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The Royal Reception at the St. Regis Grand, Rome

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

 "Two days ago, King Abdullah and Queen Rania of Jordan were in Rome. The entire delegation stayed with us. Their majesties organized a special event here for the President of Italy and all the Italian delegation. It was a lot of work and pressure. But it turned out splendidly."

We are speaking to Vincenzo Falcone, the young and handsome General Manager of the legendary St. Regis Grand. It is the end of what had been an eventful – although not out-of-the-ordinary -- week at Rome’s premier hotel. Together with the soft-spoken and gracious Manuela dell Orsi who is Assistant Manager, Vincenzo has joined us for drinks in Le Grand Bar. Manuela, whom we remember from the Excelsior Hotel on the Via Veneto just a few blocks away and who still looks like a Raphael Madonna, was urging us to try a Bloody Mary. “It is the signature St. Regis drink,” she says. “We just celebrated its 75th anniversary last October.”

Vincenzo tells us the tomato juice and vodka cocktail debuted at the late and still-lamented King Cole Bar of the St. Regis in New York City three quarters of a century ago, and to commemorate the event, all the bars in all the St. Regis hotels have come up with their own version of the drink. “We call it the ‘Bloody Mary War,’” he adds.

Armed with such information, everyone in our party samples the Roman version of the St. Regis Bloody Mary. Minus ice, horseradish, celery and Tabasco sauce. Plus pimentos and chives. “It’s marvelous!” all declare.

Maurizio Felli, head barman since 2002 who knows every beverage listed on the nine-page Le  Grand Bar menu, as well its two-page supplement of Italian wines, admits the Bloody Mary has become more popular in the wake of the “war.” Overall, however, he sees a decline in the demand for hard drinks. “Lately people are having more wine and fewer cocktails, especially at lunch,” he says. “And there are more requests for Campari -- even from Americans.”

We’ve never liked Campari, we tell him. Still we can understand. It’s Italian.

Delicacies arrive: smoked ham from northern Italy, near Austria. Salty, smoked salmon that’s been marinated in sugar. Pecorino cheese from Sicily and feeck cheese from northern Italy, crusty Tuscany bread, and red wine.  All the simple foods of Italy yet somehow eminently suited to the palatial surroundings in which they’re served. What could be better? "True Italian foods,” says Manuela. “We have global guidelines, but nevertheless we strive to preserve the local touch.”

The local touch is preserved at breakfast and lunch on the balcony of  Le Grand Bar where tables overlook the St. Regis’ oval-shaped lobby in Roman-red and imperial-gold where Murano-crystal chandeliers illuminate the marble floors, and treasures from antiquity to modern times document the chronology of the Eternal City. Here toasted bread rubbed with olive oil, garlic and tomatoes can accompany a salad highlighted with fresh mozzarella, or  anchovies and tomatoes, or thin slices of chicken breast, and one can sip a satisfying glass of dessert wine like the Frascati Vigneto Filonardi from the Villa Simone or a Marsala Superiore from Vecchia Florio that goes so well with an aromatic cheese or lemon tart.

 “Our concept is to present the best quality in products from Sicily to the Dolomites,” Vincenzo notes. And clearly the dining experience at the St. Regis does criss-cross the map of Italy. At the same time, it encompasses the ranges of Italian preparation from the simple rustic foods served in Le Grand Bar to the sophisticated cuisine of Vivendo.

Midday, the restaurant is a bustling lunchtime destination for businesspeople and government officials. But at night, the pace is more leisurely, allowing diners the luxury of perusing an extensive menu created by its lauded Executive Chef Francesco Donatelli, himself the son of a lauded chef. The engaging Federico Galligani, restaurant manager, is at the ready with explanations, suggestions, and enthusiasm.  When we had dinner at Vivendo’s, we put ourselves in his expert hands, beginning with several tasting servings: eggplant filled with fresh mozzarella; smoked salmon served with two kinds of ricotta, one baked for a long time in a slow oven so that it was hard enough to slice, the other fresh and creamy. There followed ginger-scented scallops resting on a bed of delicate polenta in a squid broth, John Dory sautéed in white wine and topped with wild thyme-flavored porcini mushrooms, and pastas (of course): semolina gnocchi topped with spinach,  and linguine with oregano-flavored king prawns and lemon grass baked ricotta. For dessert, we threw caloric caution to the wind and relished a tart of pine nuts with pastry cream and chocolate rum sauce.

A look at Vivendo’s extensive wine list reveals how rich a wine-producing nation Italy is. Guided by Sommelier Massimo Di Cristofano, we sampled four of excellent varieties beginning with a glass of the effervescent Prosecco Vajo del Bisol label from the beautiful Valdobbiadene wine-growing region below the Italian alps, followed by a Sauvignon Blanc (Livon) and Pinot Grigio (La Viarte) both from Friuli, the ancient northeast corner of Italy, and finally a crisp Chardonnay (Aurente Lungarotti) from Umbria in the very heart of the country.

Off the main lobby and behind a door, Vivendo is a complete departure from the classical and Baroque opulence of the rest of the hotel. Softly lit by table lamps and small ceiling fixtures, its several dining areas are a study in quiet elegance. There is a golden sheen to the space. Walls and banquettes are covered in a shimmery gold fabric; contemporary arm chairs are framed in smooth gold-painted wood and upholstered in a muted circular pattern of gold and green. The setting is altogether serene, eminently suited for the display and enjoyment not only of sublime Roman dishes but also for works of modern art, part of the critically acclaimed collection the St. Regis has amassed in the wake of a hotel-wide renovation that was completed as the twentieth century ended and the twenty-first century began.

These new paintings stand in striking contrast to the treasures from  antiquity, the Renaissance and the Baroque period that have defined the property since its completion in 1894. It was the newest of César Frank’s Grand hotels then, the latest of the luxury properties that the Swiss-born hotelier and entrepreneur had been building in the major cities and resort destinations of Europe at the turning of the nineteenth into the twentieth century. Known for its “rising rooms” (as elevators were called), bathrooms with bathtubs and hot running water, and radiators as much as the Escoffier-directed restaurant and palatial appointments, it was situated on a  hilltop close by the ruins of the fourth-century Diocletian Baths and two blocks from the railroad station, embracing – in this way -- Rome’s past and future.

From the night of its opening gala that even the Pope attended, through its decades as a Ciga property owned by the Aga Khan, and up to the start of the second decade of the 21st century, the Grand –re-named the St. Regis Grand after Starwood bought the Ciga properties in 1999 -- has retained its luster and hold on the public imagination. Originally thought to be “off the beaten path,” at some distance from the Forum, Coliseum, Spanish Steps and Vatican, it is today considered to be in the heart of historic Rome with the Piazza della Repubblica, the National Museum, the Via Veneto and the Quirinale, home to Baroque masterpieces by Bernini  -- among them the presidential palace -- all within a short walking distance.

From the square outside the palace, one can look out over the rooftops and steeples of Rome, the Borghese Gardens to the north, the winding Tiber River and dome of St. Peter’s to the west. During our stay, at the Scuderie del Quirinale virtually next door, some 100 Roman paintings spanning the centuries from Caesar’s lifetime through the half millennium of Imperial Rome were on display. On loan from the great museums of Europe, the works arranged in the darkened halls of the museum provided an insight into the collective imagination of ancient Rome as much as a glimpse into the foundation of western art. They seemed so modern, particularly in the recreation of light, it was as if they were influenced by the Impressionists. But of course, it is the other way around.

One senses this blending and interplay of the ages in the St. Regis Grand; it is part of the attraction of the place as much as an exceptional staff, all of whom are competent, efficient, eager to please. The enthusiasm on the part of doormen and housekeepers, waiters and front office people, concierges and even butlers like the dashing Giorgio Nardelli -- who will unpack and pack for you, bring you coffee and pastries, and perform any of the small services one predictably and unexpectedly ends up needing while away from home – is palpable.

General Manager Vincenzo Falcone
General Manager Vincenzo Falcone
Butler Giorgio Nardelli
Butler Giorgio Nardelli
At the front door . . .
At the front door . . .
At the Concierge Desk: Francesco Parrotta and Gioirgia Romano
At the Concierge Desk:
Francesco Parrotta and Gioirgia Romano
Many of the staff can boast of their longevity at the St. Regis. But few have been on the scene as long as Head Concierge Mario Santulli. “Twenty-nine years ago, my father, who worked at another hotel, got me a job as a bellboy here,” he told us. “He said from this place, I would be able to move up. Today, 18 people are working under me.” Mario, whose experiences range from dog-walking to arranging audiences with the Pope (a service he says he can provide to any guest), recalls the time he arranged a private shopping night at Gucci, Prada, and other luxury Italian houses  for a Middle Eastern potentate and his four wives. He has memories enough to write his memoirs.

So does Angelo Corbo, the white-haired, professorial-looking head of Reception, whose tenure began during the Ciga days. “When I began, the same guests would come to the hotel year after year, sometimes twice a year,” he told us. “Often they insisted on the same room. We don't have much of that anymore. We don’t have American guests getting out of taxis with Louis Vuitton or Valentino luggage either. Now it’s backpacks.”

Front Office Man: Angelo Corbo
Front Office Man: Angelo Corbo

Seated in the lobby beneath the huge round chandelier that was added during the renovation --  not a Murano but magnificent nevertheless -- Angelo turns wistful. “There used to be a shoemaker near the hotel,” he says. “His name was Gatto; he was the best one ever.  Guests would come here to get their shoes made. They’d stay five days until the shoes were ready.  The next year they would come back to have them repaired.”

lluminations in the lobby:Murano and otherwise lluminations in the lobby:Murano and otherwise
lluminations in the lobby:Murano and otherwise

He goes on, “The St. Regis has always had celebrities, international delegations, many heads of state who know they can count on security and privacy here. There have been many, many movie stars. I can remember when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were guests during the time they were filming ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’ in Rome. They came up to the front desk and checked in. I escorted them up to the Royal Suite.

 “Back then, celebrities checked in themselves. Today they have guards, secretaries; they come and go through a private entrance. You can't get near them. Things change.”

A recent change is the appointment of Vincenzo as General Manager who first came to the St. Regis in 2006 as Director of Sales and Marketing and then moved on to being Operations Manager. In 2008, just before Christmas, he received the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse. "It's your chance; it's your opportunity," he was told.

Originally from the Amalfi Coast, Vincenzo had worked for another company when he first came to Rome. Nevertheless, the St. Regis had an immediate lure. “I had heard all about it,” he said. “Whenever I could, I’d walk by. I was extremely curious. I’d try to have a look inside, to see what was going on, what kind of guests were there, what celebrities or royalty I could identify, what kind of staff.

 “I never thought I would end up doing this. I thought I would end up working in a bank. Now when I greet guests, and we all try to greet every guest, I say to myself, ‘I can't believe that I'm here.’”

Vincenzo and Manuela had told us about the visit of the Jordanian monarchs during our first evening at the St. Regis. The next day, passing through the lobby, we noticed a casually-dressed English family: father, mother, and four strawberry blonde children, a step-ladder from toddler to pre-teen, checking in for a Roman holiday. Now, as we prepare to leave, that scene comes back to us. We recall how warmly they were welcomed and also how such a welcome is emblematic of this hotel.  For  at the St. Regis Grand, you don’t need a title to get the royal reception.

The St. Regis Grand Hotel
Via Vittorio E. Orlanda, 3 Rome Italy
Phone: (39) (06) 47091

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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