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A Restaurant Named Picasso
A Roman Hotel Named Raphael

Some thirty-five years ago, Spartaco Vannoni, a Roman painter and art connoisseur opened a 51-room hotel in a seventeenth century building near the Piazza Navonna. He named it, aptly, Hotel Raphael and filled its public rooms with objects from his collection of art and antiques. A popular destination from the start, it continues to dazzle visitors who enter under a jousting canopy monitored by two life-sized statues from classical times and encounter en route to the registration desk medieval wooden as well as 20th century paintings, antique furniture, even a sleigh that could have slid out of the pages of a Tolstoy novel.

click to enlarge A particular passion of Vannoni (who died in 1980; his family still runs the hotel) had been Picasso’s ceramic paintings; a collection of them is showcased in the lobby. They also inspired the motif for the hotel’s restaurant named, as one might guess, Picasso. When we entered on a chilly January evening, the sight of an enormous breakfront of wood carved in the shape of tree trunks wrapped in grapevines and bearing a collection of plates and bowls, platters and pitchers painted in extravagant Picasso-like design set a joyous mood which permeated our entire dining visit.

It was a mood enhanced by our meeting Jean Francois Daridon, Picasso’s smiling, good humored chef whose warmth and exuberance made it hard to believe he was not Italian.  “No, no. I’m from Brittany,” he demurred – a good enough heritage for any chef, even in a Roman restaurant. “But my wife is Italian. She wanted to come to Rome.”

Daridon has been chef at Picasso since 1996 where, he told us “I’ve had opportunity to learn not only the Italian cuisine, but the Roman cuisine which is quite rich in its own right. And I have the total freedom to create what I want; I add my own particular touches to the plate.”

The chef prefers Italian to French cuisine (“It has more variety”), olive oil to butter. He stresses the use of market-fresh products, adjusting his menu to take advantage of seasonal specialties. Some of his dishes were elegantly simple. Artichoke leaves on a bed of chopped celery, green onions and flat parsley, were dressed only with olive oil, lemon, salt and black pepper. “It’s enough,” Daridon said. The grilled sea bass he seasoned with coarse salt, rubbed with olive oil, and served surrounded by cherry tomatoes, green onion, and citron. And his spaghetti carbonara was irresistibly true to form. But his Treviso red chicory (radicchio) salad is an invention. He begins by sautéing the radicchio quickly to make it tender and then finishing it on the grill. Tasting like very mild onions and served with roasted goat cheese, walnuts and little toast triangles, it was a wonderful starter. And there is the chicken fricassee, which Daridon sautéed first and then baked with potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli and a lot of olives. Served in a lemony sauce surrounded by squash, it was an example of unusual elements combined into a pleasant harmony of flavors.

We drank a dark and full bodied Chianti with these dishes having discovered there’s more to this wine from southern Italy than the bottles in straw carafes we remembered from our undergraduate days. Picasso’s maitre d’ Stefano Aceto was on target when he promised “You will taste the sunshine on the grapes,” as he uncorked a Villa Antinori Chianti which was not only a perfect match to our meal but cost a reasonable $23. Picasso’s maitre d’ Stefano Aceto (left) and chef Jean Francois Daridon - Click to Enlarge
Picasso’s maitre d’ Stefano Aceto (left) and chef Jean Francois Daridon

Desserts arrived on dinner plate-sized dishes, hand painted by Daridon’s wife, Franca Vit, with figures of fanciful birds and flowers. The orange cake was drenched in orange liqueur, tart red currants providing an intense contrast in color and flavor; the meringue cake with pureed chestnuts was light and lemony.

“This is the very heart of Rome,” Stefano told us, “a very happening area.” And to prove his point, he beckoned us to follow him up a spiral staircase and through a hallway that opened up to the roof garden, Bramante, which overlooks the city, its great monuments lit up in the evening sky. The breathtaking Cloister of Santa Maria della Pace, famed for its Raphael-decorated nave was in the foreground. Across the Tiber, we could see the Vatican and the Castle St. Angelo just beyond. The Parthenon was close by as was the Roman Forum.

“We put the tables with big umbrellas out here,” Stefano said. “By the end of March when the weather is nice, we do a brunch. Then we begin to serve lunch and dinner. It’s very busy in the summer, 30 for lunch, 50 at night.”

How wonderful it must be to dine overlooking the rooftops of Rome, we thought. Still we felt some sense of loss when Stefano told us there are plans to move the entire restaurant up to this level. In its present space, lit by the glow of candles and red bulbs in crystal sconces, its windows and chairs covered in lush red velvet, its vividly decorated pottery providing such joyful accents, and Pavorotti singing Puccini areas in the background, Picasso had seemed the very embodiment of the Roman experience.

Hotel Raphaël Largo Febo
2 Rome 00186 Italy

Phone: +390 668 28 31
Fax: +390 668 78 993 
Email: raphael@slh.com
Website: http://www.slh.com/raphael/

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
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

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

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