HOTEL SANTA CATERINA
One of my favourite hotels in Italy is the famous Santa Caterina. Like an exquisite white lily in a verdant garden, this immaculate establishment is the focal point of the Amalfi Coast. Its location, its décor and its facilities are wonderful. But best of all are the people who make it such a joyful place in which to stay. I mean, of course, its staff. I present to you a picture of four of them from the Restaurant. Together, they have given more than half a century of service to this magnificent establishment. They are, from left to right, Domenico (the Assistant Maitre d’ – 18 years), Lucca (the Sommelier – 9 years), Pino (the Maitre d’ – 28 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. Indeed, Pino – with his impeccable taste and unfailing courtesy - must be regarded as hotel royalty; so I will call him henceforth Prince Pino.
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.
Nothing is too much trouble here. Is not that the sort of service we all want in a luxury hotel? And much of the credit for its presence at the Santa Caterina must go to the admirable General Manager, Mr Andrew Camera (pictured, with your correspondent). He seems to be always on hand to ensure that all is running smoothly.
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 of the Mediterranean, a lift transports guests down the cliff face to the swimming pool, the luncheon restaurant and the spa.
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 (see my numerous articles on www.bownsbespoke.com) . 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 around 500€-1,500€ 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 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 a proper 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, at my special request, with a plate of soft and luscious tagliolini Carbonara – one of the best versions I have encountered. My meat dish was just as good: pink rack of lamb, tender and tasty, with herbs and with, again at my special request, fresh peas. And I finished with a properly indulgent Neapolitan babà with ice cream. (71€ for these three courses.)
The rest of my eating at the Santa Caterina was done in the main 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 (by Spiegelau), lovely round white plates 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 the Santa Caterina’s renowned chef, Domenico Cuomo – another member of the Santa Caterina ‘family’ who has been at the hotel for many years. Mr Cuomo is a chef of immense talent, and 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 with raw and fried Mediterranean vegetables, which was a triumph of well-balanced tastes and textures, Chateaubriand of impeccable refinement and a lovely, traditional lemon soufflé. (You should allow around 100€ for three courses, if you are not on the half-board arrangement.)
Prince Pino Francese, the Maitre d’, 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 mentioned, he heads a tip-top team, of which the charming Assistant Maitre d’, Domenico Mansi, deserves a special mention.
The enthusiastic young sommelier, Lucca Amato, presides over a list with 496 offerings, including 19 magnums. Most are from Italy, but there are plenty of temptations from France and one or two from elsewhere. Prices range from 20€ for a sweet wine from Puglia to 4,100€ for the 2001 vintage of Pétrus. These Italians caught my eye: 2011 Sassicaia (380€), 2007 Solaia (670€), 1999 Gaja barbaresco (305€), 2007 Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva (700€), 2015 Cervaro della Sala (74€) and 2014 Planeta chardonnay (63€). And there are some really tempting clarets, like 1998 Haut Brion (650€) and 2001 Margaux (670€). For my own drinking, I relied on the recommendations of Mr Amato, whom I know I can trust entirely. I drank very well. Two bottles remain vividly in my mind: a 2014 primitivo from Puglia, typically earthy, damson-laden, perfumed and alcoholic (Manduria, Gianfranco Fino – 89€), and a glorious 2012 from Tuscany, full of red cherries and black fruit with an impressive, tannic structure, now fully mature (Flaccianello della Pieve Toscana, Tenuta Fontodi – 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. And who would have thought it would be so glorious to have tip-top ice cream at breakfast? I have encountered breakfast buffets at which everything looked wonderful, yet only some items were really good. But 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 Prince Pino would invariably describe as “the best cappuccino you have ever had”.
Indeed, the entire purpose of the Hotel Santa Caterina is to give its guests “the best they have ever had”. That is why it is one of my favourite hotels in Italy.
HOTEL SANTA CATERINA
Double rooms from 396€-1,140€, bed and breakfast, according to season
Half-board: 70€-85€ a day per person, according to season (minimum 3 nights)
Full-board:130€-160€ a day per person, according to season (minimum 3 nights)
Check on the hotel website for the prices for specific dates and for special offers