"Two days ago, King Abdullah and Queen
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
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
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
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
Butler Giorgio Nardelli
At the front door . . .
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
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
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.
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