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 Rocco Forte's Singular Hotel Savoy Firenze - The 21st Century in the Heart of Florence

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

Images of Firenze  --  Brunelleschi’s Duomo and Giotto’s Campanile, Leonardo’s “Annunication” and Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” the palazzos and piazzas, the cloisters and loggias, the chapels and towers, the dim byway where Dante glimpsed Beatrice, the Ponte Vecchio, bulging with the jumble of shops   --- and looking out onto the Piazza della Repubblica through enormous windows devoid of draperies, the Hotel Savoy.

The doorman tips his Borsoino top hat and bids you welcome. Inside the setting is neo-modern Italian design, a striking counterpoint to the historic environs. This is the same Hotel Savoy that was lauded for its elevator and electric lights when it opened in 1893. Today re-conceived as a Rocco Forte property with the signature Olga Polizzi look, it is transformed, a stunning player in the 21st century luxe market.

One’s eye is immediately drawn to the huge painting in the lobby. A contemporary take on a Greco/Roman head, it overlooks an intimate conversation area: angular chairs and sofas in pale neutral shades strewn with purple pillows, an ottoman covered in pony skin, straight-edged furnishings of wood, steel and glass, and a 17th century chapel pediment. The ambience, sophisticated yet playful, prevails throughout the property – in the bar and restaurant, the meeting and banquet rooms, and the 107 rooms and suites, all of which have floors of gleaming parquet and indulgent bathrooms of marble and mosaic.

As befits a premier hotel in Florence, the Savoy showcases an impressive art collection albeit one more evocative of Andy Warhol (who is actually represented by a number of prints) than Filippo Lippi. Shoes, in particular ladies’ high-heeled pumps, seem to be the favored subject in a range of pop art-type depictions along the corridors and in guest rooms. (Is this coincidental or an insider’s reference to the Ferragamo’s who own the building?)

There is an excitement about the place, a sense of something new and eventful. And this is reflected in the enthusiasm of the staff all of whom seem possessed of a singular Italian brio and a desire to be of service. Even the briefest of stays at the Hotel Savoy brings you in contact with one or more of them; this is a difficult place in which to be ignored.

“I spend 85% of the time walking around, meeting people, talking to guests,” says Davide Bertilaccio. The Venetian-born general manager looks even younger than his 36 years although he is a seasoned hotel exec. “I worked for the Four Seasons in Milan, Santa Barbara, Las Vegas,” he told us over drinks in the L’Incontro Bar.

General Manager Davide Bertilaccio - click to enlarge
General Manager Davide Bertilaccio
“Then I got a position in Paris with Alain Ducasse (the legendary restaurateur) at the Plaza Athenée. One day I received a phone call from a good friend of mine, the then g.m. of the Savoy. He was leaving. Would I like to take over?

“After I had settled here, Alain Ducasse came to the Savoy. He made the chef quite nervous, but as it turned out he was on a diet and only wanted the simplest of foods. He was very easy to please.

“All our people are very anxious to please our guests,” he added. “That is the Rocco Forte attitude, and it is picked up by the members of the staff because R.F. treats them so well, respects them, tries to make them happy. Often when a company takes over an existing property, they start anew, cutting off everything from the past. But here we are a blend of the old and new. There are people like the bar man who were here way before this was an R.F. property. And there are the many young people in positions of great responsibility. Like Luca Finardi, our front office manager. He is such a terrific mixer with an incredible energy that he conveys to everybody.”

The man with incredible energy, Front Office Manager Luca Finardi - click to enlarge
The man with incredible energy, Front Office Manager Luca Finardi
Luca is tall and handsome. His head is completely shaved, and his smile is electric. He also knows Florence intimately. Thanks to his suggestion and a well placed phone call, we had the best pizza in town at Osteria del Caffè Italiano, a bustling place where we seemed to be the sole Americans among a crowd of Florentines and where we learned that pizza tastes best when accompanied by a dry white wine.

Over lunch – lunch at the Savoy being an elaborate salad bar with every Italian delicacy imaginable: the prosciutto, the mozzarella balls with sun dried tomatoes, the olives and capers the size of olives, the pickled artichokes, the pimentos and anchovies – Luca anchored the hotel in its locale for us and demonstrated that this front office manager is also a student of Florence’s history.

Our table was beside a window overlooking the Piazza della Repubblica. Beneath an awning in front of the hotel, people were having lunch, braving the chilly October afternoon while the expansive piazza beyond was filled with strollers, hawkers, street entertainers, locals and tourists alike enjoying an espresso at an outdoor café.

“We are right in the heart of the city,” Luca said to us. “The Duomo and Bell Tower are right around the corner. You are a walk from the Uffizi Gallery, the Bargello, even the Pitti Palace.

“This used to be the Mercato Vecchio (old market),” he continued. “It was the oldest and most important square in the city going back to the 14th century when it was the point where Florence’s two main roads intersected. There were beautiful palaces with watch towers all around. All the major events of the city were held here.

“It became a market place filled with stalls of all kinds that spilled over into the surrounding streets. But later on, the area fell into decline, and the beautiful palaces were abandoned. Then it became one of the poorest sections of the city. When it was decided to segregate the Jews, they built the ghetto here.

“Then in 1887 after Florence became the capital of the new Italian state, the ghetto was closed, the entire area was demolished, and the plaza you see before you today was built. This hotel was part of that big change.”

Luca paused in his little lecture as a dark and slender young woman possessed of a unique kind of Gallic beauty approached. “This is Agnes Pont, our guest relations manager,” he said. “She happens to be French, but now that she’s living in Florence and working at the Savoy, she’s on her way to becoming a true Tuscan.”

“That’s true,” Agnes said laughingly sliding into the banquette. “And one of the things I love about living here is you can take a car, go into the countryside, and find all these little Tuscan cities. They go back to the time of the city state. Each has its own distinct identity. A very special place for me is San Gimignano, a small medieval city  between Siena and Florence. It’s known as the tower city because it used to have about 70 towers.”

Agnes Pont, Guest Relations Manager, on her way to becoming a true Tuscan - click to enlarge
Agnes Pont, Guest Relations Manager, on her way to becoming a true Tuscan

But what does Agnes do when she’s not discovering Tuscan towns? More specifically what is a guest relations manager? “Basically that means welcoming people, getting to know them,” said Agnes.  “I make it my business to meet as many guests as possible, especially those here for longer stays like all the American parents who come to visit their children studying at schools in Florence.         

“Then I organize special events. Not long ago a young American couple were here, and the man confided in me he thought to propose in a restaurant. “Forget about the restaurant,” I told him. Instead I arranged for them to be taken by horse and carriage up to the Piazza Michelangelo which overlooks over the city. It was a beautiful night; all the lights were visible. He proposed, she accepted, and the driver – who was in on the story -- announced it to everyone around. When they came back and told me all about it, I had tears in my eyes.

“It is the service that is so important for us,” she continued. “It’s easy to have a beautiful place with all the technical facilities. But we also want to attend to the small details that make people feel like they are at home. You could say my job is to attend to the little things,” Agnes said. “To do that well, you have to have the desire inside of you.”

One could say that the Savoy’s executive chef Francesco Casetta has made an art of attending to the little, as well as great, things with no small amount of desire.  Behind the scenes at the sleek and serene L’Incontro, he presides over a kitchen that produces a wealth of Tuscan delicacies. But every so often, he will appear front stage, willing, even eager to explain his cooking philosophy and expound on his plans.

Francesco told us he was in Orlando, Florida, planning to get a job on a cruise line when he met his wife and changed directions, moving north to study at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York. After working in such places as the Ritz Carlton in Naples, Florida and the Café des Artistes in New York City, he came to the Savoy in 2002.

He is a young chef, but his knowledge is formidable. “I like to keep the menu short open, variable,” he told us. “I like to use produce at the peak of their season. Now, mid October, is the good time for the fig. It is the good time for the porcini mushroom. But it’s still not the time for the white truffle. For that, we must wait until the end of October, the beginning of November. 

“The top quality truffle in the world is found in Tuscany. It is the particular soil. If I put it on the table, you would smell it already.”

Executive Chef Francesco Casetta - click to enlarge
Executive Chef Francesco Casetta
Who does not love Tuscan foods?  Imagine anchovies, twice the size of the kind normally available in cans, marinated in lemon, topped with a swirl of fennel and bits of crushed tomato; fresh-made taglionlini with clams and zucchini blossoms; ravioli filled with yellow squash and served with a ragout of meat sauce – a dish of strong flavors all of which harmonized beautifully with each other; the tenderest of sirloin steaks. Such was our dinner at L’Incontro.

We thought to begin with a glass of white wine and move on to a red. But the Vernaccia Gimignano from a vineyard in the tower city San Gimignano that had so enchanted Agnes Pont was wonderful, not too sweet, not too acidic, enhanced by the rich tones of oak.  We decided to forego the red and stay with the white.

Unfortunately we would be back home by the time Francesco’s gestation menus would be offered where a single theme is explored each week in courses from appetizer through dessert. First would be chestnut, then porcini mushrooms, and finally white truffles – “If possible,” he said of this last choice. “Only if they are good. I anticipate a difficult season for truffles because last summer was so hot and dry.”

We particularly regretted not being around to taste Francesco’s chestnut mousse but were mollified by crème caramel with a mint sauce and chocolate mousse in a candied orange flavored with cognac that looked so beautiful, it seemed a pity to destroy the image. “I’m not a pastry chef,” he told us, “but I love doing pastries. It’s an artistic labor.”

Would he tell us about the time Alain Ducasse came to the Savoy for dinner? “What Davide Bertilaccio said is true,” Francesco said. “He didn’t want any fuss made over him; he wanted nothing special. I had a nice sea bass that night so I made it for him.

“He loved it. He told me it was prepared just the way sea bass is done in his restaurants. At first I wondered how could this be?  Then we figured out I had worked with a fellow in Florida who’d been a student of Alain Ducasse’s at Monte Carlo. I learned the preparation from him. And this night, unknowingly I’d taken the master’s idea and added to it something of my own.”

Clearly Francesco is adding something of his own to the Hotel Savoy experience as were the other people we’d met, not least among them head concierge Daniele Scaldini. He’s been on the job since the opening of this Rocco Forte property in May 2000, bringing a seasoned wisdom to his role.

Head Concierge Daniel Scaldini - click to enlarge
Head Concierge Daniel Scaldini
Our conversation with the elegant, soft-spoken gentleman from the Tuscan resort town Montalcino, who studied philosophy at the university before embarking on a career in the hotel industry, picked up the story of the Hotel Savoy and its place in Florence from where Luca had left off.

“I had worked for another five star hotel in Florence for nine years so I knew the Savoy,” he began. “It was part of the city, important not only as a hotel but as a central place. Originally it was a ministry office. Then it became a hotel to house the dignitaries. It was never a royal residence, but whenever something happened, it was right in front of the Savoy."

Like the demonstrations? We’d witnessed more than one -- loud, emotional, replete with drums and horns, signs and banners – although we never could figure out the cause.

“Just so,” said the courtly head concierge. “The Piazza della Repubblica may not be a historical square, it may not  have the beauty of the Piazza de Duomo or the Piazza della Signoria, but it is the real pulse of the city where the demonstrations, both good and bad, take place.

“The great cultural tradition is here,” he added, “the cafés where painters and writers would gather in the 19th century. It’s also the financial hub. There used to be a small stock market just around the corner.

“Florence is a small city, less than half a million citizens now. But its importance has always been much more important than its dimensions because we have the good fortune to have had the great artists, the great Medici banking system here.”

He continued, “Think of what happened after the flood of November 4, 1966. Luckily the town was on holiday and the shops were closed. The wave at the Savoy was two and a half meters high. About 20 people drowned. After the water went away, the mud was knee-deep. But volunteers came to Florence to help clean the mud and save thousands of paintings, statues, and books. They came from all over the world, young and old. So great was the feeling for Florence. It is a city of the world.”

A conversation with Daniele Scaldini leads to a more careful and nuanced look at the treasures of this city of the world. One of his many suggestions was that we study Michelangelo’s statue of Bacchus in the Bargello. “He was only 24 years old when he did it,” Daniele said. “The statue of David and all the main things were done much later. Look at this magnificent sculpture carefully and you’ll see how Bacchus looks drunk. Look at the back. It’s marble, of course, but it shows instability.” And of course he was right. The statue actually seems to be wobbling.

A conversation with Daniele Scaldini also leads to a greater appreciation of the Hotel Savoy. “Even though the outside structure remains the same, the hotel has this new look which is totally different from the old Savoy,” he told us. “The interior design has a special flavor. And the staff and guests create a special flavor. Together these are the elements that identify the hotel.

“This kind of job in this kind of hotel in this kind of town has the peculiarity of being remembered,” the head concierge concluded. “People go home and they remember not only Michelangelo’s David but the experience of staying at Firenze’s Hotel Savoy.”

Hotel Savoy Firenze
Piazza delle Repubblica, 7
50123 Florence, Italy

Phone: (39) 055 27 351

(and check out Osteria Caffè Italiano, Via Isola delle Stinche, 11/13r 50122 Florence; tel. 055 289368)

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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