Italian Ambassador's Residence Welcomes Guests in the Renovated Kitchen

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lila Castellaneta arrived at Villa Firenze, her new home at the edge of Rock Creek Park, full of grand plans for diplomatic entertaining. It was 2005, and she and her husband, Giovanni, the newly appointed Italian ambassador to the United States, were moving into the 1927 English Tudor-style estate that serves as the official ambassador's residence.

But there was a problem: The kitchen in the 57-room house dated back several decades.

Soon after, Castellaneta picked up the phone and dialed her friend Silvio Fortuna, chief executive of Arclinea, an Italian company known as the Ferrari of kitchen design. "Silvio, aiuto!" (translation: Help!) she said.

In a project that was months in the planning and six months in construction, Arclinea gutted the three rooms of the old, 968-square-foot kitchen, transforming it with cool stainless steel, black oak and amazing amenities including warming tops on the counters to keep plates toasty, four dishwashers and an indoor herb garden lit by LED lights. The challenge: to create a sleek, professional space for official entertaining as well as a cozy corner for the family to enjoy an espresso.

They finally popped the prosecco on the finished project in November 2007. "We wanted to catch the spirit and versatility of Italy in this kitchen," Lila Castellaneta says. "And we wanted a kitchen that was so beautiful we could serve a buffet in it."

The property has seen a lot of Washington history. The house was built as a private home for the family of a construction magnate. It has a three-story main hall with a balcony, timber beams, a pipe organ and a rotunda ornamented with signs of the zodiac. A library, now the ambassador's private office, has paneling by 17th-century English designer Christopher Wren. The house had several occupants until it was bought in 1942 by copper magnate Robert Guggenheim and his wife, Polly, who were known for their lavish parties. In 1976, Guggenheim's widow sold the estate to the Italian government.

Over the years, different ambassadors have added Florentine artworks, contemporary Italian sculptures and Murano chandeliers. Its 22 acres of hills -- it's one of the largest private estates in the city -- are home to formal rose gardens and manicured lawns. Deer are often uninvited guests at evening receptions on the rear piazza.

But the kitchen was worn out and unsuitable for serving the 4,000 people that an ambassador annually welcomes to receptions and formal dinners. It had old appliances, obsolete plumbing, dated cabinets coated with layers of paint, and scant storage. It had not had a major renovation in decades.

"It was a very old kitchen, ugly and old-fashioned," recalls Fortuna, whose grandfather founded Arclinea in 1925 outside Venice. The company, whose components are designed by Milanese architect Antonio Citterio, has installed kitchens for Brad Pitt, Donna Karan, Jennifer Aniston, Sting and --three times -- for the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Arclinea is scheduled to open its ninth American showroom this fall on M Street in Georgetown.

While a celebrity's kitchen may serve only as a trophy, the kitchen at the Italian ambassador's residence is used every day by its chef, Roberto Grazioli.

Lila Castellaneta worked closely with Arclinea to plan a workable space for cooking, storing and serving. "I know myself that a kitchen is not a showroom. You don't just put in all this fun stuff," she says. "It has to be functional."

Still, there is plenty of fun. Arclinea installed steel worktops on two islands and along either side of the room. On the right, a 22-foot-long counter houses sinks and four dishwashers, each with a 12-place-setting capacity. On the left, a wall of cabinets with glass fronts holds crystal and china and two 46-bottle wine coolers; then comes the coffee machine, refrigerators and ovens.

The two center islands have different purposes. The larger is left for the pros: the chef and assistants who might prepare food for 300 guests with steam ovens and fryers. Half of the island is equipped with a warming top to keep platters of food warm.

For light meals, the Castellanetas can pull up two white bar stools to the smaller island. This island also incorporates storage and a sink. Above it, Arclinea installed a tiny indoor greenhouse with violet-colored lights that come on and go off on a pre-set cycle so a variety of herbs can be grown for recipes or garnish. A built-in coffee machine can brew espresso, cappuccino or cafe Americano. The floors are matte gray Italian ceramic tile.

"When we entertain, if it's a buffet, we set it up here because it's beautiful and very chic," says Castellaneta. "So many of our guests are surprised because nobody invites them into their kitchens."

At a dinner last week to honor contributions made for Abruzzo earthquake relief and recovery, 48 guests walked into the kitchen to pick up their Ginori dinner plates and make their way around the islands, which were layered with homemade pizza, buffalo mozzarella, squid stuffed with shrimp and vegetable risotto.

Castellaneta chose a playful black-and-white still from the 1954 movie "An American in Rome" ("Un Americano a Roma") to hang on the back wall. It shows an iconic Italian scene: the late actor Alberto Sordi savoring a plate of spaghetti.

Framed on the opposite wall are dreary "before" photos of the kitchen. Extreme makeover, Italian edition.

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