Castello del Nero, Tavarnelle Val di Pesa
From Italy to Osaka, modern and fancy is the default look for five-star properties. But Castello del Nero—a 12th-century repository of trompe-l’oeil paintwork, coffered ceilings, and handblown leaded-glass windows—is subtle, thoughtful, abstemious. Most people are too busy timing room service to notice the halls in a hotel, but here they tell the whole story: monastic but friendly, with glassy Venetian-stucco walls, pierced-tole lanterns, beautiful ironwork, and not a lot else. The man who rejected jazzing up Del Nero is Alain Mertens, a low-profile Belgian decorator with high-profile clients like Sting and, of all people, Madonna. The search for a real, proper, full-service luxury hotel in Tuscany ends here.
Del Nero sets the bar in the region with more than quiet good looks and crisp professionalism (even if it can organize a formal custom tasting of the top 20 Vernaces, say, in less time than it takes to strike a match). Spas in hotels this size (there are 50 rooms) are often small, undercapitalized afterthoughts. But the Espa facility here is as comprehensive and as fastidiously designed as anything in Milan. Whether or not sea salt, rosemary, and olive oil makes a better massage lubricant than salad dressing is another story. And if you have to exercise, it may as well be in a medieval castle with barrel-vaulted ceilings held up by wide-waisted pillars of alternating brick and stone. I’ve never worked out in a gym with so much atmosphere, or history.
The one place Del Nero goes a little off message is the dining room. This has nothing to do with the crested china, which is lovely, or the panzanella quenelles, which are formed tableside by the maître d’hôtel with an easy flourish. The red flag is the appetizer that comes before the pre-appetizer, a martini glass of celery mousse speckled with black sesame seeds. The way you know the hotel gets a lot of Americans is that when you order the fiorentina, the waiter asks how you’d like it. In a real Tuscan restaurant you’re never, ever asked, and the steak arrives wobbling rare. At Del Nero the right way is your way. If diet Coke is your breakfast drink nobody makes you feel small about asking for it. It sounds corny, but the customer really is king. Doubles from $800.
Christopher Petkanas is a frequent contributor to T: The New York Times Style Magazine.