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.