BY ROBIN HOWARD | PHOTOGRAPHY BY HOLGER OBENAUS
Recently, an Italian sommelier brought me a good glass of Brunello di Montalcino wine. With a mischievous grin, he also produced a delicious silver bowl of Doritos and waited while I tried them together. The combination was sublime. “Italy and America, we are a good team,” he said. This is a sentiment I believe deeply and one that I’ve heard before from Donatella Della Porta, co-owner of one of Charleston’s retail and cultural gems, The Hidden Countship.
When I first met Donatella and her husband, Giulio, five years ago, they had just put the finishing touches on their elegant boutique, secreted away in a historic home on Burns Lane. The Della Portas was on a whirlwind tour of the American South when they instantly fell in love with Charleston’s magic. They bought two properties and began the complicated process of importing Giulio’s family heirlooms to fill them. Then they had the idea to turn one of the features into a boutique where they could offer Italian treasures made by artisans with no other representation in the United States. Two shipping containers later, a store was born. “In Italy, America is an icon. Artisans are so proud to have their work sold here, and Americans appreciate the beauty and workmanship,” Donatella says.
The Hidden Countship is full of handmade Italian jewelry, paper, linens, ceramics, art, and clothing—beautiful things that would require an extra suitcase for the return trip from Italy. Hidden though it is, the boutique quickly became the go-to gift store for Italophiles. The Della Portas have long family traditions of art patronage and preservation, and both harbor a deep reverence for Italian craftsmanship.
Visit The Hidden Countship, and you’re likely to be greeted by Donatella herself (and Arturo, the dog, if you’re lucky). Notice the stack of vibrant silk scarves on the table in front of you. These are the work of artist Ferdinando Ambrosino, who visited Charleston because of his friendship with the Della Portas. Ambrosino’s pure silk scarves are produced in Italy according to ancient methods; pigments for the colors are made in the same way they were made for fine Renaissance paintings. The artworks on the scarves are reproductions of paintings that depict the artist’s favorite Italian tableaus. The result of the collaboration is a wearable work of Italian art.
The Hidden Countship is housed in a historic Charleston Single House, so you move through the rooms from front to back. In the front room, you’ll also find one-of-a-kind jewelry made from bronze coins that date to the Roman Empire. The Della Portas bought the coins at auction, then had them framed in gold by Umbrian goldsmith Marco Dominici. Not to be missed are the glass reproductions of ancient Tuscan and Etruscan jewelry made by Marcello Fontana in Caprese, the town where Michelangelo was born.
In the former dining room, a large farmhouse table holds an impressive collection of fine table linens, napkins, and towels by Pardi and Pascucci, some of which are made exclusively for The Hidden Countship. Also made exclusively for the store are ceramics and tableware by Ceramiche Rometti in Umbria. Past the stairs, you’ll discover Italian handmade stationery and journals, olive wood cutting boards and serving pieces, men’s fashion, leather desk accessories and, finally, women’s fashion. This is not a department store Italian fashion—it’s more authentic. The store carries luxurious cashmere shawls and one or two pieces from a handful of talented Italian designers. The Hidden Countship is the only place in the United States where you can buy clothing by designers such as Maria Luisa Scrivani and handbags by Frederico Price.
The Della Portas are not merely agents for these Italian artisans; they’re patrons. On frequent trips to Tuscany and Umbria, they check on the craftsmen they represent. In true Italian fashion, the couple has always been more concerned with relationships and preserving tradition than they are about profit. “Our business is really about friendships,” Donatella says.
Indeed it is. As the Della Portas celebrate the fifth anniversary of The Hidden Countship, they are surprised to find that their boutique has become much more than a store. Today, the pink house at 21 Burns Lane is a critical, and exuberant, cultural hub for Italian travelers, expats, dignitaries and the Americans who love them. “It is much more than a store,” Donatella says. “It’s a meeting point.”
Italian culture has had a welcome presence in Charleston for many years, starting with Spoleto Festival USA in 1977 and expanding with the Nuovo Cinema Italiano Film Festival in 2006. In January, Charleston’s bond with Italy became even stronger with the inception of the Charleston branch of the Dante Alighieri Society, one of only nine in the United States. Established in 1889, this organization aims to unite people who love the Italian language and culture, regardless of their ethnic origins, religious beliefs, or ideologies.
Donatella was named the honorary president of the Charleston branch; so naturally, the home of the society became the second floor of The Hidden Countship. In January, the Society kicked off the festivities with a ceremony attended by Dottoressa Gloria Marina Bellelli, the general counsel of Italy for the southeastern United States; Mayor John Tecklenburg; Claudio Pastor, director of Dante Alighieri, Miami; and Ferdinando Ambrosino, the celebrated painter, and sculptor from Naples.
Upcoming member events include lectures on Dante and Machiavelli, a celebration of Italian Republic Day and a meet and- greet with an Italian master blacksmith. In July, the society will host a themed “Voyage to Italy” cocktail party, where attendees have six minutes to tell their best Italy story.
Donatella and Giulio Della Porta say they instantly fell for Charleston, and it’s not a stretch to say that Charleston fell just as quickly for them. From the treasures shared through The Hidden Countship to the delightful and generous cultural exchanges, the Della Portas and Charleston, like Italy and America, will always be a good team.