He wants you to be able to age in place with dig­nity

The Palm Beach Post - - FRONT PAGE - Sheila Marikar

Jaime Estremera-Fitzger­ald, CEO of the Agency on Ag­ing of Palm Beach/ Trea­sure Coast, says Florida can do more to be true haven for re­tirees.

At the break­fast buf­fet of Borgo Eg­nazia, a high-end re­sort in Fasano on Italy’s eastern coast, there’s a carafe of a sub­stance un­likely to be found at any sim­i­larly lux­u­ri­ous ho­tel else­where in the world: siero di latte e ca­cao, or milk serum and co­coa. It looks like hot choco­late but tastes like sea­weed, pun­gent enough that it might trig­ger the gag re­flex of a con­sumer more ac­cus­tomed to start­ing the morn­ing with some­thing from Star­bucks. A cen­turies-old break­fast sta­ple in this part of the world, the drink is essen­tially a pro­tein shake made with the whey that re­mains af­ter milk has been cur­dled and strained.

“We’re work­ing on en­cour­ag­ing more pro­tein at break­fast, and milk serum is a way to do that without go­ing to eggs,” Aldo Melpig­nano, pro­pri­etor of Borgo Eg­nazia, said one day this spring, pitched for­ward on a white couch in one of the prop­erty’s many breezy white por­ti­cos.

Mod­eled af­ter a 15th-cen­tury Apu­lian vil­lage, the re­sort rolls out over 250 acres just off the Adri­atic in the Puglia re­gion (or, in Latin, Apu­lia). Melpig­nano ob­served that most such es­tab­lish­ments had one con­spic­u­ously healthy restau­rant, and then a num­ber of venues with more in­dul­gent fare.

“In our case,” he said, “ev­ery­thing is the healthy restau­rant.”

Of course, eat­ing vir­tu­ously means some­thing dif­fer­ent to ev­ery­one. In the land of wine and pasta, Melpig­nano, 40, has cre­ated a hospi­tal­ity ven­ture that is cap­i­tal­iz­ing on hype around two dis­tinct travel trends: well­ness and “au­then­tic” ex­pe­ri­ences.

His com­pany, SD Ho­tels, turns tra­di­tional Puglia farm­houses into re­sorts that fo­cus on fitness (Apu­lian folk dance classes in 400-year-old olive groves) and

oth­er­worldly spa treat­ments (one mas­sage uses “vi­bra­tional wa­ter”) in ad­di­tion to tra­di­tional Ital­ian fare (hand­made orec­chi­ette pasta; oc­to­pus in a broth of just-plucked toma­toes). Melpig­nano now over­sees five prop­er­ties in the re­gion.

“We live a good life in this part of the world,” Melpig­nano said. “I never thought specif­i­cally, OK, we need to do this be­cause well­ness will be a trend or we need to pro­cure our foods from farms be­cause it’s go­ing to be trendy to buy lo­cal. It was just the way we did things.

“The life­style here, re­con­nect­ing to na­ture, sim­ple things — it’s com­ing back. It’s what we do,” he con­tin­ued. “Maybe we’re just in the right place at the right time.”

Melpig­nano also owns San Domenico House, a 19th-cen­tury ho­tel in Lon­don’s Chelsea neigh­bor­hood, and a bistro nearby, as well as an Apu­lian tourism com­pany and a golf course. Of all his prop­er­ties, Borgo Eg­nazia is the largest, with three pub­lic pools, a vil­lage square out of a Hol­ly­wood lo­ca­tion scout’s dreams and nearly 200 rooms. They start around $500 per night, while the fancier vil­las can cost well above $2,000.

Celebri­ties like Madonna have been won over by the re­sort’s faux me­dieval fa­cades and farm­house-chic in­te­ri­ors, an ef­fect best de­scribed as “Game of Thrones” meets Restora­tion Hard­ware. Justin Tim­ber­lake and Jes­sica Biel got mar­ried on the site in 2012.

SD Ho­tels, which last year had rev­enue of about $80 mil­lion, started with the fam­ily’s sum­mer home, Masse­ria San Domenico, a few miles down the road from Borgo Eg­nazia.

“I would board a train with eight to 10 friends the minute the school year ended and come down there,” said Melpig­nano, who grew up in Rome.

In 1996, sens­ing the re­gion’s po­ten­tial for in­ter­na­tional tourism — the beaches of Puglia re­mained rel­a­tively undis­cov­ered by the Con­ti­nent’s hordes of hol­i­day­mak­ers — his mother, Marisa, de­cided to turn the home into a ho­tel.

Aldo Melpig­nano took a year off be­tween high school and col­lege to help. “We saw a lot of ex­am­ples around the world of for­mer man­sions and manor houses that had been con­verted into ho­tels, es­pe­cially in Eng­land and Scot­land,” he said.

The prob­lem: find­ing staff flu­ent in both English and the whims of af­flu­ent guests. He ended up hir­ing a hand­ful of coun­try­men from the staffs of high-end Ital­ian restau­rants in Lon­don and New York.

Masse­ria San Domenico re­mains one of SD Ho­tels’ more ex­clu­sive prop­er­ties — young chil­dren are pro­hib­ited, and only ho­tel guests may dine in the restau­rant. That is in part be­cause of an ul­tra-ex­clu­sive res­i­dent: Marisa Melpig­nano, 71, who lives at the cen­ter of the prop­erty in a 15th-cen­tury watch­tower once used to guard against the Ot­tomans.

Af­ter at­tend­ing Cass Busi­ness School at City Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don, Aldo Melpig­nano worked briefly in in­vest­ment bank­ing, then got an MBA from the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia’s Whar­ton School. He got a job as an as­sis­tant to the chief fi­nan­cial officer of Ian Schrager’s Mor­gans Ho­tel Group, which led to a loftier po­si­tion in the busi­ness de­vel­op­ment de­part­ment. He even­tu­ally ran the di­vi­sion.

Back home, his mother’s ho­tel and a sec­ond prop­erty were tak­ing off, and in 2007, Melpig­nano left Mor­gans to take con­trol of the fam­ily busi­ness.

At least one of his old bosses is bet­ting on him. “The way he has the fin­ger on the pulse of the world traveler is unique,” said Sherry Har­ris, a for­mer chief strat­egy officer of Mor­gans Ho­tel Group and a hospi­tal­ity con­sul­tant.

Borgo Eg­nazia was built on land orig­i­nally razed by Mus­solini and in­tended as an air base.

“In 2010, we saw the ac­tiv­ity go­ing on on that flat piece of land, and he said he was build­ing not a ho­tel but a town,” said Alessia Ne­bu­loni, an owner of the Apu­lian win­ery Masse­ria Li Veli. “We thought he was crazy, frankly.”

Some of Melpig­nano’s other in­no­va­tions may strike more con­ser­va­tive busi­ness own­ers as crazy as well. He en­cour­ages the lo­cal guides em­ployed by his tourism com­pany, Indi­genus, to be­friend their clients and in­vite them for meals at their homes or swims off se­cluded beaches.

“We like to think of them as your best friend in Puglia,” he said.

Every guest at Borgo Eg­nazia is paired up with one, and the guides, mostly fe­male, swan through the cor­ri­dors of the prop­erty in gauzy white dresses.

Melpig­nano plans to open more ho­tels in Italy be­fore ex­pand­ing fur­ther abroad — per­haps the Caribbean, South Amer­ica, “even as far as New Zealand.”

He has the United States in his sights as well.

“We’re fan­ta­siz­ing about do­ing a farm- or ranch-style place that would take some of the el­e­ments from Borgo Eg­nazia and rein­ter­pret them,” he said, “maybe in the Amer­i­can West.”

Aldo Melpig­nano

GIANNI CIPRI­ANO PHO­TOS/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Celebri­ties like Madonna have been won over by Borgo Eg­nazia’s faux me­dieval fa­cades and farm­house-chic in­te­ri­ors, an ef­fect best de­scribed as “Game of Thrones” meets Restora­tion Hard­ware. Justin Tim­ber­lake and Jes­sica Biel got mar­ried on the site in 2012.

Swim­mers en­joy the bay in Mo­nop­oli, a town near Borgo Eg­nazia, a high-end re­sort owned by SD Ho­tels. The com­pany is cap­i­tal­iz­ing on two cur­rent travel trends: opu­lence and well­ness.

A chef pre­pares orec­chi­ette pasta at the high-end re­sort Borgo Eg­nazia. SD Ho­tels, turns tra­di­tional Ital­ian farm­houses into re­sorts that fo­cus on fitness and oth­er­worldly spa treat­ments in ad­di­tion to tra­di­tional Ital­ian fare.

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