THE RESTAURANT, THE HOTEL VILLA MARIA
Ravello is a very civilized place. Perched one thousand feet above the Amalfi Coast, it is a place of ancient churches, narrow streets and luscious gardens. It is the sort of charming little place which ought to have a festival. And it does have one, which specializes in that most civilized of artistic forms – chamber music. Here, then, the brash and the vulgar have long been banished. In Ravello you can expect courtesy, modesty and restraint. Its hotels reflect these characteristics. One of them was once the villa of the Marquis de Cinque. Now it is the Hotel Villa Maria, and it has been owned by the Palumbo family for four generations, since 1934. I decided to go there for dinner.
The climb from the Cathedral square, the centre of the town, took me a few minutes. Others – little children, aged ladies and the like – scampered past me with the agility of mountain goats, but then they were probably used to the gradients in these parts. Still, slowly and carefully, I reached my destination. And a pleasing destination it turned out to be. The public rooms of the Villa Maria are very handsome indeed if, like me, you like your décor to be in the taste which I tend to call ‘Traditional Refined’.
After pausing to return my heartbeat to its usual rhythm, I went into the dining room. Or rather, I went into the dining rooms. The first was the expected high, rectangular chamber one finds in proper houses from the 19th century. But through this was the second, where I was to dine, which was in the manner of a long conservatory. I was shown to a table with a dramatic view over the valley and the distant sea. I settled myself into the metal armchair, adjusted its cushions, admired the crisp cream napery and the black jackets of the waiters and thought I had found a good place for dinner. True, there was canned music, which I normally detest, but as it was the jazz of Bessie Smith and the delicious crooning of Charles Trenet (La Mer, of course) I was entirely happy.
Chef Lorenzo Ferrigno serves very large portions of traditional food. Indeed, the generosity on the plate defeated me at once, when I was quite unable to make more than a feeble stab at a mountainous plate of cured meats, with bacon, ham bresaola and much else. Better for me was the delicious ravioli with rabbit, its sauce of porcini mushrooms adding hugely to my enjoyment of the soft and yielding pasta. Over the main course, however, I will draw a kindly veil, as this rack of lamb – another huge serving – was simply not cooked to my liking. The star of the show came on last, and now the gigantic size really was worth some applause. I like my soufflés, and this one was a joy: a mountain of lemony sweetness and air. This is what all puddings should be like. (These four courses were 69€.)
The wine list is quite short. 11 wines are served by the glass. Of the 78 bottles and 5 half-bottles, all are Italian except for the champagnes. Prices run from 18€ for a local 2012 white made from the falanghina grape to 1,000€ for the 1997 Sassicaia. Other bottles to catch my eye were: 1999 Cristal champagne (300€), 2003 Mille e una note (145€), 2009 Tignanello (100€) and 1999 Solaia (400€). The excellent Restaurant Manager, Angelo Cirella, recommended a splendid primitivo from Puglia, which was exactly what I expected it to be: earthy, accessible and oozing with ripe damsons (S Erasmo, Spinelli, 2008 - 40€).
My walk back to the Cathedral square – this time with the help of Mr Gravity – was altogether easier than my earlier ascent. As I made my way, I thought once more what a civilized place Ravello was, and I thought, too, what a civilized evening I had had in the Restaurant of the Hotel Villa Maria.