Life in Venice at the Hotel Gritti Palace
“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 Venice.
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 striped 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. Venice’s single major artery winds snake-like 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 Canal.
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” 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” (health).
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 antiques.
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 spritzers: white wine, Campari, bitters and water – “the typical drink for Venetians after work, like scotch in New York,” Paolo says.
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.’”
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 the maintaining the historic ambience of the hotel, however. And in his brief tenure, Paolo has already schooled himself in its story.
“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?’ I asked.
“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.
“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 is 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 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 more expensive.”
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 dish, 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. He added, “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 at its far end, the old maritime customs house, transformed into the Punta della Dogana, the center for contemporary art which officially opened in June 2009.
“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 familiar with.
“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 nine 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 a 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, Italy
Tel: (39) 041 794611