“No matter how far I travel, I will always
come back to Rome. Rome is my home.” How many times had we heard
Paolo Lorenzoni utter those very words. And then came the news: the
legendary general manager of the Excelsior Hotel had left Rome for
Paolo abandon the bustle of the
Via Veneto for the tranquility of the Grand Canal? Not possible. But
soon after, we saw the spread in the glossy fashion magazine. There
he was: elegant as ever, impeccably dressed, in the setting of a
Venetian palace (the familiar glint of humor in the eyes suggested
all this was not to be taken too seriously – but still!). And not
much later, the e-mail: confirmation from the source himself.
“Rome has the Forum, St.
Peter’s, the Spanish Steps,” Paolo tells us when we finally catch up
with him. “But here in Venice is the evolution of a city. All the
world loves Venice.” It is a late October afternoon, and sitting
at a table under a blue stripped awning on the terrazza of the Hotel
Gritti Palace, the waters of the Grand Canal gently lapping against
the wooden piles, it’s hard to disagree.
“I’m re-born in Venice,” he
says, the perfect English pronunciation lifted by the musical
inflections of his native Italian. “I am reminded of the time back
in 1997 when the Starwood Director of Operations in Italy said to
me, ‘Paolo, you should move. After all, you can't stay in Rome all
your life. Let me know what area of Italy you would like to go to.’
“Now I wonder if I should have
accepted Venice back then. Not that Rome is not the equal of Venice
in terms of history, art and culture. But Venice is something
unique. It’s one of the most beautiful, romantic cities in the
world. There are 118 little islands here; some of them are so small
they encompass no more than a few blocks.”
That much we had noticed in our
water-taxi ride down the Grand Canal from the railroad station in
the northwest to the hotel along its southern edge. Snake-like,
Venice’s single major artery winds through the densest part of the
city-island, and as we steamed along this bright, breezy afternoon,
passing vaporettos (Venice’s version of mass transit), traghetti
(gondolas minus the gondoliers that cross from one side of the Canal
to the other), gondolas with tourists in tow, and long boats
suitable for a crew team that Venetians use to get around in, we
caught glimpses of the many watery lanes spanned by small bridges
and the occasional laundry line that branch off like side streets.
Ultimately the Canal would flow into the Basin of San Marco
overlooked by the famed Piazza San Marco. But before reaching that
point, the taxi made its final turn, sailed under the Accademia
Bridge, and stopped at a little landing on the northern side of the
Before us was an actual 14th century palace, its
edifice gleaming sand-colored stone, its tall Moorish windows (a
familiar element dating back to the time Venetian sailors used to
row across the Adriatic to Turkey) opened door-like onto small
balconies where huge heraldic flags were stationed, their reflection
shimmering in the waters below. Directly across was the beautiful,
domed Santa Maria della Salute built in 1620 by the architect
Baldassare Longhena, in gratitude for the end of the
plague, an event commemorated every November 22nd when a temporary
bridge carries worshippers from San Marco across the Canal to the
church where thanks are given to the Virgin for continued "salute"
You look around and say ‘What a
fantastic place!’” Paolo exclaims, smiling in the sunshine. “This
has been a hotel since the beginning of the 20th century. But
originally it was the home of the Doge Andrea Gritti. The doges were
the kings of the Venetian Republic although like the Italian
president today, they had no power." Later we see Doge Andrea's
portrait hanging in the hotel lounge, a large oil from the
Renaissance period, comfortable in its heavy gilded frame among the
marble floors laid with oriental rugs and furnishings of priceless
The painting is a copy; the
original hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But
that is of no concern as we sit on the terrazzo, drinking Venetian
shpritzers: white wine, Campari, bitters and water – “the typical
drink for Venetians after work, like scotch in New York,” Paolo
He leans back in his chair and
looks out to the water. “You can't improve on this. People find here
something innate, something they love, an atmosphere they will not
find anyplace else. We have clients who came here when they were
teenagers. Now they are coming back with their children. They say to
me, ‘Please don't change anything.’”
General Manager Paolo Lorenzoni
|But one of the reasons Paolo
has come to Venice is to oversee needed renovations at the
Gritti Palace. These never come at the expense of maintaining the historic ambience of the hotel, however. And
in his brief tenure, Paolo has already schooled himself in
“I was reading a book by
Ernest Hemingway: ‘Across the River and into the Trees’” he
tells us, easily moving from the 15th to the 20th century.
“It is about an American soldier who comes to Venice after
World War II and stays at the Gritti. He was a regular at
Harry’s Bar nearby. He's in love with a countess and used to
say, ‘Okay, let's see what the Grand Maestro (which is what
he calls the bartender) suggests for us,’ and he'd have the
bartender book a table for them.
“That literary reference is
part of our heritage. I am planning to have a complete collection of
Hemingway's books installed in our 'Ernest Hemingway Suite.' We also
have the 'Somerset Maugham Suite' named for the famous English
writer who was a guest here many times (this is a gorgeous gold,
green and white, two-room affair facing the Canal). 'There
are few things in life more pleasant than to sit on the terrace of
the Gritti when the sun, about to set, bathes in lovely colour the
Salute,' he wrote."
Hemingway, Maugham, and the rest
contribute to the strong sense of the past inhabiting the present at
the Gritti Palace. Paolo discovered as much himself in April of 2009
when he came to look over the property and meet the people. "It was
during that visit that I saw the bartender, and I recognized him at
once. Thirty three years ago, when I was just at the start of my
career working at the front desk of the Hotel des Bains on the Lido,
Luciano Dalpaos was the bartender," he said.
“‘Luciano, do you remember me?’
“Luciano has been at the Gritti
for the past 20 years. If you come back here, trust me, he will
remember that you drink a Bloody Mary and just how you like it,"
said Paolo. "That is typical of Luciano and of all the staff here.
The clients are attended to in a very personal way."
Head Concierge Guillano Vubilio
specializes in delivering such personal attention. Slender and
earnest, Guilliano, like Luciano, has been around the Gritti for a
long time. "I began as an elevator boy when I was still in my teens,
wearing a blue uniform in the winter and a white one in the summer,"
he told us. "My job was to operate the lift and also to do the
little chores like picking up things for the guests: a product from
the chemist, cigarettes, a newspaper. These are not easy tasks in
Venice. You have to know each street, you have to know which kiosk
will carry a particular paper. It is a very complicated city.”
|Luciano married a Venetian woman. The
ceremony was held at Santa Maria della Salute across the
way. But the couple set up home on the mainland. Every day I
had to go back and forth. I couldn’t move the Gritti so I
had to come here,” he said. “But by then I had decided I
wanted to be a concierge, to be at the point of arrival and
departure. It took many years to be prepared for such a job.
The secret is always to be learning, every moment of every
day. Moment by moment you get your training.”
It has been years since Guilliano has left
the elevator door for the more exalted position behind the
front desk. But memories linger. "I can remember when
Charlie Chaplin came into my lift," he told us. “He had
arrived by water taxi with his wife, Oona, and all of his
big family from Switzerland. He was old already. We had
prepared a chair for him. The photographers were everywhere,
running up the stairs. We couldn't keep them away.
Gritti Concierges; Head
Giuliano Vibilio, center
“It was a most unusual scene for
the Gritti. Most of the time, things were very quiet around here.
People didn’t run around like they do now. In the afternoon, they
would go up to their rooms and rest. Around 7 o’clock, they would
come down for dinner, dressed in their finest, ladies in gowns, men
in black jackets and tie. Always!
“Once we had an American guest
who arrived by private jet and stayed for a while. Every day, he
would order a bunch of long-stemmed red roses and give them to the
bar man to hold. At night, he would order a big bottle of champagne,
and as every woman came into the bar, he would present her with a
red rose and pour for her a glass of champagne.”
Such a scene was worth conjuring
while passing through the bar into the Club del Doge, the Gritti's
spacious and airy dining room that overlooks the terrace. It has a
refreshing, informal ambience despite the ochre-colored marble
floors, oil paintings and gilded mirrors, chairs covered in rich
brocades, and sparkling Murano chandeliers and sconces from the
eponymous island a short boat ride away.
|This is the domain of Chef Daniele Turco
who is young and handsome, and possessed of a modest
demeanor rare in his profession. Like the others of the
Gritti family, he sees himself as part of the ongoing story
of the historic property. “I think it is important to keep
up traditions -- in my case, in the kitchen," he told us.
"I try to use techniques that go back to the 1950s, 1960s,
to the way the previous chefs prepared sauces, for example.
In other kitchens, I see they forget these things; they want
to do show plates. That is very nice, and I don't want to
complain about others. But our way of doing things is to
hold on to what is good."
There is something very genuine about this
chef's approach to food. "I have done many banquets and
functions in bigger hotels in the past," he says. "But I
like it here because it's possible to concentrate more on
the a la carte menu which I think is the best thing for a
chef. I don't have a personal dish, or a signature dish. I
only present the best product I have in the best way I can.”
Chef Daniele Turco
Chef Daniele was born in
Calabria and although he has lived in the north of Italy for most of
his life, he has never forgotten the tastes of the south, "of
tomatoes, the different oils, the fish. There it is easy to find the
products you are after. Here in the north, it's harder, especially
in Venice where the difficulties of delivery make everything much
He goes on, "I use local and
seasonal products as much as possible. Now, it’s the end of October.
Mushrooms and pumpkins are available, and I make a special dish of
them with flour, ricotta and cream. We also have a risotto with
porcini mushrooms that is matched with potatoes and rosemary."
At the same time, Daniele
focuses on typical Venetian dishes like the delicious codfish with
polenta with which we began our dinner, inky squid with
risotto, and sole and scampi, lightly fried and combined with
cabbage, onions and raisins in a sweet and sour sauce -- a Venetian
staple because it could be preserved for an entire week. "We also
try to have comfort food like the filet of sole made with a sauce of
lemon, eggs, flour and wine," Daniele noted. "It is always
on the menu – not extremely gourmet, but people always ask for it.
And calf's liver, one of the hallmarks of Venetian cuisine, made
with small pieces of liver and onions sautéed in a bit of oil. There
are more vegetarians now so we serve pasta with vegetables and
roasted vegetables with lemon ricotta which people love."
People love dining at the Club
del Doge. The menu is expansive and has the many pastas that all the
world craves. Everything is fresh and satisfying; there is the
marriage of flavors without any one ingredient overwhelming the
rest. Moreover, the dining experience is entirely Venetian. One need
not look out the window to remember where he or she is.
But looking out the window is
what it's all about. The Grand Canal is a compelling vision, day and
night. Boats are always drifting by. The changing light of the sky
is always reflected in the water's shifting hues. And can one
conceive of a more romantic vision than moonlight spilled into a
midnight-blue bay especially if the moon is just about to wax full
(as it was each night of our stay)?
Beyond all these, Dorsoduro, the
world on the other side of the Canal, is the briefest of boat rides
away. There are fewer tourists in this neighborhood of small
streets, narrow canals, sunlit piazzas, the Gallerie dell'Accademia
with its collection of Bellinis among other masterworks, art
colleges, galleries, studios, open air restaurants, the Peggy
Guggenheim Museum, Santa Maria della Salute, and the old maritime
customs house at its far end transformed into the Punta della Dogana,
the center for contemporary art which officially opened in June
"Living in Rome, I was familiar
with the Renaissance, the Baroque," Paolo told us. "But in Venice, I
have discovered contemporary art. There is this juxtaposition of
contemporary art with the works of the great painters we are all
"I have been to the Punta Della
Dogana three times. I believe it's important to see. This is not
something you will describe as nice or not nice -- for example the
horses' heads and torsos protruding from a wall. But it awakens in
you emotions you will remember. It makes you think how will this
kind of art be regarded in 500 years? Will it be like the art of the
17th century is to us today?"
No sooner did Paolo arrive in
Venice, than he immersed himself in the Venetian art scene
pioneering a joint promotion with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of
modern art in time for the 2009 Biennale. "The museum director
Philip Rylands and I came up with a package that included two
tickets for the museum and a three-night-stay at the Gritti," he
told us. "At that time the museum had a show of Robert
Rauschenberg's works. We coordinated it with three plates created by
Daniele to visualize, in his medium, the concept behind
Rauschenerg's art. For example the panels from 'White Paintings'
inspired Daniele to create a mousse of white chocolate on a white
plate. Peggy Guggenheim had been a guest at the Gritti so it seemed
especially appropriate for us to do this."
He went on, "Here you build a
lot of connections with people involved in the arts: gallery owners,
antique dealers. A guest can make a purchase that will be delivered
to the hotel, and we will keep it until the guest returns even if
it's a year from now. There is this degree of personal attention
that can be provided in a hotel with 91 rooms and 110 employees.
"When I was told 'Paulo, we need
you in Venice,' it came as a surprise. I was not happy about it. But
a couple of months later, I completely changed my mind. The Gritti
Palace is one of the best hotels I've ever been in. And also there
is the quality of life. Here, people here do not run. They can't
because of the water. You need a half hour to get to the railroad
station. I think about my previous experiences and say to myself why
should I run?"
It was a little after 9 in the
morning. Our luggage was on the landing; the water taxi had arrived.
Reluctantly, we handed the key to our room to Guilliano who was
standing behind the front desk, "the point of arrival, the point of
departure." Instead of a digitally programmed card, every guest at
the Gritti Palace receives an actual room key. “In this way, they
have to stop at the front desk whenever they go out and whenever
they return. We get to know them; they get to know us,” he said.
Suddenly, the front door opened.
In rushed Paolo, just in time to say goodbye. He pulled a small box
from his pocket and presented it to us. Inside, on a bed of navy
velvet was a replica of the ring we had just returned. It was
attached to a miniature silvery bell with the words "Gritti Palace
Venezia" engraved around the rim, the silky strands of a navy blue
tassel gathered into its hold. A fitting memento to take away with
us, a reminder of how for a few magical days we were able to unlock
the portals to a magical palace in a land of 118 islands.
Campo S.M. del 2467
30124 Venice, Italyw
Phone: (39) 041 794611
Photographs by Harvey Frommer