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Hotel De Russie: The Place with a Buzz!

After spending the morning at the Etruscan Museum, we exited the Borghese Gardens on to Via Flaminia and walked quite a way down this busy boulevard, passing post-war apartment houses, boutique shops and supermarkets, even a branch of Rome’s University, to where it stopped at the third century Aurelian Wall and its arched gateway, the Porta del Popolo.  In the days before railroad travel, horse-drawn carriages brought visitors from England along this very route. Now as we passed through the arch and entered the Piazza del Popolo with the great Egyptian obelisk at its center and the twin domed churches opening up to Via del Corso at its far end, we experienced the same heart-stopping sensation they undoubtedly felt coming into old Rome nearly two centuries ago.

Many of those earlier travelers had stayed at the Hotel de Russie et des Iles Britanniques on the Via Babuino just off the Piazza del Popolo. Built in the early 19th century, it drew a rich and royal crowd for well over a hundred years before closing around the time of the Second World War. For the next sixty years, the building served as the offices for Italian Radio and Television. Today, re-imagined and restored by the Rocco Forte group, it is once again the splendid Hotel de Russie.

We had booked a table for lunch on the advice of an American expatriate we met: “Don’t miss the Russie,” she told us. “It’s the place with a buzz.” Expecting a Gilded Age setting, we were stunned to find a nearly minimalist interior with unpolished marble floors and strong-lined modern furniture combined with antique fixtures that melded together in a palette of grays and maroons, beiges and browns. 

But there was no doubt about the “buzz.” A current of electricity followed us down the hallway where one of us brushed shoulders with the former (and very handsome) mayor of Rome, on to the patio where a well known Roman wine connoisseur was being interviewed by the press, through the Stravinsky bar where “big deals” were being consummated between trips to a salad bar featuring lasagna and sun dried tomatoes, and up into the restaurant where a soap opera segment was being taped, the glamorous up-and-coming starlet just a few tables away from us.

A modern, almost minimalist interior - click to enlarge
A modern, almost minimalist interior
But that was a distance away for Le Jardin du Russie is a high, wide, and airy dining room embraced by French doors that open on to a broad terrace. The feeling is one of comfort and ease, serene elegance. Table linens and chairs are in soft shades of salmon, garnet, and rose. Interior light comes from delicate Murano chandeliers whose suspended strands of crystal look like so many diamond necklaces.
Our lunch began with terrific Bloody Mary’s prepared according to  maitre d’ Leonardo Temperini’s directives. He had worked as bar man at the St. Regis’ King Cole Bar in New York, he told us, where he discovered the famed recipe that depends on horseradish and lime instead of lemon.

Le Jardin’s executive chef, Nazzareno Graziano Menghini, is devoted to classic Italian cooking with an emphasis on Mediterranean flavors based on olive oil, tomatoes, and garlic. Although his menu offers a variety of meat dishes from beef tournedos to rack of lamb, it focuses more heavily on fish preparations. That presented no problem to us; the difficulty lay in selecting from among tantalizing options.

Maitre d’ Leonardi Temperini with Elena Bruno, Director of Sales & Marketing, in Le Jardin, a setting of serene elegance
Maitre d’ Leonardi Temperini with Elena Bruno, 
Director of Sales & Marketing, in Le Jardin, 
a setting of serene elegance.

Executive chef Nazzareno Graziano Menghini is devoted to classic Italian cooking with an emphasis on Mediterranean flavors - click to enlarge
Executive chef Nazzareno Graziano Menghini is devoted to classic Italian cooking with an emphasis on Mediterranean flavors
With a little bit of help, we settled on starters of shrimp with zucchini blossoms tempura -- which betrayed an interesting oriental influence -- and curled octopus with stewed olives and crunchy polenta in a bouillabaisse sauce featuring crushed tomato and basil – a harmonious blending of Mediterranean ingredients. The grouper casserole with olives, capers and cherry tomatoes beckoned, but Nazzareno, who buys his fish fresh from the market, did not like that day’s catch and offered instead to prepare sea bass the same way. That proved to be an excellent suggestion, as did the delicate turbot fillet served with zucchini, broccoli and asparagus.

Nazzareno’s approach to cooking stresses a dependence on fresh, quality ingredients along with a confidence in the natural flavors of foods. Nothing was fussy or forced. There were no complicated combinations. “When you buy good products, you don’t need to build a lot. Just use good techniques,” he said.

Born in the countryside of Cambria, Nazzareno spent his formative professional years in France, Germany, Austria, and England. “But now I’m in my home country, in Italy where I can rely on products I know so well,” he said. “I prefer the kitchen of southern Italy.  It is lighter. It is an area where there is a great variety of fruits and vegetables. In season, you find so much in the market that I don’t feel like using anything from another part of the world.”

In terms of preparation, Nazzareno makes use of modern techniques without forgetting the traditional ways. His pasta maker is a good example of the latter. “We have an old lady who comes every day for four hours to make the fresh pasta for us,” he said. “It is wonderful to watch her. She is so, so fast and so familiar with doing it because she has made it at home for so many years. Every strand comes out the same. This kind of work is very special to have in a restaurant.”

Well, Le Jardin is a very special restaurant, we thought, as we savored a dessert of marinated strawberries with warm chocolate sauce and a glass of Banyuls, a French dessert wine made of Grenache-noir grapes. All that was lacking was the experience of alfresco dining. In the summer, the scene moves out of doors on to the terrace which comes right up against the Pincio Hill, a lushly romantic garden of balustrades and ruins, where cypresses, umbrella pines, rose bushes, magnolia and orange trees are interspersed among gravel paths, and stone staircases climb to the top of the hill that ends at the Borghese Gardens. We tried to imagine sitting out there on a midsummer’s night when the garden is lit by candles and filled with the fragrance of roses, and il ponentino (the southwest wind) gently stirs the warm air.  Never before did we understand so fully the longing expressed in the familiar song: “Arrivederci Roma.”

Hotel de Russie
Via del Babuino 9
00187 Rome
Italy

Phone: +39 06 32 8881
Fax: +39 06 32 888 888
Email: reservations@hotelderussie.it
Web: http://www.hotelderussie.it

 

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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