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Richard Meier's Dolce Vita

Lunch at the architect's Hamptons farmhouse means a celebration of the sweet life he enjoys while building a church outside Rome.

At Richard Meier's East Hampton, New York, farmhouse, 14 guests are about to arrive for a Sunday luncheon. but the renowned architect is headed for a dip in the nearby Atlantic Ocean, despite the morning chill. "I try to swim every day when I'm out here," Meier says simply.

In his relaxed attitude toward entertaining, he may be taking a cue from his latest project: the Church of the Year 2000, just outside Rome, which is a bit behind schedule. "The sense of urgency isn't the same in Italy," Meier reflects--not that he minds. The church, which celebrates this Jubilee Year (the beginning of the third millennium) by bringing a place of worship to a previously underserved area, is now scheduled to be finished next year. Meier won the commission from the Vicariato of Rome after a highly publicized competition, and he got to present his design to the Pope himself. It was another coup for the 65-year-old Meier, who in 1984 became the youngest person ever to win the Pritzker Prize, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the world of architecture. Today he's best known for the Getty Center, which opened in Los Angeles in 1997.

Ever since starting his own firm in 1963, Meier has dazzled his admirers with his cerebral modernist designs. The Church of the Year 2000 is signature Meier, with its dramatic profile consisting of three curved shells in the architect's trademark white, which, he says, remind him of sails. Glass panels on the ceiling and along the shells will allow the strong Italian sun to illuminate the interior. "I told the Pope that the church was about looking up and having light come in," Meier says. "When you're inside, the main window is the roof. He appreciated that."

The architect has only one qualm about the project: "Unfortunately, there's no good restaurant near the church. At least not yet." Given his devotion to fine food and drink, Meier didn't mind heading for Rome to supervise the work. He's been traveling to Italy from New York every other month since 1996 to juggle three different projects there, but his love for the country, and for Italian food, dates back to 1974, when he was a resident fellow at the American Academy of Rome. "If you go for dinner in Italy, that's the evening," Meier observes. He mentions an unforgettable meal on Siena's glorious Campo, another in Rome's Piazza del Popolo. "The tortellini in Bologna is the best anywhere," he pronounces.

He's just as excited about Italian wines. Meier began buying wines as an investment in the 1970s, "but soon," he recalls, "it became clear I was buying them for me." A well-timed interest in Bordeaux allowed him to acquire cases of the stellar 1982 vintage when mere mortals could still afford them. Italian wines are a more recent passion.

Today's lunch has a Roman-themed menu created by chef Cesare Casella, an Italian who recently opened Beppe Trattoria in Manhattan after researching Roman and Etruscan recipes for two years. Meier and his 19-year-old daughter, Ana, originally invited 10 people to the meal. "But the list just kept growing," he says.

That was really no problem, of course. There's plenty of room at Meier's house, which he bought eight years ago as a retreat from Manhattan. The exterior is, surprisingly, a very un-Meier weathered gray, the color of the original shingles. (An old joke is that Meier gives his clients 17 color choices, all of them different shades of white.) "I was going to have it repainted," he says, "and in order to do that they had to strip it. When I saw what it looked like, I said, 'Stop! It looks better this way.'"

The inside is truer to form--all white, just as it was when the house was built, in 1907. Meier has mixed in some choice pieces of modern furniture, including a set of Mies van der Rohe chairs at the dining-room table, that look surprisingly at home in this clean, white setting.

The wineglasses, of thin crystal with etched horizontal lines, are Meier's design; ditto the white plates, each elegantly crisscrossed by thin red stripes. (Both the glasses and the plates were manufactured by Swid Powell, but they're no longer available.) Meier even designed the dining-room table, a sleek slab of white lacquered wood.

The dishes pay homage to Roman savvy and directness. There are two salads: one with shrimp and baby green beans, the other a twist on a Roman recipe for the seasonal chicory called puntarelle. Since puntarelle is seldom available here, crisp celery takes its place in a tangy anchovy vinaigrette. The salads pair beautifully with Villa Simone's smooth 1998 Frascati Superiore.

Next come bucatini all'amatriciana, which gets its zing from crushed red pepper, and a flinty 1998 Greco di Tufo from Mastroberardino, a popular white wine at Roman trattorias. The main course is a classic saltimbocca, veal sautéed with sage and prosciutto. It's paired with the 1995 Colle Picchioni Vigna del Vassello, a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot that critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., has called "the little Cheval Blanc of Lazio." The guests end the meal with a glass of tart chilled Caravella Limoncello.

On the surface, these traditional Roman dishes might seem the antithesis of Meier's minimalist style. Yet their simplicity is utterly modern--as modern as the Church of the Year 2000 will be when it's (finally!) completed next year.

Ted Loos, a former editor at Wine Spectator, has written on food, travel and the arts for The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar, Town & Country and House Beautiful.

Published October 2000
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