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.