sacrifice and scarfed them up. TSW followed with orecchiette with pesto; I had the local specialty called pincinelle, simply dressed with olive oil, garlic, chilis, and bread crumbs. The pincinelle resemble the Tuscan pici, or Umbrian umbricelle, in being thick homemade long pasta with a chewy texture. But these are made of stoneground whole wheat and, unusual for pasta, yeast. Historically, pincinelle were made from some set-aside bread dough.
The secondi followed, and we began to think we over-ordered. In fact, when TSW asked about side dishes, our cheerful and friendly server told us that the quantities were quite enough and that we didn’t have to order any side dishes, which is common elsewhere in Italy. The Marchigiani, in fact, pride themselves on the generosity of their hospitality, and that pride was in full evidence. We had a little local sparkling white wine, a bottle of fizzy water, and coffees. The price? A princely €55.
At that point, we would have gladly stumbled to our car and driven home. But I’d reserved a spot on a tour of Fabriano’s Museo della Carta e della Filligrana (Paper and Watermark Museum). I love little museums with a peculiar specialty, and this sweet place fits the bill. It’s definitely worth a visit. We paid our lunch bill and walked over to the museum, waiting for it to open after its lunch break. After entering and waiting in the courtyard of the former convent that houses the museum, we were gathered by our guide, who showed us all the steps to medieval papermaking. She was terrific; they don’t appear to do tours in English, but the demonstrations were quite visual. You can just look around without a tour anyway. Our guide must have been a teacher because she’d ask the few kids questions and at times handle the paper. We were treated to a demonstration of some real papermaking, and then satisfied, left to find our car and drive back home through the mountains.
Some thoughts: Fabriano sees few tourists. It’s a real, working small city with a fair amount of industry, including nearby home appliance factories. That said, there’s a pretty large historic center, which is a mix of medieval, baroque, and modern buildings. Its inhabitants seem justifiably proud of their city, and it’s got a hip vibe to it. In fact, that vibe is common in a lot of Italy today—Fabriano, like Perugia and Ravenna and other small cities, feature sushi/poke bars, independent bookstores, wine bars and restaurant workers who know their menus and the history behind them. A lot of restaurants riff on traditional ingredients, and it’s great to see that the country is not becoming one big museum for tourists. Maybe we’ll set cities like Florence and Venice aside for that, while we go on living our everyday lives.