Sunday, February 27, 2011

Venice, Italy - Hotel Cipriani

Day 6 of Italy week here at Destinations Perfected brings us to the magical island of Venice, and how apropos: just last night 80,000 people descended upon St. Mark's Square for the annual Flight of the Angel. A magnificently costume clad 'angel' swings from the St. Mark's bell tower offering homage to the Doge and thus officially kicks off the week-long celebration known as Carnevale.
(Photo ©
Venice is, indeed, the most unique city in the world. A mind-dizzying maze of footbridge covered canals, secret alleyways, dead ends, a spoken dialect all their own, gondolas, typical venetian cicchetti and wine bars, acqua alta (that's serious floods in english!) and some of the most magnificent private homes or palazzi in the world, not to mention museums such as the Guggenheim, I challenge you to find a more novel working city than Venice.

The only downside to Venice is that, because it is so remarkable, everyone wants to see it. The crowds in high season can overshadow the brilliance of the city, and with such narrow passageways, can be downright annoying. My favorite remedy for this is a visit to the idyllic Hotel Cipriani on its own island just across the Grand Canal. Even if you are not staying at the Hotel Cipriani (though I can't imagine why) you can board their complimentary shuttle service to and from the hotel, and enjoy the scenery of Venice from the water. Once at the hotel, you can relax with one of their spa treatments, have a drink at the bar or even dine in their restaurant, then have a walk around the grounds and return back by boat to the 'mainland.'
St. Mark's Square, this is where the Hotel Cipriani private shuttle departs from
When gondola rides cost upwards of $100 and local vaporetti (water buses) are packed like sardines with people, the shuttle to the Cipriani is free of charge for guests and never seats more than eight people. Now you have a chance to get out on the Grand Canal and feel as if you are in your own private motorboat. To catch the boat, look for the sign that reads 'Cipriani' on the dock that is located right where St. Mark's Square spits out onto the Grand Canal (more or less the photo shown above).
St. Mark's bell tower as seen from the Grand Canal
It is so refreshing to leave the crowds behind, see the monuments from afar, and enjoy the hustle and bustle of boat activity that takes place on the Grand Canal itself. Here I am enjoying the sunshine on the Cipriani motorboat on the ride over to the hotel:
Enjoying the ride over to the Hotel Cipriani on their complimentary shuttle service
The Quantum of Solace yacht docked on the Grand Canal
I was in Venice this past July for the annual Redentore fireworks celebration over the Grand Canal and took the opportunity to go have a drink (or two!) in the shade with my friends by the beautiful pool, surrounded by lovely greenery, at the Cipriani. We all had wonderfully frothy rum punch concoctions and finally caught a breeze, as the heatwave was stifling. Later on in the evening, I joined them aboard their yacht for the amazing fireworks show.
Drinks by the pool with my friends: the crew of the mega-yacht Quantum of Solace, shown above
The hotel and surrounding grounds are impeccably landscaped and you should certainly take a walk around and explore the gardens. The property provides a true peaceful retreat from the hectic pace of everyday life. 
Drinks by the beautiful pool
A frothy rum punch
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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Milan, Italy - Osteria Del Binari

Not in your usual location downtown, this restaurant can be found on the same road as many of the showrooms of the biggest fashion houses in Milan. If you didn't know what you were looking for, you would walk right past the modest doorway of Osteria Del Binari (Via Tortona, 1). But once inside you find a rather large restaurant, with two different dining rooms and an outdoor patio. Del Binari knows how to play up the seasons as well: in winter there is a roaring fireplace in the dark, candlelit dining room and in summer they have a lovely garden in which you can eat outside. This restaurant is a perfect spot for a date or a business dinner, but no matter whom you choose to dine with, Del Binari knows how to serve up consistently delicious food from the Lombardy region.
Wonderful freshly baked breads
 Some of the most famous dishes from the Lombardy region are osso buco, risotto (alla milanese), cheeses such as gorgonzola and grana padano, cotoletta alla milanese, polenta and pasta filled with pumpkin. After you place your order at Del Binari they always offer you a little something extra. When I was there in November they brought over this delicious thick cut of salami that was wrapped in a homemade crust, served slightly warm and drizzled with melted cheese.
A starter offered by the house: salami wrapped in homemade crust 
For first courses we ordered two pastas, one was a pasta called paccheri that was served with a duck ragu and then topped off with wonderfully pungent freshly shaved truffles. This pasta was by far and away one of my most favorite dishes consumed during my trip to Milan. The richness of the sauce and the flavor explosion with the added truffles was otherworldly. The second pasta we ordered was a simple gnocchi in a red tomato sauce with basil. The pasta was cooked al dente and the taste was fresh and enjoyable.
Paccheri pasta with duck ragu and freshly shaved truffles
Gnocchi in tomato sauce
For my main course, I, of course, had to try the cotoletta alla milanese, which is traditionally a veal cutlet that is pounded very thinly, though kept with the bone in, and then coated with bread crumbs and braised in butter or fried. This was a mammoth piece of veal and I was glad to have shared it. The milk-fed veal was very tender and the breaded coating was crispy, yet light. Overall, a delicious and satisfying dish.
Cotoletta alla Milanese
At the end of the meal, Del Binari usually offers a small plate of walnuts with chunks of parmigiano reggiano cheese, and in our case, we also got a dessert sampler on the house (we were a rather large group of 8 people) that featured biscotti, a profiterole, strawberries dipped in chocolate, chocolate coated walnut clusters and the like. We also ordered a traditional tiramisu (lady fingers soaked in espresso and layered with sweet mascarpone cheese, dusted with cocoa) which was wonderful and tasted as if someone's grandmother had just whipped it up in the back.
A dessert sampler offered free of charge
Classic tiramisu

I really think that Del Binari is a true gem of a restaurant away from the hectic city center of Milan. You will not be disappointed by the attentive service and the high quality of the food here. Just reliving the experience through the pictures I took above is making me wish I could go back this evening!
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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Capri, Italy - Hotel Caesar Augustus

Italy week at Destinations Perfected continues with the jaw-dropping Hotel Caesar Augustus located 1,000 feet above the sea in the town of Anacapri on the famous island of Capri. This Relais & Chateaux property absolutely defines the word 'luxury' and the staff are attentive, outgoing and friendly. Call ahead and inform the hotel of the time your ferry arrives and they will be waiting for you at the port in their yellow and green van. You and your luggage will be transported up the winding roads that seem to just hang off the edge of the cliff and finish in the azure sea below. As you can imagine, the views from this hotel are breathtakingly spectacular.
A statue of Caesar on their expansive terrace overlooking the sea
View from some of the ocean facing guest rooms

As soon as you check in, the hotel staff will immediately give you a tour of the entire property, making sure that you are acquainted with the restaurant, bar, breakfast room, pool area and spa, and then will accompany you to your room to make sure it is to your liking. I really appreciated this personal attention because it made me feel as if I was in someone's home and they were both showing me around and trying to make me feel as comfortable as possible.
Our room key on a beautiful ceramic table on the balcony
One of my favorite memories from the four-day weekend I spent here was having my breakfast each morning in the beautiful and sunny yellow dining room that overlooked the infinity pool and the entire Bay of Naples, as well as the island of Ischia. The waitstaff are gregarious and cheery and so eager to help you with hot beverages or warm eggs if you so desire. The breakfast buffet in the morning fills three tables and has everything you could ever dream of: salumi, local cheeses, freshly made pastries, biscotti, mini sfogliatelle (a famous neapolitan pastry), beautiful marmalade tarts called 'crostata', cereals, yogurt, freshly cut fruit and juices.
The stunning infinity pool overlooking the island of Ischia

While I spent most of my vacation lazing around the gorgeous infinity pool overlooking the sea, I did take the time to walk the five minutes into the small town of Anacapri. Here you can find the beautiful Capri Palace Hotel, which is also home to two of my favorites boutiques: Pop Gallery (which features the work of local artisans) and Mariorita. There is also a small Carthusia boutique which carries perfumes, home fragrances and soaps all made on the island of Capri. However, your trip to Anacapri would not be complete without visiting Antonio Viva for a pair of handmade sandals at L'Arte del Sandalo Caprese. You can choose from dozens of styles already finished, or come up with your own idea and he will make it  for you on the spot.
Antonio Viva in his small sandal outpost in Anacapri

You will however want to go into Capri itself for shopping, pastries, meals, pre and post dinner drinks, people watching and nightlife. The Hotel Caesar Augustus provides a shuttle that will take you to the main piazzetta and bring you back to the hotel when you are finished. However, the last shuttle into town is at 8pm, so if you are going out to dinner or want to stay out late your only option for getting back to the hotel is a taxi, and taxis are expensive on the island! But you must take a taxi at least once on Capri because the entire back seat is open air (sometimes has just a small canopy) and it is so much fun to be in a convertible and feel the sea air whizzing past you.

The Caesar Augustus has a beautiful and inviting lobby and living room to lounge in or read the paper, as well as a bar with a piano player that also claims to be the only bar in the world to have such a large outdoor terrace facing the gulf of Naples. I had both drinks and a light snack one afternoon on the terrace and it was truly memorable.

I was lucky enough to return from dinner one evening to witness a half an hour fireworks display from the terrace that was taking place in the port below (in honor of the Madonna or a patron saint, I can't remember which one).

I also had lunch one day at the hotel in their Lucullo Terrace restaurant, which is just next to the pool, and enjoyed a traditional caprese salad with amazingly fresh mozzarella di bufala from nearby Naples and the ripest, juiciest tomatoes of the season.  I still can't decide which I enjoyed more: the meal or the astounding turquoise sea view from my lunch table.

I cannot recommend more highly the Hotel Caesar Augustus, its beautiful setting, its staff and how much I enjoyed my time spent there. Many people prefer to be at a hotel that is located right in the heart of Capri itself, and not in nearby Anacapri, but trust me, Capri gets crowded and claustrophobic quickly, and retreating to a peaceful former mansion to truly relax and escape the crowds is the only way to go.
Convertible taxis are a fun (and expensive!) way to zip around the island
A pre-dinner cocktail is a must in the main Piazzetta in Capri
A fireworks show as seen from the terrace at the Hotel Caesar Augustus
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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Rome, Italy - Ristorante Maccheroni

One of my favorite casual restaurants in Rome is an ex-butcher shop called Maccheroni just a short walk from the Pantheon on Via delle Coppelle. This is a truly lively restaurant with a wide open kitchen where you can watch each dish being prepared. The gregarious chefs here provide the entertainment as they simultaneously toss homemade pasta high in the air whilst blowing you a kiss at your table. They love to flirt and interact with the patrons. Another great aspect of this restaurant is that they are actually open on Sunday nights when most Roman establishments are closed for their weekly rest.
The chefs and their antics in the open kitchen
Maccheroni serves typical roman dishes such as carciofi alla romana, tonarelli alla carbonara, spaghetti all'amatriciana, as well as main dishes like homemade meatballs, chicken cacciatora, roman style tripe and other specialities from various regions of Italy. We ordered a carciofo alla romana to start, which is an artichoke that is cooked with white wine, parsley, and garlic, and found it very tasty. My mother had the egg based pasta called tonarelli alla carbonara (with pancetta, onion and grated pecorino) and said it was one of the best she ate while in Rome. For the main course we ordered the polpette al sugo, or meatballs in sauce. This was an abundant plate and the meatballs were delicious, though not as good as my Italian mother's or grandmother's (obviously!), they were definitely a flavorful and palate-pleasing option.
Carciofo alla romana - Roman artichoke

Tonarelli alla carbonara = one of the most typical Roman pasta dishes

Polpette in sugo = meatballs in tomato sauce
Reservations are absolutely mandatory and make sure when you book that you ask to be seated on the ground floor and not on the undesirable basement level. In summer months there are tables outside as well. There are many mixed review of this restaurant but my family and I had a very satisfactory meal here and would recommend it to others. Pin It

Monday, February 21, 2011

Sardinia, Italy - Hotel Cala di Volpe (best Bellini cocktail)

Day 2 of Italy Week brings us to the absolutely idyllic island of Sardinia, in the middle of the Mediterranean. A veritable island of contrasts, one coast is full of lush vegetation, unspoiled beaches, serene peace, quiet and solitude amongst natural beauty, while the northeastern coast, known as the Costa Smeralda (the Emerald Coast) is home to complete and utter excess: beautiful designer-clad bodies, marinas lined with mega-yachts so monstrous they resemble cruise ships, home to the world's finest boutiques, luxury cars, sail boats, and a world class yacht club. In short, no one here would ever cast insult by asking what a price tag reads.
Nearby Spiaggia del Principe
Sardinia has the Aga Khan to thank for what it is today. He was the pioneer who bought a considerable chunk of property on the Costa Smeralda, when it was considered too remote for tourism, with the idea of creating an exclusive warm-weather haven for A-listers and well-heeled Europeans. Let's just say he knew what he was talking about. He built the magnificent Hotel Cala di Volpe, which is not just a hotel, but an architectural work of art, designed by the french father and son team of Jacques and Savin Couelle. The interior features chestnut-beamed ceilings, Sardinian ceramic tiled floors, beautiful little archways, frescoes, and secret nooks to explore, as well as Couelle's famous glasswork creations.
Hotel Cala di Volpe
Beyond all the architectural beauty of the hotel, its location and five star amenities, the reason I come to the Hotel Cala di Volpe is for their famous Bellini cocktail at the piano bar in the lobby. I have never had a Bellini this good anywhere else in the world. Pull up a stool to the massive slab of black marble that makes up this half-moon shaped bar overlooking the bay and watch the white-tailed tuxedoed bartender blend heaven in a glass.
The view from the lobby bar onto beautiful Cala di Volpe Bay
On my last trip here I made friends with the bartender (we came almost daily after a day at the beach and, at the equivalent of $25 a glass, he delightfully consoled us as we drank our monthly rent away) and he demonstrated how this amazing cocktail is made right in front of me. He took two white, juicy peaches, removed the stems and the pits and put them in a blender whole. Next, he added two heaping tablespoons of granulated sugar and blended on medium speed for about 15 seconds. From the blender he poured this peach nectar through a strainer and directly into a wine glass, then topped it off with chilled prosecco. The result is a frothy and fresh, slightly sweet peach puree with a hint of bubbles. Amazingly refreshing, I dream about this Bellini on a weekly basis.

If you are not staying at the hotel, do take the time to explore both the hotel and its grounds. There are six different restaurants and bars, an outdoor olympic size swimming pool, intriguing little porticos and art displays, beautiful pastel hues, an almost fishing village feel and sparkling turquoise bay views. Even the intricate patterns and vibrant colors of a flower arrangement are inspiring here at Cala di Volpe.
Glorious flower arrangements in the hotel lobby
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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Orvieto, Italy - Trattoria La Palomba

Today at Destinations Perfected we begin 'Italy Week': seven days of consecutive posts on some of my favorite places all over Italy. My readers have most enjoyed my blog entries on all things Italian, and as Italy is the country I know the most intimately, I am happy to oblige.
Day one of Italy week brings us to my favorite restaurant in the beautiful hillside town of Orvieto, Trattoria La Palomba (Via Cipriano Menente, 16), in the region of Umbria. About a one hour train ride from Rome, Orvieto sits atop practically vertical volcanic rock cliffs and therefore, views of the surrounding Umbrian countryside are beautiful.

Orvieto is home to one of the most impressive duomos in the world, The Cathedral of Orvieto. The town has a long papal history and many popes have taken up residence here. The level of intricate detail on the facade alone of this cathedral is so unbelievable, it is worth the trip to see it. How they ever transported the building materials for the church up to the top of this volcanic cliff town and through the narrow cobblestone streets is mind boggling.
Orvieto is most well known for its local ceramics, white wine and wild boar meat. The best restaurant to try these local specialities is Trattoria La Palomba. I happened upon this restaurant two months ago when I stopped a local old lady in the street who looked like she knew food, and asked her for the best place to have lunch in Orvieto (this is one of the benefits of speaking Italian!). I wish I could go back and thank her for such a wonderful recommendation. This was by far one of the best lunches I have had in Italy.
Reservations are imperative, even at lunch, and it is no wonder. This modest little trattoria is jam packed with locals, and for good reason: it is simple, delicious and family run for five decades. It is located on a quaint little street next door to the 13th century Palazzo Comunale. 
We started our lunch with a bottle of the local house wine and bruschetta topped with freshly shaven truffles. Next we ordered two of their most typical local pasta dishes: tagliatelle with wild boar ragu and umbricelli (a strand pasta produced in the Umbria region of Italy that is often considered to be a thicker version of spaghetti) with truffles. To finish the pasta with truffles, they actually bring the truffles to the table and shave them by hand on top of the pasta. The smell is so amazing and the taste, mixed with the warm pasta, is heaven.

We had the good fortune of being seated next to Julia Alvarez de Toledo, the owner of the most exquisite rental villa in all of Umbria. If renting a home in the Italian countryside has always been a dream of yours, then look no further than La Forestella. Julia, an interior designer by trade, has painstakingly restored her seven bedroom and bath villa to absolutely impeccable contemporary taste. This is truly a luxurious property surrounded by an inspiring country landscape. 
(Photo © La Forestella)
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