Thursday, 2 June 2011

He came, he saw, he was conquered

He came, he saw, he was conquered

When I get to meet Italico Rota to find out all about his life, I feel immensely happy. He makes me feel special, he makes me feel as if I am the most important person around.

Signor Rota makes you live a dream, your dream. And this is exactly what hospitality is about: making you believe you are in your little part of heaven, away from your cares, away from your daily drudge.

Mr Rota is a GM extraordinaire and one of Malta’s most loving and useful ambassadors. He is not a member of any diplomatic corps but he helped Malta get known and get loved for over 30 years. After living here for so long he feels even more Maltese than most of us locals.

 He has Maltese citizenship and also retains his Italian citizenship, not that he needs it that much nowadays he says, since he ha everything he needs here. “Malta is a corner of paradise. Everything about it is good and I love it grandly." He is more Maltese than most of us because, unlike us, he does not find fault with everything Maltese and with all that Malta has to offer. He talks to everyone, locals and foreigners, about the charm, the beauty of Malta and of the loving Maltese people. I wish I could clone this man and have him teach us all how to love what we have on this little rock. And grandly he does it too.

He might have lived most of his life away from Italian shores and piazzas but his way of communicating and loving life is definitely a remnant of his Italian origins, a part of the old Italy where the gentlemen were always exuding limitless charm. He is so proud of being Maltese that he manages to imbue a good feeling in all those around him.

When I meet him at the Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa in San Anton, where he is GM, I instantly notice that it’s not just the guests who feel this electrifying Rota energy. In or out of his presence, all his staff are a bundle of energy, all full of praise for him. All this might sound as if his only job is to exude his natural charm. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. The hotel seems to run like clockwork. Staff are friendly and make sure you are given prompt attention and service. He also moulds and grooms people to become leaders.

In the Corinthia Group he is the eldest GM, while his protégé and ex-deputy Jonathan Pace became the youngest GM in the history of the Corinthia. Jonathan Pace worked closely and most happily with Signor Rota. He eventually became his deputy and thanks to Mr Rota’s faith and trust in him, he was handpicked to run the Marina Hotel at the Corinthia Beach Resort as GM when he was only 27. A true feat for Mr Pace and another milestone in the Rota list of successes.

And Jonathan Pace, Mr Rota’s ‘pupillo,’ has now moved even higher: he has become GM at the Company’s Panorama Hotel in Prague. Another first for a man just over thirty. Mr Rota’s main words of advice to Mr Pace and everyone he has had to guide or mould is “to have a shower daily before coming to work.” I stupidly think that he is talking about personal hygiene: but the shower he speaks of is of humility, which gives you a strong bond with all the people around you and makes you a great leader.

As Mr Rota says “the highest person in any organisation is the one who never knows enough and is always learning”. How does he do it I ask him? How does he find the strength to remain so positive all the time? “It’s easy” he says, in his sonorous sing-song English that still lilts beautifully with an Italian echo. How come it is easy? I stress. “Because I love it, I do not strain to do it. I love people. I love being with them and making sure they are happy and that they feel special.”

While we are going round the hotel, he greets everyone effusively and the women are treated like a bevy of Duchesses of Cambridge straight from their royal weddings. He bows to them, kisses their hands, compliments them and booms his words of advice about where to go or what to do. And the males are greeted as eloquently and with heartfelt smiles and handshakes.

At some point I pin Signor Rota to his story. I ask him what he started life in hotels as. As a lift boy, he quips. And proceeds to take out from his pocket a very well-preserved silver dollar dated 1881. “This has been in my pocket practically since I started working. I was working in Milan when I was 14 and an Italo-Americano asked me a few questions about me and my life. He then gave me this dollar which I have preserved for good luck ever since. “It has been my own ‘porta fortuna’ for 59 years. It has never left me and it has been a great deliverer of good luck and good stories.”

Oh how annoyed and angry I feel. Why can’t silly dollars speak? I want to ask it all that it has seen to get the full story of this man. Throughout our conversation he peppers it with comments about how good his staff are, how he needs them and how he just contributes his little bit. Speak dollar, speak and tell us more of bellboy days and other secrets.

While in Milan working continuously, he studied all the languages he knew he would eventually need. He studied English, German and Spanish, while French and Italian he already knew, and now he also speaks Maltese. And he worked, as he says, round the clock, to save enough to go to university in the USA. Meanwhile, this man kept rising in his roles: from bellboy to positions in F&B, HR, accounts and even sales and marketing. His lifelong dream however was to go to university and he managed.

So from his little town of Parma, Mr Rota went to Milan at the tender age of 14 and subsequently all the way to New York. In New York he finalised his thesis, which was purchased by a leading hotel group, the Sonesta Corporation, which subsequently employed him on the strength of that same thesis. The chairman of Sonesta gave him the special task of introducing and implementing in Europe the hotel management system the corporation had developed in the USA.

Italico was very successful in this and travelled between New York and various places. Eventually he wanted to find a base, so he settled with the same group in Munich, then Milan, then Beirut. However, the settling hardly happened, as he had to travel back and forth to New York, so he came to Malta for a holiday to get away from it all. And the man who came for a few weeks of rest fell in love with the island and the rest, as they say, is history.

Thankfully for us Maltese the man’s history is tied unequivocally to Malta and Gozo. Or rather Gozo and then Malta, as his first years here were spent in Gozo. And the chairman of Sonesta was shattered, but still happy that his own ‘pupillo’ left his company to further his career. He remained in Gozo to develop, for an Italian entrepreneur, a site in Sannat, which was turned into one of our most interesting hotel stories: the Ta’ Cenc, which under Mr Rota’s management, became one of the most sought after places in the Mediterranean. It featured in Conde Nast Traveler as the 21st of the top 100 hotels in the world.

While in Malta, Mr Rota met another man who mesmerised him. This man was Mr Alfred Pisani, chairman of the Corinthia Group. And then six years ago Mr Rota joined Corinthia as GM of the Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa in San Anton, where 49 years ago the Corinthia-Pisani story all started.

Mr Rota tells me: “Mr Pisani is a man of great vision, a born leader and an example to us all. I say this because I truly believe he is one of a kind and Malta is lucky to have had him and his vision. My chairman is a down to earth person in reality, as are most of the intelligent men on this planet.” Before I leave, a beaming Italico Rota tells me that Malta has given him everything: he met his charming, loving German wife while he was in Malta; he had his children here; he discovered real friends here and he found his real happiness here. His final words to me are “Malta is a gem, an old precious gem that never loses its worth.”

I leave the hotel on a high just as I am sure most guests staying at the Corinthia must feel.

And what does Italo Rota’s own pupillo think ?

I spoke to Jonathan Pace about Mr Rota to see what he thinks of the man and if he thinks of him as a legend. Mr Pace was once Mr Rota’s deputy and today has risen, at an incredibly young age, to become GM at the Panorama Hotel in Prague, one of the many hotels that are owned or run by the Corinthia Group.

To Jonathan, Mr Rota gave him the best lessons not just in hotel management but in life. According to Jonathan “Mr Rota is such a people’s person who treats people well. Whether you are a guest at his hotel or a member of staff—in whatever grade—he makes you feel good. He is always positive and this is felt throughout the hotel. Mr Rota is not a GM who stays at his desk crunching numbers; the numbers and reports are important but can be done when there are no people and by others. To Mr Rota the best thing to do at the hotel is to look after your guests and make sure they are treated like very important people.” 

According to his pupillo, Mr Rota’s presence is electrifying and he is there to make sure all is fine with the food, the service and the whole hotel operation. According to Jonathan Mr Rota does a great job and also knows how to enjoy life. He loves his food and travelling but most importantly for his job he loves his staff. The way Mr Rota treats his staff is part of the living legend of a man who came from nearby Italy for a vacation to rest and overstayed by over 30 years.

The rest is part of Malta’s hotel history.    

This article first appeared in the June 2011 issue of the MHRA magazine

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Feeding the soul

I love Mdina must be a well worn cliché. But every time I go there the place manages to fascinate me. I meander around the old lanes and streets and never tire of exploring new sights, new surprises, new features. In the morning it is, bar the many guided tours, a real gem with the light casting interesting, ever-changing shadows. In the evening the place turns into another priceless gem. And walking around in the dark I always manage to get lost in silent reverie. I see noblemen and their dames of old in resplendent clothing worthy of any old-time theatre set. I see young men furtively kissing their beloved in terrible dread of being caught and quartered. And the little lady, coquettishly red in the face, nods her hesitant approval. Yes, Mdina is a place for dreams, dreamers and everlasting surprises.

I headed to Inguanez Alley where Bacchus restaurant lies. The little alley is one of those places which epitomise Mdina for me: small but full of character and history and always capable of oiling my dreams. Bacchus was always one of those dependable old favourite restaurants of mine. I hadn’t been for some years and felt rather as if I had abandoned a great friend or intimate partner for no reason. So I tiptoed inside and waited for a table. I am usually loud and a bit of a lout when I eat in company but Mdina does manage to make me change and keep my volume down. Maybe it is the thought of all those noblemen who walked imperviously or maybe it’s the thought that this is the silent city. It helped that on this particular visit I had with me, my soon-to-be-a-quarter-of-a-century-old son, who loves his food but loves savouring it in relative silence.

I explained to him that I had always loved Bacchus because it is always full of surprises, and unlike some other restaurants it is full of positive surprises. The place, just like Mdina, used to be a dream and the food was always a new revelation of sensations for the palate. I spoke volumes about this to my dismayed son who was worried that my garrulous self would not only disturb his joy but also build up expectations which could not be matched by the food on offer.

Unfortunately when we went it was still nippy so sitting out in the garden was not an option. The beauty of the garden on top of the bastions is amazing. I’ve seen it a few times but it still manages to overwhelm me every time. If you go on a hot day do sit outside; unlike the rest of Malta when we all burn and gasp with sullen tiredness caused by the heat and opt to sit in air-conditioned surroundings, dining out in Mdina will be cool and breezy, especially in the evening.

The place itself is full of historical anecdote and architectural charm. Bacchus, which today offers plush and comfortable seating, was once a gunpowder store back in the time of the Knights. Its bellicose past is hardly discernible, with food and drink served and enjoyed in the most serene surroundings. Bacchus, that god of wine who loved to eat and drink so much, would surely approve.

The history of the restaurant reflects the history of Mdina. Parts of it date back to Arab times, parts to the age of the Knights and all of it has been tastefully and tactfully renovated to give comfort but never indulge in ostentation or strident minimalism. The modern style just would not work in a place like Bacchus, steeped as it is in history and, for a dreamer like me, in fables and age-old stories. How can you visualise a lacy dress and a rouged courtesan in minimalist surroundings?

I made a quick visit to the bathroom before we started our meal. I have never forgotten what a friend once told me: the state of the bathroom is a good indicator of standards. Bacchus passes with flying colours. All in order and spotless. One small problem would be tackling the steep stairs after too much to drink. Bacchus might opt to just drink, eat and forget the ‘rest’.

Now let’s tackle the food or, as my son would say, the place is great, the staff is welcoming but what about the grub?

We were both hungry and we both over-indulged. The food is beautifully presented, in crockery that, to use more vocabulary of the young, rocks. Although we over-ordered, the food is brought to you with just enough of a break to allow you to enjoy and digest it. The waiters are not at all stuffy while doing their job magnificently in clockwork fashion, constantly attentive to every call. The place is relaxed without being provincial – just what dining should be about.

My son ordered a beef carpaccio with local goat’s cheese, argula and olive oil. One look at his face after his first bite made me ask for a taste, which he reluctantly gave me. Yes, I agreed and I would have done an Oliver and asked him for more if he had encouraged me even slightly – but no luck! Oh well, I had my own delight to savour. I had gone for the asparagus in filo pastry. Unfortunately I had to return the favour and part with some. The pastry was superb, the asparagus succulent. My worries about having over-emphasised how good the food and the place was, were over. My son was already truly inspired. But more was to come – and more compliments were due to the chef.

We ordered a bottle of Marsovin Antonin and a Meridiana Melqart. The Melqart was a perfect companion to the carpaccio, the pasta and the veal while the Antonin added fulsome flavours and piquancy to the asparagus and the grouper. Once more Bacchus would nod his divine approval both at the wines imbibed and the choice at his own restaurant.

For my next course I opted for paccheri with goat’s cheese. The only complaint here was that I should have taken a less heavy dish to appreciate the rest even better, but I am not at my strongest when tempted by pasta. And at least it wasn’t an exaggeratedly big helping. My son only gives praise when it is unashamedly due so even a few words from him are impressive. And he was garrulous about his rich seafood lasagne which he described as divine. By this time I was beginning to wonder if the chef was Olympian and got lost on his way back home and thankfully stopped in Mdina.

My main course was a grouper (cerna) with a very original artichoke raviolo with a lobster and dill sauce. I wondered if this dish was going to be overdone, with too many different tastes attacking my buds. But the cerna was another success, as attested by my attendant and attentive son. He had ordered veal escalopes with caramelised fig and apple chutney, which again received a very impressed and impressive nod.

What next? A feast of sweets! We asked for and were allowed to savour a sliver of each delicacy on offer. Sweets are definitely not in short supply and they were freshly made. Why oh why do other restaurants forget our sweet tooth? Why can’t they copy Bacchus and give us a fitting end to a lordly meal? When very often I am presented with sweets that resemble cardboard both in look and taste, with smidgens of shaving foam, my heart and my soul bleed. I loved them all but my firm favourites were the old baker’s brioche and grandmother’s ricotta tart, while my son voted for the warm crêpe and the panna cotta.

Indulge in a great dream, get yourself to Bacchus and let his heavenly food captivate you as it did us and, obviously, by looking at the happy and satisfied faces around us, all the other diners. So I can honestly, hand on heart, shout out: Bacchus is as good as it has always been. If the soul needs feeding then what is on offer there is surely its food.

This article first appeared in the June 2011 issue of MHRA magazine