The very fact that there is an inn in Santa Margherita Ligure, where la dolce vita comes at a price, is practically a miracle.
"You have to be well-off to own a B&B here, because obviously you need real estate, and real estate is expensive," said Roberto Gnocchi, the hands-on proprietor of the Villa Gnocchi, two small stone farm buildings pinned dramatically to the mountainside high above the port. "If you're lucky enough to have a property on the most famous stretch of the Ligurian coast, you keep it for yourself—you don't accept paying guests. Only I am crazy enough to do that."
If craziness it is, grazie mille. The 1999 testimony of a Chicago couple, one of dozens of fan letters displayed in the dining room, is typical: "We visited Italy and France for three weeks and, with the exception of the Villa, stayed in five-star hotels. However, we enjoyed the Villa the most!"
No one is more surprised by his success than Gnocchi, who never imagined that one day he'd be hanging snowy hemstitched linen curtains or turning out a vibrant pasta sauce of fresh tomatoes, olives, capers, and pine nuts to feed the impatient mouths of 20 strangers. After earning a degree in agriculture at Pisa University, Gnocchi served as an officer in the Italian navy, and then worked as a counselor at a farmers' union in Genoa, where he helped landowners solve their crop problems. In 1988 he moved to Santa Margherita Ligure, installing himself in what would become the inn, a pair of dilapidated farmhouses on six acres that had belonged to his grandfather. Gnocchi hoped to make a living growing olives, among other fruits and vegetables.
"But after one season it became clear I wouldn't survive," he recalls. "Tuscany was doing quite well with family-run inns, so I took a chance and borrowed the idea, restoring these beautiful houses myself." Of the nine guest rooms, all with private baths, the one to line up for is No. 6, a spacious and sun-flooded corner room on the second floor. It has oak parquet, an antique headboard carved with baskets of flowers, marble-topped bedside tables, a lovely old rocking chair— and heart-melting wraparound views.
If you arrive by train, Gnocchi is happy to pick you up at the station. The service is free, the pleasure all his. And although Santa Margherita Ligure is two miles away by car, the good news is that you don't need one to go back and forth. I always went down on foot, using a clever shortcut that delivered me to the water in 15 minutes. Back at the villa, I was charmed to find that, unlike at some inns, where you're watched as if you were a convict, nobody writes it down every time you are poured half a glass of wine. Try finding that kind of generosity at a luxury hotel. I'm practically a convert.
Villa Gnocchi, 53 Via Romana, San Lorenzo della Costa, Santa Margherita Ligure; phone and fax 39-0185/283-431; www.karenbrown.com/italy/villagnocchi.html; doubles from $77.