So Maurizio Romani, the general manager at L'Andana, a deluxe establishment in Tuscany, may remember me as the Guest from Hell: high maintenance, capricious and, quite frankly, badly behaved. But I was only doing my job with assistance from my husband Andy and in spontaneous cooperation with a British food writer and broadcaster (we'll call him G.) who had chosen the same dates to review the hotel and its famed restaurant, La Trattoria Toscana. Together with G.'s swanlike girlfriend, we put that hotel through its paces. We chomped through the menu in the Trattoria and raced, super-charged, through the super Tuscans in its cellars. We slept through breakfast, a vast help-yourself spread of cakes, pastries, cured meats, cheeses and fruits, only to emerge in the late morning, demanding the kitchen reopen to provide us with brunch. Our evening antics well, I'll come to those. Suffice to say for now that we thoroughly tested L'Andana and the patience of saints.
This part of the Maremma, a languid 2 1/2-hour drive up the coast from Rome, is flat, marshy terrain quite unlike the undulating landscapes of more familiar parts of Tuscany. There isn't much to tempt travelers to break their journeys; no major art galleries or unmissable architecture, just some Etruscan ruins, a pretty coastal village called Castiglione della Pescaia where locals reel in coach tours as plentifully as fish, and the resistable charms of the city of Grosseto. But one traveler was seduced into stopping and putting down new roots in the sandy soil nearby. Alain Ducasse, the first chef ever to win three Michelin stars for two restaurants simul-taneously, followed an avenue of cypress and Tuscan pines through vineyards and olive groves and found, at the end of it, a chunky 19th century palazzo built as a hunting lodge for Leopold II, the last Grand Duke of Tuscany.
In partnership with Vittorio Moretti, a building magnate and wine producer, the Frenchman transformed the ducal folly into a resort, adding an extension, a spa, tennis courts and a golf course, and refashioning an old granary to house the Trattoria. Now bulldozers are flattening a patch of ground for a helipad. The vineyards will produce homegrown white wines this month, and the first reds will be ready to drink by Christmas.
Wine on tap could prove useful if any of L'Andana's future guests share our deep and gorgeous thirst. The sommelier, Yuka Maekawa, concealed any surprise at our rate of consumption but packed a few surprises of her own. Female Japanese sommeliers aren't thick on the ground in Italy; yet the biggest break from tradition was her determination to steer us away from pricey bottles to cheaper choices, all delicious. This didn't stop us from racking up three of the great Italian classics, Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Tignanello after we joined forces with G.
We'd met before but it took me awhile to notice him at the next table, as the cuisine commanded our full attention. General manager Romani describes it as "typical trattoria dishes cooked with a French accent." That accent is relaxed and rural: lunghetti pasta came with anchovies, wild garlic and pistachios, while the thicker taccole noodles glistened in a sauce of red spring onion and baby cuttlefish; stockfish ragout arrived bubbling with Italian sausage and poached salt cod.
G. was hunched over a portion of prosciutto generous enough to upholster a Chesterfield when I approached. I only intended a quick hello, but his girlfriend, misinterpreting my postprandial bloat, sweetly asked when the baby was due a bloomer that left us seeking comfort in our cups. These were quickly filled with Brunello di Montalcino.
And so began the rigorous series of tests. A few snapshots: the bar has closed, but G. and Andy are apprehended in the kitchen, searching for wine. A fine white is offered without hesitation. Later still, another bottle disappears from an ornamental selection next to the reception. Our second night is chilly and we ask a passing waiter to light one of the open fires. It's slow to kindle so, at Andy's suggestion, G. removes a perfume spray from a display range of spa products and, holding a cigarette lighter in front of the nozzle, produces fragrant jets of flame.
I pose these miscreants, fully dressed and shod, for a group photo in G.'s bath-cum-Jacuzzi. Not much smaller than the large swimming pool in the spa, it's one of many flourishes that distinguish the 33 bedrooms from each other and from the accommodation in lesser hotels. On the last day, Andy and I stretch out on adjacent tables in the spa as two masseuses prepare to knead and exfoliate. Each session is tailored to the individual that's probably what Andy's masseuse means when she tells him she's about to administer "a personality treatment." Or perhaps she's acting on secret instructions from the management who may have expected us to show contrition for footprints left in the tub, vanishing wine bottles, and wear and tear to staff nerves. But neither of us feels guilty. It was our duty to test L'Andana and the hotel passed with flying colors.