Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Gil's Cherries


I know I've shown this before, but perhaps not quite like this. We've got a particularly good bloom this year as we've had no damaging rain and barely even a gust of wind.

While the snow matted down the narcissus it had no negative effect on anything else here.

And so the flowers are perfection!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Down(market) by the Sea


It's a poor man's Forte dei Marmi. Built as a port for the City of Pisa, Marina di Pisa, in the 19th century, had a period of affluence when the city was laid out in neoclassical splendor. But the dream quickly faded as the town went down on its luck and the future never delivered the promise of its elegant beginnings.

It's a place that's always intrigued me, however, because the city planner in me imagines a renaissance here whenever I come to visit. This is the road that runs along the sea and it's lined with good houses waiting to be gentrified. Some of them already are, in fact, but there's a mentality here of downmarket defeatism that's a lot harder to change than the windblown facade of an old building with good lines and style.

In the main square, facing the sea, is this wonderful old villa, for instance. It needs work, but even if you did it, then what? Look at the unfortunate park renovation it now faces!

Here's one that's just been done up—right across the street is a 180° view of the Mediterranean where on a clear day you can see Corsica.

And there are bits of beach, nothing great, but they're there.

And funny little old bars, like this one with the above described view.

At the north end of town is this old bar where locals like to congregate. Just beyond it is the massive redevelopment of the port, now in progress since 2009. There will be a new marina, shops, restaurants and hotels. Will we like it?

This street artist seems happy with things as they are—he's so hardened to the building site that he seems to see right through it.

We often end up at Oltre Mare, this sidewalk restaurant that looks out at the light-filled glimmering sea.

Let's just pretend that the cars and motorcycles and rocky breakwater aren't really there for a moment. That task completed, with ease, I find that a lunch here at Oltre Mare, on this sidewalk, in this odd and misbegotten seaside town, offers me all the joy and pleasure of its equivalent in Portofino.

There is no better plate of tagliatelle al riccio di mare to be had anywhere—we call them sea urchins in English.

And this fabulous fillet of a rather unusual wild fish called sciolina in a potato crust, divine!

And this just made yoghurt and zagare (orange blossoms) cake, fresh as the morning air—I love the Campari glass for the water, molto chic.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Caffe delle Mura


A couple of years ago I was brought in to redevelop the garden and terraces of Caffe delle Mura, one of the most charming of Lucca's 19th century monuments set in a public park where thousands of people stroll every day. The above rendering shows the complex as I would have finished it for today's needs; a new restaurant with a classic-style glass addition and a wide sunny terrace for outdoor dining, plus a newly laid out gardened piazza with a fountain at the building's facade. Unfortunately, the work as I'd envisioned it, will never be completed.

It was built in 1839, right on top of the antique city walls, as a restaurant and cafe but it was also a venue for poetry readings and concerts. In the late 19th century the entire structure was dismantled and moved back several hundred feet to create a wide piazza in front of it for rallies and public celebrations.

The very beautiful neoclassical building had fallen on hard times more than once in its long life and up until just a few years ago it looked like this, the abandoned and abused victim of roving evening vandals.

This is my plan for the piazza in front, which at the time was nothing more than a sea of black asphalt but with a very good statue in its center. I would have lightened up the monument by adding an octagonal pool, about two feet high and surrounded by box hedging both inside and out. At each of the four corners were three fountain jets and the entire central planted area might have been enclosed by a simple, neoclassical iron fence (which it had once had) to protect the statue and garden from vandals and dogs. Surrounding this are four large areas of lawn (looking a bit too dark here) embellished with cone shaped evergreens. (The two square brick boxes are light shafts to the cavernous battlements beneath.)

The south facade was to have faced a wide terrace for outdoor dining in full sunshine. Beyond the Versailles boxes the city walls fall away to a height of thirty feet and so the terrace sits high above the antique battlements affording splendid views to the Pisan mountains in the distance. The large planters of Prunus lusitanica would have served to partially conceal a less than pretty view of a row of modern buildings on the city's edges. I created the neoclassical glass house, a period-style conservatory, to provide additional dining space in the cooler months in a garden context.

I'd wanted to highlight its French style of architecture by choosing Versailles boxes for the potted plants instead of terracotta and by working up something of a brasserie feel for the interior and restaurant format. The above building of the same period is the French pavilion of Madam du Barry at Louveciennes. Lucca, by the way, was French in the Napoleonic era.

For me a cafe in a park building such as this ought to have the sort of feeling that Café de Paris has in Monte Carlo, a modern take on a Paris brasserie. This is more or less what I imagined the terrace here in Lucca to look like, casual and inviting, a place where almost anyone, no matter how he might be dressed, even those who might still be a bit damp after a jog, can feel comfortable.

The interior at Cafe de Paris served as inspiration for what the dining room might be like. The belle epoch style could have been modified somewhat to be more Italian but the 19th century idea of lights upon the intimate bank seating provides warmth and atmosphere. This restaurant is a great success because it works for all types of people, dressed up or down dressed, and that's what I think a good park restaurant nowadays needs to be.

I drew this sketch to show how I might have handled the enfilade circulation space. To the left there would have been more tables and seats.

The dining room off to the side might have been done in this manner, with mirrored paneling above the seats.

Today, alas, the piazza looks like this. The work is finished and the restaurant is about to open. My garden in the piazza was rejected by the fine arts commission, not because it wouldn't have been beautiful or right, but because of politics. The local director of the fine arts commission thinks of himself as an architect and he insists on having complete control. He feels that the piazza has to be unencumbered for public gatherings. If an idea isn't his he rejects it and nothing can proceed without his approval. He rejected my glass addition because "it destroys the facade." He rejected my arrangement of the interior because it has to be "simply tables and chairs" that you can move out completely in case the local politicians want to "give a ball." There will be no outdoor dining on the rear terrace, which will not be built, because that would require umbrellas over the tables and umbrellas will interrupt the view of the building. I had devised a wooden terrace extension on two levels for a cafe area facing the piazza and garden (see below), but no such creative use of existing space was allowed.

The above, in brief, was merely a dream I had for the city, a needed revitalization that would have been appreciated and used by all, but what we're getting instead is a sea of asphalt and a stuffy old-fashioned restaurant with tablecloths "down to the floor" that no one will ever go to; I truly hope that the local politicians have a "ball" there!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lucca Beach


It might not look it, but this too is Lucca, the seaside community of Forte dei Marmi, about half an hour from the old city center. It's a place to shop, to stroll, to have a lovely lunch on a Saturday, or to spend the whole summer, for that matter. We like it most in the early or late seasons, such as now, when the shops are getting in their new stock and there are very few tourists about.

It's not what you'd call a charming town, as most of it is rather new. In the early twentieth century it was playground to Italy's royal family and it's been a destination for the smart set ever since. That's Gil with his one acquisition, a couple of t-shirts for the gym.

But there are lots of appealing little spots for a light lunch like this one, which has invaded the road.

And if you like that sort of thing, all the chic Italian shops are here—all Italian, no Hermes or Vuitton.

This cafe is next to a wonderful shoe shop, Mauro Volponi.

Do these summer moccasins, at €295, seem expensive to you?

And of course there's the beach.

And the pier.

And Fratellini's, our usual lunch destination.

Scampi dancing on ice.

Italians are warming to the idea of Sushi. Just.

I stick with the classics of our Mediterranean favorites.