Forte dei Marmi, beloved by yachtsmen, is just further down the Ligurian coast from Portofino.
A polished and wealthy seaside enclave for the ultra-well-heeled, it has not shortage of high end hotels and restaurants. We visited at the tail end of the summer season when temperatures start cooling down in the evenings and tables don’t necessarily have to be booked. The sun is still shining in late September but the place is more relaxed and laid back than at the height of summer.
Hotel Principe would appeal to those with a taste for a minimalist, pared down luxury. The wooden floors add warmth to the largely eggshell interior whose slick curves, high tech lighting, modern sculptures and oversized sofas are arranged open plan style and leading to a very pretty garden mostly laid to grass. More sofas, a children’s corner and an equally slick pool, overlooked by an outside wrap round dining deck complete this symphony of contemporary living.
The rooms are designed with the same minimalist chic. We loved the round sofa on which one can curl up while having a bottle of chilled rose from the special wine cooler above the minibar. We also loved the power shower and ultra-thick branded towelling robes – even though one has come to expect the best of 5 star hotels, some of life’s little comforts are better in some places than in others.
Where the Principe really comes into its own, however, is the food.
The management has made a very important investment in the person of resident chef Valentino Cassanelli whose relative youth (28) belies a very considerable talent.
Lux Lucis restaurant
Our dinner was a veritable tour de force of creativity and a full gamut of flavours, from the subtle to the robust.
The amuse bouche consisted of ‘Mary’ (baby) tomatoes that had been steeped in Bloody Mary spices and basket shaped rice crackers filled with salmon roe.
This was accompanied by a Domaine Alice Beaufort Petit Beaufort Brut 2011, an outstanding sparking rose that my fellow diner raved about.
We did inquire about the ‘Mary’ tomatoes the following morning, which is why I am able to describe their preparation. What I cannot describe with words is the very intense deliciousness of them.
Course number 2 was cockles, topinambur and pomegranate, presented (as many of Cassanelli’s dishes are) on a stone slab. A very delicate dish, cooked to an absolute perfection – quite a feat where cockles are concerned as they tend to be somewhat stringy.
The three carrot dish (Carota, carota e carote) sounds like simplicity itself and quite probably is, except for the chef’s virtuosic ability to inject glamour into the basics. It comes as a carrot mousseline, a whole caramelised carrot and another mini one, hence carota, carota e carote.
At this point we switched to the perennially reliable Domaine Ott rose (Romassan Coeur de Grain Rose 2012) which also accompanied course number 4, the Panzanella di mare.
Panzanella di mare is a Tuscan shell fish stew that makes use of stale bread. In chef Cassanelli’s kitchen, the simple but flavoursome dish is reinterpreted once again as an art form and served with some seriously delicious bread rolls on the side – some made of chick pea flour, others simply with added Tuscan oil, another in the shape of a crisp baked with quinoa grains…
Course number 5 is chickpea tagliolini with scampi, tiny sea asparagus and black truffle. Clearly cooked in seafood broth and the best olive oil, the pasta bursts with flavour. We have, at this point, moved on to a darkly delicate Sicilian red, Donnafugata Mille e una Notte 2004. I could come up with a thousand and one pretentious descriptions of the wine, dear reader, but that wouldn’t be me.
Suffice to say that you are safe to eschew the ‘white with fish’ dogma as this one is soft enough to not overwhelm the food, yet spicy enough to compliment the graduation to more robust flavours as we progress through the menu.
Our main main dish is a whole sea bass cooked in an olive crust and served on a slice of aubergine with San Marzano tomatoes. The crust is intriguing and I keep a piece of it to savour in tiny super-salty morsels – something I soon abandon as the fish is so intensely flavoured itself and cooked exactly à point, i.e. dissolving on the tongue, not on the fork.
I am not normally a dessert person and, having enjoyed each course to the maximum, I resolve to finish with some mint tea.
Nevertheless, when the dessert arrives, it looks so intriguing, I decide to just try a little of it.
The Buccellato croccante, cremoso al fondente e chinotto looks like very thin slices of bread with chocolate mousse between them and green-orangey fruit coloured mousse on the side. It is quite impossibly to just try a bit of this – it is neither too sweet, nor too bitter, nor is the fruit puree too tart, but all of it is just so. It melts in the mouth and is the definition of heaven on a plate – quite literally.
Accompanied by a glass of very thick, treacle-like, intense sherry, Emilio Lustau Pedro Ximenes 100 annos, this is a suitably indulgent ending to an unforgettable culinary experience.
We took the petit fours and mint tea to our room and, I am ashamed to say, demolished each and every one of them.
Words and pictures are only meant to whet readers’ appetites, however.
Remember, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And Lux Lucis restaurant at Hotel Principe is open year round.
I met with Valentino Cassanelli the following morning over a virtuous green tea to hear the short story of his remarkable rise to becoming a star chef.
After catering school, Cassanelli worked for 3 years at the Berkeley Street Nobu, London, followed by a stint at Locanda Locatelli, another highly regarded London Michelin star restaurant.
He then joined renowned Italian chef Carlo Cracco in Milan and this seems to have become a defining point in his career. Cracco involved him in culinary collaborations with some of the finest chefs in the world and over the following 3 years, Cassanelli honed his skills. When the two of them went to the Principe to advise on a consultancy basis, Cassanelli ended up staying.
In addition to being the resident chef at the Lux Lucis restaurant, he also cooks for the seaside eaterie of the hotel, Marechiaro, and is developing healthy menus for the spa.
His approach is based on using locally sourced produce – from the sea and grown in the immediate vicinity – and reinterpreting simple traditional Italian recipes with a highly contemporary twist. He looks at a plate (or whatever stone slab he chooses to use for the purpose) as a canvass, trying to give the finished product a 3-dimensional quality.
Food as an art form is not exactly new – Italians have been practising it long before it was ever articulated as a concept, and before the advent of the celebrity chef.
The artistry in Cassanelli’s dishes is unquestionable but this is never achieved at the expense of taste. His degustation menu will leave you neither too full nor with a bit of space left for something more, which is an art in itself.
He says he wants to make people happy through good food, a motivation that will undoubtedly turn the Principe restaurant into a destination restaurant in its own right.