Villa Monastero: Serenity Now

IMG_5467

A potted plant, a glistening blue lake, and the Italian alps. What more is there?

IMG_5492

Villa Monastero looks straight out across the center of Lake Como

This is what I want my gardens to look like. This is the ancient stone, these are the hand-carved statues, this is the Mediterranean tile, these the vintage gates, even the word ‘welcome’ written with succulents. Oh, and this is the extraordinary view. Yes, I think I would be quite contenta with this view.

Villa Monastero is one of the most treasured jewels of Lake Como, and at its humble vantage point overlooking the center of the lake in tiny Varenna, it offers its visitors a warm, tranquil respite. Contrasting views are simply spectacular: bright pink flowers and cactus plants set against the deep blue lake and the Italian alps. Guests can linger in rust-hued chairs at the waters edge, in an ancient stone cupola above the courtyard, or on the tiled waterfront loggia, one arm wrapped around a column, eyes fixed on nothing but blue. The terraced garden was planted by Austrian Walter Kress in the twentieth century, whose diversified tastes now make for a unique, mixed-style garden; a botanical bohemia with Mediterranean and tropical plants. Citruses, cypresses, agaves, and pine trees grow in imperfect layers; creating a warm, natural environment.

As Mr. Costanza would say: ‘Serenity now!’

IMG_5458

The most magnificent views enhanced with creative plants and landscaping at Villa Monastero in Varenna.

IMG_5461 IMG_5464 IMG_5466 IMG_5468 IMG_5470 IMG_5473 IMG_5476 IMG_5477 IMG_5486 IMG_5488
IMG_5490 IMG_5493 IMG_5494

IMG_5503 IMG_5506 IMG_5514

On Lago di Como, Varenna is for Lovers (not just day-trippers)

IMG_5448

A glorious Saturday in Varenna

IMG_5449

The private terrace at Villa Cipressi in Varenna

Italy’s northern lake country has seen it’s fair share of power shifts, from Napoleon to the Congress of Vienna and then back to the Kingdom of Italy under the House of Savoy. Interesting that an area known for its ‘untouched’ quality and powers of tranquility is the product of such turmoil. Surrounded by limestone mountains, Lago di Como is said to be the most physically beauteous and is often suggested as a starting point, although each lake has its biased fans. Landlocked residents of Brescia and Verona emulate Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, who opted for castle country on Lake Garda. The largest and most diverse, stretching from the Po to the Dolomites, Lake Garda is surrounded by olives and is otherwise known for its greeny-gold olive oil. The Northern end of Lake Maggiore is rather alpine in nature while the southern end is renowned for its grand dame of resorts: Stresa, as well as its famous Isola Bella, which houses baroque palaces and gardens. Lugano’s less tamed landscape is a preferred escape for the Swiss.

We embrace popular opinion, (Rick Steves’ included) and start our lake introduction on Como. On a perfect mid-September weekend, we arrive by train at the tiny, unpretentious village of Varenna, and make our way by foot down the winding road to the town square. The air is crisp and clear, and we pass narrow stone pathways lined with sorbet-colored houses that lead down to the lake, offering glimpses of the waters edge. Varenna quickly proves to be a most romantic little hamlet. We catch lovers holding hands and stopping to explore distant vistas, ancient stone details on original structures, citrus trees and palms and oodles of other botanical growth running rampant on cobbled paths.

Bicycling is Italy’s second most adored sport, and countless cyclists whizz pass us on the curving road. We catch up to them in the square, where they take a break outside the clock tower before hopping on the ferry and heading to their homes in nearby villages. Varenna has been labeled a ‘sleepy’ fisherman’s village, but I prefer to think of it as tranquility personified, as if the historical power shifts in earlier centuries left behind an all encompassing lesson about the power of peace and the importance of appreciating each moment. It is not nearly as glitzy and crowded as its neighbors with their hotel-lined promenades and luxury resorts, but because of that, it has a much more authentic appeal. Varenna is also known as one of the most picturesque towns on all of the lakes with a stellar geographic location looking out over the central part of Lago di Como towards Bellagio, and with its pristine square, its tiny stone beach, and its two exquisite villas, I question anyone who skips over this little gem.

Varenna

Varenna

We wander down towards the Lake, passing narrow stone-stepped pathways which conceal more bars and restaurants. Down at the harbor, we find a few more tourists and locals having a cafe or an early lunch at one of the handful of casual cafes. A few look rather touristy, as Varenna is often nothing but a day trip for those staying in Bellagio or Cernobbio, but we find a trattoria with charming outdoor tables and wooden baskets brimming with pastries just a few feet from the lake.

Scents of freshly baked cakes and frittatas drift out onto the cobblestones. Varenna Caffe is rustic chic, designed in keeping with its lakefront location. I imagine it is a favorite for summer residents. We choose a slice of their homemade almond cake and bruschetta with taleggio, strawberries, arugula, and balsamic. Our forks go back and forth between sweet and savory as we watch a couple sitting at the edge of the stone promenade, wading their lower legs in the lake and enjoying a rather perfect September Saturday.

IMG_5552

Varenna as seen from the ferry

As clear as the air is, the mountains seem ever so lightly blurred by a thin layer of moss-like sky, as if the clouds are protecting them from the Italian sun like an SPF for the land. We take our time at the cafe before following ‘Lover’s Walkway’ past a few art galleries and craft stores towards the ferry, where we board la barca en route for Bellagio. Don’t forget to turn around as the ferry leaves the fishing village; Varenna is picture perfect from this vantage point. It’s multi-colored buildings stand cheerfully together, stone spilling out from their edges towards the lake, small boats pulled up onto the land, and people sitting contentedly at the waters edge.

Stay: Villa Cipressi

Don’t miss: Villa Monastero and its botanical diversity (more to come in a separate post)

IMG_5455

Magnificent views at Villa Cipressi in Varenna

IMG_5520

Narrow alleyways in Varenna

IMG_5522

The sweetest spot in Varenna: Varenna Caffe

IMG_5523

Inside Varenna Caffe

IMG_5525

Looking out on the lake from inside Varenna Caffe

IMG_5527

Beautiful original stone inside Varenna Caffe

IMG_5528

Inside Varenna Caffe

IMG_5529

Varenna Caffe

IMG_5532

Outstanding almond cake at Varenna Caffe, made even sweet with a lakeside seat.

IMG_5535

Almond torta at Varenna Caffe

IMG_5536

Pastries at Varenna Caffe

IMG_5538

Adorable pastry displays at Varenna Caffe

IMG_5539

Varenna Caffe

IMG_5445

IMG_5542

Bruschetta with taleggio, arugula, strawberries, and balsamico.

IMG_5543

Bruschetta with taleggio, arugula, strawberries, and balsamic at Varenna Caffe

IMG_5544

Cozy interiors of Varenna Caffe

IMG_5545

Varenna alleyways.

IMG_5427

Sorbet-colored buildings in Varenna

IMG_5430

Sorbet colored buildings in Varenna

IMG_5432

I adore the windows in Varenna

IMG_5443

Sabato in the piazza.

IMG_5435

Peaceful Varenna

IMG_5438IMG_5444

 

Sunday in Marylebone

IMG_3603

At the Marylebone Sunday Market

IMG_3606

Meat vendor at the Marylebone Sunday Market

Beautiful as posh Mayfair and South Kensington may be, they offer less in the way of ‘quaint neighborhood charm’ than Marylebone, now a destination for residents of bordering areas for the Marylebone Farmers Market. Sundays are for strolling, book shopping, farmers markets, late, lingering lunches at La Fromagerie, and a cup of tea at an outdoor table at one of the many charming cafes on the Marylebone High Street. There is a distinct ‘neighborhood’ feeling, a palpable ‘local-ness’ in Marylebone, as if the rest of London is a world’s away and all that is necessary can be found within this one zone. It seems the perfect environment for families and singletons, young and old. Individual shops, including a world-renowned butcher, high-end decor and home goods, fashion, perfume, and florists are aplenty, and it is only a short walk to leafy St. John’s Wood. All in all the perfect neighborhood for a taste of London and a very relaxing, well-fed Sunday.

IMG_3612

Marylebone Sunday Market

IMG_3614

Chickens at the Marylebone Sunday Market

IMG_3616

Stocking up at the Marylebone Sunday Market

IMG_3624

Roses on roses at the Marylebone Sunday Market

IMG_3626

Glorious bread at the Marylebone Sunday Market

IMG_3630

IMG_3587 Perched at the Marylebone Sunday Market

IMG_3632

On Marylebone High Street

IMG_3633

My favorite spot for lunch and supplies in Marylebone: La Fromagerie

IMG_3638

Excellent cafe for lunch or dinner in Marylebone

IMG_3724

Marylebone- ginger pig At the quirky Ginger Pig in Marylebone

IMG_3717

Stocking up for Sunday suppers at the Ginger Pig

IMG_3726

Marylebone is a home designer’s paradise.

daunt

IMG_3731 Daunt Books

IMG_3733

In the Travel room at Daunt Books

IMG_3739

Natural Kitchen on Marylebone High Street

IMG_3740

Wooden tables and lots of goodies at Natural Kitchen

IMG_3743

More kitchenware on Marylebone High Street

marylebone

And more adorable cafes.

IMG_3765

IMG_3757 Outside the Conran Shop, a home decor store and collection of strange and unique goods.

IMG_3763

Conran Shop

IMG_3758

The little garden across from the Conran shop.


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

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.