26 June, 2020
The Secret of the Sauce
A Neapolitan ragù is different from the Bolognese or Milanese version of ground beef with tomato sauce. It is the slow breaking up of different kinds of meat that cooks for six hours and falls apart in the pot; bubbling, boiling and simmering, slowly, slowly, slowly. This is the image that comes to mind whenever Virginia thinks about life at the San Pietro.
Every day she traverses the hotel, populated by a staff of 156 people who have been working at the San Pietro for years. Many who started as teenagers will retire as grandparents. Then there are the guests: a veritable international melting pot of personages and personalities, many of whom see the hotel as their second home. Each has real stories to tell, some extraordinary, others full of sentiment. Virginia delights in getting to know them all.
Since first appearing in the 1982 New York Times’ supplement and then on the first ever front page colour spread published by the LA Times, Il San Pietro became a sort of ‘place for the soul’. Its founder, Carlino, saw many faces from Hollywood, powerful world leaders, business people and tycoons walk the terrace of his grand home. It saddened Virginia that he was not around to receive the greatest applause of all when, in 1996, Il San Pietro was voted the Best Small Hotel in the World by Travel & Leisure. From then on, Carlino’s childhood dream home had always remained at the top of the most important international hospitality rankings.
Carlino passed on a cold March day when the bougainvillea that ordinarily covered the grounds were not yet in bloom. He had wanted the hotel to be simply beautiful, so Virginia moved heaven and earth to make sure that it would be. She ordered 150 bougainvillea plants from their usual local supplier, Mario, but since he did not have such a quantity immediately available, Mario drove 8 hours overnight to pick up the flowers from a larger store, in time for the funeral the following day. The San Pietro gardeners planted them along the steps leading from Carlino’s apartment to the main road and around the chapel. The hotel staff refused to let the funeral personnel carry his coffin. They had helped Carlino turn the dream of Il San Pietro into a reality and they would continue to care for it now that he was gone.
Salvatore and Virginia kept the promise they had made to their uncle to never treat Il San Pietro like a hotel, but as a home. In the early days after his death, many of the original guests who were Carlino’s dear friends, found it difficult to come back knowing that he was no longer there. Friends like Franco Zeffirelli, who avoided coming for months even though he was staying on the coast, saying, ‘I just can’t do it.’ Virginia took a piece of handmade paper from Amalfi and wrote him a letter that said, ‘He is still here.’
Franco came back. As did nearly all of Carlino’s many friends and guests. Virginia and Salvatore maintained the old friendships and continued cultivating new ones. They found it easy to bond with guests, having been raised in Carlino’s school of hospitality. Many characteristics that embellish San Pietro today can be attributed to Virginia: the final touch to the sumptuous floral compositions that guests admire in the hall, the varieties of roses that perfume the gardens and terraces, the processing of the organic tomatoes from the vegetable gardens into ragù sauce, or the original recipe of the San Pietro limoncello. She is the first to go down to the hotel in the morning or to mix with customers at the restaurant to check that everything is to their liking.
‘The whole world comes to Positano,’ Virginia says. ‘I’ve met people that you usually only see on TV or at the cinema or read their novels. Every day I travel without leaving my home.’ And like any good traveller, she has stories to tell; stories that simmer in the San Pietro pot, flavoring its history with the passing years.
She recounts how the thin-as-a-rake Tina Turner could eat more than two men twice her size. How she would order three first courses, three second courses and three desserts, and finish it all with the paced nonchalance of a long-distance runner. How Colin Farrell requested a pizza with pineapple on it, and though considered a comestible crime to Italians, they made one for him anyway. Dustin Hoffman might have a calling for farming, because he would head out each morning in his tracksuit and trainers, running along the path that leads through the vegetable gardens to harvest tomatoes, eggplants and zucchini. He would take his produce to the kitchen just before noon as an alibi to eat with the kitchen staff.
Virginia recalls lying on a sunbed by the pool one day when she felt someone tickling her feet and looked up to see Julia Roberts grinning widely down at her. They lounged in the sun together chatting like old girlfriends, Julia laughing at her stories about the Cinque household with their distinctly Neapolitan twist.
She still smiles at the memory of a female guest fainting away at the sight of George Clooney striding up to reception and how he helped revive her like a scene out of Sleeping Beauty.
But in the end, it does not matter whether they are Oscar winners, presidents, or the anonymous Mr. Smith spending time in her home, Virginia is simply flattered by the thought that guests who could choose any hotel, come to the San Pietro. When a journalist asked if there were any special guests staying at the hotel, her epic reply was, ‘ALL our guests are special’.
She wants the San Pietro pot to go on simmering just the way it is. The secret, like an excellent Neapolitan ragù, is that it is good because of the mix of ingredients that keep getting better with the passing of time.