Call them clichés or basic desires, but when it comes to envisioning a dreamy gateway to Italy there are must-haves on any traveler’s list: A sunny scenic view, majestic natural landscapes, great food, some historic sites and all-around style (not to mention a bit of shopping time).
The new luxury hotel Passalacqua on Lake Como caps this off with the warmth of a family that embodies quintessential Italian hospitality.
A private villa since 1787 nestled amid centuries-old cypress trees and olive groves and standing above the village of Moltrasio, the historic estate has been restored and turned into a sumptuous 24-suite retreat by the De Santis family. They have been an institution in the luxury hotel world since the ’70s, when the family purchased the Grand Hotel Tremezzo and transformed it into one of the most sought-after destinations in the area.
Opened last month, Tremezzo’s sister location aims to offer an entirely different experience, intimate and even more tailor-made. Despite its breathtaking frescoed rooms, magnificent gardens, clay tennis court and stunning pool area overlooking the lake, rediscovering the beauty of simple pleasures is the owners’ mantra.
“People tend to think that luxury means something extravagant and utterly elaborate, but it’s not,” says Valentina De Santis, who represents the third generation of the Como-based entrepreneurs. She pointed to the “return to simplicity and authenticity” as the main secret behind successful luxury hospitality today.
“Of course mine is the perspective of an indie hotellerie, which is very different from the one of hospitality chains, but I think that especially for hotels located in Italy, one of the keys is to be promoters of authenticity and ‘Italianity’,” she says. “Guests come here because they want to live a genuinely Italian experience, so the idea is to try to be authentic first and foremost, offering the best you have on the territory and on your own property.”
De Santis contends that guests want “to feel at home,” which is achieved more easily if the hotel is family owned. The location in this case reflects the character of the family and it has “a soul, it’s not only beautiful.”
De Santis differentiates Tremezzo and Passalacqua, because the former “is a grand hotel of the Belle Époque in all its facets, from structure to services,” as she lists the facility’s five restaurants, three swimming pools and huge spa, among other amenities. “Passalacqua is home: it has a variety of food offerings but it is really up to the guests to decide, as they can directly tell the chef what they want to eat and even where, because quite often clients ask us to arrange a table in a particular corner of the garden, for example. This is their home, so they can do whatever they want.”
“Then you live the life of the villa. Every day there’s a little program inviting guests also to participate in tasks like collecting eggs from the henhouse, cooking with the chef, learning how to make bread or gelato with the pastry baker or walking through the town of Moltrasio to discover its hidden waterfalls,” says De Santis, reiterating that these are all experiences reflecting a desire for simplicity. “For example, for me it’s priceless to get your own tomato from the vegetable garden and have a chef prepare you a fresh bruschetta right away.”
To this end, wandering around Passalacqua’s charming tangerine-colored kitchen is encouraged as much as spending time in the hotel’s lavish halls, and so is engaging in conversation with executive chef Mauro Verza, who doesn’t hail from high-end hotels or restaurants but has served as private chef for many prominent Milanese families for more than 25 years.
The restyle process was an all-Italian affair, with De Santis partnering with local artisans and historic companies including 13th-century glass firm Barovier & Toso for the majestic Murano chandeliers in the villa and Florence-based brass specialist Il Bronzetto for lamps and furniture across the mansion and gardens. The assortment of more than 200 textiles featured at the location are by the likes of Fortuny, Dedar and Rubelli — which also created the exclusive “Voile de Como” pattern — while linens are by Beltrami, which has developed for Passalacqua exclusive sheets in a fiber derived from birch and claimed to be softer than silk.
Other highlights include unique hand-made mirrors by 1927 Venice company Barbini; tailor-made trunks in leather and fabric by Bottega Conticelli di Orvieto used to conceal TV sets in the rooms; bathrooms furnished with marble hailing from Carrara and Verona caves, and furniture, carpets and artworks scattered across the property handpicked and acquired by the De Santis family at international fairs and auctions.
After all, De Santis defines the acquisition of Passalacqua as a “love-at-first-sight” situation. Once the Grand Hotel Tremezzo was completed, the family decided to double its presence on the lake and casually came across the historic villa. Built by Count Andrea Lucini Passalacqua with the support of architect Felice Soave and designer Giocondo Albertolli, they acquired it at the end of 2018 through a private auction.
“When we crossed the gates of the villa we sensed it was really a unique, magic place, with its expansive spaces, gardens and halls, and that it had potential for a hospitality project,” recalls De Santis. The family succeeded in turning “a dream into reality,” beating competing foreigner investors that are increasingly targeting the area for real estate ventures.
Over the years the property hosted prominent personalities from the music, literature, art and political worlds, ranging from Napoleon Bonaparte and Winston Churchill to Vincenzo Bellini, who lived at the mansion and composed two of his most famous operas, “La Norma” and “La Sonnambula,” there.
The property covers three buildings and only the main villa was in perfect condition, while the family made structural changes to the other two.
The main building now hosts 12 suites, each different from the other, including a cinematic 2,700-square-foot room billed as the largest suite on Lake Como. The Palazz ancient stables and Casa al Lago, which is located right on the lake, have eight and four suites, respectively. The former also houses the spa, offering Barbara Sturm treatments in two cabins, a sauna and steam room and a relax area with an oriental vibe.
Outdoor renovations encompassed a revamp of the lush gardens — conceived as distinct small terraces, each dedicated to olives, roses and fruits and vegetables, and the construction of the lakeside tennis and bowls courts and the pool area, for which De Santis collaborated with J.J. Martin’s La Double J.
The first interior design project of the brand, this part of the property was jazzed up with vibrant prints and colorful patterns splashed on bamboo and rattan furniture, cushions, aprons, tabletop items as well as retro, La Dolce Vita-evoking umbrellas and sun beds.
“The project with J.J. was a bit out of the box,” admits De Santis, which is in line with her goal to to create a sense of wonder in every corner to “surprise guests” with unique spaces.
Also in the fashion sphere, Roman sartorial brand Giuliva Heritage was tapped to develop the uniforms of the Passalacqua staff.
The same clientele enjoy spending time at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo and the Passalacqua, says De Santis, as the experience is different at each location.
“That was the original goal: we aimed to do something else, also compared to the rest of the hospitality scene in the area,” she adds. Yet asked about the increasing competition in high-end hospitality on Lake Como, the entrepreneur sounded positive. “Really beautiful facilities have opened in the last few years, but this increase in the offer simply generated an increase in demand. Every guest can find their favorite place. It’s a healthy competition,” she says.
While fancy experiences such as helicopter tours are increasingly in demand in the area, boat trips remain the go-to request and Passalacqua has this need covered with its private dock with vintage boats Giumello and Didi — refurbished in Loro Piana fabrics.
However, unique requests from guests include the reproduction of the hotel’s pool in their home in Miami, for example. “This is the peak of a trend: when guests fall in love with a place, they want to bring a piece of it back home,” De Santis says, also mentioning the demand for sun umbrellas, linens, tableware and even the hotel’s playlist, among others.
To that end, in 2020, when the overall hospitality industry was hit by travel bans, De Santis launched the Sense of Lake e-commerce site offering a selection of items and souvenirs from Grand Hotel Tremezzo, ranging from books to capsule collections developed with the likes of FRS For Restless Sleepers. One of the most popular categories is the proprietary beauty line of amenities Aqua Como, which now has been expanded to offer a signature fragrance for each hotel.