‘This is paradise!’ Signore de Megni emphasizes with his contagious smile and genuine vivaciousness, a charm which surely captures the heart of each guest upon arrival at Belmond Hotel Splendido. I have serendipitously planned my Portofino getaway in tempo with the glicine, and the perfume of the lavender wisteria is intoxicating. The property sits like a prince above the Ligurian sea, affixed to the mountain like a gold medal, dressed in hydrangeas, azaleas, roses, and lemon trees. Here is a seaside gardener’s dream, a sailer’s heaven, a chef’s mecca.
I walk down to the Piazzetta in Portofino. The harbor looks precisely as it does in the thousands of photographs ever taken of this idealized Italian village, but I find myself climbing the steps back to the hotel. Why wouldn’t I take my lunch on one of the world’s most magnificent verandas overlooking the sea? As if the ten star service (five is simply not adequate) and dazzlingly beautiful property are not enough to set Hotel Splendido apart from other world-renowned hotels, the property boasts one of Italy’s most divinely talented and equally charming chefs, Corrado Corti.
Every item on the menu is as tempting as the last, but I opt for the Chef’s suggestion of the day: a fresh salad of asparagi and lettuces just picked from the orto, followed, with the utmost class, by handmade taglierini with carciofi, pomodorini, and succulent local gamberi. This area of Liguria is renowned for its gamberi, and so delicate they are, so flavorful and fresh. I take my bites as slowly as possible, my eyes transfixed on the azure sea. At one point, a cart arrives at the table next to mine with a copper pot and an empty plate for serving. Someone has ordered Chef Corti’s infamous trofie al pesto, and the glorious scent of basil spreads like a gentle wave over the terrazza. I take a deep breath; the sea in front of me, the flavors of this region, and the smell of the freshest, most vibrant basil come together in a surreal moment. If this is not paradise, as Signore de Megni assured me, I do not know what is.
Chef Corti has been around the world and then some, from the U.S. to Asia, from the heavy cooking of his birthplace in the north, to the light, Mediterranean cuisine of the Ligurian sea. We take a seat with Signore de Megni underneath the dazzling sun, a welcome arrival and just in time for the 2016 season, and I listen to the gentlemen speak exuberantly about the ever-changing atmosphere at Hotel Splendido. They have been working together for nearly 2 decades, and their congeniality and lighthearted approach to one of the world’s leading hotels is as refreshing as the herbs found in the orto directly below the terrazza. There is a sense of freedom here, a spirit of autonomy which both Signore de Megni and Chef Corti use to their creative advantage. If you have experienced other Belmond properties, such as the timeless Villa San Michele in Fiesole, you will appreciate the individuality and unique sense of locale celebrated at each.
In Chef Corti’s case, the fragrant flavors of Liguria are commemorated throughout the season. I describe the marvelous waft of the pesto when it arrived at the table next to mine, how the whole veranda was whisked away in a cloud of basil and delicate Ligurian olive oil. In fact, Splendido makes their own olive oil with the olive trees on the property. When it is brought to me at the table to dress my salad of lettuces from the orto, Luca presents it as ‘Splendido Number 9.’ In fact, it is as timeless and noteworthy as the perfume, and packaged in a rectangular glass bottle, one might mistake it for an Italian perfume.
Back to the basil, because it deserves a fairytale story in itself. Ligurian basil is far and away superior to all other varieties, and so integral is it to cuisine of this region, it is scientifically maintained throughout the winter season. Chef Corti gently insists that the best way to make pesto is with an old fashioned mortar and pestle, adding the parmigiano at the end and mixing by hand. For the purposes of the restaurant, the kitchen uses a machine and adds a cube or two of ice to maintain the color. Another classic dish is Spaghetti alla Elizabeth Taylor, who visited the property on all 4 of her honeymoons. This spaghetti is made with 4 different types of tomatoes, perhaps one for each marriage. Alas, Chef Corti is constantly challenging his creative juices; one never stops learning in Corti’s case. His travels provide him with inspiration, and Signore de Megni is always creating innovative events around the globe in which the kitchen can share its talents and pick up new techniques, such as a recent event in Dubai and an exchange with another Belmond chef in Brazil.
Assolutamente, Portofino is one of the most beautiful places in the world. When it comes to dining in the area, however, I find it challenging to part with Chef Corti and the magnificent Terrazza. It is not very hard to spend the entire day on the property, from the decadent breakfast spread, to the tennis court, the pool, the spa, a cooking class, and a departure only for a spin on the hotel’s private boat.
After a few hours at the pool, filled with sea-water and warmed to a cozy 22 degrees, my friend and I dress for an elegant evening at La Terrazza. Exemplary service is found in spades throughout the property, and dinner is no exception. Here is a property which has mastered the art of five star (ten star) service, but provides it in a modern spirit, a most friendly and warm manner, one that enables all ages and all backgrounds to feel at ease. We begin our meal with my favorite aroma: pesto. I am in basil heaven and could surely devour a plate of Chef Corti’s treasured trofie every day. Next is gamberi (yes, again), this time with zucca (pumpkin) and asparagi. My friend has a beautiful steak cooked to perfection. To finish, we go classic with Tiramisu plated with divine caffe ice cream. When I order a tea, a plate of confections arrives, and our discipline is destroyed.
The next morning,we awake to the sound of the sea birds and rush to open the shutters to take in the first light of the day and the blanket of wisteria beneath our french doors. The view, the perfume, and the melody from our room is something to be bottled and remembered forever. I decide to start the day at the wellness center, doing my lunges on yet another terrazza overlooking the azure sea, and I conclude that exercise is far more enjoyable when it is accompanied by birdsong and views of the cove. Alas I join my friend for my final silky cappuccino, homemade bircher muesli, myriad focaccia, and divine crostata on the veranda (one lunge for every bite).
The spirit and beauty at Belmond Hotel Splendido is one that can only be understood via experience, and I believe it stems from Signore de Megni’s zest, energy, and sense of imagination. He delivers perfection effortlessly. The service is that of another world; another level entirely, and yet the staff is full of smiles, laughter, and genuineness. A few nights is not enough to fully appreciate the sensational Splendido; one must soak it up slowly, in true Italian style, with an ample dose of Ligurian basil and plenty of lingering afternoons on the mesmerizing veranda. Here, at the cusp of perfection, or otherwise over the crest and into the blue; either way is splendido.