Issue 1 - A Little Place I Know - Image 1

A Little Place I Know

Santa Maria Novella, Florence by Jason Wu

Florence is a great city for walking, which is how I came across the Officina Profuma-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (to give it its full Italian name). This exquisite old apothecary celebrated its 400th birthday last year, but has been in existence since 1221, when Dominican friars from the nearby church grew herbs for medicinal purposes. Whenever I walk into this cool, dignified building, I always feel as if I am stepping into a church, with its vaulted ceilings, arched entrances, tiled floors and tall, elegant proportions. It’s like going back in time, with all the bottles, glass-fronted cabinets and neatly attired staff.
What I love most about it – aside from its palatial interiors – are the beautiful scented products. Everything is handmade, from soaps and creams to the famous colognes and fragrances. Lily of the valley, rose, violet, jasmine, honeysuckle and iris are just a few of the scents that fill the air. “The Water of the Queen” was created here for Catherine de’ Medici in the 1500s, a combination of citrus and bergamot, and is still Santa Maria Novella’s signature scent today. The apothecary is presided over by a very elegant Italian gentleman called Eugenio Alphandery, who keeps one foot in the past with his dedication to old-world traditions while keeping his eye on the future of the brand. But everything is organic and made by artisanal methods and I love it that many of the ingredients are grown locally in the hills around Florence. The packaging is really gorgeous, too. Santa Maria Novella is a feast for the senses, its old-fashioned ways a welcome respite from the craziness of the 21st-century world outside its doors.

Jason Wu is a St. Regis Connoisseur. His Grand Tourista Bag, crafted for a new generation of global traveler, was inspired by the hotel brand’s perspective on today’s grand tour. St. Regis Boutique

Your address: The St. Regis Florence

Berry Bros. & Rudd, London by Jancis Robinson

I first discovered this lovely old wood-panelled wine shop in the 1970s, when I started to write about wine. Berry Bros. had been there for a very long time by then. It was founded as a coffee shop at the end of the 17th century, and they still have the scales that were used to weigh the coffee – and the clientele. Lord Byron, William Pitt and the Aga Khan were all weighed here, and regular customers can do the same to this day. The place is an extraordinary slice of history. It has uneven floorboards, high wooden desks (with PCs hidden within), a warren of rooms to the side and wine-filled cellars below. In the 1930s, Charles Walter Berry (the place is still owned and run by Berrys and Rudds) took what was then considered the extraordinarily adventurous step of touring the wine regions of France. Before that, English wine merchants stayed at home and required their vast imports of wine to come to them. These days, the chairman, Simon Berry, has cleverly retained the historic aura of Berry Bros while pioneering all sorts of 21st-century initiatives, such as online retailing and a Hong Kong operation. The historic cellars are now hired out as event spaces and do duty as a wine school. They also hold a lot of tastings, so I’m there at least four times a year. I have many fond memories of meals eaten there, but probably my favourite is of a dinner held in aid of Wine Relief, at which one half of a couple bid £20,000 for a prize lot – without the agreement of the other half! If Berry Bros and Rudd were to close, I’d think that life as we know it had ceased.

Jancis Robinson’s latest book Wine Grapes is published by Allen Lane, £120. jancisrobinson.com

The Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain, New York by Alain Ducasse

I just adore this place, which locals affectionately call “The Farm”. It was my co-author, Alex Vallis, who first introduced me to the Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain, and I was touched by the old-fashioned styling, which retains the original pharmaceutical cases and penny-tile floor. And it’s good to know that this delightful Brooklyn enterprise has helped revive interest in the great American soda fountains that existed in big cities and small towns from the late 19th century to the 1960s. Like those wonderful places, this modern-day version offers sweet, homemade soft drinks and the staple – chocolate egg cream. I’ll never forget the first time I tried this dangerously addictive dessert-drink made from chocolate syrup, soda water and cream. The cool, fizzy, chocolate concoction evokes dreams of a mythical golden age in New York. And, trust me, you will always find room for the egg cream. I truly believe that co-owners and siblings Gia Giasullo and Peter Freeman, whose father was a shopkeeper in Greenwich Village for 30 years, have preserved a piece of culinary history. The Farmacy has become part of the fabric – some might say the heart – of this quaint Carroll Gardens neighborhood, and it wouldn’t be the same without it. The shop is lined with shelves of local artisanal foods, helping to sustain and promote the neighborhood – I like that. Every chance I get when I’m in New York, I come to recharge my batteries. It’s about simple pleasures, with a generous helping of nostalgia. Kids from one to 92 will find something in this place; that which is authentic never goes out of style.

J’aime New York, by Alain Ducasse and Alex Vallis, is published by Alain Ducasse Editions, $100.

Your address: The St. Regis New York

Palazzo Spada, Rome by Iwona Blazwick

The combination of the greatest architectural monuments in the world – the Pantheon, the Colosseum, St. Peter’s – fantastic weather, close friends and a burgeoning contemporary art scene make Rome a perennial destination. But I also love its hidden quirks and secrets, and one of my favorite places is Palazzo Spada on Piazza Capo di Ferro. I love the fact that the arcade is both a serious architectural composition and an optical illusion – the Baroque artists were brilliant at playing with perspective. My parents were architects and I almost studied it, so this is a perfect combination of architecture and the art of trompe l’oeil. The artist Cesare Pietroiusti first revealed this marvel to me. It was a cardinal, a mathematician and a sculptor who joined forces in 1632 to create this astonishing optical illusion in the heart of the city. The 16th-century palazzo was bought by Cardinal Spada, who commissioned the starchitect of his day, Francesco Borromini, to add a Baroque flourish. Borromini built a 40-metre colonnade which looks down on to an elegant marble statue. If you look along this beautiful arcade, you will see the spectacle of live cougars leaping across its colonnaded perspective. The shocking truth is, however, that it is only meters long and the statue a miniature 60cm high. The mountain lions are just stray cats made to look hair-raisingly enormous by the false perspective plotted with the help of a mathematician. Add to this the Palazzo Spada Collection, which includes Andrea del Sarto, Brueghel, Caravaggio, Dürer, Rubens and Titian, plus Artemisia Gentileschi, the sole woman artist to gain recognition from the Baroque period – and you have a very special place indeed.

Your address: The St. Regis Rome
I am a Cover Girl in my Dotage

I am a Cover Girl in my Dotage

Iris, you were born and raised in New York, right?
 
I was raised in Astoria, Queens, and lived there until I married. My grandparents were settlers, actually, and caught the boat here from Long Island.
 
What memories do you have of coming to the city as a child?
 
Well, the city was the mecca. You would go there for shopping, or an event such as the Easter Parade – everybody in their spring finery, looking swell. In those days you wouldn’t see a person walking on Fifth Avenue without a hat and gloves. Today you’re lucky if they have shoes.
 
I remember a story you told me about your first experience shopping alone in the city…
 
Yes, I was 11 years old. It was Easter time and I needed a new outfit and bonnet, but my mother had no time to go shopping with me. So she gave me $25 to go into the city by myself. I went to S. Klein and found a dress that I just flipped over. All silk, poet sleeves, with a tie front, for only $12.95. I gave thanks to God and $12.95 to the cashier, and then went to A.S. Beck and got a smashing pair of shoes for $3.98. I had enough left for a nice little lunch and the bus home. My mother approved of my sense of style and my dad approved of my economical choices. My grandfather, who was a master tailor, was the only one who was not impressed.
 
Where were the memorable places that you lived in New York?
 
After I got married I moved into the city. I haven’t moved around that much, but before living here, we had a great townhouse on 79th Street. What we had in charm we lacked in plumbing. Nothing worked, but it was fabulous.
 
In what decade or era would you say New York was at its most elegant?
 
The late 1940s or 1950s, before the youth revolution. It was glamour; glamour doesn’t exist any more. People like glamour – especially men. I think men are more romantic than women, anyway.
 
Did you have any favorite spots in the city during that era?
 
Oh, there was fabulous nightlife, glamorous clubs like the Copacabana – where, if you were lucky, you could sit ringside and touch Frank Sinatra. Great jazz clubs, restaurants… Henri Soulé ran an extraordinary French restaurant called Le Pavillon. They all had dress codes – you couldn’t go in looking like a slob. It was nice to have people looking elegant. They always had a coat and tie rack for men who came in without them, and nothing would fit, so they’d sit there looking like the village idiot or a grade-school dunce. There was also Ben Marden’s Riviera in New Jersey. Everyone used to go. Lucille Ball was in the chorus. People also entertained at their homes beautifully. Guests came dressed to the nines. There was an article of clothing called the “hostess gown,” which you don’t see any more.
 
Did you frequent any of New York’s great jazz clubs?
 
El Morocco and the Stork Club. Fifty-Second Street was very important in the 1940s – the whole street, with one place next to another. I had a boyfriend who was mad for Billie Holiday so we used to go there all the time.
 
Do you have any fond memories of The St. Regis New York?
 
It was always a very beautiful hotel, and we used to go to the King Cole Bar there. It was a place for people to meet.
When you’re in New York these days, where do you like to go? We love to eat at 
La Grenouille – it’s very old-world, very elegant. People come well dressed, the floral arrangements are spectacular and the food is divine… and yet it’s very natural. Some of these new restaurants that are so la-di-da are very pretentious.
 
Where do you like to shop today in the city?
 
I don’t shop very much. I don’t need to shop, I’ve got so much. But New York does have great discount stores, like Loehmann’s, and great sample sales.
 
What’s a highlight of your career?
 
We did major work at the White House, through more than nine administrations. We did many historic restorations: the Renwick Gallery, Blair House, the Senate, the State Department, Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace and the Decatur House, among others.
 
At 91, you have a whole new career as a spokeswoman, model, teacher and fashion icon…
 
Oh, it’s hysterical – the other night I did a personal appearance at Bloomingdale’s for my new handbag collection, and people were lining up. I’m the same as I ever was but all of a sudden I’m cool. It’s almost embarrassing. My husband and I think it’s very funny, but I also think it’s very sweet. I’m touched that at this stage of my life I’m having so much fun.
 
What projects are you working on?
 
I’ve done a line of sunglasses and readers for Eyebobs. I have a collection of purses called Extinctions, and a new line of shoes for HSN. I did a collection with MAC cosmetics and I’ve also been working on a perfume. I teach visiting students as a professor for the University of Texas, which keeps me very busy.
 
How did you feel when MAC approached you?
 
I thought it would be fun. When I do these things I really put work into it, choosing the colors and textures. I don’t just put my name on it. And a bonus is that I’ve met some very nice people from it.
 
Do you feel that you have helped in some way to alter the perception of ageing in popular culture?
 
I hope so; I think so. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve become so popular, because I’m so old. I’m a cover girl in my dotage, a geriatric starlet. The world’s oldest living teenager.
 
What do you love about being in New York?
 
There’s no place in the world like New York. If you can’t find it in New York, it doesn’t exist. It’s the heartbeat of the world.
 
What advice do you have for someone visiting New York?
 
You have to be like a sponge and soak it all up. It’s a walking city with some of the best museums and shops, with everything you might want to buy, whether you need it or not. Every kind of food you might want to taste is here. And it all exists in all price ranges. What’s the Sinatra song… if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.
 
So, where do you want to retire?
 
I don’t want to retire ever. I think retirement is a fate worse than death.
 
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