Breakfast and a bath at Belmond Villa San Michele

colazione

Bellissima torta ai frutti di bosco

IMG_4806

Breakfast is on La Loggia’s terrace overlooking Florence.

When we are on vacanza, we tell ourselves that it is okay to indulge in four hotel breakfasts each morning. For some reason, our appetites multiply in direct proportion to the length of the spread, and if I had zero self-control, I might still be at the breakfast table at Belmond Villa San Michele. Perhaps that is why I am devoting a post solely to breakfast, and also to our sumptuous bathroom and the divine turndown service. (Please do refer to previous posts for photos and summaries of the lush grounds and also aperitivi hour.) The property boasts many magnificent characteristics: the meticulously manicured terraced gardens and pathways, the ancient structure itself with airy salon rooms and a scrupulously restored fresco of ‘The Last Supper,’ and the wholly encapsulating view: blue skies for breakfast and an impressionist’s menage of pastels at sunset.

In the morning, after the sun rises over Fiesole, guests trickle onto the veranda overlooking Florence to begin their day with breakfast and a view. Everything on offer is delivered from nearby Tuscan farms or otherwise grown or prepared on site; nothing is presented unless it is at the height of its season. The frutta di stagione is a beautiful assorted rainbow, and while many other Italian hotels offer very little fruit at breakfast, (Italians tend to keep it simple with a brioche), the frutta offerings at Belmond Villa San Michele make up for any previous hotel breakfast that may have been lacking in this category. Juicy green figs, bright pink grapefruit and orange, Italian plums, ripe melon, and the most comforting, flavorful stewed fruit: pears stewed with sage, apples stewed with cinnamon, as well as the last of the season’s peaches.

IMG_3917

Crumble con ficchi.

IMG_3919

Torta senza zucchero con pesche.

IMG_3921

Everything is better in Italy, colazione at Belmond Villa San Michele.

The kitchen staff is up early to bake dozens of fresh fruit cakes and various types of breakfast cookies. There is even a buckwheat cake, and choices for gluten-intolerant guests. At a property overflowing with bygone era charm, the food and beverage team are highly aware of the modern travelers needs and desires. There are fresh juices, nuts, cereals, all the different kinds of milk and milk substitutes you can think of, as well as a whole other table devoted to the savory: Tuscan cheeses, enough salami options to go head to head with your local salumeria, an oversized basket of various freshly baked breads, bright red tomatoes, eggs… need I go on? Each item is ready for it’s close up, and each is the highest quality that one could possibly find.

Guests can also order from the menu, which has plenty to choose from for the health-conscious. There are vegetable juices, egg white omelets with dark leafy greens, and countless other finely prepared options. No stone is left unturned at Belmond Villa San Michele, beginning with welcome aperitivi.

vsm welcome

Benvenuto a Belmond Villa San Michele: A warm Tuscan welcome with prosecco, olives, fruit, and hazelnuts.

My favorite room in the former monastery.

My favorite room in the former monastery.

Ours had its own private patio overlooking the terraced gardens and all of Florence below. The room was large by all European hotel standards, and the bathroom bigger than many Manhattan apartments. After a tour of our room, during which we were like two small children at an amusement park, our eyes darting from one point of interest to the next as if we only had all of five minutes to soak it up, we did as those on holiday are supposed to do: we sat on our terrace and remained motionless. We indulged in welcome prosecco, snacked on hazelnuts and fresh fruit, and allowed the Tuscan sun to kiss our bare shoulders. I believe this is called ‘relaxing,’ otherwise known as ‘luxuriating,’ an activity that Italians have mastered as if naturally predisposed. If it is indeed a genetic predisposition, I don’t think it’s swimming in many New Yorker gene pools.

So it is a wonder how powerful a hotel bathroom can be to someone on vacation. At home, bathing is a daily necessity: we allow ourselves mere minutes to shower and get ready each day. When on vacanza, especially when ensconced in a bathroom like ours at Belmond Villa San Michele, we exult in the warmth and deep relaxation of a different kind of purification. Our oversized room has two areas on opposite sides of the bath for each person: each person has a personal sink with personal toiletries (Bulgari and Penhaligon products), each person has their own hanging space, shelf space, and drawers; three times as much storage space as my last apartment. The oversized bathtub commands the center of the Tuscan-tiled room, with a giant urn filled with bath salts at the ready. The shower is large enough to host a small tea party, and I find it rather difficult to decide each day, the bath or the shower, so the only practical choice is to bathe more frequently.

Each day that we return to our room, the lotions, soaps, gels, and cleansers have all been replaced yet again, even if all I did was remove one from its basket. Turndown service is another exquisite affair: at Belmond Villa San Michele, it is so much more than fluffed pillows and fresh towels. Bedside mats are placed on either side of the bed, slippers wait for our warm feet, glass-bottled water is set on each bedside table next to a thoughtful pad and pen for any last minute thoughts. Memos are left on the desk detailing the next day’s  activities on offer, such as a personal training session through the Tuscan hillside, or a private grape-pressing afternoon with the sommelier. Rose petals spell out each of our initials on the bed, and each night, a romantic dessert is freshly prepared for one final sweet before buona notte: decadent chocolates, chocolate-covered strawberries, and other homemade delicacies. I am challenged to come up with a minute detail or some speck of an idea that Belmond Villa San Michele has not thought of already. This is the stuff of penultimate relaxation and magnificent beauty, just fifteen minutes from Florence, with the most superfluous breakfast, impeccable service, and glorious bathroom. See you next time, dopo. 

IMG_4735

Colazione a Belmond Villa San Michele: a magnificent spread fit for un re.

IMG_4738

Fruit tarts fresh from la cucina at Belmond Villa San Michele

IMG_3881

I adore the sketches made specially for Belmond Villa San Michele. Each menu is different.

IMG_3884

Colazione is no small affair at Belmond Villa San Michele. They have very creative breakfast biscotti; my favorite was the granola cookie.

IMG_3885

Colazione a Belmond Villa San Michele

IMG_3896

Stewed pears with sage- these were incredible.

IMG_3897

Apples and cinnamon / peaches

IMG_3838

The beautiful sketches at Belmond Villa San Michele seen on everything from the menus to the postcards in guest rooms.

IMG_4731

What is an Italian breakfast without a grand selection of salumi?

IMG_3905

Buona mattina Firenze, from Belmond Villa San Michele

IMG_3813

Our gorgeous oversized bath at Belmond Villa San Michele

IMG_3812

IMG_4699

They even knew which side of the bed was mine.

IMG_3878

Turndown treats of the evening: cioccolati

IMG_3879

When we returned to the room after dinner the first night, our initials were spelled with rose petals, glass bottled water sat on each nightstand, and a goodnight dolci awaited final temptations: one night it was assorted cioccolati, another night chocolate covered strawberries.

IMG_4971

Chocolate covered strawberries were a sweet touch at turndown.

IMG_3835

A few of the many conveniences available in each room at Belmond Villa San Michele.

IMG_3840

The shower (otherwise known as the tea parlor).

IMG_4703

Turndown service at Belmond VSM.

vsm colazione and rooms

The view from our terrace.

IMG_4853

The property overlooks all of Florence.

Il Santo Bevitore: Adding new dimensions to the Florentine restaurant scene

IMG_4940

Our quiet nook at Il Santo Bevitore on Via Santo Spirito.

Upon first bite, I detected that the chef at Il Santo Bevitore had spent a fair amount of time outside of Italy. Expect a more modern meal; this is not your average trattoria with bistecca all Fiorentina et al. The seasonal menu is championed by a group of young, inventive chefs and creative minds. Where else in Florence can one find pea soup with cacao nibs and ricotta? Add to that one of the most unusual dishes I have had in recent memory: stuffed calamari with mussels, clams and pomodori. The lamb chops were cooked to perfection, served with chilled braised fennel. Celebrated toques Pierluigi Campi and Claudio Salvatori challenge the Florence restaurant scene, introducing international elements to a city who has relied on a sturdy repertoire of regional cuisine for decades. Indeed, the chef worked in London for some time, and the restaurant’s reputation has continuously heated up; it is recommended by absolutely every Florentine you might ask, and when we arrived at 7:30 for our reservation (the first seating of the evening), there was already a line at the door.

The vibe is hip, as is most of the Oltrarno, and the very young staff are incredibly well-informed and knowledgable. Their posts are not part-time jobs while they figure out where they would like to go next; this is the new generation of young Italians who truly understand the all-encompassing importance and presence of quality food in their lives and in the lives of others. They are completely devoted to not only continuing this notion and lifestyle, but enhancing it with the international experiences that their parents may not have had. There was a definite lilt in our waiter’s accent. I asked him if he was half American, but he explained that he lived in Australia for some time, and he returned to Florence to work in the food industry. It seems that Il Santo Bevitore is a prestigious place for young, burgeoning chefs and students of wine.

Set in a prime location on Via Santo Spirito, a beautiful road parallel to the Arno which houses galleries and workshops by day and incredible restaurants by night, Il Santo Bevitore is a large space as far as Florentine restaurants go. The main room is oversized, and as with acoustics in large rooms, it tends to become quite loud. I suggest requesting a table (in advance) in the quieter, intimate corner room just beyond, rustic in feel but airy still, with two walls of windows. One table in particular is highly coveted: the romantic twosie nestled into the corner, private, quiet, and set against a window looking out on Via Santo Spirito. After our cozy dinner came to a close, we could barely say goodbye to the gracious gentleman manning the reservation sheet at the bar. In true Italian fashion, he was completely charming to each of the five fabulous Italians surrounding him, some just saying hello and having a chat while others remained eager to sweep up a hopeful cancellation. I managed to squeeze in for a kiss on each cheek and a special grazie for the most enviable table in the house.

IMG_4944

Il Santo Bevitore

IMG_4946

Pops of fun art at Il Santo Bevitore.

IMG_4947

The more intimate corner room at Il Santo Bevitore

IMG_4959

The bar in the main room at Il Santo Bevitore

IMG_4963

Unusual, sapori fantastici: stuffed calamari with clams and mussels at Il Santo Bevitore

il santo lamb chop with fennel

Perfectly cooked lamb chops: not an easy feat.

IMG_4965

Perfectly cooked lamb chops at Il Santo Bevitore

IMG_4951

Pane at Il Santo Bevitore

IMG_4967

Ready for its close-up: stellar stuffed calamari with clams and mussels

IMG_4969

Such an inventive dish, I had to snap away from a few angles: Stuffed calamari at Il Santo Bevitore



IMG_4949 IMG_4954

Wandering elegante Brera, un quartiere storico in Milano

IMG_5267

Brera is known as one of Milan’s most elegant neighborhoods; it is old Milan, and the beautiful ancient buildings are vibrant with color and architectural detail.

In this bellissimo quartiere of central Milan, each cobbled road is a photo-op. For the most part, cars are not allowed, leaving the mix of wide and narrow vie to the chic Milanese who live, work, shop, eat, and play in this lively, historic neighborhood. Restaurants are situated one right after another, all competing for passersby with tempting outdoor tables. At night, these ‘restaurant rows’ are packed with aperitivi-seeking Milanese. The city is incredibly social; when the sun begins to set on the golden buildings, Brera brims with locals who enjoy the night. They like to be out, surrounded by friends and soon-to-be-friends, glass in one hand, wild gestures simulated in the other. Their conversations are without gaps; it’s all rapid-fire speech and laughter. As we walk by, careful not to twist an ankle on the cobbles while simultaneously taking care not to get run over in the center bike line, we take mental notes of their effortless style so that we may attempt to emulate their flair and urbanity. From the hair to the jewelry to the shoes, the Milanese do not dare step foot outside of their palazzi sans modus operandi. That is to say, you will not find them tromping around these cobblestones in lululemmons and running sneakers.

Beyond nightlife, Brera is one of those very special neighborhoods that offers everything in one: beautiful boutiques with Italian merchandise not found elsewhere, tea shops meant for lingering breakfasts and afternoons with a friend, art galleries galore, historic buildings and captivating architecture, a university, a library, and bohemian-like vintage shops. Walk slowly down the poetically curved Via Madonnina, and you will get a sense of the neighborhood as it was in the 18th century, lined with workshops and manufacturers. Let your eyes gaze upwards at the ornamental buildings- the arches, wrought iron balconies, decorated cornices, and the vivid colors. Stock up on Italian cashmere and wander into an art gallery or two.

Don’t miss:

Manee: Unique footwear

Barbara di Davide: Cashmere sweaters and well-priced leather bags designed and sold by Barbara, one of the sweetest and most classy shop-owners in all of Milan

Lunaria Cashmere:  Luxurious cashmere sweaters and scarves

Dr. Vranjes: Candles and diffusers used in many of the five-star hotels all over Italy, also known as scented decor 

IMG_5266

A fuori di Luisa Beccara a Brera

Milan

Look up. Giallo, blu, e verde.

IMG_5268

Suits in Brera and a fortune teller in the background.

IMG_5269

Outside Manee, a famous unique footwear store on Via Madonnina

IMG_5272

Via Madonnina in Brera, un quartiere di Milano

IMG_5263

Boutique shopping in Brera

IMG_5274

Colors, balconies, arches, and a lot of stone in Brera.

IMG_5276

Shopping in beautiful Brera

IMG_5277

Via Madonnina, Brera.

IMG_5278

Cashmere sweaters at Barbara di Davide on Via Madonnina

IMG_5279

Shopping at Barbara di Davide in Brera

IMG_5281

I adored this beautiful negozio, and Barbara is the warmest, loveliest shop owner. At Barbara di Davide.

IMG_5283

Just enough whimsical and plenty of ladylike at Barbara di Davide

IMG_5284

Femininity e fiori at Barbara di Davide

Brera

All kinds of wheels in Brera.

shopping in brera

At the elegant Lunaria cashmere store in Brera

IMG_5376

Lunaria Cashmere in Brera

Shopping in Brera

Beautiful displays at Lunaria Cashmere in Milan’s Brera district.

IMG_5373

Scarves, sweaters, and coats at Lunaria Cashmere

IMG_5379

The beautifully designed Lunaria Cashmere store.

IMG_5372

Lunaria Cashmere in Brera

shopping in brera

My favorite (and apparently most of Italy’s favorite) scent diffusers at Dr. Vranjes.

IMG_5261

La Reggia Degli Etruschi: The steep climb is worth it for the romantic views, Tuscan fare, and the most gracious of hosts (your hamstrings will thank you later)

IMG_4667

Looking down on Fiesole from outside of La Reggia degli Etruschi

IMG_4673

Our table at La Reggia degli Etruschi

IMG_4659

The arduous climb, (how long do you think it is, really?)

IMG_4661

A leveled park halfway up the pedestrian road.

IMG_4672

Views of Fiesole from our table

fiesole

A church at the top of the hill.

IMG_4665 IMG_4669 IMG_4678

Tuscans think nothing of these two little words: ‘little hill.’ “Oh, the shortcut is just up a little pathway,” the receptionist says nonchalantly. Halfway through the death valley climb laden with loose pebbles and craggy roots, a dozen near-twisted ankles, we assume we must have taken the wrong path. “Oh, yes, it’s a little rough,” was the verification we received when we inched our way back down sans fatalities. So when we learned that cars were not allowed to drive up the hill to the highly reputable ristorante in Fiesole, La Reggia Degli Etruschi, we were a tad apprehensive.

Rest assured, the climb is made of flat slabs of stone. All it takes is a little willpower and steady breathing. Our hamstrings are feeling it halfway up, but we are in good company, and judging by the insouciant locals at our sides, this kind of climb is as quotidian in Tuscany as strolling through Soho in New York. Fiesole, is, after all, a hill town. When we arrive at the charming restaurant overlooking the surrounding hills, the outdoor terrace lined with greenery and candles, we are just in time for sunset. The sky is ombre in shades of pink and purple, and the green treetops of the countryside grow even more saturated in color.

We are greeted by the warmest Tuscan in the region. Leonardo takes Italian hospitality to a new level; it seems as if he has been waiting for us for months, that we have finally arrived, and how pleased he is that we made it and how wonderful it is to see us and how thankful he is that we are dining with him on this most exquisite September evening. We opt for a table a fuori overlooking the vista so that we can take advantage of the dreamy landscape, the fresh country air, and the entertainment garnered by people-watching. Lovers stroll by the restaurant en route to the top of the hill; they sit on the stone wall overlooking all of Fiesole and are in no rush to head back down.

We watch a mix of locals and visitors arrive at La Reggia. Leonardo’s heart seems to break when he has to gently turn away anyone without a reservation. His trattoria is clearly one of the best in the area; and judging by the amount of Tuscans dining there that night, including a family sitting next to us who have brought Leonardo an overdue gift and news of their bambini, his success is due to more than his panoramic view and inherent charm. We suspect it must be the food too. Leonardo joins his hands in a pleading gesture and asks if he can please bring us something special from the kitchen? Certo, Leonardo, certo. While we wait, we take note of the colorful, mismatched glassware and plates, most definitely made by a local Tuscan artist. The oranges, greens, and blues reflect the warm-colored buildings of Fiesole, the verdant treetops, and the painterly sky.

A typical Tuscan aperitif arrives: juicy moon-shaped melon, prosciutto, mini bruschetta classica with fresh tomatoes, and spicy Tuscan berries. Afterwards, we feast on simply dressed dishes such as Tuscan beans mixed in local olive oil, a lovely green salad, grilled eggplant and zucchini, and the most addicting pasta dish. I was full on verdure (and still full from previous days of Italian food), but I could not get enough of Leonardo’s hand cut pasta with zucchini, saffron, and sedano. I soon felt as though I would have to be rolled down the hill. Alas, at the end of the evening, Leonardo arranged for his friend to drive us back to our hotel in Fiesole. His is the only car allowed on the pedestrian-only road, and with this most accommodating gesture, we truly felt like Leonardo’s most honored, and well-fed, guests. La Reggia degli Etruschi is not to be missed on any Tuscan trip, just try not to wear heels.

IMG_4685

A romantic setting at La Reggia degli Etruschi

IMG_4687

The top of the hill has panoramic views over Fiesole

IMG_4689

A gift from Leonardo at La Reggia degli Etruschi

IMG_4692

A Tuscan feast (sans bistecca)

IMG_4696

Fresh pasta with zucchini, saffron, and sedano

Firenze Number Nine: In the heart of Florence but away from the crowds (is that possible?)

IMG_3717

At Firenze Number Nine, the entrance rooms are adorned in neutral colors and classic Florentine materials including stone and marble. They are juxtaposed with bright flowers, oversized chairs draped in deep purple velvet, and pops of orange as accent color.

Via dei Conti is one of those dreamlike, narrow, gently curving streets in Florence’s Centro Storico. It is a compilation of outposts: a trattoria, a cafe, a warm and inviting new vegan-ish restaurant (they have vegan offerings but it is not exclusively vegan), a vintage store, and a bed and breakfast. If we did not arrive by taxi at the exact address, we would have walked right by the nearly secretive Firenze Number Nine, a luxury hotel that has thus far kept itself quite under the wraps. Even after the first day, I found myself walking right by it. Swing open the wide glass door, step into the chic entrance room of the restored 17th century palace, and find yourself in the capable hands of Simone, an Yves Saint Laurent look-alike, complete with subdued manner, elegant eyewear, and a calming voice. The buzzy Centro Storico lay waiting for you on the other side of the glass, but for now, take a moment to re-center yourself inside this oasis in the heart of a sometimes frenzied city.

IMG_3719

The entrance room at Firenze Number Nine.

The staff are young, attentive, and excellently trained for their posts in luxury service. They speak in relaxed tones, they anticipate your every question and request, and due to the small and manageable size of the hotel, they give you their undivided attention. The mood is relaxed, however, and the hotel is set up so that guests feel as though they are at home with an added bonus of fantastic service. There is no stately check-in desk; it is a more casual interaction and process, a concept which has become more the norm in luxury hotels. I dare not even use the word ‘lobby,’ which feels so old-fashioned and formal. Each time we returned to the property, we felt as though we were entering our own living room filled with friends and family.

Studio Pieratteli Architecture designed the hotel in 2012 with their signature focus on materials, shapes, transparency, and lightness, which altogether create a feeling of floating in space. The decor juxtaposes elements of the renaissance with the uber contemporary and modern. The entrance rooms are adorned in neutral colors and classic Florentine materials including stone and marble. They are harmonized with bright flowers, accented with pops of orange, and furnished with comfortable seating draped in deep purple and cream velvet. Just off of the main entrance room is a quieter sitting room designed for comfort;  a plump sofa and oversized velvet chairs surround a low cocktail table scattered with beautifully bound books. Floor to ceiling shelves offer guests reading material sorted by category: viaggia, l’arte, etc. It is the perfect room to decompress after hours on one’s feet or while waiting for a companion to come down from their room.

The immaculate guest rooms are the most modern areas. Purple remains the constant key accent color, with the rest of the room decorated in fresh, clean white. The bathrooms are a composition of dark gray tiles and white marble. Perhaps the intention was to offer the guest the most modern experience possible in terms of lighting and electricity, but I was confounded by the amount of power switches, and each time we entered the room and turned on one switch, every possible power outlet in the room flipped on as well, including the televisions. The bathroom proved equally complicated; although the bathtub in our first room (we were upgraded on our second night), was oversized and looked incredibly sumptuous and extremely tempting, we could not for the life of us figure out how to turn on the main faucet without soaking ourselves with the handheld shower. I found the bathrooms in our second room to be more smartly designed.

On the second night, we asked for a room with two separate beds, and without even requesting it, we were delightfully upgraded to the penthouse suite. Now we not only had our own beds, we each had our own floor. Upstairs, the master bedroom was a spacious loft with a king size bed and an oversized bathroom to match. We quickly discovered that having separate bathrooms is truly the key to a successful vacation, (at the very least, separate sinks.) I was glad that I had a handful of my own bath products, because although the service proved endlessly giving, the hotel lacked the usual array of complimentary toiletries.

IMG_4249

While the elevators are spacious for European city hotels, the wide stone staircase is far more interesting to ascend and descend, as it is lined with beautiful sketches of colorful birds; each an original print. The breakfast room was perhaps the most closed off, although it adjoins a small inner courtyard; it felt a tad stuffier than the rest of the airy building. The breakfast was a typical Tuscan hotel spread with far more carbs, cakes, and cheeses than fresh fruit, but the cappuccino was outstanding; the best I had during the whole trip.

Downstairs, guests can take advantage of Firenze Number Nine’s urban spa and fitness center, so fantastic that one of the receptionists at Belmond Villa San Michele later asked us if we had discovered it. The exclusive wellness spa is complete with a sauna, a bio sauna, turkish bath, and whirlpool, perfect for rejuvenating weary feet and muscles after a day of wandering in the center.

It is my humble prediction that luxury travelers will soon discover Firenze Number Nine’s sleek, homey atmosphere, its ideal location, (blocks from Florence’s principal shopping areas and a ten minute stroll to the Arno), and it will become one of the most sought-after hotels in the Centro Storico. When next you find yourself at this piccolo gem, say ciao to Simone, Lapo, and Yanni.


IMG_3853Firenze Number Nine IMG_3847IMG_3848IMG_4221 IMG_4223 IMG_4225

Aperitivi at Belmond Villa San Michele

IMG_3866

A painter’s sunset over the hills of Fiesole and Florence at Belmond Villa San Michele

A wicked voice in my head tells me I am being lazy when I am sitting still for a bit too long, sans activity, project, adventure, or even a book. When I travel, I feel as though I should take advantage of every moment. There must be something in the air at Belmond Villa San Michele, high up in the hills overlooking Florence, because I finally feel quite content to sit still, to slow the constant motion, and to allow the scents and sounds to simmer my adrenaline. On this trip, I avow to lose track of time in a custom-designed lounge chair on the grassy eaves of Fiesole, listening to the quiet but spirited hum of my surroundings. I hear footsteps on white pebbles, leaves of lemon trees blowing, a match being lit for candles overlooking cypresses. I hear a shaker in the works, a man laughing deep from his belly, a bottle of wine being corked.

IMG_4586

While guests sip cocktails and nibble on Tuscan olives and hazelnuts, a cream-jacketed staff member lights candles on the stone wall overlooking Florence, each flame perfectly equidistant between terra-cotta pots planted with vibrant red fiori. The flames resemble fairy-tale lights as they sway this way and that in the evening breeze. Others amble alongside the stone wall, gazing out and away with upturned lips, as if nothing in the world could tumble them out of such a state of intangible serenity. Certo, this bliss is easily attributed to the view, the aura, the ways in which the property placidly appeals to all five senses, but as I sit there on that lawn, in my own illusory state, I secretly wonder if there is something chemical going on here. If so, I wonder if I can take it back to frenetic New York. Perhaps the Florentines sell it at the Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in the city center..

Back to reality, or this quixotic version of it at least. Here in utopia, each terraced vantage point is more sublime than the next, but the most popular spot for a sundowner is within earshot of the barman. Behind his low, dark-wood table beneath the fifteenth century eaves of La Loggia, he effortlessly creates Italian classics. Guests begin to congregate at the first signs of fading light. In early September, the sky is painterly; streaks of violet, orange, and pink make for starry eyes. The piano man is at his perch, and the aperol is front and center. The wine list is a mere 36 pages long, and is cleverly organized by red and white, by light, medium, and well-structured, by region, and a few other essential categories. After dinner, step through to the sitting rooms and have a peek inside the antique armoires: rare and delicate cognacs, grappas, amaro, and endless other refined digestifs wait their turn. In the late hours, the ambiance beneath the arches is every bit as elegant as it was hours ago, if only a streak more hazy. There is no rush; I am here to see the moment out, to eschew its finiteness. At least I can accomplish that. Ecco, I am being productive.

IMG_4613

Dinner with a view at La Loggia.

IMG_3852

A cream-jacketed staff member lights candles between terra-cotta pots.

IMG_4600

IMG_3863

Vintage bottle holders for a few Tuscan favorites.

IMG_3862

September skies in Fiesole.

IMG_3858

Inside the cave at Belmond Villa San Michele

IMG_4588

aperitiviIMG_4826IMG_3859
IMG_3846IMG_3865
IMG_4609 IMG_4610

Olio & Convivium: Tucked away in clear sight in the Oltrarno

Walk into any design studio, shoemaker, antique shop, or other working center of creativity in the Oltrarno, and most all of the resident mellow, humble artists will say that they rarely venture over to ‘the other side of the river.’ They avoid it for the duration of high season, leaving it instead to the masses of tourists that descend on the locus of art and history. They flood the most central streets, eager to soak in the city’s ancient culture, to check a renaissance statue or museum off their list, and to cram into the trattorias that they read about in their guidebooks. Yet I can’t help but wonder, (wonder- not wish for- there is a clear difference), why more have not flooded the streets of the Oltrarno, as they are just as beauteous and have far more interesting shops and wine bars, endless fabulous restaurants, and an ambiance immediately more local and authentic. I feel as protective over the neighborhood as the expats and the locals; I want to save it from the crowds. I want to move it farther away from the famed gelaterias at the end of each bridge.

IMG_3775

The elegant wine room at Olio & Convivium

Certainly the average visitor is unfamiliar with Convivium Firenze,the foremost catering company founded in1980. The Convivium team has a stellar reputation in Firenze for their exceptional catering. They bring their talents in décor, service, flavors, and aromas to events of all sort- fashion and gala affairs, political receptions, and convention dinners. Olio & Convivium, the intimate restaurant and shop in the city center, was an idea that came to fruition after many successful years in the Florentine catering business. The same level of perfection, creativity, and quality can be experienced within walking distance of art galleries, workshops, milliners, and of course, each of the traditional Florence attractions.

Wander into Palazzo Capponi on my favorite street, Via Santo Spirito, and you will experience a quiet elegance quite difficult to muster in today’s age of trendy and quirky restaurants, or at the other extreme, cold, charmless, and without character. Olio & Convivium is none of the above. In the cozy shop, you can pick up everyday necessities, such as thinly sliced cured meats, mozzarella, and pasta. It goes without saying that all of the prodotti are of superior quality: jars of dried tomatoes and sardines, bowls of olives, tins of tea, and bottles of honey neatly line the shelves. Shoppers can assemble gift boxes, or perhaps take an item or two home after a leisurely lunch. Busy Florentines can have their items delivered to their homes or offices. Walk past a case of antipasti, walls of olive oil and balsamico, jars of homemade biscotti, and a bassinet of bagged mozzarella sitting in cold water, and you might spot a few tables around a corner.

The dining room, beyond the dried pastas and condiments, is one of the most beautiful and elegant rooms I have discovered in my never-ending restaurant explorations. It is cozy, intimate, and warm, with tall ceilings and walls of over 250 pristinely displayed wine bottles. Two blackboards, one on either side, display the day’s specials- both food and wine.

IMG_3752

Both Convivium prodotti and other Florentine specialties are sold here.

As if the dining area is not serene enough, the service makes the experience all the more intimate. Angelo is the most gracious, patient host. He champions the service at Olio & Convivium with such natural flair that we immediately feel as though we are guests in his home. We tell him what we are in the mood for, and he makes thoughtful suggestions layered with friendly conversation, gentle humor, and quiet wit. He is swift, and his two other young servers are equally well-trained. Their synergy needs no speech; they work seamlessly together to make each patron’s experience first class minus the stuffiness.

Angelo is equally generous with the restaurant’s offerings. When we request shards of parmigiano, a munificent plate arrives, the rustic pieces served on the same size plate as our secondi, a suggestion of the cheese’s centrality and essentialness at every Italian dining experience. We order a green salad, fully expecting a basic bowl of greens, but to our great surprise, a beautiful plate of fresh leaves is presented. Angelo sets up a side table for our antipasti: the salad sits next to a quintessentially Tuscan offering of verdure sott’olio: mixed olives, small hot peppers stuffed with capers, tender artichokes (carciofi), raddichio, the most beautiful baby mushrooms, and tangy sun-dried tomatoes.

The specials of the day are on the blackboard, and in addition to these ever-changing options, the written menu changes every few days as well. On our first night, (we returned a second time in the same week), I order the sea bass with a cauliflower purée and an air of peach tea. Angelo assures me there is no cream and no butter: the puree is purely olive oil and cauliflower, certamente. The sea bass flakes at the delicate pressure of my fork, the cauliflower puree is none too thick nor too thin; and it is topped with one or two whole florets. The homemade tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms is exquisitely presented; the mushrooms are tender, the tagliatelle lightly dusted with black pepper and gently coated in fantastic Tuscan olive oil. One parsley stem sits atop the ribbons of al dente pasta.

On our second night, we try what quickly becomes the best duck we have ever had, cooked at a low temperature and accompanied by a shallot stew. It is another beautiful plate, creatively enhanced with subtle flavors that lead us to believe the chef may have studied outside of Italy. In fact, Angelo tells us that the main chef is away on his honeymoon, and the sous chef helms from Asia. The blackboard tells us the tagliatelle special is meat sauce senza pomodori; instead of a tomato base, the meat is cooked in wine. Intrigued, I allow Angelo to seduce us once again with the warm, al dente pasta. The dish is simple yet highly original, certainly a great many steps outside of the more predictable Tuscan menu items seen at many of the region’s restaurants, which have remain unchanged for decades.

Generosity and graciousness are part of the experience at Olio & Convivium, and Angelo does not let any guest rise from la tavola without a complimentary dessert tasting, whether a separate dolci has already been ordered or not. Here is an insider tip: the homemade biscotti alone are worth a visit. My favorite is the one with chunks of dark chocolate. Oh Angelo, I hope you save me one for la prossima volta (or two, or the whole jar… )

IMG_3778

Alla tavola: insalta fresca e verdure sott’olio.

IMG_3779

Light sea bass with a cauliflower pure (senza burro, certamente)

IMG_3782

Handmade tagliatelle with porcini: molto semplice with one sprig of parsley and perfectly tender porcini.

IMG_3784

Per dolce: succulent figs, warm strawberries, and dark chocolate cake.

IMG_3912

Bags of mozzarella in their bath.

IMG_3908

The main dining room at Olio & Convivium

IMG_3905

The first night we wandered in, this bowl of mozzarella was sitting at an otherwise empty table as if a renaissance painter were painting its portrait.

olio

Peek around the corner and you will find the tranquil dining room.

IMG_3903

Mista del produtti: jars of the best homemade biscotti I have ever had, coffee, cured meats, and flatbread.

At Belmond Villa San Michele, A Lush Landscape Floats on Tuscan Treetops

IMG_4501

IMG_4480

I wonder how many centuries it has taken for the landscape to become so full and lush. Rooms are built into the terraced landscape.

Belmond Villa San Michele is the kind of dreamy that gets earmarked for ‘one day.’ A member of the most exclusive consortium of luxury hotels, Leading Hotels of the World, Belmond VSM quietly reigns supreme from atop lush Fiesole. One minute we are dodging tourists seven rows deep in front of Rinascente. Fifteen minutes later, we have been transported to a dreamlike bubble that deserves its own air quality rating. We spill out of the shuttle at the helm of the main building, a fifteenth century monastery nestled into the most enviable of Florence-adjacent Tuscan hillsides. The structure, which looks as though it is sketched into the sky, something that I would frame and hang as part of a series in an entry foyer (in fact, this is what I plan to do with the wonderful sketch work that makes up the property’s menus and stationary), is tempered with a stone patio measuring the building’s width and dotted with oversized terra-cotta pots topped with red bulbs that reach heights taller than my sunhat.

Our luggage is magicked away, and while I know that I should follow its direction into the warm reception area and introduce myself to cream-jacketed gentlemen awaiting our arrival, gravity pulls me towards another stone terrace to my right, overlooking all of Florence. In the coming days, I struggle to pinpoint the property’s most magnificent characteristic: the meticulously manicured terraced gardens and pathways, the ancient structure itself with airy salon rooms and a scrupulously restored fresco of ‘The Last Supper,’ or the wholly encapsulating view: blue skies for breakfast and an impressionist’s menage of pastels at sunset.

IMG_4657

In fact, the structure and the sunsets are each so spettocolare that they deserve their own posts, which I will publish in good time. For this article, I will focus entirely on the exquisite grounds. (Google ‘spettocolare’ and your search results will be clad with glorious Italian sunsets.) Once tended to by Franciscan monks, the property is now maintained, to my great astonishment, by just a handful of gardeners. Upon countless wanderings through the geometric gardens, I can hardly believe that the entirety is cared for by anything less than an invisible team of twenty, (invisible because for all of this awe-inspiring perfection- not a stem out of place- I never once saw a pair of clippers, nor a rake, nor a leaf blower, nor a gardener for that matter.) The terraced gardens are dotted with lemon trees and fragrant with roses. The pool, on the uppermost level, enjoys panoramic views of the Arno Valley. La piscina is seclusion personified, and not just because it is only reachable by a great many steps, a characteristic I am accustomed to after many trips through Italy; it is a country of many steps, and those who climb are rewarded. I look forward to relaxing under an umbrella with one of the books on offer, lathered in Italian sunscreen (also on offer), with the sound of water cascading down the cliff into the pool as a most natural soundtrack.

An endless array of activities are specially designed for guests to enjoy at their leisure. One such out of the ordinary adventure is a tour of the precise locations used for Love on a Pillow, the Brigitte Bardot movie filmed at the property in 1962. Guests who are eager to conjure up a bygone era can take a Fiat 600 to Villa Gamberaia and the glorious San Miniato al Monte. I pause to recall if I packed a silk scarf with which to tie my hair back. 2014 has been the year of la dolce vita alla 1960s splendor at Belmond Villa San Michele, and quite a few of the activities are designed to call to mind the fervor of this time period. Belmond is renowned for creating such original ideas which are unique to each property and which rely on the excellence of its staff.

At Villa San Michele, Concierge Marizio Ammazzini is the resident magician. I like to think Ammazzini is Italian for Amazing, for Maurizio is just that. With charm and ease, Maurizio can organize any unique activity the traveling heart desires. While the tour of Florence’s famous confectioners in a three-wheeled electric car emblematic of the 50s and 60s may have been specific to the aforementioned theme, the property’s Cookery School is a classic activity available indefinitely. Each night, a memo highlights the next day’s offerings, and I find it difficult to turn down a private training session through the Tuscan hillside, using nature in lieu of gym props, the natural Chianti landscape as an incline instead of some awful whirring machine, especially after countless divine dinners in the city center. Then again, I cannot help but inquire after the famed Cookery School. Add to that an afternoon of grape pressing with the sommelier and plenty of time to simply relax and take advantage of a tranquility that can only be attributed to the one-time presence of monks; a people who clearly understood the importance of being secreted away above vibrant Florence, and I am spent.

IMG_3827

What I have discovered is that the sumptuous Belmond Villa San Michele is not just for ‘one day.’ One might think they should save a visit for a special occasion, but with the warm, amicable staff, the relaxed and convivial atmosphere, and the ease and speed with which the shuttle reaches the city center, I fully appreciate why it is a property that guests return to year after year. For whenever I desire to visit Florence (which is quite often), Belmond Villa San Michele is an ideal escape from the city, a place to center oneself amongst roses and cypress trees. After a morning swim and a hike through the forest, I am ready for the 15 minute descent down the hill for more Florentine adventures.

IMG_4763

Terraces with sweeping views at Belmond Villa San Michele

IMG_4761

Vantage points simply adorned with terra-cotta pots.

IMG_4801

Seating arrangements.

IMG_3807

Belmond Villa San Michele floats above Florence.

IMG_4496

at Belmond Villa San Michele

IMG_4851

The elegant driveway.

IMG_4769

The main building is an original fifteenth century monastery.

IMG_4782

Nestled into the hills above Florence.

IMG_4821

This way to alfresco breakfast, cocktails, and dinner at La Loggia.

IMG_4651

The brick patio at the front of the main building.

IMG_4485

Lemon trees dot the property.

IMG_4487 IMG_4488 IMG_4490 IMG_4492 IMG_4550IMG_4505IMG_4512
IMG_4618IMG_4649
IMG_4755 IMG_4765 IMG_4766 IMG_4779 IMG_4795 IMG_4804 IMG_3809 IMG_3825
IMG_3831IMG_4473

Cammillo: The perfect first meal in Florence

IMG_3749

Setting la tavola at Cammillo.

Starting a conversation with an Italian is as easy as breaking bread. My excitement for arrival in Florence builds as my ears fill with the sound of la bella lingua. Why shouldn’t the adventure begin at the gate? As an added benefit, I can practice my Italian before landing. Ten minutes later, we have made a few new Italian amici, Florentine natives who quickly discover that they have a few friends in common amongst themselves. They patiently listen to me run through my list of restaurants in the centro storico, and they offer their opinion on those that they know. One ever so friendly gentleman, flying home to Florence with his teenage son whose face lights up when offered a biscotti, suggests one of his favorite trattorie, Cammillo, instead of the more upscale restaurant I had reserved for that evening’s dinner. I email our hotel immediately (Firenze Number Nine), to seek their help in making the last-minute switch.

We arrive at about 8, early for Florentines, but the restaurant is already packed and a line has formed at the door. We politely ‘permesso‘ our way through to Chiara, whose grandparents opened Cammillo in the 1940s. She runs it now with her ever-so-polite and subdued husband, who travels through the rooms with a humble smile, quietly observing and ensuring the satisfaction and joviality of his patrons.

The restaurant is buzzy, the servers spend ample time with each table but work quickly between orders, and diners range from tourists from all corners of the world to local father and daughter, all prepared to dine on simple yet flavorful Tuscan fare in a hectic but convivial setting. The prices are moderate and the menu is massive. Pasta choices are endless, but after chatting with Chiara, I go on her suggestion to order one of the six or so plates of the day. This evening the pasta is linguine with a sauce made from three different varieties of clams, fresh from the Tuscan seaside, and zucchini from a nearby farm. After glimpsing a board of salami and succulent figs pass by our intimate table in the second room, we opt for the ficchi as well. Figs are one of my absolute favorite foods, (if you follow my instagram, you know that during the summer months my feed is a repetitive assortment of figs), and as they are a fleeting specialty, not even available via importation in the off-months, I know that I will be savoring the last of the season’s figs for the duration of the week.

The aforementioned fig dish arrives, and I devour the Italian green fruits with their juicy, garnet-colored centers. There is also a sort of toasted bread/fig creation; a delectable specialty that we use to soak up superb Tuscan olive oil. My mamma orders the fagioli with pomodori and shrimp. It is simple and good, but I prefer my perfectly al dente linguine. The flavors and texture of the clams and their sauce are outstanding; not overly salty, not overly fishy, not overly chewy. I clean my plate, knowing full well that I could handle a second bowl.

For dessert, we turn to our amiable waiter, who has only one suggestion: the torta di schiaccata con l’uva. This Sangiovese grape tart is a Tuscan specialty. The grapes are in high form in September, and my mom’s sweet tooth leans towards the tart. I am intrigued by the crostata with frutti di bosco, as my sweet tooth is somewhat more traditional, and I am determined to eat every last summer berry before the first freeze. As a solution to our indecisiveness, we order meta e meta, half of each, the most genius idea that should be used for all dessert menus across the world.

We are more than satisfied with both tarts; they are each some of the best dessert we have had in ages. The flaky crust is baked to perfection, the grapes are tart, the berries are sweet and juicy, and the custard is thick but not too rich. The last bites are gone in sixty seconds, and we could easily have more. Our waiter laughs and finds another fast solution: the other meta e meta.

Chiara and her husband check on us during our dinner, and Chiara, as sweet as could be for the matron of a highly popular, ever-busy trattoria, has more than enough time to proudly show me a few highlights of her family’s restaurant. She points out a paw-print on the arched ceiling, and she tells me the story of how the 15th century brick was not yet set when a dog walked over it. She walks me upstairs to the intimate room overlooking the double-height main dining room. She even allows me to photograph her good-humored chefs in the open kitchen. I step to the side as servers dart past me with thick wooden boards laden with bistecca all fiorentina, grande enough to make the table legs wilt. With a soft voice and the most pleasant demeanor, Chiara gives us a kiss on each cheek and thanks us for choosing Cammillo, a show of genuine appreciation that sets the pace for the week ahead. Not only are the Florentine people generous with their time and conversation, they are sincere and heartfelt in their interactions and relationships- no matter if you are strangers at the airport gate or well-acquainted patrons at a trattoria. Cammillo’s lively atmosphere, gracious hosts, and excellent food prepared simply but with subtle hints of creative twists and flavors, is the perfect start to a wonderful week in Florence. It is no wonder that the trattoria has been packed for nearly 80 years.

IMG_3881

Wall of cartoons at Cammillo.

IMG_3885

The first dining room at Cammillo: there are four separate rooms, one upstairs. At 7:30, those without a reservation begin a line at the door.

IMG_3899

Salami, beautiful local ficchi, and a small serving of a bready/figgy creation.

IMG_3740

I chose one of the ‘piatti del giorno’ based on owner Chiara’s suggestion: linguine with sauce from three different varieties of clams and zucchini.

IMG_3741

Fagioli with pomodori and shrimp. The menu is extensive; it is insanely difficult to make a decision. I suggest ordering any or all of the six special plates of the day. They are guaranteed to be made with the freshest, seasonal ingredients.

IMG_3727

Cooks nella cucina, and a bistecca big enough to make the wooden table legs waver.

IMG_3731

Classico: parmigiano and caprese.

IMG_3728

At the pass at Cammillo.

IMG_3745

Meta e meta for dessert. We couldn’t decide between the fruit tarts, so we opted for half of each: schiacciata con l’uva (a tart grape crostata made with Sangiovese grapes) and frutti di bosco (wild berries).

IMG_3747

We devoured our halves so quickly, we decided to have the other halves.

IMG_3898

A piece of ancient history on the ceiling: when the bricks were still wet, a dog accidentally walked across one.

IMG_3725

A little bit of everything at Cammillo.

IMG_3876

Outside Cammillo in the Oltrarno.


Trattoria Cammillo: Borgo S. Jacopo, 57/r, 50125 Florence, Italy


Firenze nella luce del mattino

IMG_4287

Buildings aglow on the Arno.

IMG_4256

Porticoes without people in the early morning.

I have waited months and weeks and days for this trip to finally arrive. I have sent countless emails to hoteliers, restaurants, bloggers, and friends. I have spent hours on review sites. I have made pages of lists and notes. Now that I am finally in Florence, and I can feel the sun gently streaming in behind the curtains, and I can hear the odd passerby on the narrow cobblestoned street, I do not want to waste one minute.

Mornings are my favorite time of day. More precisely, I yearn for the single hour just after the sun rises but before the people steadily fill the streets. Before cars whizz by, before stores open, before the majority of the city washes its hair and makes its bed and begins another day. This is my walking time, my exploring time, my photographing time. This is my looking around time, my noticing things time, my discovery time. I make note of streets that I want to walk down again, stores that I want to re-visit, vantage points that I want to photograph again and again.

Even the Ponte Vecchio is void of its usual hoards. The ancient viaduct feels as if it is resting. As the sun rises over its crest, it is taking a large breath; building up strength for another day of jewelry-shoppers and visitors vying for a path along the merchant-lined bridge.

Florence, like many Italian cities and provinces, seems to be made for this hour. The yellow and orange buildings are aglow. They reflect off of the Arno, their beauty as humble as their people. Locals are jogging along the river, through the shadowy streets past favorite cafes and on to Piazzale Michelangelo, or perhaps upwards towards the ‘Poggi’ roads, a neighborhood of winding serpentine streets lined with private residences; a picturesque setting with tall grasses and mystical views over the entire city.

I can walk down the center of Via Tornabuoni, my eyes darting left and right at the luxurious window displays. I criss-cross, ogling over Italian designer clothing, jewelry, and glassware. I am impressed by Florentine entryways, elaborate doorknobs on oversized doors, and garages that resemble fortresses. Muted-toned shutters and endless archways, flower pots and overhanging growth on balconies, statues, towers, cathedrals… the Florentines leave no detail behind. Architecture, aesthetics, gardening, stonework, and design are so clearly a priority to each and every person. I spot not one piece of litter. Florentines take pride in their small city. They live in beauty and vie to keep Florence a gem, and with great generosity inherent to the Florentine people, they share their city with the millions of tourists who fill their cobblestoned streets each year.

As I wander farther from the center, past the Museo Stefano Bardini, I see a group of Florentines placing a wooden rowboat in the river. They push and pull down the center of the Arno, their arms tanned, their eyes alight with il sole. What a glorious way to enjoy this morning hour, from the center of the water. The light follows them as they glide past me, and I watch them grow smaller as I make my way towards a cafe join the rising Florentines for a cappuccino. As I stand at the bar, listening to the patter of cups on saucers, I wonder why there aren’t more Florentines wandering their empty city in the glowing morning hour, soaking in the place that, with buona fortuna, they call home.

IMG_4274

Santa Trinita Bridge

IMG_4257

Elegance from head to toe around Via Tornabuoni

IMG_4268

Il sole casting shadows

IMG_4324

Crossing bridges

IMG_4290

Italians wear orange so well.

IMG_4349

Morning rowing on the Arno.

IMG_4352

Empty porticoes along the Arno.

IMG_4355

Via Tornabuoni

IMG_4366

Bottega nella mattina.

IMG_4342

Museo Stefano Bardini

IMG_4285

Firenze nella mattina

IMG_4328

Sleeping motorbikes.

IMG_4255

The Duomo in the morning shadows.

IMG_4272

Detailed doors.

IMG_4273

Morning light on the Arno

IMG_4280

Mornings on the Arno.

IMG_4283

Yellows and oranges on the Arno.

Firenze

At the beginning of Via Tornabuoni.

IMG_4254
IMG_4276 IMG_4293IMG_4316
IMG_4357IMG_3938