“I grew up with saying hospitality is holy,” said Isabella Rossellini, embodying that concept in a cozy sherpa jacket and matching overalls so snuggly you forget she’s the star of “Blue Velvet,” “Death Becomes Her” and countless Lancôme campaigns and want to curl up on her lap. But that seat’s about to be taken.
As if on cue, her three dogs bound into the kitchen, and one snags the privileged perch.
“This one is Darcy,” she said of the lucky dog on her lap, “that one is Happy and this one is Pinocchio, the liar.”
They are all mutts she rescued.
“We don’t really know what they are,” she said, laughing. “They’re unique, like a sports-car or haute couture, one of a kind. They are the haute couture of dogs.”
You could say the same thing about the bed-and-breakfast she recently opened, a hybrid of styles and cultures, from American farmhouse to Italian country to Swedish contemporary or rustic with an edge, a refreshing departure from the stately inns in nearby Bellport Village.
This one, for example, doesn’t have a proper living room.
“It just happened that way,” said Rossellini. “When we have friends over, we gather around the table in the kitchen, we don’t sit in the living room. These common areas are more important. People like to gather in little groups. So we created more of these spaces. “
As you can tell, intimacy and spontaneity are key to Rossellini, who’s never been traditional in any sense of the word. Take, for example, her latest role — innkeeper — along with being a world-renowned actor, producer, model, environmentalist, author and philanthropist.
Wait, did I mention she also trains puppies to be guide dogs for the blind?
As she tells it, being a host is a part that comes to her naturally.
“Kindness and conviviality are very cultivated in Italy,” she said. “That’s what I tried to create here.”
“Here” is the B&B Rossellini, built with her friend, architect Pietro Cicognani, at Mama Farm, her sprawling 28-acre estate in Brookhaven, a bucolic hamlet just a stone’s throw from her Bellport home. That home is an old barn Cicognani converted into a living space, complete with indoor pool, some 20 year ago.
That old farmhouse had good bones, Cicognani explained. This structure? Not so much.
Culturally, we both grew up in Rome, where you take something old and transform it through the ages. We have that in our DNA.Pietro Cicognani.
But that made converting it into a rustic retreat equipped with modern amenities all the more challenging.
“It was a totally nondescript barn with pretty ugly vinyl siding and one bathroom so we nicknamed it ‘la zozzona’ or ‘the dirty one’ in Italian slang,” he said.
“We joke that it’s become zozzona deluxe,” Rossellini added, laughing.
But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I sketched a new structure for the farm, like a modern barn with a long wing, but it didn’t resonate,” Cicognani said. “Plus, we like to transform things into something else.”
That yen to transmute and make over is in every actor’s blood. But Rossellini’s passion for renovation is also rooted in her upbringing.
“Culturally, we both grew up in Rome, where you take something old and transform it through the ages,” said Cicognani. “We have that in our DNA.”
And transform they did.
When the architect first checked out the original “zozzona,” he eyed the freestanding garage nearby and thought, let’s bridge it to the house and turn that space into a big kitchen.
“I knew cooking and entertaining were at the heart of this,” Cicognani said. “Hospitality and warmth are Italian. We need a room to congregate.”
The garage became a gallery-size dining room whose large doors could open to the outside, giving diners the sense of eating al fresco. Cicognani had it painted white, so it looks sleek and modern, the perfect foil for the expansive kitchen, paneled entirely in deep chestnut wood flitches with “black veins” or striations, evoking the inside of a cigar box.
“Years and years ago, Ralph Lauren took me into his home in Montauk, and it was done all in plywood by a Japanese architect,” said Cicognani. “I thought, one day.” But as he discovered, the word doesn’t exactly elicit rounds of requests.
“They hear plywood, and they say no,” he said. “But you can make plywood out of ebony and exotic woods. We chose the Chilean apple, which is a much wider trunk than the regular apple tree. Most apple trees don’t grow beyond a certain width, but this is different. It’s also one of the most poisonous tress in the world.”
The paradox of lining her kitchen in the most toxic wood wasn’t lost on Rossellini.
“I always have fun with Pietro,” she said, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “We just loved this wood. I don’t think, let’s mix this style with that style. I just do what I like. So I recycled these old, beautiful Mission-style chairs that didn’t have a space in my home and the Scandinavian stove here [in the kitchen] and for a few design details, I asked [Bellport-based designer] Tricia Foley to help me find mattresses for the bedrooms and make the deal with Frette so I could have beautiful sheets on the beds here. But most of the items are personal objects.”
And when you’re Isabella Rossellini, personal objects take on cinematic significance. After all, she’s the daughter of the legendary Ingrid Bergman and famed Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Bergman’s embroidered towels grace the powder room and Roberto’s race-car helmets line one of the bedrooms.
“It sounds like it’s very important, but it isn’t,” Rossellini said. “My mother didn’t embroider the towels herself, she bought them. They are very old and beautiful, but she was a movie star, she had room service and didn’t do anything in the house.“
Still, not everyone would be so willing to share such family heirlooms.
“In Europe we share,” she pointed out. “Otherwise, they stay in the closet.”
Every corner of Mama Farm’s B&B exudes Rossellini’s eclectic flair, personality and warmth, from the bright-yellow Sicilian vases displayed in her giant kitchen to the chalkboard walls in the breakfast area where she scrawls messages like: “Mama says go explore … follow the farm’s concrete path around the bend to see ducks, chickens, sheep, goats.”
This rustic stretch by the Great South Bay harks back to Rossellini’s childhood, spent summering in Santa Marinella, a coastal village an hour north of Rome.
“The village had a beach, we had a garden and there was a caretaker who raised chickens, pigs and a few sheep,” she said.
That memory also sparked the idea for the B&B, rooted in a newer Italian tradition—agriturismo, or agricultural tourism.
“All the farmers used to live off their land,” Rossellini said. “But small farms have become very hard to sustain. So in Tuscany and Umbria, families invited people to come and live on their farms and have a taste of the country life. They can visit, garden, eat the produce, work with the animals. Agriturismo saved those farms.”
And Rossellini’s hoping it helps Mama Farm stay afloat as much as it proves to be a restorative retreat for her guests.
Unlike more traditional inns, Mama Farm’s B&B was designed to be a casual, intimate setting where guests can truly savor a slice of small farm living. It has only four bedrooms and three bathrooms, and each has its own entrance, so no one has to share the same airspace if they so choose.
“That’s by design,” said Elettra Weidemann, Rossellini’s daughter and the B&B’s executive director. “It was built during COVID, so we wanted to be mindful of social distancing.”
There’s also nothing particularly precious about it.
“This is the tile room,” Weidemann said, taking me to a former kitchen converted into a large bedroom with white tile walls and floors. “We expect families to come here and get dirty on the farm or at the beach [a block away].”
Not every room can be hosed down in a jiffy like the tile suite, which also has its own deck. But they all bear objects of personal significance to Rossellini and Weidemann.
“This is the David Lynch room,” Weidemann said, leading me to an upstairs room with twin beds and colorful, folkloric pillows and a rug, its walls decorated with the director’s art, which isn’t exactly PG. Yes, it’s a room meant for children and shares a bathroom with the queen bedroom next door. But the “The Blue Velvet” and “Twin Peaks” director’s prints may be too graphic for some kids.
“I posted a disclaimer on our website,” Weidemann said, laughing.
There’s also a room filled with artists’ work, from a colorful Gaetano Pesce resin chair to a sweater a friend knit for Weidemann’s first child, Ronin, now 3, when he was born. (Over the summer, she gave birth to her second child, Viggo River.)
There’s also a duplex suite called the chicken room, with a queen bed covered in a crushed red velvet throw and walls embellished with a giant photograph of one Rossellini’s heritage chickens taken by her friend, photographer Patrice Casanova, and Rossellini’s own chicken drawings, featured in her whimsical book “My Chickens and I.”
Rossellini’s passion for nature was the motivation behind her purchase of the property where Mama Farm sits. Largely consisting of wildlife, the Bellport property was to be developed into cookie-cutter houses when Rossellini swooped in to save the land in 2013. She worked with Peconic Land Trust to leave 23 acres intact as a conservation easement, while dedicating five acres to organic farming, specifically heritage breed poultry and sheep, which she raises, and heirloom seeds planted by Patty Gentry of Early Girl Farm. The goal, as she explained, is to foster biodiversity.
Since opening Mama Farm, Rossellini has personally raised 150 chickens of a breed she’s dubbed Andy Warhols because of their wild tufted crests. She’s also made Mama Farm home to species of sheep that are nearly extinct and has named them individually after famous women artists like (Frida) Kahlo, (Georgia) O’Keefe and even (Greta) Garbo.
Nature isn’t just a passing hobby, however. It’s an area of scholarship for Rossellini, who earned a master’s degree in animal husbandry and conservation at Hunter College in New York during a dry spell in her acting career a few years ago.
Though she’s hot again — co-starring in the upcoming HBO Max series “Julia,” about Julia Child, appearing in a campaign for French footwear designer Roger Vivier, even sharing the stage with her animals in the quirky “Link Link Circus” to benefit the Gateway Performing Arts Center of Suffolk County — the 69-year-old is more likely to be harvesting honey or collecting green, blue, brown and white eggs for her guests’ breakfast, Mama Farm’s CSA members and her dinner guests than jetting off to the Amalfi Coast, though she recently workshopped a new monologue, “Darwin’s Smile,” in Nice.
“I feel at home here. And I love to entertain,” she said, pointing out the half-burned candles, vases full of wildflowers and empty bottles of wine on the dining room’s farm table, left over from last night’s soirée with her friends. “But not in the formal American way with invitations or place settings. It’s casual. No one has to RSVP here. You just show up. I’ll make pasta or sometimes I’ll have my chef cook for everyone.”
For this doyenne of the offbeat and endangered, creating a rustic haven and cooking are one in the same.
“So this land became available, this house was available and you just make it like a sauce,” she said. “Like last night, it was cold, and we put all the chairs around the fire, and I thought, Oh, yeah, I was waiting for this. Is it a table we put here [in the kitchen] where we all sit, or is it a space for dessert around the fire. So you let it take shape naturally and grow with experience rather than on paper.”
Not everyone has the ease, grace and worldliness of Rossellini, who was born and raised in Rome, spent part of her youth studying and modeling in Paris, then moved to New York to attend college, launch her first career as a television reporter, get married, first to Martin Scorsese, then to John Weidemann, and raise her two children, Elettra and Roberto, both models.
So what does home mean for a bohemian spirit like Rossellini?
“It’s less about the details and more about the atmosphere of conviviality,” she said, then laughs. “In the village here, they sell a T-shirt that makes fun of me. It reads: Rome, Paris, New York, Bellport. It’s true. This is my home. Family and farm — that’s what home means to me.”