Little makes the heart sing louder than arriving into a city that looks and sounds and smells just as you always dreamt it might. Verona is one such city. It looks like the set of a Shakespeare play: a clock-tower casts its gaze over lamp-lit alleys and ivy winds down the sides of orange stonewashed houses. Brass statues of old poets hang about on corners, striped awnings hide sink-sized tubs of gelato and couples lean over bridges.
It’s the sort of town where you want to be out all day, buying postcards you’ll never send and wondering if hiring a moped would be a good idea, so it takes a special kind of bolthole to lure you off these cobbled streets.
The sister hotel of Il Salviatino in Florence, Palazzo Victoria is a lovely juxtaposition of old and new: built on medieval and Roman ruins, it manages to be both modern-art trendy and sweetly traditional. The lobby looks much like a nightclub during the day, furnished with huge white leather sofas and cube-shaped stools, giant bronze teardrops for lightbulbs and marble floors.
Yet just around the corner is a pillared orangery with a sunlit courtyard, stone walls and white orchids lighting up the corners. As for the bedrooms, the hotel has wisely played it safe and gone for old-fashioned dark wooden floors, mahogany furniture and handmade plain white linen. When you wake up here, you immediately remember you’re in Italy.
But to the most important stuff: it was at the hotel’s Borsari 36 restaurant that I had one of my best meals in Italy. I could describe the olive tree in the room, the rosemary and sage growing at the table and the old apothecary chest stacked with upright bottles of Amarone wine in pulled-out drawers, but it’s the food – not the frippery – that makes a restaurant.
Headed up by chef Carmine Calò, a huge jolly chap who cooks in an open kitchen, Borsari 36 serves immaculately prepared, ridiculously tasty food. None of this ‘rustic’ Italian nonsense, but carefully plotted out dishes: the sliced ‘Secreto’ of Iberian pork came as two fat fingers of loin cooked rare, slotted between two raw shrimp, the heads hot, spicy and seared, the bodies soft, cool and sweet. We watched as Calò laid the two shrimp on the plate with the love and affection of a father tucking in his babies, before drizzling over a rich jus and dropping a pair of pea shoots at two perfect angles.
He uses Paolo Parisi eggs, which come from Livorno hens fed on goat’s milk, and taste like angels whisked them with their toes.
‘Lobster and potatoes cream’ sounded like it might be a bisque or some kind of Scottish pie monstrosity but was in fact an inch-deep dish of frothy purée with two big walloping lobster tails curled in the centre, dotted with black caviar and swiped through with a rich gravy. This was all paired with a local oaky white wine whose name I’ve forgotten but the restaurant manager was such an oenophile that he’d find it in a flash if you asked.
Even if you aren’t staying at the hotel – which you should – make sure you book a meal. Calò alone is worth a visit to Verona.