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Villa San Michele, Florence, Italy

Five Centuries of History

Our friend, Edda Servi Machlin, author of "The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews" grew up in a small Tuscan town and lived in Florence for five years. We asked her to recommend a hotel for a stay there. "You must go to the 'Villa San Michele'," she said. "It's not in Florence, but high in the hills above it in Fiesole. And it's one of the most beautiful places on earth."

Unfortunately, the 24-room hotel was sold out. "Go for dinner," she suggested. "The views of the city at dusk are worth the trip, (about a 40-minute drive from the center of town). And the food, you'll see, you never tasted anything quite like it." Edda was right.

We arrived at 7 p.m., while it was still early enough to walk the grounds filled with lemon and cherry trees, to climb the side of the hill where the pool is set, to explore the courtyards and to have a drink in the vaulted loggia overlooking Fiesole's terraced vineyards and the terra-cotta tiled roofs of Florence. The daylight faded into evening and the city below started shimmering. It was time to move on to dinner.

Candlelight, flowers and a superb menu awaited us. We chose the special A Tavola Con Lo Chef, four outstanding courses—duck breast carpaccio, ravioli with potatoes and wild boar, rack of lamb au gratin and tiramisu— from the kitchen of chef Attilio di Fabrizio.

Five centuries of history are behind the villa's facade designed by Michaelangelo. The Davanzati family, who owned the land and whose holdings matched that of the Medicis, gave the acreage to the Franciscans for a monastery in 1411. Napoleon lived here briefly, followed by an order of Benedictine nuns. For more than a century it was a private home until it was sold in 1950. Lucian Teissier, a Parisian, bought the property and began restoring it to its original 16th-century look. Venice Simplon Orient-Express Hotels took over in 1982 and continued the restoration. Villa San Michele is filled with Renaissance art, antiques and the articles of ecclesiastic life and looks very much like a monastery. But it is also very much a luxury hotel.

Villa San Michele, Via Doccia 4, 50014, Fiesole, Florence, Italy. Tel. 081-8371401, fax 011-055-59874. Book through Leading Hotels of the World. Tel. 800-223-6800. The chef's menu dinner is moderately expensive. A la carte dinner prices are expensive. www.sanmichele.org/indexEN.html

Fall 1994