We Bought an Italian Inn!

Jason and Ashley Bartner dropped their fast-paced careers in New York City and founded an inn and locavore cooking school in Marche, Italy, right next door to Tuscany. Here’s how it all happened.

by Brad Tuttle

Within weeks of returning from their honeymoon in Italy and jumping back into "the New York City hustle," as they call it—which included 6-day work weeks and 45-minute subway commutes from their apartment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn—Jason and Ashley Bartner began looking into the possibility of leaving the U.S. for good. They'd traveled all over Italy, making the requisite stops in Rome and Venice, touring the glass factories on Murano, and even taking a hot air balloon ride over the Tuscan towns of Montisi and Cortona at sunset. But it was a little-appreciated region called Marche (pronounced "mark-ay") that felt like home to them.

Spooling out between the Appenine mountains in the west and the Adriatic Sea in the east, the remote region—Italy’s vaunted train system barely makes a dent here—is a hilly patchwork of farmlands, vineyards, and wild uninhabited stretches that roll steadily eastward toward lovely seaside towns like Fano, once held by Julius Caesar. Narrow, 2-lane roads pick their way through seemingly endless fields of grazing sheep and cows, and ford hundreds of clear streams flushing water from the mountains. Travelers rounding a remote bend may stumble upon well-preserved medieval cities like Urbino, a former Renaissance powerhouse still crisscrossed with pretty cobblestone lanes that repose in the shadows of church steeples. To the Bartners, the region had everything that drew adoring crowds to Tuscany and Umbria, Marche's neighbors directly to the west. Only Marche, miraculously, didn't have the crowds.

At top, the inn’s pool is filled with mineral-rich water from a natural spring on the property; at bottom, a shot of the Bartner’s neighborhood near the town of Piobicco At top, the inn’s pool is filled with mineral-rich water from a natural spring on the property; at bottom, a shot of the Bartner’s neighborhood near the town of Piobicco (Ashley Bartner)"When we first saw the beautiful landscapes and the charming towns where no one spoke English and we were the only Americans,” says Jason, “It was like you'd imagine Tuscany was 40 years ago, before the tourist crush." So, in the spring of 2006, Ashley found herself in front of her computer, window shopping for properties in Italy. "We thought, 'What the hell,'" says Ashley, "why not see what we could buy there?"

The couple had only been married a few weeks, and neither had reached the age of 30, but they weren't just following the romantic whims of naïve newlyweds. Jason, a tireless charmer with a big smile and linebacker’s build, had trained with Jacques Pepin and had settled in as an Executive Chef in Manhattan. Ashley, whose olive skin and dark hair fit in seamlessly with the Italian locals, worked in hospitality for a major resort company. As a team, they had all the makings to start a business. Friends thought it was just a lark. But the couple returned to Italy twice in the next 9 months, and in late 2007, the Bartners decided to buy an old, still-functional mill for about the same price as a decent 1-bedroom in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, after the surveyors had been paid and most of the paperwork completed, the deal fell apart. “At the time, we were on the verge of a global recession, and there were all these stories circulating about Americans with bad credit defaulting on their mortgages," says Jason. The sellers got cold feet, leaving Ashley and Jason heartbroken—and with only one day left on their last planned trip to Italy.

“We told our realtor to show us any place owned by someone willing to sell to us," says Jason. They wound up touring a  3-story stone farmhouse surrounded by meadows, truffle-filled woods, and fields of wild edible greens and alfalfa. There was also a swimming pool fed by a natural spring on the property, and a small stone cottage (perfect for a couple!) next to the main house. Twenty minutes after stepping foot on the property, Ashley and Jason stood in the kitchen downing shots of grappa to celebrate a deal on the purchase of their new home. This time, the closing went smoothly. The couple from New York City were now the proud owners of a farmhouse estimated to be 400 or 500 years old, set on 250 fertile acres in Marche, Italy. And truth be told, they had no earthly idea how to run it...

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