Saturdays start around 7.30am with a typically Italian breakfast of pastry, bread, jam and espresso at a long table designed by Alessandro Mendini and made from a tree that previously blocked a wonderful view of Lake Orta from our kitchen window. We live in an old farmhouse that was renovated by Mendini a few years ago, and this table is where we do everything – eat, work, homework – and where I try out all the prototypes for our new Alessi products.
After dropping my 12-year-old daughter Emma at the local riding school, my wife Laura and I drive on to Sacro Monte di Orta, which faces the western shore of Lake Orta. This group of 20 Catholic chapels, built between the 16th and 17th centuries on the summit of San-Nicolao, is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi and filled with paintings and sculptures about his life. It’s a picturesque place that’s now a Unesco World Heritage Site. We park the car at the top of the hill and take a 20-minute walk down to the lakeside village of Orta San Giulio, whose perfect jewel of an Italian piazza is surrounded by cobbled streets and cafés. Here we buy newspapers and have an orange juice or coffee at Hotel Leon d’Oro or Piccolo Hotel Olina. I love the tranquillity of this place and like to leave before 11am when the tourists arrive. We walk back up the hill – more slowly – and drive a few miles south to the village of Soriso, where we have lunch. Ristorante Hotel Al Sorriso spells its name with two “r”s because sorriso means “smile” in Italian. Luisa Valazza, the chef at this two-star Michelin restaurant, serves superb Italian nouvelle cuisine with fresh, local ingredients, but it’s the magnificent wine list that interests me most, as I make wine from our own vineyard. It’s our seventh harvest this year and we’re now starting to sell La Signora Eugenia e il Passero Solitario commercially.
We often drive to Fondazione Calderara in Vacciago where the conceptual artist Antonio Calderara lived and worked. I like the atmosphere of the house, which is built in a vernacular Renaissance style. Calderara’s early, more realistic work interests me, and I have some of his paintings of scenes around Lake Orta. Then we drive home, as there is always work to do in the vineyard or the cellars.
I enjoy cooking and I might make my favourite dish, pollo bruciaculo, for supper. I use a lot of sweet, German white wine and Mexican peppers and cook it for at least three hours. It’s very spicy – almost to the limit you can actually bear. After supper I may read for a while before going to bed at around 10pm.
On Sunday we get up at about 8am. I swim before breakfast, then spend some time repairing old books. I’ve collected books on the history of the region since I was 17 and have maybe 3,000, many of which need restoring. At noon we head to Lago Maggiore where Laura’s family lives. We have lunch at my favourite restaurant, Barabba, in Casale Corte Cerro. The cooking is homely – pasta, fish, garden vegetables – but the ingredients are first-class. After lunch we continue to Lago Maggiore and stop off in Pallanza to walk along the lakeside. The villas here are grander than the ones in Orta, with gardens of azaleas, rhododendrons and magnolias, because it’s the rainiest place in Italy.
We often go to the botanical gardens at Villa Taranto, which its founder, Captain McEacharn, left to the Italian people. It’s very calming antidote to all the travelling I do for work. In the town, I enjoy browsing in two very good bookshops, Alberti and Margaroli. The day ends here with a pastis and the best pizza at Little Italy, before driving back to Lake Orta at about 9.30pm. It’s a simple way to spend the weekend, but I find it peaceful and recuperative.