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A Treasure-Filled Trip Through Time at Starwood's Grand Hotel, Firenze

It is early afternoon, and the doors of  InCanto, the restaurant at Florence’s Grand Hotel, are opened wide onto the Piazza Ognissanti. Tables laid out across the terrace are filled with Florentines as much as tourists who linger over lunch this lovely day in the wake of one of the hottest summers in memory. The River Arno, brownish gold in the autumn sunlight, is dammed just at the point where it runs past the piazza, and the sound of rushing water is a constant and soothing background.

The burgo (small neighborhood) encompassing the Piazza Ognissanti is within walking distance of the fabled churches, museums and palaces of Florence. Yet it is, in itself, a small repository of artistic and historic treasures. The Ognissanti Church, for example, which faces the Arno from the head of the piazza was the parish church of the Vespucci family of explorer Amerigo Vespucci fame. A Baroque jewel with frescoes by Sandro Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, it was originally built in the 13th century and rebuilt 400 years later.

The Grand Hotel to the right of the church (its sister hotel, the Excelsior, is across the square to the church’s left) is palace and museum as much as hotel. It was built in the 15th century by Brunelleschi whose enormous brick dome of the Duomo remains the defining structure of Florence’s skyline. At one point in its history, it was a private residence of the Medicis.  At another, it was a Ciga hotel owned by the Aga Kahn. Acquired by Starwood in the 1990’s, this five-star property has been totally renovated and claims every modern comfort and technological facilities a discriminating traveler expects. Yet its hallmark remains its long and eventful history.

But this is revealed gradually. The entry is contemporary in feel, an open space of understated elegance and minimal furnishings with the smooth gray stone floor typical of Florence interiors. One must walk past the concierge’s desk and the reception area down a distance of perhaps 50 feet before being suddenly plunged into the romance of 19th century Italy where the the hallway ends and the Winter Garden begins, an expanse the size of a grand ballroom with a stained-glass paneled ceiling perhaps four stories high. The change is stunning, and it takes the breath away. Roman arches rise from gray stone pillars defining recesses down the length of both sides of the room, comfortable alcoves where guests enjoy drinks or afternoon tea amidst potted palms. French doors at the far end seem to be opening on to gardens beyond. A balcony that rings the room looks down onto the patterned floor of white, yellow and gray marble. And all these  images repeat endlessly in 17th  century mirrors lining the walls.

It was Judith Otto, director of sales and marketing, who called our attention to the mirrors. “There are so many valuable objects in this hotel going back to the time of the Renaissance,” she told us. “We’ve begun a project to research, categorize and label each one; we feel it is our responsibility to maintain the historical aspect.”

The daughter of a German father and French/Algerian mother whose distinctive beauty fits in well among the treasures of the Grand Hotel, Judith showed us a fresco in the hallway beyond the reception area depicting a scene from the small Tuscan city San Miniato which was painted in the early 19th century.

 “For as long as anyone could remember, this wall was covered by a huge mirror. No one suspected anything was behind it. Then one day the mirror was taken down, and this is what we found. The place is filled with discoveries.”

No one knew this fresco was hidden behind a mirrored wall - click to enlarge
No one knew this fresco was hidden behind a mirrored wall

We discovered two 17th century paintings hanging in the lobby which Judith told us were of great value, leaden window-panes that overlook a small interior garden that are hundreds of years old, a  particularly unique table made of nut-wood, fabulous Murano chandeliers illuminating the ballroom.  It seems the Grand Hotel is a virtual storehouse of antique furniture and objects d’art, a number of which, we learned, had been bought by the brother of the Aga Kahn for the various Ciga Hotels and ended up being stored here.

Judith Otto, Director of Sales and Marketing - click to enlarge
Judith Otto, Director of Sales and Marketing

And then there are the rooms. One would be hard pressed to find hotel rooms with the splendor and spaciousness to equal the 107 rooms and suites at the Grand Hotel. All are of soaring height, with floor-to-ceiling windows many of which open onto little balconies overlooking the Arno or the piazza.
In some rooms, walls are adorned with enormous, hand-painted reproductions of 16th -century frescoes. In others, ceilings are paneled with little stylized paintings on wood in the manner of those found in Renaissance palaces.

“All the rooms are furnished with fine reproductions of 15th and 16th century pieces and sometimes an actual antique piece or two,” Judith noted. “Still each room has its own unique design and focuses on a particular color, Tuscan reds and golds, the more muted blues and greens.

"The fabrics are velvet and brocade, hand-made duplicates of those found in Renaissance palaces. They come from the same Florentine fabric house on the south side of the Arno that has provided materials for the homes of nobles for hundreds of years.”

For more than one hundred years, the Winter Garden was fittingly the restaurant of the Grand Hotel. Only recently has InCanto taken its place. Situated at the virtual doorstep of the hotel with entrances from both the lobby and the Piazza Ognissanti, it is a fresh take on what to expect of a restaurant in a classical European hotel.

The dining  room is of noble proportions with detailed antique moldings, glittering crystal chandelier and sconces. But the furnishings are strikingly modern brown leather chairs beside tables covered with simple beige linens that sit on a highly polished hardwood floor. Even more striking is the room’s focal point: an open kitchen whose gleaming glass counter stands beneath an enormous hood suspended from the ceiling.
The kitchen was the idea of Executive Chef Daniele Sera. As he explained, he and his staff want to see what’s going on in the dining room. At the same time, they want diners to see them. And it is theater indeed to watch Daniele and his two sous chefs, one a young woman, go through their preparations in their immaculate white-tiled kitchen. This is no sushi bar, Daniele maintains.

A native of a small town near Genoa, he cooks in the Tuscan tradition using the best ingredients available, but he strives to prepare food in a modern, healthy manner. This means olive oil in the place of butter. No fettucini al fredo. No cream sauces.   

Daniele, who looks much younger than his 37 years, presents a menu that combines the traditional with the unexpected like sorbet of sweet pepper with poached prawns in a balsamic vinegar, baked scallops in philo pastry in carrot and lime sauce, medallion of veal in Arabica coffee sauce. There are low fat dishes and three vegetarian options. Our excellent dinner included a typically Italian starter of tomato filled with goat cheese and broad beans in a wonderful pesto and  Chianti sauce, and the novel but delightful combination of salmon with apples and grapes in olive oil. We also had Garganelli pasta with fillets of red mullet -- at their best in October - - and moist, tender fillet of sea bass in a crust of squid ink-flavored risotto in a sweet and sour sauce.

The next week, Daniele told us, his winter menu begins. He prepared a sample for us of the traditional Tuscan ravioli filled with a puree of bread and tomatoes that had the consistency of cornmeal. It was just the thing to come out of the cold for.

InCanto participates in Starwood’s Wines of the World, an international selection which can be ordered by the glass as well as the bottle. But we wanted to choose from among the many local offerings. There were Chiantis aplenty which we are great fans of, but this time we had a most satisfying robust and ruby-red sangovise from Sòdole, a vineyard near Sienna.       

“Moving the restaurant to the front of the hotel was an advanced approach for Florence,” Judith had told us. “Typically locals do not frequent hotels; it’s not part of the culture. But with the outside entrance, they don’t feel like they are coming into a hotel, and so they began to stop at InCanto for a drink, for lunch. In nice weather, they sat outside on the dining terrace. Now we have a nice mixture of hotel guests and Florentines, and both groups seem to enjoy the intermingling.”

InCanto defines the Grand Hotel of the 21st century, the Winter Garden recreates its 19th century ambience, and the guest rooms evoke its Renaissance past. Together they make a stay at this property the kind of trip through time that echoes the larger Florentine experience. Paolo Basagni takes such time travel in stride. He’s been head concierge at the Grand for a decade now and on the scene at the Piazza Ognissanti since he began working at the Excelsior as a “liftier” (elevator operator) when he was 18 years old. That was a year after the flood when both hotels were part of the Ciga chain.

“After the Gulf War, the economy went down and the company went bankrupt,” he said. “The Forte chain, the Hilton chain wanted to buy Ciga. But the Sheraton won out. Then Starwood bought Sheraton. The Grand became part of the Luxury Collection and the Excelsior became a Westin.”

Head Concierge Paolo Basagni - click to enlarge
Head Concierge Paolo Basagni

Paolo, who looks so much like the actor Al Pacino that he grew a mustache so people would stop calling him Al, has been around for all these changes. He’s also been around to welcome the illustrious personalities who’ve stayed at the Grand Hotel over the years, among them Marcello Mastroianni  , Sophia Loren, Frederico Fellini, Juliet Medina, James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Mitchum when they were filming “Winds of War” at the Excelsior, even Bill Clinton. “And don’t forget Luciano Pavorotti,” he added.

“Did he sing in the shower?” we  asked.

“No one would know. The walls are too thick.”

Intriguingly Paolo told us the current general manager is one Antonello de’Medici. No genealogical connection has as yet been made.  Still it does seem fitting that, after all this time, there is a Medici back on the premises once again.

One last look at the Arno - click to enlarge
One last look at the Arno     

Back in our thick-walled red and gold room the morning of our departure, we stepped out on the little balcony for a final look at the Arno and once again stopped before the beautiful fresco that took up the wall beside the window. It was a medieval scene of a traveler on horseback headed to a distant castle up on a hill. It seemed that at the Grand Hotel, this pair of travelers had indeed arrived at a castle, one as magical as the one in the fresco and one not easily forgotten.

Grand Hotel, Firenze
Plaza Ognissanti, 1
51023, Firenze, Italy

Phone: (39) 055 27 163721

Photos by Harvey Frommer

#  #  #

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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