The Best of the Roman Countryside
For years the countryside around the capital was an uninterrupted idyll—sparsely populated and dotted with ruined aqueducts. Even now the area is full of lakes, wineries, gardens, and important Etruscan sites.
For garden historians, the Castello di Vignanello is as significant as the Mona Lisa—and almost as unique. This rectangular parterre, divided into 12 compartments of clipped box and laurel, was laid out by Ottavia Orsini at the beginning of the 17th century. It remains one of the few unreconstructed examples of the giardino all'italiana. Co-owner Claudia Ruspoli conducts guided tours on Sundays between April and October. At 9 Piazza della Repubblica, Vignanello; 39-0761/755-338.
Borgo Paraelios, an English country-house hotel, is tucked into the olive trees near Poggio Catino, in the Sabine Hills. This is postcard Italy meets the Cotswalds. Don't be surprised to see an Eton-schooled earl in the living room, surrounded by a jumble of antiques, oil paintings, and framed prints. Relaxed and slightly fusty, it's a fine retreat from the city. Rates, $370-$445; 39-0765/26267; www.borgoparaelios.it.
Paola Igliori, who was married to the painter Sandro Chia and a fixture in the New York art scene, is Italian nobility—she is descended from both the Lante and Della Rovere families. While her pedigree may not quite jibe with her dreadlocks, it certainly explains Villa Lina, the 100-acre estate that she inherited from her grandmother and now runs as a B&B. Outside the medieval town of Ronciglione, this softly landscaped paradise has seven renovated houses, a huge swimming pool, peacocks, and an organic garden that supplies the kitchen with fresh herbs and vegetables. Igliori has combined contemporary art (a Schnabel here, a Tano Festa there) with Moroccan and Indian textiles and family antiques in an oddly successful mix—especially in the main house, Casa Vostra (which holds up to ten people). Rates, $125-$175. 39-339/819-2438; www.villalina.com.
We have our eyes on the Terme di Stigliano, opening soon in the hot-springs territory near Canale Monterano. This 18th-century thermal complex is being restored, following a renovation of the adjoining hotel and park. At Via Bagni di Stigliani; 39-06/9980-4418; www.termedistigliano.it.
Where Romans Holiday
For the last few thousand years Rome's rural retreat has been the Alban Hills, a series of extinct volcanoes, half an hour south of the city. Here olive groves and vineyards wrap themselves around a scattering of pristine hill towns.
Prosperous and lavishly preserved, Castel Gandolfo sits along the sparkling blue Lake Albano. This is where the Pope spends his summer, amid stuccowork palazzi that hedge a soaring Bernini church and piazza (sit at one of the outdoor cafés and gaze up at the papal palace). At nearby Antico Ristorante Pagnanelli (dinner, $100; 4 Via Antonio Gramsci; 39-06/936-0004; www.pagnanelli.it) reserve a table on the balcony (with views of the lake). Since 1882 owner Aurelio Mariani's family has run this ridge-top kitchen, famous for its homemade fettuccine with wild mushrooms and suckling lamb braised in vinegar. More than 25,000 bottles line the multilevel wine cellar hewn from the mountainside.
A corkscrew road leads 15 minutes north to Grottaferrata and the San Nilo Abbey on the edge of town. The abbey was founded in 1004, then girded with turreted walls and a drawbridge 400 years later; its Romanesque campanile rises above elegant Renaissance porticoes. Inside the compound is the Santa Maria basilica, with a baptismal font from around A.D. 900. The frescoes are by Domenichino, the altarpiece is by Annibale Carracci. This is a working monastery; its medieval scriptorium is still in use.
In the center of Grottaferrata, a few hundred yards from the abbey, Adriana Montellanico, chef and owner of Ristorante La Briciola (12 Via G. D'Annunzio; 39-06/945-9338), makes some of the area's most deliciously updated regional cuisine: ricotta ravioli with puréed favas and pecorino, spaghetti alla carbonara with zucchini, artichokes with garlic and wild mint, and a rich Roman oxtail stew.
Drive about ten minutes north past Il Tuscolo (a mound crowned by Roman ruins), then through rolling hills, and you're in Frascati. Rustic wine bars line up along the town's atmospheric alleys. Rambling Villa Aldobrandini and its vista point sit above Frascati's main square on a steep grade. Even farther uphill, stations of the cross lead to a Capucine convent that houses an unusual collection of African masks, spears, and missionary mementos. At the summit spread the landscaped grounds of 16th-century Grand Hotel Villa Tuscolana (rates, $225; Via del Tuscolo; 39-06/942-900; www.villatuscolana.com), a hotel and restaurant with vaulted ceilings, marble floors, and glorious views all the way back to Rome. It's pagan heaven: Cicero's villa reportedly stood on this very spot.
The Next Capri?
Until recently, the Pontine Islands of Ponza, Ventotene, Palmarola, and Zannone were known only to the international yachting fraternity or to well-heeled romani who owned property there (the islands are off the coast of Terracina, just 60 miles from Rome). But the main island, Ponza, a ridge of eroded volcanic rock that curves in the blue-green sea like a beckoning finger, has caught on among savvy travelers looking for tranquillity with a dose of style.
The most charming hotel on the island is La Limonaia a Mare, a small hotel owned by Anna Fendi, one of the five sisters of the Fendi fashion dynasty. A lemon-yellow Ponzese house at the top of a steep lane, this five-room hideaway has a verdant garden terrace—though it's a shame about the bargain-basement plastic sun loungers. Rooms are decorated in a peasant-chic style; the flowery La Romantica is the largest, but we also like the colorful Peter Pan. $ Rates, $175-$285. At Via Dragonara; book through Turistcasa (see below).
For old-fashioned pampering head to the Grand Hotel Santa Domitilla. The rooms and suites, many of which are new, are cheerful, if a little small, with beautiful handpainted Vietri tiles. The Domitilla recently added a stunning second swimming pool—half sitting in the sun, half shaded by a grotto. Rates, $380-$680. At Via Panoramica; 39-0771/809-951.
Ponza also has a few villas and apartments for rent from Maurizio Musella and Stefania Boido at Turistcasa. Most are quite basic, with spartan seaside decor. But one property, a villa perched on a rocky spur above the port, is breathtaking. The owner is publicity-shy, so ask Maurizio discreetly—he'll know the place you mean. $ Villas, $2,350-$4,800 per week. At 2 Via Roma; 39-0771/809-886; www.turistcasa.it.
Dining out can be a glamorous affair, especially at Gino Pesce's Acqua Pazza. Perched high above one of the prettiest fishing ports on the Med, it's a charming, buzzing restaurant whose host makes first-time visitors feel as pampered as his celebrity regulars. Book one of the few outside tables (days) in advance. Begin your love affair with the antipasto of sliced marinated octopus and paccheri with squid rings in tomato-and-pecorino sauce. Dinner, $60. At 10 Piazza Carlo Pisacane; 39-0771/80-643.
On a terraced garden above the beach of Frontone, Gerardo Mazzello runs a restaurant-cum-museum. Tools used by local farmers, fishermen, and boatbuilders are displayed in a grotto; next door Mazzello serves authentic Ponzese cucina, like soup of cicerchie (a cross between a chickpea and a broad bean) and bruschetta with marinated tuna and mackerel. 39-339/849-1446.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.