Dunst in "Marie Antoinette" (2006)
A GREAT NEW HOTEL IN FLORENCE
by John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
NOTES FROM THE WINE
A GREAT NEW HOTEL IN FLORENCE
by John Mariani
The Four Seasons Firenze Garden
I think it highly unlikely that anyone could ever dream of populating a single city anywhere in the world with the number of geniuses Florence seems to grow naturally, like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Dante Alighieri, Botticelli, Cimabue, Giotto, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, and Boccaccio. And while not in the genius category, fashion designers like Ferragamo, Gucci, Cavalli, and Pucci are certainly among the world's most eminent. Of the city's charms, it is unnecessary for me to say what has already been said a thousand times of this, the greatest of the Renaissance cities. When Lord Byron visited the galleries, he came away "drunk with beauty."
But aside from the artistic grandeur and the splendid architecture, I think what I love most of all about Florence is the color of the sky and how the sunlight's intensity gives a particular luster to the city's greenery, best captured in the background landscapes of Botticelli and Leonardo, whose use of ground lapis lazuli gave their paintings the true, glowing brilliance of the Florentine sky and misted countryside. I was put in mind of this upon entering the garden (above) at the new Four Seasons Hotel Firenze, a few blocks from the Arno.
This is, I think, the Four Seasons' grandest achievement, though they had the magnificence of both the 15th century Palazzo della Gherardesca and a 16th century, 11-acre convent garden to work with. Seven years of reconstruction under architect Filippo Calandriello has restored the structures to a condition as perfect as they must have been upon opening, but now, instead of being home to a few aristocrats and nuns, the space is the quiet remove for anyone who craves the greatest of luxury with a minimum of pretense, which is a very Florentine way of going about life. There are 116 rooms, which barely adds to the chronic drought of rooms during the ever-lengthening high season, with more than 10 million visitors annually now, but the hotel's remove from the very center of the city is a boon in the high traffic season. A few minutes' walk will take you to any of the monuments and museums you seek.
I half expected the garden's lawn to be trimmed by well-groomed roaming sheep, but instead there is a silent roaming robot mower that plies its way around the grounds keeping everything in perfect condition, hour after hour, day by day. Walking out in the garden is reminiscent of those quiet strolls by parasol-protected society ladies in a Henry James novel, with men in white linen suits taking their arms. The aromas of hydrangea, sage, rosemary, basil, mint and thyme fill the air. Tea seems requisite.
You arrive at the hotel entrance on a narrow street to find the property hidden behind a tall wall and unprepossessing facade, but once inside that restraint gives way to a refined opulence that has a modern cast of lighting, fabrics, and carefully place objets d'art to force you out of any sense that you will be staying here like a grand seigneur of 500 years ago (at a time when mere plumbing was at its rudimentary worst). Indeed, The Four Seasons in Milan, opened a decade ago, brought to Europe a spaciousness both in rooms and baths nearly unknown, as if a Renaissance residence (it, too, had been a nunnery) had been plopped down in Bel Air, California. Since then, all five-star European hotels have copied that kind of largess, but in Florence, they have set a new standard of expansive luxury throughout.
The public rooms (above) are every bit as well wrought as each of the individually designed guestrooms, from the The Royal Suite, rich with majolica floors, to its more modest but no less luxurious superior rooms, all with fine antiques and enough paintings to keep you perusing them for a morning or afternoon. Frescoes were lifted from walls and re-set in places that required access, and, as every architect who has worked in 21st century Italy knows, removing or compromising a single brick can take years of bureaucratic hell. (It is well to remember that Dante put fraudulent advisers and counselors into one of the deepest circles of his inferno.) There are two Presidential Suites, one on the third floor of the palazzo, the second on the first floor of the convent quarters, both with marble bathrooms. Gallery Suites (right) preserve the original look of the palazzo, with paneled ceilings and ceiling frescoes. There is a pool and first-rate fitness center, if you can force yourself out of those beds--the weight of the coverlet alone may prevent it.
Service throughout is as fine as any in Europe, with a gentility epitomized by general manager Patrizio Cipollini, who caters to an international crowd that includes a large number of Americans who feel right at home with the staff's earnest and amiable style. Anything you could wish for is provided with an acknowledgment that the difficult can be done immediately, the impossible just a little longer.
The superb restaurant here is Il Pelagio (left), where I was very happy to run into Chef Vito Mollica, 37, whose work I was so impressed with at the Four Seasons Prague when it opened a few years ago. Looking every inch the Italian chef, with his goatee and white toque, Mollica has fashioned a menu that carefully balances the traditions of Tuscan cuisine with contemporary ideas that are more international and, in the end, personal for him.
The night I visited, it was very warm in Florence, so I was delighted to dine al fresco in the garden, letting the Florentine breezes sway the oleander trees. I left myself wholly in Mollica's hands for the meal, and his eyes sparkled at the thought of composing one for me on so hot a night. (There is a five-course tasting menu available at 95 euros as well as à la carte.) A pianist ran his fingers across the keys and the Great American Songbook as I sat by candlelight with a glass of cold prosecco and nibbled on four different breads, including parmesan puffs, all set on Ginori china. First came an amuse of prosciutto jelly with morsels of melon and cream of melon, followed by a tian of crab meat with sheep’s milk ricotta made nearby and Kaluga sturgeon caviar from the Amur River on the Russo-Chinese border (who knew?). Next was fusilli ferretto pasta with a “batti batti” ragù--a species of Mediterranean lobster only fished in summer. They were so succulent and sweet, playing off against the light tomato dressing. Next was roasted quail stuffed with apricot, celeriac cream and pan-fried Hungarian goose foie gras.
A wonderful selection of cheeses from San Cassiano came before an array of gorgeous desserts that, for summer, were delicate and light with fruit.
I was surprised, given the prices of rooms at the hotel, that the wines were very reasonable tariffed, with 400 easily recognizable labels, though the list should have more small estates.
At lunch that day, a contact from the hotel took me to the ten-year-old--which qualifies as brand new in Florence--Il Santo Bevitore Ristorante (left), though it had more of the cast of a trattoria, simple, unassuming, lively with young people, including the owners who come to every table to tell you what's wonderful that day. And everything certainly was: the best pappa al pomodoro I've ever had, with the sweet pulp of stewed tomatoes, garlic basil and olive oil made more delicious with shards of Parmigiano. Tuscan-style chicken livers torta came next with a touch of semi-sweet vin santo wine.
Conchiglie shell pasta with succulently braised osso buco wasn't nearly as heavy as I feared, especially in that hot weather, dusted with the dried powder of milanese risotto. Pork with strips of chickpea crêpes was a delight, and the roast duck was tender and full of good game flavor. There were two desserts-- a custard tart with bananas and a pineapple semi-freddo.
None of it cost very much, even against the weak U.S. dollar, the wines were excellent, and I could not have felt more at home, which is the way I always feel--off-season-in Florence.
Back in my room at The Four Seasons, sinking into the broad, soft bed, with the fragrance of magnolia from the garden and the deep blue night sky and moonlight outside my window, I was reminded of the lines Dante wrote of his beloved Beatrice, and as true of Florence itself: "And she is so gentle in her effect,/that no one can recall her to mind/who does not sigh in sweetness of love."
The Four Season Firenze is located at Borgo Pinti, 99; Tel. 011+39 055 2626 430; www.fourseasons.com/florence.
From now through Dec. 15, the hotel is offering "The Stay Longer Promotion and the Truffle Hunting Package," which includes a white truffle hunt at Savini’s Farm and lessons in how enjoy them; 4-course dinner at Il Palagio, 3 nights accommodations; American breakfast. Rates start at EUR 910.00 in a deluxe room, per night. Minimum stay of three nights. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or (+39) 055 2626 310.
Trattoria & Crudo Bar
Not too many trattorias look quite this swank in Italy, but there's no denying the dramatic effect of walking into this splendid new Italian restaurant in Soho, on the edge of Little Italy (where no restaurant looks anything like Isola).
The most striking feature, obviously, are those rows of glistening chandeliers, which throw a white light, though the rest of the room's ambient lighting could go up a few watts to provide warmth. Sensible music is kept to acceptable decibel levels, and the conviviality is provided by the patrons, some of whom may be sharing the long communal table in the center. There's also a lot of foliage, always welcome in an urban setting.
Isola's menu is of reasonable size and the crudi are seven in number, including excellent hamachi with salsa verde, avocado, and crispy shallots; fluke with Meyer lemon, radish and a gloss of olive oil; and lustrous tuna with balsamico, jalapeño, cool watermelon and pine nuts (right), which really work together in taste and textures.
The press release notes that the menu features the cuisine of the Amalfi Coast and Sicily, though there really isn't much to bolster that claim, but no matter: the cooking is first-rate under
Executive Chef Victor LaPlaca
, who has spent two decades opening restaurant for Todd English before coming aboard at Isola, where his food is more expressive of his own lighter style.By all means order the focaccia rich with sweet caramelized onions, Taleggio cheese, and figs; the pizza alla margherita--there are three other options (below, with arugula, sausage, caramelized onions, and ricotta)--was tasty, with a crust of admirable dimensions a Neapolitan would have been proud of.
An appetizer you might wish to share, the polpette beef meatballs in a beef, veal and pork ragu, is a lusty starter, but don't miss the pastas here. The cacio e pepe, bucatini simply dressed with pecorino, grana padano, and cracked black pepper, is possibly the best in NYC, where a lot of that is going around. Tagliolini with saffron, blue crab, peas, and hot Calabrese peppers was very good, but mezzaluna pasta stuffed with mushrooms and sauced with a veal ragù got a little clumsy with the additional underpinning of escarole.
Ordinarily I don't order steak at Italian restaurants (even though Italians pioneered the New York steakhouse style), but Isola's 18-ounce beauty is outstanding beef, dry-aged, with that distinct mineral flavor so hard to come by these days, even when chefs claim to use USDA Prime. Isola's comes with a fine mushroom polenta and truffled lardo that makes it all even more flavorful. Sea scallops with saffron fregola, Meyer lemon, and a pinch of mint made for a nice combination, and I liked the way LaPlaca butterflies and flattens a de-boned branzino, then cooks it gently, succulently, with braised escarole that in this case is welcome, dressed with a tangy lemoncello sauce.
Pastry chef Matt Buckley shows real talent and finesse in his work, including soft, stuffed biscotti perfect with coffee any time of the day, and a butterscotch cake with blueberry compote and blueberry ice cream. There's also a selection of ripe Italian cheeses.
The winelist is just extensive enough--100 labels--for a place of this style, and there are plenty of bottles under $50, with 36 wines by the glass.
On a Monday evening Isola was not hopping the way I expect it is later in the week, and, as I noted, the conviviality of the place is due to the sound of people having a good meal and a good time. I'd love to see more focus on the seacoast cooking of Amalfi and Sicily, but I'll happily eat what's on the menu from anywhere else at Isola.
Isola is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner appetizers run $9-$17, crudi $17-$18, pastas $20-$28, and main courses $27=$53.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
A VERY DIFFERENT APPROACH FOR A MUCH SOUGHT-OUT WINERY
by Mort Hochstein
I told a friend I’d be
visiting Littorai winery in Sonoma, he said : “You’re
Littorai is one of the hottest producers in California
and Ted Lemon is definitely one of the great winemakers.”
DEPT. OF WRETCHED
DEPT. OF WRETCHED
Master Chef Joël Robuchon (left) last week
oversaw the creation of the Guinness-approved world's
largest vat of mashed potatoes- 200 culinary students
created 2,297 pounds of mashed potatoes in less than
six hours, in order to celebrate the 25th anniversary
of Le Futuroscope amusement park in Poitiers.
SEEMED TO NOTICE THE 26
SEEMED TO NOTICE THE 26
Montreal Gazette reports that police have
seized 720,000 gallons of maple syrup worth $30
million from a processing and exporting facility
bought from allegedly after 16,000 barrels had been
siphoned off from a facility in Quebec owned by the
Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers.
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