A bouncing tricolor Australian shepherd named Stella greeted us at Campo di Bella and then trotted off. Our car skidded to a stop in the gravel parking lot as our three children flung open the doors to run after her through the tall grass.
I was thrilled that an Italian-style agriturismo, or agricultural tourism, had opened its doors less than an hour southwest of Madison, Wis., in the rolling hills near Mount Horeb. Our city kids seemed equally excited; they jumped into the farm life, befriended Stella, found two cats in the old barn and followed the bleating noises to a herd of sheep.
Campo di Bella is the dream of Marc and Mary Ann Bellazzini, who grew up in Chicago, but left the city to pursue life in the country on 20-plus acres of pristine forest and farmland.
“We just kind of dove into becoming farmers,” Mary Ann said. “We started out being a CSA [community-supported agriculture], providing vegetables for 20 weeks and then we’d get a membership fee. As that program grew, we got requests from some of our members that we cook for them. We’d been providing a weekly newsletter with recipes.” This slice of Italy in the Scandinavian stronghold of Dane County suddenly challenged the dominance of lutefisk dinners with locally sourced tortellini en brodo.
Marc and Mary Ann cooked Italian meals off-site at a church fellowship hall in nearby Cross Plains. “If the Badgers or the Packers weren’t playing, we’d sell out,” she said.
They branched out into raising animals. The hens provided the eggs and the Old English Babydoll Southdown sheep were “our little lawn mowers.” Once the sheep started munching on the grapevines, they were banished to their fenced-in area. The six ducks “just went to the market; they’ll be on a plate sometime soon.”
By 2014, their vines began producing abundant bunches of grapes. “We had to decide if we wanted to go commercial or produce wine just for ourselves.” Rather than making meals in the local Lutheran church basement, the Bellazzinis opened their restaurant and wine house on the farm in 2014.
The restaurant is open strictly on weekends all year-round, with a special menu of seasonally based, locally or organically sourced food. “The Italian influence is at the core of what we do,” Mary Ann said.
Her family hails from near the culinary capital of Modena, in Emilia-Romagna, known for its balsamic vinegar. Marc’s is from just over the Apennine Mountains in Tuscany. I assumed the recipes would be mostly from Emilia-Romagna, but Mary Ann explained, “We choose what we like to make.”
Sure, they have the occasional tortelloni and risotto, but she hopes to make trippa (the lining of a cow’s stomach) and loves their version of liver pâté on crostini.
In the summer of 2018, they opened a guest room above the restaurant that can be rented when the snow isn’t flying. We signed up right away for one of the last warm weekends. Mary Ann said they would be unable to dig out guests quickly in the event of a snowstorm. (But would it be so terrible to be stuck in this idyllic setting with the best food in the county?)
The pigs are loose!
When we arrived, Marc was busy preparing dinner in the kitchen as Mary Ann fretted about the escape of three pigs. The animals had broken through a fence and were sunbathing in the squash fields, she said. She and her two boys couldn’t round them up and Stella would only scare them. Later she confessed, “we’re going to take a break from hog farming for this winter. We need to reinforce the fences.”
Despite the constant chores of running a farm, somehow they were able to host a fantastic dinner, with the evening’s menu based on specialties from Florence: Tuscan white beans with Florentine strip steak, cherry tomato salad and apple tart. My son Eilif confessed, “I wanted to become a vegetarian, but I can’t stop eating this bistecca alla fiorentina. Are you sure you’re going to eat yours?”
The best part was after we indulged in this first-class dinner and the fabulous homemade red wine, we could just climb the steps to our plush beds. Mary Ann explained that their agriturismo is like a farm stay, but Campo di Bella is the only one that she knows of in the U.S. with a full-fledged restaurant.
Should we open our own?
I wondered if my family should follow the Bellazzinis’ lead and open an agriturismo in Minnesota, so I asked their son Matteo if living on the farm is a lot of work.
“You have no idea,” he said, shaking his head and repeating the sentiment. “You have no idea how much work this is!”
I felt a bit guilty for enjoying myself, but Mary Ann said her boys’ childhood on the farm “will provide them with endless skills of what they want to do in the future.”
Marc and Mary Ann return to Italy at least once every two years to visit Marc’s relatives, stay in the family house they inherited in Tuscany, pick up new recipes and visit Mary Ann’s relatives in the hills south of Modena.
Although I dream of renting their Tuscan villa, we needn’t go any farther than southern Wisconsin for a similar experience.
Eric Dregni is a professor of English at Concordia University St. Paul and the author of several books, including “You’re Sending Me Where?”