HOTEL SANTA CATERINA
The best hotels have the best staff. Smart, charming, efficient, courteous, friendly – these are the epithets which should settle in the minds of guests when they encounter those who look after them in the world’s most luxurious hostelries. And these are the words which always do occur to me when I am staying in one of my favourite hotels in Italy, the Santa Caterina. Like an exquisite white lily in a verdant garden, this immaculate establishment is the focal point of the Amalfi Coast. And the people who make it such a joyful place in which to stay are its staff. I present to you a picture of four of them from the Restaurant, who together have given more than half a century of service to this famous hotel. They are, from left to right, Domenico (the Assistant Maitre d’ – 16 years), Lucca (the Sommelier – 7 years), Pino (the Maitre d’ – 26 years) and Michele (a waiter, and the relative newcomer). These splendid gentlemen and their many colleagues ensure that the hospitality at the Santa Caterina is of the highest quality. I salute them.
Of course, the setting is matchless. Even if you have never been to the Amalfi Coast, you will know the area. It is, we might say, ‘photogenic’. Hundreds of advertisements and dozens of feature films (many of them including open-topped motor cars) have used its combination of rugged cliffs, blue sea and a road with hundreds of sharp beds to communicate an image of luxury and exclusivity. For once, the reality matches – even exceeds – the fantasy. The Amalfi Coast draws me back year after year. And right at its heart is the Hotel Santa Caterina. Everyone who travels in Italy knows the Santa Caterina, and those who have had the privilege of staying in its rooms regard it with real affection.
Ask and ye shall receive. This perhaps should be the motto of Italy’s finest hotels. It does not matter that what you might want is not explicitly on offer. What matters is that – often at considerable time and effort – those who are looking after you will ensure that your desires are fulfilled. This is the sort of service we all want. It is service of the most civilised sort, and it is what you will find at the Santa Caterina in abundance – under the admirable guidance of the General Manager, Mr Andrew Camera (pictured, with your correspondent).
This Belle Époque white palace was begun in 1904, although since then it has been much extended. Now it offers 54 rooms and 16 suites. Some of the latter are accommodated in cottages in the gardens and, if the pennies permit, you will find that they are supremely luxurious and elegant. (Several of them even have their own ‘infinity’ pools, overlooking the Mediterranean.) In fact, the setting of the entire establishment – amidst terraces of bougainvillea and its own groves of lemon and orange, high above the blue sea – is ravishing. And, lest you should think you might be too far away from the lapping waters, a lift transports guests down the cliff face to the swimming pool, the luncheon restaurant and the spa (truly a place for Salus Per Aqua).
For four generations the Santa Caterina has been run by the Gambardella family. The late Crescendo Gambardella used to have his shoes made in London by the magnificent George Cleverley. As a fellow patron of the best shoemaker in the world, I know that such a choice means that he must have been a man of impeccable taste. It is a quality which his descendants have inherited. The handmade tile – which is a speciality of the Amalfi area – is much in evidence at the hotel, as are well-chosen pieces of antique furniture and even a marble statue of St Joseph. Another admirable feature of the Santa Caterina is the abundance of comfortable seating in the extensive public areas, both within and without the building. For those of us who like to rest in the heat of the afternoon, so many plump sofas and wicker armchairs constitute a real blessing.
My air-conditioned billet was on the second floor. As I passed out of the lift, I noticed that the corridor was decorated with a photographic portrait of the Queen Mother, our last Queen Empress. It occurred to me that the great lady would surely have liked the Santa Caterina. Indeed, perhaps she did.
Room 44 was a ‘Double Deluxe Sea View’ and therefore 520€-1,503€ a night, bed and breakfast for two, according to season. In its hall were fitted wardrobes (with a safe) and a feature I particularly liked: a pair of coat hooks. (How often does one return to one’s hotel room, take off a hat or a top coat and find that it is necessary to put it in the wardrobe, because there is no available hook?) Then, through two doors, were the bedroom and the bathroom. The latter – decorated with painted tiles showing a seaside panorama – provided Bulgari toiletries, a bath with a jaccuzzi facility, a bidet, one wash basin, a loo and a window operated by electricity. The bedroom was a room of about 12 feet by 20 feet. The bed, at my request, had been made wonderfully soft for me. The floor, as was the case throughout the apartment, was covered with large ceramic tiles of blue. The walls were white, of course. Two bedside spotlights, four wall lights and two table lamps provided the lighting. An armchair in wicker work and a sofa in white damask provided comfortable seating, and a marble-topped writing table (with an internet connection) provided the possibility of catching up with my correspondence. I appreciated the provision of two items: a cd/dvd player (so that I did not have to deny myself my daily Mozart) and an alarm clock. Through the French window was my own balcony – with a table and two chairs – with a lovely view of the famous coastline.
My first dinner was at the restaurant ‘down below’, near the sea. Appropriately, it is called ‘Al Mare’. In the evening, it is open only occasionally. The setting has a quaint rusticity, although the highest standards – crisp white napery, sparkling glassware et al. – are maintained. The view out to sea, framed on the left by the lights of Amalfi, is enchanting. Here I began with a plate of light and refreshing vegetable carpaccio and then went on to a pasta dish which was absolutely delicious. This deep-fried tagliolini with meat sauce was so rich and satisfying that it was a meal in itself. Still, I managed to cope with some pink lamb chops, together with peas and sautéed onions – all of which were splendid, and ended with a rum baba within a chocolate dome.
The rest of my eating at the Santa Caterina was done in the dining room. This chamber in the main building takes full advantage of the hotel’s high and privileged position. A wall of windows (with charming Gothic fenestration) allows guests to gaze out to sea or down at the coast. The floor of the costliest blue marble – brought all the way from Brazil – picks up the tones of sea and sky as the waiters in white jackets and black bowties glide this way and that on its glistening surface. White tablecloths, fine glasses (Riedel and Bormioli) and twinkling candles add to the sense of occasion. Small wonder, then, that my fellow diners dressed well for the evening repast.
In this delightful setting, I continued to enjoy the refined cuisine of Chef Domenico Cuomo – another member of the Santa Caterina ‘family’ who has been at the hotel for many years. His approach is entirely right for the Santa Caterina: he takes ingredients of the highest standard and of impeccable provenance and uses his considerable skill and long experience to create dishes which are traditional and thoroughly enjoyable. The highlights of my dinners ‘upstairs’ included a brilliant lobster salad which looked like a painting by Matisse, soft potato ravioli with Monaco (a local cheese), a trilogy of cod (deep-fried, gratinated and boiled), a memorable chateaubriand of the most glorious beef, a lovely, traditional lemon soufflé and a most entrancing strawberry cup with panna cotta and meringue. (You should allow 100€ - 130€ for four courses, if you are not on the half-board arrangement.)
Maitre d’ Pino Francese has a dry wit, which I enjoyed, and repeatedly went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that I had exactly what I wanted. As I have already mentioned, he heads a tip-top team, and the charming Assistant Maitre d’, Domenico Mansi, deserves a special mention.
The enthusiastic young sommelier, Lucca Amato, presides over a list with 485 offerings, including 17 magnums and 39 dessert wines. Most are from Italy, but there are plenty of temptations from France and one or two from elsewhere. Prices range from 32€ for a local rosé to 4,100€ for the 2001 Pétrus. These Italians caught my eye: 2008 Sassicaia (373€), 2008 Tignanello (168€), 2008 Solaia (400€), 2008 Ornellaia (263€), 2011 Cervaro della Sala (74€) and Planeta chardonnay (63€). And these grand 2001 clarets looked interesting: Latour (515€), Margaux (670€), Mouton Rothschild (610€) and Cheval Blanc (693€). For my own drinking, I relied on the recommendations of Mr Amato – and was very glad I did, for I drank very well indeed. Two bottles remain vividly in my mind: a 2012 primitivo from Puglia, typically earthy, perfumed and alcoholic, with an intriguing suggestion of mint (Manduria, Gianfranco Fino – 89€), and a glorious 2012 from Tuscany, full of red cherries and black fruit with an impressive, tannic structure (Flaccianello – 130€).
My morning visits to the dining room were as good as my evening ones. Could the canned music be turned off for me? Of course! Then the Gothic windows were opened wide – for I had decided against the outside terrace, for fear of the early sun – and the slightest of breezes cooled my face as I gazed over the sea to distant Capri. All breakfasts should be as idyllic. The comestibles – from the omelettes cooked to order at the omelette station, to the juice of green apples freshly squeezed at the juice station, to all the items on the buffet tables (the cheeses, the strawberries, the melons, the pineapples, the breads, the jams, the cereals, the boiled eggs, the lemon cake, the pastries and the magnificent bacon) – were of the highest quality. I have encountered breakfast buffets at which everything looked wonderful, but only some items were really good. At the Santa Caterina everything tasted as well as it looked. I lingered over these breakfasts with considerable pleasure – and, of course, I always finished with what Pino would invariably describe as “the best cappuccino you have ever had”.
Tea times were equally pleasurable. On the terrace in the shade, settled in a comfortable armchair, with a pot of Earl Grey brought to me by the affable Alfredo, I could survey the sunny panorama and the cruise ships far below, with their little boats ferrying passengers to and from Amalfi. Then the warmth and the contentment would combine to soothe me into my afternoon doze.
To be looked after so well in such a setting is what the Santa Caterina is all about: wonderful service in beautiful surroundings. The best hotels have the best staff. And the Santa Caterina is one of the best hotels.
HOTEL SANTA CATERINA
Via Nazionale 9, Amalfi 84011, Italy.
Telephone +39 089 871 012
Fax +39 089 871 351
Double rooms from 396€-915€, bed and breakfast, according to season
Half-board: 70-85€ a day per person, according to season (minimum 3 nights)
Check on the hotel website for the prices of specific dates and for special offers