Illustrious architecture, Veronese frescoes, delicious local cuisine—on a mission to discover six of the region’s best hotels, Christopher Petkanas explores a corner of Italy he’d (shh!) definitely return to.
The Veneto needs no introduction, or if it does, maybe you shouldn’t let on—is it possible you’re not as well-traveled as you think?I know too many people who’ve been to Venice a hundred times and never made good on vows to drag themselves out of Harry’s Bar to tour the backcountry.
Is this you?If so, what a pity. Or you could look at it another way: You still have the discovery of the Veneto ahead of you.
If this slice of the former Repubblica Veneziana has always played handmaiden to Venice, so much the better. However breathtaking, Venice is a casualty of its own enshrinement. The Veneto has no such worries. Its main provinces—Padua, Treviso, Verona, Vicenza—are models of sustainable cultural tourism. Palladian villas attract the architecturally aware. Soave and Valpolicella vineyards draw wine pilgrims. And you would have to work very hard to find a restaurant proposing anything but regional home cooking, a canon with a core of risotto, polenta, beans, baccalà, and culty vegetable dishes like forced, blanched radicchio and castrated artichokes.
Beyond the Veronese frescoes and great food, luxury shopping and great food, and genius barchesse (read on) and great food, the Veneto has some extraordinary hotels. Many are grand, which here never rhymes with stuffy. Among the possibilities are a former shooting lodge with a hotly contested Byron connection, a Renaissance estate with a primo cooking school, and a 15th-century villa pumped with contemporary art. They’re unique to the Veneto, which no one has ever confused with Venice.
Villa Pisani, Vescovana
Of all Andrea Palladio’s houses, Villa Barbaro, in Maser, is probably the most popular. But to see its Veronese frescoes you have to cope with tour buses and wait your turn until someone liberates a pair of the slippers that are required of all visitors.
You can endure all that, or just spend the night in woozy majesty at Villa Pisani, where Mariella Bolognesi Scalabrin has some sensational Veroneses of her own. (The Pisani dynasty was one of the noblest in the Venetian Republic, which looked to it for ambassadors, generals, and doges.) If you want to pass the afternoon studying Veronese’s portrait of Cardinal Francesco Pisani, who built the villa in 1552, Scalabrin will hardly be the one to discourage you.
Wistful for an era when being well-born, landed, and Italian coincided with a life of little exertion, she runs her eight-room bed-and-breakfast with a light touch. Some might call her style disinterested, but it is the reluctance of the villa’s mistress to involve herself, her melancholy remove, that is so engaging. And chic.
Though not the work of Palladio, Scalabrin’s house—located 15 miles south of Padua—incorporates an alluring and hardworking device identified with the architect. Barchesse—arcaded barns—are attached to the estate’s residential block, designed as places to do farmwork that were out-of-doors yet protected. Today, they set the mood of a stay here: curtains of vines sweep the ground, an AirPort Internet terminal sits defunct in a corner, and winged garden furniture looks as if it was designed by the same madman who created Peggy Guggenheim’s eyeglasses.
What does one call Vescovana?A town?A village?A hamlet?None of these satisfactorily suggests the place, which has a single main artery, flanked by the sort of houses—cubic, stuccoed, unlovely—that no Italian province has the monopoly on. It takes 90 seconds to drive through Vescovana before it dissolves into fields. Commercial activity is confined to a fruit stand and a caffètabacchi. Whether because of these limitations or despite them, Vescovana is charming.
The villa sits unbothered in a country setting that features a celebrated garden, all rigorous symmetry and geometry, planted in the 19th century by the last Countess Pisani—the colorful and cultivated Evelina. Born to an English doctor, who treated Byron, and a Turkish mother reputedly raised in the sultan’s harem, Evelina ordered her bulbs from England and received everyone from Henry James to one Margaret Symonds. In 1893, Symonds published Days Spent on a Doge’s Farm, her diary of holidays at the villa: "The garden is the sole creation of a modern English fancy, and has nothing to do with the old Pisani nobles. It is natural that the strong English instincts of the new Contessa should have made her shudder at the general sunbaked and unsoftened aspect of this huge farmhouse…She needed flowers, as English women do, and shade…then the roses would grow and the birds would come."
Breakfast is taken in full view of Evelina’s chef d’oeuvre, though Signora Scalabrin might try a little harder with the morning meal. The garden is seen to yet better advantage from the guest rooms, especially Irina, which is laden with needlepoint, velvet, satin, and lace, and has enchanting allegorical frescoes by Palladio’s collaborator Zelotti.
Critic Witold Rybczynski settles the score between the two artists in The Perfect House. "There is no doubt that Veronese…was the more accomplished painter," he writes. "But in many ways Zelotti was a better decorator…more sensitive to the architecture and more interested in the purely ornamental aspects of his art."
Stay at Pisani and never choose.
19-25 Via Roma; 39-0425/920-016; www.villapisani.it; doubles from $208.
Hotel Villa Cipriani and Albergo al Sole, Asolo
In the foothills of the Dolomites, 40 miles northwest of Venice, Asolo projects prosperity, privilege, self-satisfaction. It has a lot to crow about, so the air of superiority is forgiven. The great triumph of Asolo is what Guido Rosada, an archaeologist from the University of Padua, calls its rational simplicity. Certainly it is gorgeous, a snaking medieval burg with two good hotels, Albergo al Sole and Hotel Villa Cipriani; a Roman past; pitched, arcaded streets; a lively café life, centering on the 1796 Caffe Centrale; and a cultural legacy bequeathed by Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Eleonora Duse, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and Freya Stark. All were compelled to live in Asolo.
Pope Pius X received the tonsure in the town’s cathedral in 1850, and a famous antiques fair is held the second Sunday of every month, except July and August. Landscapes seen from the walled perimeter put you in mind of Titian. Municipal fathers are happy to spend whatever it takes to keep Asolo sparkling. Palladio’s Villa Barbaro is minutes away. Others of his masterpieces—Godi, Cornaro, Emo—are within easy driving distance.
You can walk to everything you want to see in Asolo from both the Albergo al Sole and Villa Cipriani, though deciding between them is no simple coin-toss. A country house once owned by Robert Browning, the 31-room Cipriani was managed by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Hotel Villa Cipriani, before being acquired by Starwood. Hidden behind a high wall on the edge of town, Villa Cipriani is rather fuddy-duddy, a quality I actually admire. The retro bar has grid paneling, equestrian prints, and the stylish undersize armchairs native to this genus of hotel. The terraced garden fades into a meadow, and the views are of the Asolan countryside. Life came cruelly close to imitating art, or at least to the Anita Brookner novel I was reading, when I spied two bitter old English birds supping wordlessly on chateaubriand with béarnaise sauce in the dining room.
Al Sole is younger, looser, fresher, perkier, and cheaper by about half. It also feels more integrated into the life of Asolo, because of its central location. Folded into a freestanding, foursquare 19th-century building with a rosy ocher façade, the hotel has 23 rooms, but if you can’t secure 101, 102, 201, or 202, juggle your dates so you can. Asolo is all about the views, and these are the only accommodations that look directly on the town. Snappy service and bathrooms with slipper tubs have put the Cipriani on notice.
It would take a week to eat your way through Asolo’s destination restaurants (while perfectly okay, Al Sole’s is not one of them). At Hosteria Ca’ Derton’s annex, I built a late supper of herby rabbit terrine with marinated vegetables; bigoli (thick-strand pasta) with duck sauce; Asiago, served at three stages of ripeness with onion jam, green apple, and mustard fruits; and another, grassy cow’s-milk cheese, Morlacco, that is made only for a short time in summer. Barolos are a third what you pay at home for the same wine by an inferior producer. At Al Bacaro the next day, I ordered a salume board of prosciutto, speck, lardo, mortadella, porchetta, pancetta, and soppressa, then sailed on to a giant plate of tripe alla veneziana, whispering nutmeg and bound with lots of creamy melted onions.
Asolo must have more jewelry shops per capita than even Rome. (The town’s population is 8,836, basically what it has been since 1951. A good sign, it means Asolans aren’t fleeing to the cities and the Milanese aren’t eating up all the real estate for second homes.) The boutiques sell not costume stuff but $155,000 diamond bands, as at Antichità Conzada Nascimbene. Berdusco Daniele has Ballantyne cashmere polo shirts in colors—poison green with a pink collar—that there is no point trying to find anywhere else. Marta Stradiotto makes custom shirts with princess seams—for men. Opulent home-furnishing silks are woven on chattering wooden looms at Tessoria Asolana. Linens are embroidered by angels at Scuola Asolana Antico Ricamo di Anna Milani, founded by the Brownings’ son, Pen.
I could go on, and will, because I still haven’t mentioned the one shop I fell for hardest. I can die tomorrow without stepping foot in another lighting shop because I know none could please me more than Ernesto Di Lazzari’s, which sells the ceramic saucer-shaped ceiling fixtures on pulleys that you’ve admired in a million Italian kitchens. It’s another reason to go to Asolo, if you need one.
Hotel Villa Cipriani, 298 Via Canova; 39-0423/523-411; www.starwoodhotels.com; doubles from $438.
Albergo al Sole, 33 Via Collegio; 39-0423/951-332; www.albergoalsole.com; doubles from $241, including breakfast.
Villa Giona, San Pietro in Cariano
Despite her annoyingly arid personality and the fact that I witnessed a cigarette ash almost fall from her lips into a pot of risotto (this was 20 years ago, at the cooking school she then ran in Bologna), I am a huge fan of Marcella Hazan. So imagine my excitement when, having reserved a room at Villa Giona, a hotel and vineyard in Valpolicella country outside Verona, I learned that Marcella’s son Giuliano had hosted a celebration for her 80th birthday there in 2004. If Giona was good enough for Marcella and all her fancy international friends—Adrienne Vittadini! Bryant Gumbel!!—how could it not be good enough for me?
It was and it wasn’t. Giona is a place of which Americans in less blasé times would have said, "This is what we come to Europe for," the remark reflecting an uncomplicated appreciation of the villa’s age (it was built in the 16th century), gorgeous patina, and crazy grandeur.
Do you long for simpler trips and times, to shed your inured self?Then consider Giona, where potted lemon trees and a phalanx of garden statues with their noses whacked off invite you to reconnect with your traveling past. Remember thrilling to an attic guest room where you had to crouch to see out the ocular windows?Or dining on a curtained loggia?Giona renews these pleasures.
The romantic loggia was almost, but not quite, enough to make up for the breakfast (Alpine Lace, bread that tastes like it was made in a machine—what would Marcella say?) and the absence of wine in the mini-bars. Not only was I in a region of Italy whose identity comes largely from wine, but the villa grows grapes that are made into a Bordeaux-style vino da tavola by Allegrini. When room service finally got it together, the white it delivered was from Umbria, as if Soave weren’t right down the road.
Though Giona will always lack the infrastructure of a full-tilt hotel, I’m sure I would have received better attention if it hadn’t been in the jaws of a wedding. With persistence, I dug out a staffer who produced recommendations for two amazing restaurants. Amid a vineyard in Fumane, Enoteca della Valpolicella serves the truest, most chaste risotto—flavored with red wine or herbs, but never the two together—and polenta so silky it flowed through the tines of my fork. At Dalla Rosa Alda, in the barely awake hilltop village of San Giorgio Ingannapoltron, I ticked two items off my checklist of local dishes: patissada de caval, horsemeat spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves and braised in Amarone, a jammy red made from partially dried grapes; and pissota, a lemony olive-oil cake baked by a nonna, in a pan with an overturned bowl in the middle to obtain the signature ring shape.
When I go back to Giona, it will be to stay in Mantegna. The hotel’s only (duplex) accommodation in a barchessa, it has a brick floor, roughly plastered walls, 1778 engravings depicting the stations of the cross, and a surprisingly successful mix of heavily carved antique furniture and Corbusier seating. I’ll also return to take Giuliano Hazan’s cooking course. But however much he insists that he and his mother are not the same person, for me he will always be her in pants, with a beard and without the pearls. If you want a hit of the old Marcella purity and clarity, now that she has retired to Longboat Key, Giuliano’s the next-best thing.
8 Via Cengia; 39-045/685-5011; www.villagiona.it; doubles from $235, including breakfast.
Byblos Art Hotel Villa Amistà, Corrubbio di Negarine
This peacock of a debutante is down the road from Giona, but they are so opposed, they could be on different planets.
The 60-room Amistà was conceived as an upstart showcase for modern art and design inserted into a 15th-century villa with pretty gardens and a glamorous swimming pool. The hotel is in the countryside, 15 minutes outside Verona, hence the necessity for an hourly shuttle service that also happens to be efficient and free.
The owners are the family behind Byblos, a ready-to-wear label that had a moment in the eighties but means little now. Out of the spotlight, they launched the Amistà, which features works by Sol LeWitt, Cindy Sherman, Sandro Chia, Robert Indiana, and Takashi Murakami. Among the lighting and furniture are classics by Eero Saarinen, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ettore Sottsass, and Verner Panton. Some of the furnishings are silly, torturously uncomfortable, or both, but it’s hard not to crack a smile at Dalí’s big kiss of a sofa, cast in the form of lips in homage to Mae West’s.
The suites and the public rooms have the lock on the most sensational pieces. The contrast between these and the aristocratic setting is shocking in a good way, at least for the first couple of hours (after that it can seem gimmicky). Giant photographs of nude armies of ghostly women, taken by Vanessa Beecroft during her VB 43 performance pieces, are hung in the former ballroom, now the lobby, a monumental space with coffered wooden ceilings, a ravishing terrazzo floor, and exquisite trompe l’oeil moldings.
Most of the guest-room furniture—including cartoonishly baroque headboards in crazy colors—was designed by Alessandro Mendini, whose work is housed in New York’s MOMA. Many of Mendini’s designs for the hotel are part of the retail collection Byblos Casa. At the villa, descriptive notices tell guests everything they want to know about the chairs they’re sitting on, though good luck if you don’t read Italian.
Fancy food like foie gras with violet cream is the last thing I go to Italy to eat, but if I did I wouldn’t look further than Amistà’s restaurant. I was much happier in Verona at Locanda Castelvecchio, where an epic trolley of roasted and boiled meats is accompanied by salsa verde, mustard fruits, grated horseradish, and a curious, porridge-like sauce, pearà, made with fresh bread crumbs. Antica Bottega del Vino, also in Verona, is the place for baccalà vicentina, a preparation that—however unlikely it seems on paper (salt cod, anchovies, milk…and parmesan)—is the most sophisticated dish in salt-cod cookery. Near Amistà, Trattoria Rosa serves an unreconstructed version of yet another regional specialty, tagliolini in brodo, topped with chicken livers.
As a modest trattoria, Rosa is sure of its identity in the Veneto landscape. The same is not true of Amistà, which, even given all the visual fireworks, offers a strangely flat experience. The place is so admiring of Philippe Starck, it already feels old (irony waits for no one). Still, the Amistà has the bones of a good hotel. The right pro could fix it.
78 Via Cedrare; 39-045/685-5555; www.byblosarthotel.com; doubles from $428.
Ca’ Zen, Taglio di Po
The mailman pulled out through the hissing avenue of poplar trees at Ca’ Zen, on the Po River an hour south of Venice, as I pulled in. Elaine Avanzo Westropp Bennett, the bed-and-breakfast’s Anglo-Irish owner, normally has a deliciously skeptical sense of humor, but a letter she had received put her in a sour mood. Someone was challenging Ca’ Zen’s literary pedigree, insisting that Byron never rendezvoused here with Teresa Guiccioli. Alessandro Guiccioli had exiled his sparky wife from Venice to tame her, but she did not cooperate.
Ca’ Zen is secreted in the Parco Regionale del Delta del Po, a 70,000-acre puzzle of tidal flats, swamps, rice farms, lagoons, canals, and estuaries. "Even today," says Avanzo, "this is considered a remote part of Italy." The delta has a brusque, untamable flavor similar to that of France’s Camargue, plus good riding, even better biking, and some of the finest fish restaurants in the country.
Built in the early 18th century as a shooting lodge, Ca’ Zen ballooned into what Byron knew as a palazzina. The house is fractionally shorter than the 33-foot-wide, 180-foot-long aia, or brick threshing terrace, that hugs the south façade. Avanzo’s daughter, Maria Adelaide—a leggy beauty, horsewoman, and law-school graduate—will offer to set your breakfast table here, overlooking a 15-acre park. (One morning she spoiled a guest with her personal stash of Fortnum & Mason orange pekoe, cooing, "You look like you’d appreciate it.") Ca’ Zen has just seven rooms and a cottage, so even when it’s full there’s as much danger of crowding as of getting hit by a bus.
The rooms are sentimental repositories of hourglass slipper chairs, pious imagery, flouncy dressing tables, and blackamoors proffering trays of musty potpourri. Most of this trove was handed down to Pericle Avanzo, Elaine’s late husband, who taught her the ins and outs of the Venetian kitchen. Served in an intimate dining room with silver domes on the sideboard and a florid, ecclesiastical candelabrum on the chimneypiece, dinner at Ca’ Zen is partially prepared over a wood fire, stronger on primi (risotto with zucchini, zucchini flowers, and gamberetti) and dolci (lemon torta) than on secondi (whole branzino)—and ridiculously copious.
By checkout, Avanzo had answered her doubter in the Byron matter. She wrote the woman how the river that inspired his "Stanzas to the Po" was in Byron’s time visible from the salone. She also outlined how Ca’ Zen had passed from the cuckolded Alessandro Guiccioli to her mother-in-law’s family, the Casalicchios, in the 19th century. When her husband’s aunt died last year at age 100, Avanzo continued, she was still remembering how the Guicciolis visited the room where Byron had slept even after the house had been sold: "The Casalicchios are the last people to invent such a story: they remain a totally non-frivolous, non-snobbish kind of family, with a much keener interest in their land and children than in a passionate love affair between an English poet—however famous—and young, beautiful, spoiled Teresa! And yet they have always spoken about Byron and Teresa in Ca’ Zen with such certainty that I have absolutely no reason to doubt it. Nor has anyone else, until now."
Taglio di Po; 39-0426/346-469; www.tenutacazen.it; doubles from $130, including breakfast.
When to Go
The Veneto is mild most of the year; winters are damp and can be foggy. Summer, as elsewhere in Italy, is high season: expect a commensurate increase in crowds and, in some cases, prices.
How to Get There
Delta flies nonstop to Venice from Atlanta and New York/JFK; US Airways flies nonstop from May to October from Philadelphia. An almost always cheaper alternative is to fly into Milan’s Malpensa airport, then drive the roughly two hours to the Veneto. Or take a train from Milan’s Central Station to Padua or Vicenza; click on www.trenitalia.com to get schedules and purchase tickets.
What to See
Architecture by Andrea di Pietro della Gondola, known as Palladio (1508-89), himself a native of Padua. Villas not to miss are Emo, Cornaro, and Almerico Capra (also known as La Rotunda). Go to www.cisapalladio.org for maps, details, and visiting hours, or call 39-0444/323-014.
Where to Eat
Al Bacaro 165 Via R. Browning; 39-0423/55-150; dinner for two $66.
Hosteria Ca’ Derton 11 Piazza G. d’Annunzio; 39-0423/ 529-648; dinner for two $130.
Enoteca della Valpolicella 45 Via Osan; 39-045/683-9146; dinner for two $99.
San Giorgio Ingannapoltron
Dalla Rosa Alda 4 Via Garibaldi; 39-045/770-1018; dinner for two $86.
Antica Bottega del Vino 3 Vicolo Scudo di Francia; 39-045/ 800-4535; dinner for two $117.
Locanda Castelvecchio 21A Corso Castelvecchio; 39-045/ 803-0097; dinner for two $112.
Trattoria Rosa 21 Via Brennero; 39-045/772-5054; dinner for two $65.
Where to Shop—Asolo
Antichità Conzada Nascimbene 186 Via R. Browning; 39-0423/952-784.
Berdusco Daniele 224 Via Regina Cornaro; 39-0423/952-303.
Ernesto di Lazzari 179 Via R. Browning; 39-0423/952-073.
Marta Stradiotto 21 Via D. Alighieri; 39-0423/529-490.
Scuola Asolana Antico Ricamo di Anna Milani 333 Via A. Canova; 39-0423/952-906.
Tessoria Asolana 321 Via A. Canova; 39-0423/952-062.
Albergo al Sole
Built in the 1500’s by the noble Pisani dynasty, this 8-room B&B is known for the original Veronese frescoes in its ballroom.
Room to Book: The elegant suites that look out onto the garden.
Doubles From $254, including breakfast.
Scuola Asolana di Antico Ricamo di Anna Milani
Ernesto di Lazzari
Antichità Conzada Nascimbene
Dalla Rosa Alda
Enoteca della Valpolicella
Hosteria Ca’ Derton da Nino
Excellent small-town fare.
Byblos Art Hotel Villa Amistà
Amid Valpolicella vineyards outside Romeo and Juliet’s hometown of Verona, this classical Venetian-style villa appears ripe for an old-world romance. If the star-crossed lovers were to step through the arched doorway today, they would be in for a surprise. Proprietor Dino Facchini (who also owns the fashion line Byblos) has updated the estate with a frescoed ballroom tarted up with photographs of red-haired nudes by Vanessa Beecroft. The 60 rooms have whimsical details like harlequin patterns, fridges with painted faces, and asymmetrical mirrors. But the hotel is more than a house of fun. Couples can wind down in the Roman-style pool, detox in the spa, or head to the restaurant for sea bass sweetened with rose petals.
Hotel Villa Cipriani
Former home of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with a garden overlooking the surrounding countryside.