While there are enough attractions in Rome to keep you busy no matter how long your vacation, should you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the Eternal City, or are looking for new parts of Italy to explore, you don’t have to travel far to do so. About an hour’s drive northeast of Rome, you’ll come across the Sabina, or Sabine Hills, a pastoral region that runs east of the Tiber to the base of Appenines, offering a get-away-from-it-all tranquility, rural landscapes. , medieval villages, Roman ruins and a long tradition of producing superb olive oil. History here runs very deep—the area was once home to the Sabines, an ancient Italic tribe whose fortunes and misfortunes, according to lore, were intricately entwined with the Roman Republic. (For information about traveling to Italy, go to the US Embassy & Consulates in Italy site.)
“Sabina is Tuscany and Umbria’s rustic cousin,” says James Johnstone, a blogger (lamiasabina.blogspot.com) and History Walks guide who has lived in the area since 2014. “For those willing to travel the road less traveled Sabina offers an authentic and possibly more affordable Italian experience. The countryside is breathtaking—full of picturesque hill towns, castles, and some beautifully frescoed churches, but it also has a lot to offer in terms of outdoor recreational activities like trekking, truffle hunting, foraging and horseback riding tours.”
For all my time in Italy I had never been to the Sabine Hills; many travelers haven’t been either, although Johnstone points out that in addition to tourists from the UK,, increasing numbers of Americans are discovering the area, as are visitors from Canada, and other countries. I had a personal interest in the region—although my ancestors emigrated from a different part of Italy, I was curious about a place where towns often include my last name (Collato Sabino, Monteleone Sabino, etc.). Another good reason to go—I’d heard that the Sabina produces some of the best olive oil in Italy and who wouldn’t want to know more about that?
An ancient legacy of fine olive oil
Early in November I traveled to the Sabine Hills to tour the area with Sabina Petrucci, whose family has lived in the region since the 1600s and produces top olive oils like Petrucci EVO Sabina DOP. On our drive from Rome to Palombara Sabina (about 45 kilometers away), Petrucci, who divides her time working for the Sabina DOP Consorzio, the local association of olive oil producers, and her family’s business, tells me about her home territory, which for millenia has been known for its olive trees and olive oil production (with earliest recognition coming from such ancient authors as Virgil in The Aeneid and Varro).
The Sabina is still home to olive trees believed to have long outlasted the Roman Empire—like the ones in Canneto Sabino and Palombara Sabino.* The historic tress are exceptional, of course, but there are many in the area that are several hundred years old. .
We stop at the Op Latium oil mill, a modern facility also in Palombara Sabina, to watch fresh olives arriving from the fields as they start on their way to become what’s often been described as “green gold.” Most olives in Sabina grow from local cultivars, like Carboncella, Frantoio and Raja, explains Petrucci, and are largely picked by hand or culled with special harvest rakes. The fruit is taken to a mill shortly after harvesting, the extraction process follows quickly, for example, by the end of the day for olives collected that morning. Oil (depending on the amount of olives) can be produced in about an hour, says Petrucci, after which it is stored in special containers to prevent oxidation, then filtered and bottled. Next comes certification—for an EVO to have DOP status [Protected Designation of Origin, guaranteeing product authenticity] requires numerous tastings and chemical analysis, explains Petrucci. The quality control is overseen annually by Agroqualità, an official certifying group, and containers of Sabina DOP EVO are numbered, so you can know the grower, production area and mill where the oil was processed.
The Petrucci farm spans 70 hectares in the Sabina and produces some 30,000 bottles of olive oil each year. The day we visited, the harvest, which runs from October to December, was in full swing, as workers moved from tree to tree, picking and raking the olives and removing the precious fruit from large nets spread on the ground. Petrucci points out that the flavor of olive oil varies not only from region to region, “but also from tree to tree.” Sabina DOP EVO is noted for its fruity scent and flavor with more spiciness common in fresh oils. (I found it richly satisfying when I tried it with an antipasto at lunch.)
You can delve deep into the past in Sabina, but you can also get a snapshot of the present, and maybe the future, too, and find out what’s on the minds of young Italians who are taking up farming rather than seek careers in urban centers. . “We’re seeing a lot of young men and women throughout Italy coming into agricultural businesses,” says Petrucci. “There is a return to the land, to small villages. Many are young farmers who enter into a family business or [start] their own farms, bringing new ideas and technologies.” Petrucci says that in Sabina, because of tradition, family involvement and economic importance, they are attracted to olive farming and production. Case in point: Camilla Petrucci, Sabina’s sister, an agronomist with a master’s degree in agricultural studies from Tuscia University in Viterbo, who launched her own brand, Olio Petrucci, although only 24 years old.
[For more information about, or to purchase Sabina olive oil, contact the Consorzio Sabina DOP. For more information about, or to purchase Petrucci olive oils, go to OlioPetrucci.it. Sabina DOP Extra Virgin Olive Oil is also sold at Eataly.]
Rustic and farm-to-table dining
When traveling in the Sabina, you’ll find pasta preparations traditionally associated with Lazio and Rome—alla gricia, all’amatriciana, cacio e pepe—says Petrucci, along with the local dishes like pasta alla Sabinese, made with tomatoes, olives, mushrooms. and, of course, Sabina olive oil. Lamb dishes are popular and there’s a good choice of such locally produced cheeses as sheep ricotta, pecorino, caciotta, and Cacio Magno, a variety that Charlemagne was supposed to have liked.
Thanks to the rural nature of the area, you’ll often come across farmhouse/agriturismi restaurants when traveling through the countryside. We stopped at one, Ecofattorie Sabine in Poggio Mireto Scalo, for a memorable lunch, where the tagliere, or appetizer cutting board, includes cheese produced on their farm (they make 20 different kinds) accompanied by local salamis, breads and Sabina olive oil). . The pastas like pici, cecamariti, fettucine and gnocchi, and desserts including panna cotta and mille foglie are all made in house. There’s also a good meat selection, including a grigliata mista, and abbachio scottadito, or grilled lamb chops.
Also worth trying are such local delicacies as fregnacce, “a type of crepe flavored with a wild herb called Mentuccia,” says James Johnstone. “These are usually served rolled up with a filling of grated parmesan and pecorino. Another specialty is fallonea savory pastry made of thinly rolled bread or pizza dough filled with sautéed chicory or broccoletti [which is then] baked.”
To learn more about the region’s cuisine, the cooking school Grano & Farina holds immersive farm-to-table classes in Montopoli di Sabina, where you can visit local farmers, learn to forage and prepare a meal from freshly picked produce. “Our approach is skill and science-based,” says Julia Ficara, who describes the Sabina region “as a hidden gem, like a little Tuscany” and is co-owner of the school with her husband, chef Pino Ficara. “Classes are for a maximum of six people and students tend to have a real foodie inclination,” she says. [Grano & Farina also has a location in Rome, with lessons held Thursday to Saturday. There are a number of online classes, too, like “Mastering Egg Pastas” and “Crostate della Nonna,” as well as the possibility for customized lessons.)
Where to Go
About a 15-minute drive away from Ecofattorie Sabine is Casperia, a medieval hill town (with a car-free historic center) that overlooks a vast swath of Lazio countryside. Like many parts of the Sabina its history is long—Roman ruins are nearby—and eventful, says James Johnstone, who gave us a smartly-narrated tour of the village, explaining its development during the Middle Ages when fortified castles and towns arose to protect against foreign invasion. Casperia’s walls were particularly effective, “a castello inespugnabile,” says Johnstone, since “it it was never successfully taken by siege, a historic honor it shares [in the region] with Palombara Sabina.”
For those with limited time for an initial exploration of the Sabina, Johnstone recommends, in addition to Casperia, visiting Fara in Sabina for the excellent state-of-the-art archeological museum “with amazing displays of ancient Sabine ceramic and metal artifacts.” He also suggests heading to Farfa, a short drive away, to see the medieval Abbey of Farfa, in its heyday a powerful fiefdom, and now one of the area’s most important landmarks.
Johnstone also suggests Torri in Sabina, “a beautiful hill town in a picture-perfect setting. Within its territory is the Sanctuary of Vescovio, the ancient cathedral church of Sabina, which has some exquisite medieval frescoes. Located right beside the old church is L’Oasi di Vescovio, one of the best places to eat in the area.” Other destinations of interest nearby, Johnstone says, are the twin castle towns of Rocchette. [still inhabited] and Rocchettitine.
*Updated December, 21, 2021.