Le Marche is very much a rural region, its food a mixture of seafood from the long coastline and country cooking from the interior, based on locally grown produce – tomatoes and fennel – and funghi, game, nuts and herbs gathered from the wild. The most distinctive dish, often served at summer festas, is Ascoli olives – a sweet-and-sour mix of olives stuffed with meat and then deep-fried. There’s also a black version that contains truffles. Rabbit and lamb are popular, as is pappardelle alla papera, wide, flat pasta with duck sauce, and, as in many other regions, truffles are considered a delicacy. Unfamiliar items on the antipasti menu include lonza (salt-cured pork) and ciauscolo (a pork-based spread). Meat grilled alla brace (over wood embers) is ubiquitous, and you may even come across porchetta, whole roast suckling pig, both in its original large-scale form and in a fast-food version used to fill crisp bread rolls. Don’t confuse it with coniglio in porchetta though – this is rabbit cooked with fennel. Baked, stuffed dishes such as vincisgrassi, a rich layered dish of pasta, minced meat, mushrooms, giblets, brain, bechamel and truffles, are found everywhere. A typical seafood dish from Ancona is zuppa di pesce, a fish soup flavoured with saffron, though you’ll find excellent fish broths – known simply as brodetto – all along the coast. Puddings include cicercchiata, balls of pasta fried and covered in honey, and frappe, fried leaves of filo-like pastry dusted with icing sugar.
Although it produces many drinkable wines, the region is best known for Verdicchio, a greeny-gold white, excellent with fish, which is instantly recognizable from its amphora-shaped bottle. This is in fact a hangover from a 1950s marketing ploy inspired by the ancient Greek custom of shipping wine from Ancona in clay amphorae, and, reputedly, by the shape of the actress Gina Lollobrigida. Today, however, many producers sell their best Verdicchio in standard bottles – the one to look out for is Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. Lesser-known reds include one of Italy’s finest, Rosso Conero, a light wine based on the Montepulciano grape and full of fruit; more common is Rosso Piceno, based on the Sangiovese grape.