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A Sina Family Affair: Rome’s Bernini Bristol, Venice’s Centurion Palace

“Springtime in Rome.” Sounds like the title of one of those mid 20th century  big-screen movies “in glorious Technicolor” where the melodies of songs like “Two Coins in the Fountain” and “Arrivedecri Roma” would linger long after the closing scene. Such is the mood. The flowers are blooming, a new pope has been elected to overwhelming acclaim, and to see, from a table on the terrace of the Hotel Bernini Bristol’s rooftop restaurant, the unimpeded view of St. Peter’s dome, illuminated from within and flat against the horizon as night begins to fall, you are likely to feel a catch in your throat.

The stately hotel sits on top of Quirinal Hill making the rooftop the highest point of central Rome. At the same time, the 127-room property and the Piazza Barberini, which it overlooks, are in the center of central Rome. Both the Via Veneto and Via Sistina begin at the Piazza Barberini before heading off in different directions, the former along the La Dolce Vita way to the Villa Borghese, the latter to the Spanish Steps. Bernini’s Baroque masterpiece “The Triton Fountain  is the piazza’s centerpiece. It has been there since 1642 when the Barbernini family owned the piazza and much of the surrounding area including the palace which, in 1870, was transformed into the Hotel Bernini Bristol. Like so much of Rome, the hotel is a place of story and history.

“The three most important buildings in Rome are the White House where the president of Italy lives, the Quirinale, and the Bernini,” says Lorenzo Vivalda, the serious and soft-spoken  general manager of the hotel. “I’ve been here for 5 ½ years, and I can tell you it is one of the most interesting places in Rome.”

We are walking down the long, deep gallery that runs from the entrance to about halfway into the lobby. Black slabs of marble line either side of a marble aisle in the pattern of a gold starbust.  Midway, the drama of the entry gives way to a more subdued, informal mood where wooden floors replace the marble and a series of contemporary-styled sofas are arranged in a U-formation in front of huge, museum-quality 18th-century tapestries that hang on the walls. There is a great fireplace, clearly very old, no longer used, impressive nevertheless, and a  bar made of white wood and decorated with silver scrolls around which some people have gathered.

“There is a combination here of the classical, Baroque, and modern that all work together,” Lorenzo tells us as we take in the scene. “But beyond that, there are three things that make the Bernini Bristol stand out: the location, the history, and the roof restaurant – it is one of a kind.”

Lorenzo is referring to L’Olimpo, the spectacular roof-top complex that opened in time for the Jubilee of 2000. Where once the hotel’s water tanks were stored, there is a spacious restaurant with creamy marble pillars, floor-to-ceiling windows, and white and gold marble floors, a terrace for al fresco dining, and a sizeable outdoor lounge. The furnishings are sleek and sophisticated, the ambience is cool and cerebral except when one looks up and encounters, via a   360-degree perspective, heart-stopping views of  the Eternal City in all its varieties, through all its ages.

Known for its cuisine as much as its décor, L’Olimpo focuses on Mediterranean dishes with an overwhelming array of imaginatively-combined offerings like fusilli pasta with swordfish cubes on onion cream, sea bass with eggplant and basil, and ring pasta with lobster and king prawns sauce.  There is a well-stocked wine cellar with an Italian slant including a longtime favorite of ours: Fontodi Chianti Classico made with Sangiovese grapes. As expected,  the Tuscan staple proved a perfect accompaniment to our dinner; it also suited our frame of mind which posited: “We’re in Italy. Why drink anything but Italian?”

“While we compete with the major international hotel brands, our clients choose us largely because we are Italian,” Lorenzo asserts. “They may want the high level of international standards – and we deliver as much, but it is the Italian experience they are after. Also, unlike the main brands, we are a family-owned hotel. There are many family-run hotels in Italy, but they are small and not deluxe whereas the Bernini Bristol is a five-star property. And the family plays an active role in its operation.”

We got an inside look into this active family role during a lunch at L’Olimpo with Matilde Salvo. Tall and elegant, with a shock of white hair, the daughter of the late Count Ernesto Bocca (and founder of Sina Fine Italian Hotels of which she is a principal) lives in Rome, not far from the Bernini Bristol and is frequently on the scene, so much so that the staff affectionately refers to her as “the Boss.”

“At one point in time, we had permits to build a pool in the Hotel Brufani in Perugia,” she tells us after we settle into a table on the terrace and snap out of the trance caused by the panoramic scene. “But when the authorities came, they found Etruscan ruins beneath the site. Of course, they could not be covered. This is a landmarked property; the edifice, for example, cannot be touched.  So we made a glass floor which allows the ruins to be visible.”     

She pauses as a waiter arrives with a platter of excellent ravioli carbonara which the three of us sample with great relish. Then she continues: “My father bought this hotel in 1973. That was when I got into the business, but he actually started more than 55 years ago.  For three generations, his family had run a tannery factory in the north of Italy. He was a forward-looking man, however, and he understood his and his brothers’ children were not impressed with the idea of running a tannery. On the other hand, he was interested in the hospitality industry.  He didn’t know much about it, but he enjoyed traveling and being in nice places, and he thought it would be good to be part of it. And so he began looking around at touristic destinations.

“In Florence, he found a partner and together they discovered an 18th century  Florentine estate in the center of the city that had belonged to the Medici family. They transformed it into the Grand Hotel Villa Medici, a five-star hotel with a garden and outdoor swimming pool. That was the first one.”

Today ten luxurious hotels comprise the Sina Fine Italian Hotels brand under the leadership of Matilde and her brother, Count Bernabo Bocca. In addition to Rome and Florence, there are Sina properties in Perugia, Parma, Viareggio, Torino, two in Milan, and two in Venice – one of which, the Centurion Palace, is the newest in the family.

The five-year-old, five-star, 50-room  Centurion Palace sits on the Grand Canal close by Santa Maria della Salute and has historic roots that can rival the Bernini’s having been a cloister in the San Gregorio Convent during the 12th century. In a brilliant counterpoint of the old and new, the hotel retains its original façade but in style, décor, and attitude is definitively 21st century and a fitting addition to the contemporary art scene initiated by the Punta della Dogana Museum which is but a short walking distance away.

      The hotel’s most brilliant visual element lies in the use of colors. The restaurant, Antanus (the name was found  carved a coin  during construction), is a study in pure white while each of the 50 rooms and suites is dominated by a single vivid color (primarily fuchsia, but also venetian red, rust, magenta, and taupe) for wall coverings, fabrics, and accessories. Design throughout is strikingly contempoarary minimalist although there are significant exceptions like a paneled ceiling that appeared to be from the Renaissance and a medieval fireplace. And everywhere, one comes across delightful details like the table centerpieces in Antanus -- little glasses with floral motifs filled with candle wax – a nod to the glass factory that once occupied the building.

As one would expect, diners at Antanus’ choose from items on a menu filled with Italian delicacies. Among the offerings: tiny pastas with vegetables and cheese in balsamic vinegar; rocket salad – arugula greens, grated parmesan cheese and shredded green apple, scallops wrapped in bacon, potatoes sliced so thin they could be a chips.            

We meet the gentle, self-effacing, slender  chef who  doesn’t speak English but manages to communicate his delight when he learns we have enjoyed his preparations. Our server, his translator, points out that the chef insists on pure flavors, no overwhelming heavy sauces, only fresh ingredients. He likes risotto very much; in autumn he makes it with duck, and fresh dill. And according to the season, he likes to use fresh fruits in his salads (hence the green apple).

Matilde Salvo who, together with her brother Bernabo
Bocca,manages Sina Fine Italian Hotels

He probably likes Italian wines as well. From what we could tell, the list was all Italian. No problem when the choice is among Veneto Rosé, Bardolino, Tuscana Antonori. Valpolicello, and such.

For Matilde, Sina’s concentration on Italian products and Italian traditions is critical.  So is the recognition that each of the ten hotels is completely different. “We are special in that respect,” she tells us. “We are surrounded by the big international companies. But aim is to give our guests what the big chains can’t. Our guests come to taste our flavor.”

Obviously by “flavor,” she is referring to more than food. “Here at the Bernini, we can sit on the rooftop and look at St. Peter’s dome,” she says. “Woody Allen was up here, playing his clarinet. Sophia Loren was here. We still are the hotel for movie stars and headquarters for the film festivals.”

We are finishing lunch and lingering over coffee when Matilde suddenly turns reflective. “I think of my father often,” she tells us. “He was a tall man. You couldn’t help but notice him.  He was very social, he liked to be with people, and he had a good sense of humor. But he was a good businessman and foresighted as well. Having run a factory with 2,000 workers he knew what it was about.

“I had a wonderful relationship with him. We had a feeling together. When things go wrong, I say to myself, my father would never give up. He would say ‘Now we have to work double.’”

She sighs as if recalling the scene, then adds: “Today, my brother and I carry on the dream of our father. He was a great teacher.”

Hotel Bernini Bristol
Piazza Barberini, 23
SINA Fine Italian Hotels
00187 Roma, Italy

Phone: +39 06 488933243

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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