Perched on the edge of my blue-and-white-striped sun lounger, I looked up and down the lines of recliners, searching for the celebrities I was assured frequented this private beach. A roll of carpet ran between the rows so you could avoid getting sand between your toes. Very thoughtful. I craned my neck to look in all directions: Was that Hugh Grant chatting to the lifeguard? Was Elton John bobbing in the water with Pavarotti? Not today. Just me and some skimpily clad Europeans relaxing at the Cala del Porto hotel in the exclusive resort area of Punta Ala, in Tuscany's Maremma region.
Cala del Porto's owner, Roberto Polito, whose Milan-based company is called Baglioni Hotels Group, was prescient in opening this intimate 41-room resort 30 years ago in a part of Tuscany that was still unknown to most tourists. Now Maremma is home to some of Italy's most famous wines—including two of the Cabernet blends called Super-Tuscans, the mighty Sassicaia and Ornellaia—and more and more travelers are coming to the area to visit wineries, not just beaches. Polito and his family have since gone on to open another 13 sumptuous hotels around Europe; they're clustered mainly in Italy (in cities including Milan, Venice and Rome) and in France (in such regions as Champagne and Provence). Many Baglioni guests are eager to explore the local food and wines, and the staff is skilled at providing insider tips and privileged access. Guido Polito, Roberto's 28-year-old son, explained the Baglioni raison d'être: "Luxury is not just about a gold bath tap. It is about an experience—personal service, the sights and smells of a city, the gastronomy, art and culture." The Baglioni experience might include a helicopter tour of a Champagne vineyard, or, for guests staying at the Carlton Hotel Baglioni in Milan, a private dinner with the musicians of the city's Teatro alla Scala opera house.
As a former manager of a chaotic hotel in Tibet, I'm not quite accustomed to this level of customer service. I decided to fly to Italy from my home in Britain to submit myself to the joy of being a coddled guest at a posh property—and to see what new experiences the Baglioni hotels might have in store for me.
Although everyone you meet on the Baglioni staff seems to have worked at the hotels forever and is invariably described as "part of the family," the actual family consists of Roberto, who is still at the helm; his son Guido and stepson Luca, who run operations and sales; Roberto's wife, Lisa, who searches antiques fairs for art and furniture for the hotels; and a nephew, Luigi, who is general manager at the company's Florence hotel.
The family has a knack for finding historic buildings with a regal past—former palaces, mansions, villas of the European aristocracy—then fixing them up and restoring them to their former grandeur with crystal chandeliers, gold-threaded textiles and bedcovers, tasseled velvet and silk curtains, expensive rugs, brocade furniture and the like. To date, this has been the signature Baglioni style—the ornate opulence of 18th- and 19th-century Europe. Now the company is expanding its vision: One of its latest hotels, the 18-month-old Baglioni London, is kitted out in dark woods and sleek earth-toned furniture, and its 155-year-old Hotel Bernini Palace in Florence has just been renovated in a modern Moroccan-inspired style. The company is in talks to open similar boutique properties in New York City, Paris, Moscow and Dubai.
Many guests at the Cala del Porto stay for two weeks or more, but I couldn't linger, as I was headed up to central Tuscany to Florence's Hotel Bernini Palace. My goal was to find out what was new and in the works there. Giuseppe Massa, who until recently was the general manager of the hotel, welcomed me. "We want you to feel this is like your home here," he said, waving around the reception area. I don't have gilded walls in my home or receptionists who look like Armani models, but I could live with it. We walked into the new lobby bar, full of well-dressed young Florentines. "We are going to open two new restaurants here next year," continued Massa. "And we're creating a wellness center too." If you weren't interested in touring the nearby Chianti vineyards, or having a private tasting at the Frescobaldi winery (the Frescobaldi and Polito families are friends), I imagine it would be tempting to hole up in the hotel. For a minute I stood mesmerized by Massa's baritone voice; he has one of those friendly, happy faces that make you want to scoop him up and pack him in your suitcase like the hotel teddy bears you sometimes find on your bed among the annoying scatter cushions. But I tore myself away. I had to get a good night's sleep, as I was bound the next morning for the Grand Hotel Baglioni in Bologna, where the Politos had promised to set me up with a dining experience unlike any I'd ever had.
The Grand Hotel Baglioni exemplifies Baglioni's traditional style: Murano glass chandeliers sprouting from the ceilings, acres of marble, and corridors you could drive a double-decker bus down. My room was so big I had the feeling that I was in a hotel lobby and I kept expecting Japanese tour groups to march through looking for the Louis Vuitton shop. A stern, rather disapproving lady watched me from an antique painting on the wall. It must have been one of Mamma Polito's finds. But I had no time for a staring contest, as I had to make my way to what promised to be an extraordinary dinner.
The hotel had arranged this meal through an association called Home Food, which was launched 18 months ago by a coalition of university professors and Italian government ministers who were concerned that classic regional Italian cuisine would soon be supplanted by fast food. The association's literature explains that "good, typical local food can be instrumental in building and preserving civility...It eases one's entrance into the sense of complex and positively depicted affective universes." Well, if you say so. This could only happen in Italy.
Home Food describes itself with the snappy subtitle of Association for the Guardianship and Protection of the Traditional Culinary-Gastronomic Heritage of Italy. The group's ingenious way of saving regional cooking involves elevating Italian women to "Cesarina" status and inviting the public to visit their houses for home-cooked meals. So far the association has appointed more than 100 Cesarine in Italy; applications arrive daily at Home Food's headquarters in Bologna, but few of them make the grade.
I found the home of my Cesarina, Oriana Neri, in the city center, on a quiet street I reached through a maze of walkways and courtyards. Oriana was waiting for me in her walled garden, which is filled with oleander bushes. In her seventies (but looking at least 10 years younger), she works in her dressmaking atelier by day and entertains in style at night. She had been finishing 10 dresses for a wedding party that afternoon but still found time to prepare a feast. I was introduced to the five other dinner guests, and we snacked together in her garden on local mortadella and crumbly chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano accompanied by a sparkling white, a Pignoletto frizzante from the local Emilia-Romagna region.
Oriana doesn't speak English, but she had a Home Foodï¿½produced booklet in English describing her background, from her childhood on her family's farm in Italy's Apennine mountains to her success in Bologna's dressmaking world. In her magnificent dining room—which, with its antique paintings, gilt-edged furniture and sparkling crystal chandelier, looked like something out of a Baglioni hotel—Oriana started us off with a delicious tortino di patate, a homey dish of potatoes cooked with milk and Parmigiano-Reggiano that represented typical Emilia-Romagna cuisine. The highlight was the sformato di tagliatelle: handmade pasta mixed with tender prosciutto and topped with a meaty ragù, fresh garden peas blanched in onion stock, and juicy meatballs. This was followed by salsiccia a pezzetti con pomodorini al forno—chunks of luscious sausage baked in the oven with cherry tomatoes. Oriana explained that her mother used to serve this as a treat in spring, using pork from the family's own pigs and tomatoes from their garden.
That night as I lay in bed at the hotel, feeling full and happy after the wonderful dinner, I stared back at the stern lady on the wall and offered her the chocolate that had been placed on my pillow. I think I saw her smile.
Alec Le Sueur is the author of The Hotel on the Roof of the World: From Miss Tibet to Shangri-La.