Walking past a working herb garden on your way to dinner and seeing chefs, in crisp whites, carefully cutting the herbs they will be using puts a new meaning on local food. But cuisine at the glorious Hotel Caruso Belvedere by Orient-Express in Ravello is all about that anyway.
And the gal does suspect that they can actually spare two culinarians just for a few minutes to cut herbs, with small nail-type scissors. The hotel has 54 rooms and 120 employees, of whom 5 are gardeners and 30 work in the kitchen.
Fortunately none of the remaining 85 has to do the laundry, as all the chefs whites and guest towels and sheets are sent out, a good thing since every bed needs five sets of linen ‘linens’ to allow the linen to ‘breathe’ between use.
Ristorante Caruso is hotel-guest only, unless you have made a prior reservation. It has 90 seats in all, spilling on to a terrace – yes, one of the dozens of terraces here. Last night everyone preferred to sit out, looking down over the Niemeyer auditorium and far down, 1,000 feet in all, to the Amalfi coastline.
One wonders if Giovanni Freelli, the flamboyant boss of the Ristorante Caruso, has ever performed at Niemeyer: he is superb, looks like Robert De Niro in The Godfather and has been written up in You Inc, The Art of Selling Yourself, by Harry Beckwith and Christine Clifford Beckwith.
He suggests items, but never lingers. When he is with you, he has eyes only for your table. Whatever you choose, his eyes light up. We start with peach bellinis – memories of the Cipriani in Venice, right? – and go on to drink Ragis Rosso 2009, chosen by the lady sommelier (always work with ladies, says hotel GM Franco Girasoli, they are less arrogant and more passionate when it comes to choosing and describing wine).
I start with a Freelli choice, La Frisella con Ventresca di Tonno Pomodoro e Mozzarella, which turns out to be a soup bowl with a lump of local bread atop tiny bits of tuna, yellow and red tomato and mozzarella in a modicum of olive oil.
Since the bread tray brought round twice also has delectable tomato-croissant rolls, and there are grissini on the table, I think I am turning into a breadaholic.
The guys at the table go on to five little parcels of ravioli, one of which is bright green (yes, spinach). I choose spaghetti with tomato and basil. I go on to La Frittura di Pesce con Zucchine, a paper cone of deep-friend anchovies and prawns with minuscule courgette slices, two dips, an orange-honey, and a tartar – and I get my Popeye-energy intake from a plateful of sautéed spinach, with olive oil poured over. I love Italian hotels, for their olive oil…
Giovanni and his team ply cheeses, say a 30-day Pecorino di Tovere from Amalfi – just down the road. They cannot believe we cannot eat pre-dessert tastings, and after-dessert tastings, even though the final offering is one-bite rhum babas and, seriously, chocolate-covered eggplant lollipops,amuse-dessert of tiny rhum babas, and chocolate-covered eggplant/aubergine (yes, really, and they are delicious). We finish with Toni’s limoncello, a drink made from local lemons’ peel soaked in alcohol for days, and heated with sugar and water.
The head genius in the kitchen is Mimmo Di Raffaele, and his team never stops. The baker must have been up at three … We could have breakfasted in our room – any time, to arrive within 15 minutes.
It would have taken 15 minutes to fill out the order (white toast has somehow got in with the five juice choices, and another section has eight cereals with three white liquids), so we went for the buffet. I think back to my last OEH buffet, in St Petersburg.
Who could resist the separate buffet room’s selections of different tomatoes with oh-so-fresh ricotta? There were fruits, and home-made low-fat yoghurt or Swiss-type pots of Italian Tirol yoghurt, and Sorrento jams and butter swirls, and coffee in china pots.
Bliss oh bliss, as well as a dish of assorted bread rolls, there were carve-yourself-loaves, including one of the best homemade heavy-grain loaves in a long time (have slices toasted, eat with ricotta, yum yum). I think of other great ricottas, especially that ofin Rome.
One special here is the old-fashioned lever-type juice presser and this is where, indeed, they press your juice, as you order it. This is luxury in a luxury hotel.
Every now and again they invite others in to show their talents here at the Caruso. On October 20th, 2012, for instance, Norbert Niederkofler, who apparently is a wizz on the ski slops when not whisking sauces at Rosa Alpina Hotel & Spa in the Dolomites, is making a guest appearance.
Actually it would be fascinating just to see some of the half-hundred people behind the scenes right here. Who arranged the tomato selections at breakfast, and then at lunch, poolside? Going anywhere in this multi-level hotel is an adrenalin-demanding challenge (good for the mind – bye bye Alzheimers, do we take this elevator up, or down).
To get to the pool from my temporary home, 51, it was an elevator up and then, invariably, two flights of steps down and a walk across and then a walk through the garden. Aha, here is an easier way.
From the street, take 40 steps up to the garden, and then walk 100 yards through a tunnel of sweet-smelling jasmine. Either side of the six-foot path water trickles in tiny streams. At the restaurant, on the terrace of the pool-house, Flavia greets.
Welcome, a real welcome, she says with a smile and a flourish – Italians ‘flourish’ the whole time, when they are talking on the telephone or, as on CNN a couple of nights ago, when Ferrari President Luca Cordero di Montezemolo was being interviewed about Italy’s new high-speed trains (he is chairman).
Without a flourish, but with lots of smiles, we sit down at a table with bright yellow drinking glasses – oh so Italian, try this in the US and it would look like a Walmart dive, here it looks Milan chic.
We are surrounded by families eating wood-fire pizzas and elegant size-zero fashionistas going to the salad bar. We follow them, and try four different types of organic tomatoes, and two mozzarellas, and marinated artichokes and much more, and we watch a few semi-enthusiasts swimming in the adjacent pool.
Next time, the gal promises – she will try the Saturday poolside barbeque, and the Tuesday local-fare evening, and she promises Giovanni that next time she will eat all her just desserts. Roll on that visit.