Caffe Desiderio – Cooking as Art

cdc1Caffe Desiderio
Piazza Niccolò Tommaseo, 5r
Settignano (FI)
39-055-697687
http://www.caffedesiderio.com
info@caffedesiderio.com
Owners: Michele Busanero & Francesca de Gasperi

What a pleasure it is to sit with Michele, chef and owner of Caffe Desiderio, an unpretentious yet inviting wine bar/restaurant in the center of Settignano outside of Florence. Caffe Desiderio indeed was a locale as far back as the end of the 18th century when artist Desiderio da Settignano opened it as a tea room and exhibit space for his paintings.

cdd1Today the art that is offered is of the culinary variety, attractive to look at, and most satisfying to consume. Seasonally fresh ingredients and innovative recipes make Michele’s cuisine a special treat on this summer evening. And Michele shares a moment with us expressing his knowledge and passion for his Tuscan cuisine, inspired by his childhood in Florence and his travels to other parts of Italy.

Take for example, traditional prosciutto of Tuscany served with milky fresh stracciatella cde1and fritters made with grano arso, or burnt grain, a tradition that has its modest beginnings in the southern region of Puglia. In the 18th century villagers would harvest the scorched grains that remained after the farmers had burnt the fields in preparation for the next planting. For the poor, nothing went to waste not even burnt grain, and Michele’s efforts to introduce burnt grain to his customers are not wasted either. His liver paté, on the other hand, is as rich as fois gras, made so with lots of butter and an extra amount of vin santo, making a superbly rich spread for his fried polenta wedges.

cdf1The menu at Caffe Desiderio changes often, according to the season, and sometimes daily depending on what is offered at the market that day. We got to try fagottini (little egg pasta knapsacks) stuffed with lampredotto, or tripe. Lampredotto is a Florentine specialty that shows up as popular street food when stuffed into a crusty panino. Tonight’s pasta dish is topped with delicately sweet red onions and a spritz of green sauce. I would not have known any of this, nor had the courage to try it, if it hadn’t been for our chef introducing us to this unusual, yet totally delicious specialty. I love being cdg1introduced to the local cuisine in this way.

Our wine is local too, a Chianti Ruffina from the Frascole estates. Grazie, Michele and Francesca, for a delightful meal.

copyright Ginda Simpson   http://www.rooms-withaview.com    http://www.gindasimpson.com

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Villa Gamberaia and Its Gardens

vgaVilla Gamberaia
Via del Rossellino, 72
50135 Settignano (FI)
39-055-697-205
http://www.villagamberaia.com
info@villagamberaia.com

Just kilometers from the city of Florence, a narrow country road (with narrow escapes) leads us from the center of Settignano to Villa Gamberaia, a Tuscan villa par excellence, elegant in its architectural simplicity overlooking both city and countryside. Inside the main gate, a graveled walkway flanked by cypresses leads us to the villa but gives no hint of the splendid gardens that await us.

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The Citrus Garden

In order to build Villa Gamberaia in 1610, a huge terrace was leveled on the slope and a high wall was constructed behind the villa to support a citrus garden and the woods, where many of the trees have stood for centuries. Within the foundation are wine cellars and agricultural store-rooms which can be reached directly from the house or from the fields below it, uniting the house with the land and surrounding countryside, achieving both practical and aesthetic qualities. An open air drawing room links the ground level of the house to the upper level of the garden. In 1717, an open loggia on the south side of the villa was added, to allow a view of the broderie parterre and the cypress belvedere which were created at this time. The inner courtyard of the villa is open to the sky, an unusual characteristic of the architecture and from here one can enter a large salone on the ground floor that overlooks all of Florence.

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The Open Drawing Room

Today is filled with brilliant light, perfect for exploring the garden, one which had its beginning in the 17th century as an orchard, followed by a broderie garden a century later, when broderies were made popular by the French. These gardens were “embroidered” with varying layers of shaped boxwood and embellished with broken shards, glass and stones, to create intricate designs, enjoyed best when viewed from above. The real transformation of the garden began in the 20th century when the property was purchased by Princess Ghika, her particular design luring scholars and landscape architects from around the world to visit and study its characteristics.

vgh copia

The Water Parterre

The water parterre created by Princess Ghika is located south of the villa. The enclosed beds of the broderie parterre became pools of water with borders of lavender, iris, lilies, roses and oleander, introducing more color to the garden to be reflected in the pools. Rows of tiered boxwood, spheres and other topiary shapes give this peaceful garden a symmetrical, sculptural dimension. Over the decades the boxwood grew to overtake the flowering plants giving the garden a predominantly green appearance, but recent plantings of flowering plants have brought back shades of color once again. A circular pond graced with water lilies and water irises rests tranquilly in front of the cypress belvedere at the far southern end of the water parterre.

Beneath an arched opening in the hedge are two chairs and a small table, inviting us to sit and gaze back at the villa gleaming in the late morning sun. We have brought a small picnic with us and this is a perfect spot to contemplate the history of this villa that was almost completely destroyed during WWII. Upon purchasing the ruined villa, its new owner, Marcello Marchi, used existing prints, photographs and maps to restore the villa to its original design and furnished it with tasteful period pieces that reflect what the interior would have once looked like. The villa is available for rent and for events such as weddings.

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The Bowling Green

Our apartment was built into the structure that was once used for indoor tennis. It faces a central element of the garden, the famous bowling green, a 225-meter expanse of grass along the north-south axis. On the northern end is the Nymphaeum, a massive fountain carved into the hillside surrounded by cypress trees. The southern end overlooks the Arno valley. The east-west axis is 105 meters long and runs through the center of the villa and leads one to the cabinet di raccoglia, also known as an open-air drawing room, an intimate oval shaped garden linking the villa to the upper citrus gardens and the woods. Curved walls are covered in stones, pebbles, shells and rocks, with niches, terracotta urns, statuary and fountains. There is a large limonaia that houses the lemon and citrus trees during the winter months. The facade of the house offers a uninterrupted view of the city of Florence.

I have chosen to sit in the shadow of the Nymphaeum and write these notes. I lean against an ancient wall that looks as if it might crumble into my lap. If only walls could talk, perhaps help me describe the beauty I see before me. I am not well versed in garden talk, but I know poetry when I see it! And a symphony when I hear it!

Visiting the Gardens of Villa Gamberaia

The gardens are opened from 9 am to 7 pm (last entry 6 pm) on weekdays.
On Sundays, the gardens are open from 9 am to 6 pm (last entry 5 pm).

Please note that from time to time the gardens are closed for a private event. It is recommended that you always contact the Villa to be sure that a visit is possible on a given day.

Cost of the entrance for the garden visit:
€ 15 per person, regular and groups
€ 12 per person, students

copyright Ginda Simpson   http://www.rooms-withaview.com   http://www.gindasimpson.com

Who’s afraid of Monsters? Il Sacro Bosco

b17Il Sacro Bosco
The Monster Park
Località Giardino
01020 Bomarzo (VT)
Tel: 0761-924-029

Our granddaughters are too worldly to be afraid of monsters – they take more delight in poking fun at what we old folks might call scary. The Monster Park of Bomarzo, known as the Sacro Bosco or Sacred Grove, we discover, is delightful. Located in Bomarzo in the province of Viterbo, north of Rome, this 16th century garden is anything but frightful, but it is awesome. Designed by architect Pirro Ligorio in the Mannerist style of European art that emerged around 1520 in Italy, the garden is best described as surreal.

Dispersed among the dense woods and vegetation in the valley below Castle Orsini, larger-than-life grotesque sculptures of mystical figures and animals inhabit the space, some of them sculpted right into the bedrock. In a once barren landscape, the garden was commissioned by Pier Francesco Orsini as a means of expressing his grief at the loss of his wife, as indicated by an inscription that explains this intention: sol per sfogare il Core – just to set the heart free. It is hard to connect the individual works into any organized plan, or fully understand their symbolism; the statues or buildings rather seem intended to astonish us, by their size, or subject, or by their unexpected appearance as we round a corner. There is even an purposely constructed leaning house, intended to disorient the visitor. Giants, monstrous fish, a war elephant, and the iconic monumental monster face all play their part in this bizarre wonderland.

Over the course of the centuries, the park fell into neglect and the garden became overgrown with vegetation. In the 1950s, the Bettini family began a restoration program that lasted twenty years, and today, although still private property, it is open to the public – to amaze, to delight, but definitely not to frighten. Even the giant screaming mouth welcomes you inside, perhaps to picnic, if you so wish.

The park is open all year long from 8.00 a.m. until sunset .

Entrance fees :
Individual 10,00 Euro
Children from 4 to 13 years 8,00 Euro
Groups minimum 30 people 8,00 Euro (with the letter of the promoting Organization)
Student 6,00 Euro (with the letter of school) and one free entrance for every 15 people

copyright Ginda Simpson – http://www.rooms-withaivew.comhttp://www.gindasimpson.com

 

La Scarzuola – one man’s portrait in stone

La Scarsuola (9)

La Scarzuola
Località Montegiove
05010 Montegabbione
Province of Terni
Tel: 0763-837-463
http://www.lascarzuola.com
info@lascarzuola.com

Designed by the Milanese architect, Tomaso Buzzi, La Scarzuola is an architectural complex in a garden setting intended to represent his vision of the “ideal city.” From humble beginnings as a monastery founded by St. Francis in 12l8, to a fantasy-land in stone, La Scarzuola is a place both sacred and surreal. Tomaso Buzzi purchased the monastery and land in 1957 to build Buzziana, his secular city, beginning his project with the restoration of the monastery and the recovery of the gardens, what he saw as a “holy city.” We enter the grounds by way of the small church of the monastery in the town of Montegiove in the province of Terni. Little remains of the church save for an early 13th century fresco portraying St. Francis.

church

We begin our walk along stone paths in what was once the monk’s giardino, a traditional tranquil garden, with box hedges, flowers, statuary and vine-covered pergolas. It is a peaceful sanctuary and does little to prepare us for the imaginary city that lies ahead, a jumbled landscape of stone structures strewn across a paradisaical playground. There are temples and towers, reflection pools, theaters, and a natural arena. Architectural details have been extracted from every art period of the past and blended into elements of the Neo-Mannerist style. There is a sense of unbalance and disproportion that bends one’s mind. Buzzi’s city is a complex of seven theaters, with the focal point being the “Acropolis,” a chaotic arrangement of buildings with elements borrowed from such structures as the Arc de Triomple, the Parthenon, and the Temple of Vesta, all vacant but not lacking stairways and bridges.

La Scarsuola (5)

 

I find myself seeking some sort of visual and spiritual balance and I find it in the natural landscape that surrounds these structures – the tall cypresses, the vast expanses of lawn, the hedges and olive trees – elements that seem more comprehensible, more enduring. One would have to have known the artist to understand the workings of his mind to understand the complexity of his vision and its subsequent execution. Of this, I have no clue, but like all magic, one need not understand how it was done to enjoy it. Such is La Scarzuola.

 

It was Tomaso Buzzi’s wish at his death in 1980 that nature take over his unfinished city, leaving it to be a city of haunting ruins. His nephew, Marco Solari, however did complete his uncle’s vision and thankfully, these gardens are open to the public today.

Visits by appointment only.
Call or send request by e-mail.

Copyright Ginda Simpson – http://www.rooms-withaview.comhttp://www.gindasimpson.com

A Simple Feast at Il Granaro del Monte

Il Granaro

Il Granaro del Monte
Hotel Grotta Azzurra
Via Alfieri 7
06046 Norcia (PG)
39-0743-816-513
info@bianconi.com
www.bianconi.com

We feasted at our hotel’s restaurant, Il Granaro del Monte, considered a national culinary monument.  I was in agreement from the very first savory bite.  What makes their cooking so extraordinary?  Ordinary, wholesome ingredients prepared with a love and respect for the land that produces them – Norcia!  The Black Truffle is king and is an essential part of the cuisine of Umbria.  Truffles are best consumed shortly after being extracted from the ground, as their particularly strong scent and taste fade quickly.   At the Granaro, the chef does not allow this to happen and he prepares the truffles in countless ways.  For me, they are absolutely divine simply perched on a mound of handmade tagliatelle.   But a meal would not be complete without sampling Norcia’s lamb and cured pork specialties, the lentils of Castelluccio (presented here in a velvety soup), the spelt, the cheeses…

Picture the sheep as they graze in the flower-filled meadow of Castelluccio, the cheeses made from the sheep’s milk, the honey of a thousand wildflowers.  These are the elements that are used to recreate traditional dishes following ageless recipes, held dear by the Bianconi family and presented daily to their guests.

 

copyright – Ginda Simpson – http://www.rooms-withaview.comhttp://www.gindasimpson.com

 

Salana Boutique Hotel – memories are made of this

2017c Salana Boutique Hotel

Salana Boutique Hotel – original watercolor by Ginda Simpson

Salana Boutique Hotel
112 Chao Anou Road,
Watchan Village
Chanthabuly District
Vientiane, Lao PDR
+856-21-254-254
http://www.salanaboutique.com
rsvn@salanaboutique.com

Surrounded by temples, Salana offers more than just a boutique hotel experience. I have been in Vientiane for less than 24 hours; and at dawn following a good night’s sleep I find myself seated on the sidewalk with women preparing to give alms to the procession of monks. I have wanted to see this for myself – not as a tourist – and their kind invitation to join them and share in the handing out of their offerings has pleased me immensely. Sacred and serene, this moment will be my first memory of Vientiane.

Salana Boutique Hotel also offers a place to feel at home while visiting the capital city of Laos. It is elegant in its simplicity of décor, complete in the thoughtfulness of its amenities, and gracious in its hospitality. “Sabaidee” and a smile of welcome meet us as we come and go. Our breakfast is generous and we appreciate the array of choices, both Asian and Western to meet the cravings of an international clientele. Both the lobby and the restaurant are decorated for Christmas, another thoughtful touch for their guests who find themselves far from their home countries where this is the most cherished of holidays.

After a full day of sight-seeing, we retreat to the comfort and quiet of our room. But not for long – I have decided to indulge in a spa treatment, a two-hour package that includes a full body scrub followed by an aromatherapy massage. At the Sarila Spa, I feel like I have been rescued from the cares of the world.

The hotel location is ideal for visitors who wish to watch the sunset on the Mekong, to visit nearby temples, or shop at the night market. There is street food to tempt and restaurants galore all within walking distance, but we come “home” and dine at the Salana Kitchen Vibe Bistro. One need not go any farther for a fully satisfying meal, followed by an hour or so in their “living room” listening to music and reading a good book. Ahh… all is well with the world.

copyright Ginda Simpson – http://www.rooms-withaview.comhttp://www.gindasimpson.com

The Pierre – a New York icon

 

2018 The Pierre for webThe Pierre
2 East 61st Street
New York, New York 10065-8402
1-212-838-8000
http://www.thepierreny.com

As I sit here in the lobby of The Pierre looking over the New York Times edition of February 9, 2018, I try to imagine what it was like when the headlines of this same paper on February 2, 1929 announced the plans for the new hotel to be built on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 61st Street, replacing an existing mansion. The $15-million project was a joint venture to create an exclusive hotel, reflecting simplicity yet the ultimate refinement within a club-like environment. It opened on October 1, 1930 and became the toast of New York society, until the Depression hit and years of financial struggles ensued. But the Pierre is a survivor. In 1959, The Pierre became a cooperative of permanent resident owners, while the remaining guest rooms, restaurant and bars remained open to a devoted international clientele. A series of reincarnations in the form of restorations, renovations and innovative social venues have made The Pierre what it is today – an historic icon of New York residential and hotel luxury. The Pierre has 140 rooms and 49 suites. Eleven Grand Suites have apartment-like quarters and private terraces.

We could opt to have afternoon tea at the Two E Bar & Lounge, an Art Deco room that was originally the Gentlemen’s Library but instead we choose to “lounge” in our room and enjoy its panoramic view of New York’s skyline and a tree-top view of Central Park. It is with pure pleasure and much anticipation that we dress up and wander through the Rotunda on our way to Perrine’s Restaurant. We linger to admire the 1967 murals by Edward Melcarth, painted in a palette of soft pastels, reminiscent of the frescoed rooms of European palaces. Opposite the Rotunda is the Grand Ballroom restored in 2006. It remains one of New York’s most sought-after settings for gala events and weddings.

The restaurant, on the other hand, is unpretentious, quiet, inviting. Sait, our waiter, orchestrates our dinner like an experienced conductor, leading us through a symphony of dishes created by Indian-born executive chef, Ashfer Biju. The cuisine is French-inspired and is superb. Appetizers, such as tuna tartare, steak tartare, a winter citrus salad and crab imperial flatbread are worthy of an imperial table. Sait knows just the wine to accompany these delectable treats. To continue on our culinary passage, we have lamb chops with polenta and roasted root vegetables, with a sampling of winter mushrooms and sweet corn and kohlrabi gratin. Finally, the ultimate in sweet indulgences leads us to the decision that we must now stroll through Central Park in the cold crisp air of early evening. We head to Wollman Rink, where skaters have glided across the ice since it opened in 1949 – a most enjoyable ending to our first day in New York. Tomorrow, our walk will take us to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

copyright ginda simpson – http://www.rooms_withaview.comhttp://www.gindasimpson.com