With Verona being such a tiny city which you can easily navigate on foot in a day, finding a recommended eatery doesn't take too long. I was strongly advised by the Verona Tourism Board to go and try the famed Al Bersagliere: a Michelin Guide restaurant owned by the chef and restauranteur Pietro Leopoldo Ramponi, who counts as the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams among many other celebs as his close friends.
The original restaurant was a tiny but very buzzy gourmet restaurant located in the northern part of the city. The Al Bersagliere is located in a stereotypical quiet Italian town lane in the heart of the old Filippini neighbourhood, offers a precious occasion to experience the old, authentic tastes of Veronese traditional cuisine. The setting and ambiance is lovely - you are surrounded with memorabilia collected over the decades by Mr. Ramponi, including many of his own musical instruments, as well as photographs with many famed musicians and superstars who he is friends with. Then there is the large personal collection of wines, some rare. The wine carte features over 200 labels, pre-eminently Italian. Rich choice of Veronese wines: 60 Amarone labels. Well-pondered selection of spirits: 60 grappa labels, 280 whiskys, 18 rhums; Oils carte. You won't find anything like this anywhere in the city, let alone with region. The restaurant has three rooms (piano room, singers room, sport room and a garden, open in the summer) plus a twelfth century cellar which is worth a visit.
There is a reason why Mr. Ramponi has won the Michelin Guide, apart from the somewhat unique settings, he serves up inventive and sometimes playful tweaks of the Verona tradition. He's a master of culinary camouflage - one of his signature dishes is Horse steak garlic parsley oil. He is also a well-qualified sommelier who is able guide to some of Italy's lesser-known quality producers. My wife and I went for the highly recommended mixed polenta and the pastissada with polenta as we didn't want to go for the exotic meat dishes. All of this was washed down with a highly recommended glass of Valpolicella Classico red. It all tastes very good and is worth every penny. The best part of having dinner at this eatery is that you can enjoy a stroll along the narrow cobbled Verona lanes and slowly make your way back to the hotel.
Blessed with fabulous views of the historic bridges over the River Arno and away from the hustle and bustle of Florence's city scape, the Westin Excelsior is one of the city's more traditional five-star hotels. The 171 rooms and suites, all of which are generously spaced, are gifted with opulent interiors and truly five-star services and facilities to make any other luxury hotel in the world envy of its charm. The hotel is a short walk from the main train station and is a perfectly valid option for both leisure and business travellers.
My wife and I arrived in the evening, and we were greeted at the reception by friendly and welcoming staff who made sure that the whole process was made swift and seamless for us. We were provided with a river-view room, complete with a spacious balcony, enough for couples to have breakfast or dinner in the presence of the scenic views. All rooms have Westin’s trademark ‘Heavenly Bed’, an extraordinarily cocooning combination of superb mattress, softer-than-soft topper and light-as-air duvets and pillows.
The panoramic views sweep towards the Ponte Vecchio and up to Forte Belvedere are just out of this world- truly magnificent. It feels as if you have stepped back in time.
The interior throughout reflects Tuscan, Empire, and Florentine influences with coloured marble floors, neatly decorated stained glass, tapestries, and frescoes. The rooms offer cutting-edge design, superior connectivity (Wi-Fi is free in some rooms) and a modern take on convenience. One of the key features of the hotel is the glass-encased rooftop restaurant, which offers spectacular views of the city lights and a selection of more than 300 wines (I was given a bottle of 2014 Chianti Classico on arrival as a gift by the hotel manager, along with fresh fruit platter). The sky is so clear here that I even managed to get a nice shot of the milky way after midnight. The spacious marble bathroom is fitted with combo showers and a bath, with luxury amenities provided by Acqua Di Parma.
Foodies would be delighted to know that there are plenty of options available throughout the property. Apart from the rooftop lounge and restaurant SE*STO on Arno, having weekend brunch at the Westin is popular and arguably the best in the city, with giant tables overflowing with fish, salads, cheeses and raw bar fare, including langoustines and clams. The lobby hosts the ORVM Bar, with expertly mixed cocktails.
During our two nights at the hotel, we decided to enjoy breakfast in the lobby restaurant for one morning, and in-room breakfast for the final day's stay. Both options are highly recommend. Though, if you prefer to have a romantic setting for your breakfast, then nothing beats the sight of having breakfast with your loved one while admiring the views of the River Arno- we were lucky to the lovely weather to accompany during our stay.
With all the creature comforts offered at hand, it goes without saying that it has the high price tag to match and that is further inflated by its inviable location.
I have a personal confession to make. Some of the Italian food I have tasted in Italy has been disappointing. I ended up asking my Italian friends back in London and also at the Tuscany tourism board if there was an authentic Italian restaurant where I would not end up paying ten Euros just for a simple and boring thin baked pizza with a bunch of olives and slices of ham on it. They thankfully advised me to try Boccanegra and I am glad I have not been disappointed. This tiny yet marvellous eatery is unique in that it offers three diverse dining experiences from which to choose. The elegant restaurant attracts a classy clientele for its attention to detail in the elaboration and presentation of high-quality Mediterranean dishes, and it is the perfect setting for romantic couples, families or even business persons. A slightly informal setting can be found in the wine bar which serves a selection of the regional antipasti including cured meats and cheeses along with the endless amounts of wine. For pizzas (my favourite part), head to the intimate wine cellar.
My wife and I tried some of the specialities on offer including the local beef steak, grilled vegetables Florence style and the veal belly in santo reduction bell pepper pure and steamed daikon. Boccanegra is quite specific when it comes to their dishes, drawing on the traditions of Florence. The selection we asked for gave us a taste of absolute luxury – marinated mackerel fillet cowpeas cauliflower. And rarities, too – fish soup with tofu (sounds more Asian but had a strong Frienze twist to it), not so gloriously named but included a splendid fish nevertheless. Quite luscious. The mackerel turned out to be slightly meaty, but delicate and elegant. my stomach felt delighted and I finally had a good impression about the cuisine in this city.
It’s a cuisine that does go out of its way to please: compared with other Italian traditions, Tuscan food can look plain but somewhat delicious. The food doesn't come across as slightly dirty as elsewhere: there’s not much deep frying and hardly any salty cheese, and the vegetables are perfect. The chef recommended a bottle of fine Poggio Al Lupo, a local wine, to go with the meat and fish. So we eat, a lot – and everything was good. Very, very good in fact. You could feel the freshness of the food - rich, buttery, almost juicy, with the sting of minced red onion and filaments of local chilli for the subtlest heat to add to dishes such as the fish soup with tofu and veal.
The ambiance is perfect, with photos by Matisse and adequately volumed music of good taste and one that allows diners to have a nice talk while enjoying the food. The staff are very professional, friendly, incredibly sweet and customer-focused and are particularly helpful when it comes to selecting the right wine for your meal.
Boccanegra is not cheap. Of course it’s not: I’m sorry if I’m breaking it to you, but cheap Italian food does not equal great Italian food, and in Florence you get what you pay for (well, almost always). And this is a great Italian restaurant. If you buy pizza here, then you get a full on pizza that doesn't make Pizza Hut's food taste better (as was the case with some of the pizzas I tried in Florence). Trust me, believe me, you get some really cons here (and everywhere else in Italy or anywhere else for that matter). I’ve probably ruined it for everyone now. You have my sincerest apologies. But go on, come here and see for yourself- you will not regret it a bit.
Ice creams, pizzas and spirits
After trying ice-cream, pizza (which actually tastes much better in my local Waitrose, Tescos and Sainsbury's by the way) and the Negroni, you kind of get sick and think...anything else for food here?
Negroni- a local cocktail made from one part sweet vermouth rosso, one part Campari and one part gin normally served over ice and garnished with a piece of flamed orange peel. Notice how simple the pizza is? It was just a baked piece of bread with a splosh of tomato sauce - cost 15 Euros: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
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