Published 25 June 1995 Style Magazine 103rd article
Villa San Michele: simply one of the best hotels, with food to match (Orient-Express group)
The first time I sat in the extraordinarily beautiful gardens of the Villa San Michele in a little town called Fiesole above Florence I was visiting Clay Felker. Who? I hear you ask. Mr Felker, in 1976, was the hottest thing in New York. He was founder and editor of a magazine of the same name, New York. And as we sat on the black hoop-shaped deck chairs (still there), we talked of this and that and he told me that he and some old school friends owned the shares in New York but he didn't have an overall majority. As the sun set over the Duomo and the spires of Florence, I knew, too, that the sun was setting over Clay Felker. "But that means somebody can buy your magazine from under you," I said. "My friends would never sell," he replied conﬁdently, as we drank a legendary crushed strawberries and sparkling white wine drink (still served). Of course Rupert Murdoch, most intelligently, offered to buy the magazine, Mr Felker's friends sold like lightning and Clay, no longer boss, disappeared.
But the Villa San Michele and the gardens stay on unspoiled, even after the discreet addition of some rooms on the hill atop of which sits the swimming pool. It is quite simply one of the best hotels in the world. It is owned by Mr and Mrs James Sherwood of the Orient-Express group and well run by a very jovial chap named Maurizio Saccani, who also manages the Hotel Splendido in Portofino and drives between the two at great speed. The Villa San Michele was a monastery and a church, its facade attributed to Michelangelo. It dates from the 15th century and still has that feel about it. The dining room with wide arches overlooking Florence (sadly now often blighted by smog) is one of the nicest places to eat. The food is exceptional. I had more truly first rate meals in a row at the Villa San M than I've had anywhere. The hills of Fiesole are covered with cypress, olive and ilexes sloping down to the city and the Arno, and the dining room itself is approached through an internal courtyard with the stone crest of the Davanzatis family, who endowed the monastery. Another of their crests is on the stone facade that fronts the hotel.
We ate rosemary-flavoured pumpkin risotto, home-made ravioli with chickpea filling with herb sauce, baked fillets of turbot with mustard, scampi stunningly plump and tender, fresh fruit tart, millefeuille of raspberries, all beyond belief good. No bad meal, except for one made a bit dodgy by a young couple looking into each other's eyes at the next table through a haze of their own cigarette smoke. They smoked before the meal, during each course, after each course . . . totally revolting. How they tasted the quality of the food I can't imagine. At least when l smoked cigars I waited until the end. Can't I find anything to criticise at the Villa San Michele? Let me think. Well, the restaurant service did go off a bit when Vittorio Dallo, the restaurant manager, wasn't there, but it was never bad, and with Attilio Di Fabrizio in the kitchen, who cared?
Leaving the Villa San Michele, with its dramatically set pool carved out of the mountainside, isn't easy. But Tuscany has to be seen and, keeping to the tiny roads in my open car, it still looked great, although it was sad to see towns I'd visited a few years ago enlarged like a cancer by modern buildings all around. Very good lunch at Il Campo in the Piazza del Campo in Siena. One of the great views of the world is the main square, the 14th-century tower and the well-preserved medieval buildings. And a highly decorative band appeared as well. Lovely spaghetti with truffles, good prawns and assorted Siena cakes, which range from nougat to orange-tasting things; totally exceptional. Sit in a similar "best view" position in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, facing their old tower and statues including a copy of Michelangelo's David, and the Rivoire Pasticceria is more snacky; good quality, old-fashioned but at speed.
If you're adventurous ﬁnd Restaurant La Vigne set among vineyards at Radda in Chianti. I once sent a Scotland Yard commissioner of police there but he got lost! And l used to like the terrace of Villa Sangiovese at Panzano in Chianti but the owner, an Austrian called Herr Bleuler, shouted at me recently when l tried to show it to Vanessa. Can you imagine somebody shouting at me! Now that's a turnaround situation if ever there was one!
We headed for the Park in Kenmare to celebrate my 50th birthday in some trepidation after reading Michael Winner's write-up (June 4). How wrong can the man be? After three days of good food, good care and absolute comfort and peace, I can only say that Mr Winner has both a jaundiced palate and outlook. The white plastic furniture was warm and comfortable on a lovely day, a waiter always near at hand to replenish empty glasses. We did not have any sandwiches, but the dinners and the breakfasts were excellent, with sustained good service.
D Raman, Sligo, Ireland
As a family running a small catering establishment known as The Coffee Shop, in Wimbledon High Street, for some eight years now, we find ourselves in very august company in your columns (Letters, June 18). We are sorry that your correspondent Ms Siddique did not enjoy her breakfast. Plenty of customers appear to be of a contrary opinion, and come back as regulars, including many from all over the world during Wimbledon tennis fortnight and on other occasions. We are currently expanding to accommodate them. Incidentally, our "small brekkie" consists of freshly squeezed orange juice, scrambled eggs, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, croissants, toast, butter and jams or marmalade and tea or coffee, and costs £6.95. Not bad, compared with the prices at Raymond Blanc's establishment, which were recently quoted in this column. Perhaps Ms Siddique was in an especially ratty mood on the day of her visit to us.
Martin Lippner, London, SW19