THE RESTAURANT, GRAND HOTEL TIMEO
I do not normally want a cabaret with my dinner. But when the entertainment is so spectacular, my objections fall away. I have been to Taormina many times, but never before had I seen a full blown eruption of Mount Etna. It was a remarkable sight. Streams of red and yellow molten lava poured from the volcano’s peak, brightening the evening gloom. I sat at my dinner table and gazed for thirty minutes at the majesty of Nature. Then it was over, and the great brooding presence returned to its accustomed darkness. I knew that I would certainly remember this dinner. And it was appropriate for this show that I was sitting at a table in the restaurant of one of the most famous hotels in Italy.
For thousands of years Taormina has been attracting those in search of beauty. Overlooking the Bay of Naxos, this is a hill blessed by the gods. The Greeks adored it, and so did the Romans. The former built a magnificent theatre here, and the latter gave the town the name we still use – the hill (mons) of the bull (taurus). In 1873 Francesco La Floresta decided that this little place needed an hotel. So he built one, and called it by the name of the son of Andromaca, the founder of Taormina. Thus was born the hostelry known as Timeo. To its doors flocked the world’s discerning. Soon the little hostelry became The Grand Hotel Timeo, a name known to every traveler of taste in Europe. Here have scribbled Oscar Wilde, D.H.Lawrence and Tennessee Williams. And here have laid their heads Kaiser Wilhelm II, Christian Dior and your correspondent. Now the hotel has been restored at huge expense by the Orient Express Group. I have yet to stay since these changes (so my thoughts on the hotel must wait), so this visit for dinner was my first sight of this restored masterpiece of hospitality.
My first impressions were very good indeed. The public areas of the building, both plentiful and elegant, are as delightful as they were before. Antique furniture and good oil paintings are still all over the place, and the lovely furniture (which was beginning to look a little tired) has been reupholstered and made good. And – mirabile dictu! – the wonderful members of staff I remember are still there. Among them I must mention the Food & Beverage Manager, Stefano Lo Giudice (pictured, with your correspondent), the Restaurant Manager, Giuseppe Privitera (pictured, alone), and Maitre d’ Demetrio Lombardo (pictured). I first met Demetrio when he was at the Splendido in Portofino. (The world of grand hotels is a remarkably small one.) I should also mention the Bar Manager, Luigi Rosso, whose wonders include a 1900 Bas Armagnac (180€ a glass).
My table was, of course, on the large terrace of the restaurant. Thus did I have the view of Mount Etna. As is proper at a grand hotel of this quality, the members of staff were in black tie and the glassware was by Riedel. Indeed, there was a lovely sense on all sides that “only the best will do”. This certainly applied to the ingredients used by the kitchen, which were of the very highest quality. Chef Roberto Toro (pictured) came to speak to me after the meal, and it was clear that he is determined to maintain that constant search for perfection which is the mark of all the best chefs. He certainly provided me with a most enjoyable meal.
I began with ham and melon. A simple dish, to be sure, but one which relies absolutely on the quality of its principal ingredient. Here the ham (prosciutto di Maialino Nero dei Nebrodi) was splendid. For my pasta I chose ravioli with wild asparagus and a cheese (Ragusano) sauce. This was a plate of robust tastes. The star of the evening’s repast, however, was the main course: thin slices of the loveliest Sicilian beef – cooked pink and served with a trio of sauces: meat jus, balsamic sauce and mustard sauce. Along with delicious fried onions, fine roast potatoes and boiled peas (oh, how I love peas!), this made a dish fit for a prince – beautifully straightforward and straightforwardly beautiful. I ended with a small but well-judged hot green tea souffé. (These four courses were 97€.)
There are two wine lists. The ‘ordinary’ one has about 350 offerings, ranging in price from 30€ for a Sicilian white to 1,000€ for a 1999 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva and 1,480 for 1998 Krug champagne (Clos de Mesnil). It groups its wines under headings, such as “Full and well-structured white wines”. The other list – of 215 bottles – is of “Great Wines and Unique Vintages”. Its prices ascend to 3,000€ for 1985 Sassicaia. It gives Mr Parker’s mark out of 100 for each wine, and includes the following: 1995 Luce (210€), 2002 Masseto (950€), 1997 Solaia (720€) and 2004 Tignanello (230€).
I began with a famous (and superb) sparkling wine from Lombardy – the wine I like to call the Krug of Italy. Beautifully balanced and full of life, this 2002 Franciacorta from Cà de Bosco (Cuvée Annamaria Clementi - 135€) reminded me yet again what a mistake it would be to neglect Italian bubbly. And my red was nearly as good – a sumptuously fruity and well-rounded Sicilian blend of nero d’avola and perricon (Rosso del Conte, Tasca d’Almerita, 2007 - 75€).
I left the Restaurant of the Grand Hotel Timeo full of gratitude: gratitude for the spectacular ‘cabaret’ supplied by Mount Etna, gratitude for the lovely food of Chef Roberto Toro and gratitude for the service provided by my friends. Of course, I must return – to report on the whole hotel.