Ashley and Jason Bartner will teach you the secret of Italian cooking

Jason and Ashley Bartner work together to prepare traditional Italian pizzas for the guests of their agriturismo and cooking school. By continuing the local culinary traditions, the ex-patriot couple hopes to inspire others to eat locally and seasonally. (photo by Leah De Graaf)

“Simplicity.” In that one word Jason Bartner sums up his style of cooking. Jason, co-owner and chef of La Tavola Marche Organic Farm, Inn, and Cooking School, specializes in transforming the freshest of local Le Marche ingredients into five-course Italian meals.

“I take the freshest ingredients I can and I do the least to them,” says Jason, as he leans against a stone archway dividing the kitchen from the entry room in his 300-year-old farmhouse. “It has taught me as a cook, it is not what I do, but what I don’t do that makes a dish better.”

La Tavola Marche is tucked into the Apennine Mountains about 6 miles northwest of Piobbico. Here, guests learn to prepare local and seasonal dishes of the Le Marche region. Jason, who trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York, and his wife, Ashley Bartner, formerly member relations director at a high-end New York club, have created a portal for travelers and locals alike to immerse themselves in the simple Italian way of life.

Take their regular Thursday pizza night, for example. In the early morning, Jason mixes together milk, olive oil, beer, and flour, then rolls the dough into six-inch spheres and places them in covered plastic containers. As the dough rises, Jason gathers onions, peppers, mushrooms, olives, and tomatoes, mostly from the couple’s garden, for chopping. He places other toppings such as sausage, anchovies, rosemary, and prosciutto in bowls and sets them outside in the center of long oak tables opposite his outdoor stone oven.

[pullquote] It is not what I do, but what I don’t do that makes a dish better.[/pullquote]As the agriturismo’s guests return in the early evening from their adventures, Jason dusts the tables with flour. He hand tosses each ball of pizza dough into 12-inch circles and places them on the dusted tables. Ashley, answering questions from guests and observing from the side, throws Jason a towel to soak up the sweat gathering on his brow. With all the toppings laid out before him, Jason quickly spoons tomato sauce onto each circle. He then shovels the first pizza of the night into the oven where a white-hot crackling fire blazes.

A family of four Americans surrounds Jason’s working area, quizzing him as he prepares the pizza. A Canadian couple, who spent the day in Urbino, takes photos of Jason working, and two Kiwis ask Jason to toss another pizza in the air just one more time. At last, a dozen of Jason and Ashley’s Italian friends and neighbors drive up the way. Handshakes and hugs are exchanged, and the energy of the party increases with the mix of languages and laughter.

Guests of the agriturismo sit down to dinner with neighbors from town. (photo by Leah De Graaf)

Jason removes the pizzas one by one. Ashley stands near to sprinkle greens over the top and add the final touches. Then, a pie in each hand, she places them in front of her two dozen awaiting guests.

Pizzas of every kind—28 in all—flow from Jason’s oven: potato and ricotta; black olive, pepper, tomato and cucumber; cheese with wild greens; sausage and mushroom; salami piccante; onion; cheese and prosciutto; capers and anchovies; and the simplest, olive oil and rosemary.

“This is the first time I have eaten a pizza cooked by an American,” says guest Giorgio Mochi, the mayor of Piobbico. “It’s as good as the Italian ones.”

Sto imparando ancora,” Jason says—I am still learning. The ingredients themselves make the dish, he says. “You can be the best cook in the entire world, but if you don’t have these beautiful things to play with, these beautiful ingredients, you can’t transform them into something that they are not.”

Jason and Ashley pride themselves in producing nearly all of their own “beautiful ingredients.” They grow ten varieties of tomatoes, as well as eggplants, onions, beans, berries, melons, and cucumbers. Ashley is responsible for their two roosters and 18 hens, which produce 16 eggs a day. The couple also has apple and nut trees as well as wild leafy greens surrounding their home.

The tree-covered Apennine Mountains, nearby Adriatic Sea, and central location of Le Marche are what first caught the attention of Jason and Ashley on their month-long honeymoon during the spring of 2006. But what drew them back was the opportunity to live among Italians. “I just kept saying, ‘We could live here,’ ” says Ashley. In 2007, they made the move.

As the only Americans in the area, the Bartners were soon invited over for dinners with neighbors and taught the main dishes of the region. Instead of showing up at their hosts’ home for finished meals, Jason would ask to learn first-hand by preparing dinner with his hosts. These neighbors and friends from the surrounding towns of Urbania and Piobbico had the greatest influence on Jason’s Italian cooking.

“The Italians are great teachers. If you show an interest they are more than willing to teach,” says Jason. Cardiologist Settimio Gaggi, Jason and Ashley’s neighbor and “adopted papa,” has been one of the greatest aids in getting to know the simple Italian way. “They’re very curious, and they want to learn,” says Gaggi. “They came to our house to have lunch and they wanted to learn the dishes they ate in our home. Sometimes they came to my wife, Rossana, and they asked her: ‘How do you cook this dish?’ For them I feel great fondness.”

For Jason and Ashley, getting back to the simple way of things has brought them even closer to their Italian neighbors and friends. In fact, it was while delivering homemade apple pies to welcome a new neighbor that Jason and Ashley first met Gaggi, the friend they now consider family. “Food is probably the most accessible way to know a culture and become connected with it,” says Ashley. “I think when you get to know the food of an area, you get to know a bit of their history, too.”

As Jason places the last two pizzas of the night in front of his Italian guests, the crowd erupts with cheers. “Che la pizza era buona!” says Giorgio Mochi—the pizza was very tasty! Jason bows and waves his thanks. Applause fills the cool evening air.

La Tavola Marche
Agriturismo Ca’Camone
Via Candigliano
61046 Piobbico, Italy
331 525 2753

This article is from Urbino Now magazine’s Mangia Bene section, which explores the ingredients, cuisine, and food traditions that distinguish Urbino and the Le Marche region. Please view more magazine articles or order a complete printed copy of Urbino Now.

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