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The Art of Fine Dining at Rome's
Hotel Lord Byron

We stepped out of the taxi in front of the Hotel Lord Byron, the white villa taking on a purplish glow in the early evening light. At the top of a grand staircase leading to the entry, a wide banner had been strung above the illuminated portico, an American flag at one end, an Italian flag at the other, and in between the message: “Thanks for traveling.” It brought a catch to our throats. The effects of September 11 are deeply felt here in Rome in the form of steep economic loss. Still the sympathy and affection for Americans is palpable.

The Hotel Lord Byron is a small, exquisite hotel in the exclusive Parioli neighborhood just north of the Borghese Gardens, Rome’s largest public park, an enchanted garden of shaded walkways, lakes, and flower beds. The National Etruscan Museum at Villa Guilia, one of the park’s two museums, is but a short walk away. 

Named for the English poet who found inspiration in the varied aspects of the Eternal City, the Lord Byron is itself a setting of high drama whose brilliant interior is filled with the eclectic art collection of Amedeo Ottaviani who turned this private villa into a hotel sometime in the 1960’s.

Relais Le Jardin, the Lord Byron’s award winning restaurant, is on the lower level in a brightly lit room punctuated by rectangular pillars of white marble with mirrored inserts and rounded pillars of black marble. 

The night of our visit each of the small dining tables was covered in a floor-length cloth of gold damask and set with a crystal bowl holding a pair of white roses. Although the space was intimate, mirrored walls created the illusion of rooms beyond rooms. In the adjacent piano bar, a gleaming oak and mahogany bar fronted a credenza which held a multitude of liquors and was topped with an enormous clock set into molded Carrera marble.

It was in this stunning setting that we stopped for a glass of Pommeral champagne, sampled some hors d’oeuvres of smoked salmon, proscuitto and red caviar, and listened to familiar George Gershwin melodies being played on the piano. Once in the dining room, background music came in the form of recordings of Billie Holiday, Della Reese, and Sarah Vaughn singing the songs of Cole Porter. All were so in keeping with the elegant, sophisticated ambience of Relais Le Jardin as was the limited but choice listing of Roman specialties that composed its menu.

Sarah Vaughn’s version of “Night and Day” could be heard in the background as a lovely young woman in a white shirt, black pants and black headband served an appetizer of warm chicken livers with miniature croissants, so small they looked like little crusty crackers and followed it up with thin slices of fresh bread with pepperoni.

Only the most prestigious of Italian wines seemed appropriate to the setting: a Brunello di Montalcino 1995 from the Poggio Salvi Villa vineyard. Made entirely from Sangiovese grapes, this red wine from  Tuscany must be aged for four years, three of which have to be in oak. We watched as the sommelier went through the ceremony of opening the bottle, pouring it into a decanter and from one glass into another, and then allowing it to stand for a few minutes before pouring it again into the decanter from which it was served. Superbly deep, ruby-red and with a very nice finish, it proved an excellent pairing with two delicious starters: salted cod au gratin with a spinach/prawn puree and cannelloni beans on the side and a ring of barely salted anchovies over grilled slices of eggplant served with spinach and onions.

At the next table, the couple from Paris weekending in Rome told us their gorgeous salad of radicchio crowned with a mass of julienne carrots was “magnifique,” but one of us – determined to have pasta with every meal in Rome – opted for the potato and cheese-filled home-made ravioli instead, while the other went for a tangy rustic soup brim full of little mushroom and clams. To the accompaniment of Della Reese’s “Let’s Do It,” our server  removed the domed covers of our next courses with a flourish to reveal succulent roasted chicken and the tenderest tenderloin of beef. Stuffed with porcini mushrooms and walnuts, both were indescribably delicious.

There followed a selection of Italian cheeses which arrived while Billie Holiday was singing “Easy to Love.” As people who’ve always found most things Italian easy to love, we had no trouble relishing a sampling arranged in a circle from mild to sharp, beginning with a creamy ricotta from a region near Rome, moving on to a smooth and salty mozzarella from Naples, pecorino from Tuscany, bitto from an area near Milan, and ending with a sharper pecorino from Sicily.

Throughout dinner, we had noticed the wealth of art: paintings, antique objects, art deco furnishings that filled the dining room. Now food and beverage manager Claudio Felix Gherardini showed us an area in the rear of the dining room where breakfast is served. It was a beautiful gallery lined with paintings of women; one was the last queen of Italy, another a ballet dancer a la Degas, yet another, a full-faced young woman that looked like a Renoir.

Claudio came to the Hotel Lord Byron from Normandy six months ago accompanied by his Italian wife who, undoubtedly, influenced his decision to relocate. He showed us some of the 35 distinctive guest rooms of the Lord Byron and a rooftop terrace that overlooked the trees of the Borghese Gardens. To the southwest we could see the lights of the Church of the Holy Trinity on the Hill overlooking the Spanish Steps.

“For me Rome is a new experience,” Claudio said. “So is the Lord Byron. It is charming, quiet, an oasis. Rome is a big busy city, but here it is like the country. Yet in ten minutes we are in the Spanish Steps.”

Returning to the piano bar where our Lord Byron visit began, we sampled limon cello di Sorrento at the urging of bartender Enzo Govnetti. A lemon liqueur with a jolting bite at the end, it proved a fitting conclusion to an evening whose spark lingered long after it had passed.

The Hotel Lord Byron
One of  The Leading Hotels of the World
Via G. De Notaris 5
00197 Roma

Phone: +39 063220405

Travel Notes: 

The Borghese Gardens’ two museums provide a sense of the scope and levels of the Roman story. The National Estruscan Museum, housed in the Renaissance Villa Giulia, showcases high quality Greek artifacts imported to Eturia between the eighth and third centuries BC. Even more famous is the Borghese Gallery housed in the seventeenth century palace of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Among its masterworks of ancient, renaissance and neo-classical art, is the breathtaking Apollo and Daphne sculpture by Bernini.

A sampling of the collections at the Villa Guilia
A sampling of the collections at the Villa Guilia
Cardinal Scipione’s palace: the Borghese Gallery
Cardinal Scipione’s palace: the Borghese Gallery

Femme Sistina (near the Spanish Steps)

For 42 years, Lisette Lenzi has run this potpourri of a beauty shop which includes a hairdresser's salon, boutique, and prêt a porter collection. It is a colorful fashion/beauty bazaar where one can rummage for makeup and one-of-a-kind accessories, find beautifully tailored clothes of the finest fabrics, distinctive jewelry, and indulge in a pampering massage and complete makeover.

Via Sistina
75 A-B-C-D
00187 Rome

Phone: 06 6780260

Photos 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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