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A Time to Enjoy the Pleasures of the St. Regis Grand Hotel in Rome

We’re back in the city that wasn’t built in a day, the destination that all roads lead to, doing as the Romans do on a Roman Holiday. The allusions, the adages, the clichés keep coming. We can’t stop! When our Italian friend says “The St. Regis Grand is what Americans expect a Roman hotel to be like,” we tell him “That’s because the St. Regis is the noblest Roman of them all.’”

And it is. Ask Marco Tulli. “You are in the most important hotel in Rome,” he says guiding us to a table in the cool, elegant interior of Vivendo, the St. Regis’ fine-dining restaurant.

Such a joy to be here again. All silvery, glassy, shades of gray and taupe, chocolate brown, swaths of purple that enliven the décor and are echoed in the servers’ ties. Gold-tinted wooden pillars with Corinthian capitals that frame doorways leading from one room in the long straight space to another, evocative of antiquity yet perfectly at home in an ambience that brings to mind one of those black and white movies from  the 1930’s and 40’s. Paintings hanging on the walls, representative yet suggestive of the surreal -- we learn they are part of a collection of paintings, sculptures and art installations largely inspired by the piazzas and palaces of Rome. On loan from the contemporary art gallery Polittico di Roma, they are displayed throughout the hotel, and from our table in Vivendo we find them a compelling attraction. But then a young man enters the room, sits down before a small spinet directly opposite, and our attention is diverted as he plays lush arrangements of songs from the Great American Songbook: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “As Time Goes By,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and we succumb to the romantic aura.  Elsewhere, the St. Regis may speak of Imperial Rome, the Renaissance, Baroque,  and Belle Epoque. But here, there is the contrast of the contemporary.

Marco Tulli, Vivendo’s headwaiter and sommelier- click to enlarge
Marco Tulli, Vivendo’s headwaiter and sommelier
Setting the romantic aura at Vivendo - click to enlarge
 Setting the romantic aura at Vivendo

Marco has been at the Vivendo for the past 12 years. As we remember him from our last visit, we feel free to ask him, in consultation with Executive Chef Francesco Donatelli, to organize a dinner that relies heavily on local and traditional specialties in the modern Mediterranean style. Out reward is a memorable feast that includes marinated salmon with chopped avocado and dried cherry tomatoes; ricotta cheese quenelles made with green beans and chives; maccheroncini (small macaroni) carbonara style but with grated asparagus in place of the bacon; a casserole fillet of sea bass with shrimps flavored with an Italian white wine and garden herbs; and fillet of sea bream with a Castelfranco radicchio pesto.

From the 300 labels on Vivendo’s wine list, Marco (who is an expert sommelier as a well as headwaiter) introduces us to Villa Simoni from the ancient town of Frascati, southeast of Rome. “It is one of the most important vineyards in the region,” he tells us, as he pours a fresh and crispy white. Afterwards we move on to a dynamic red; he describes the blend as “steel’ and “silk,” the former being aggressive, the latter smooth.

We wonder whether the focus on this local wine-producing region (not very well known in America at the moment) is part of what we’ve heard referred to as the “Zero Kilometer” trend, a growing interest in and preference for products close to home.

“It’s a movement I have noticed,” Marco says. “It’s something new, but something new around here can mean for the past six or seven years.” (A fraction of a fraction of a second in Roman time.)

Time. The perpetual subtext of the St. Regis experience. During a stay of any length, one glides through the centuries as much as the hallways. A telling example: behind a door near the entry to Vivendo, an iron stairway descends to the wine cellar of a medieval Benedictine monastery unexpectedly come upon, in a state of total disarray, during the 1999 hotel-wide renovation in preparation for the Jubilee of 2000. Transformed into an intimate, candle-lit dining space, it houses 600 bottles of the hotel’s finest wines and features a tiepidarium taken from the ruins of the Baths of the Emperor Diocletian (arguably the largest and most beautiful of the ancient spas), portions of which were unearthed beneath the St. Regis building.

The Di Vini Private Wine Cellar accommodates a maximum of fourteen guests. But up on ground level, there is room for one and all in the opulent, splendorous Grand Hall often described as the most beautiful lobby in Europe (superlatives, one notes, are in order throughout the St. Regis). It takes a leap of imagination to adjust from a medieval to a Grand Epoque sensibility in Roman red and gold, where arched recesses are illuminated by Murano chandeliers and sconces and a take-your-breath-away enormous crystal fixture that drops down  from the heights of the domed ceiling in the room’s center. But such are the demands made during this odyssey through the ages.

The best viewing perspective of the Grand Hall is from Le Grand Bar. Overlooking the scene like a balcony in an opera house, the place where the “Bloody Mary” was perfected if not invented (or so we were told), remains a favored setting for splendid breakfasts, lunches and  afternoon teas, and where, once again, we re-connect with our special Roman friends for drinks in the late afternoon.

It is a dizzying trip through time via décor when one adds the interiors of the 138 rooms and suites, visions from the Empire, Regency, and Louis XV periods plus the occasional modern to the other century-defined spaces of the St. Regis. Yet, throughout our stay, there is this persistent, familiar sense that we are in a place where time stands still.

The sensation envelops us as soon as we arrive. It’s hard to describe, a kind of déjà vu. We check in, and the friendly faces behind the front desk are familiar. Where did we see them before?2 Why right here, of course. We turn en route to the elevator, and there at the concierge station is Francesco Parrotta who remembers us from our visit a few years ago. Gentle in demeanor, sensitive, informed, he will pick up where he left off last time, making order out of the bewildering options before us when we contemplate a day of Roman sight-seeing. Recalling our interest in Classical Art, he suggests we walk over to the  Museo Nazionale Romano a few blocks from the hotel which houses an extraordinary collection of Roman art from the 2nd century B.C. to the 5th century A.D.  He had told us about it last time, urges us not to miss it this time. We don’t.

At our suite, our butler Giovanni Todorov (aka Jimmy) is waiting for us. Last time, we had a different butler. He was a charismatic force. But so is Jimmy. He’s also a fan of American sports, football in particular. He and the sports zealot among us have much to talk about.

Concierge Francesco Parrotta
Concierge Francesco Parrotta
Butler Giovanni (Jimmy) Todorov
Butler Giovanni (Jimmy) Todorov

Hours before, we had passed through one of the three arched portals into the courtyard at the front of what looks like a 19th century Italianate palazzo, and from there into the brilliant marble hallway of the St. Regis Grand interior. It was as if we never left.

A few days later, we are leaving and finding this departure – our third – to be more difficult than the ones that came before. We wonder at this effect. There is, of course, the splendid surroundings, the luxury and comfort, but also the tranquility, the sense of order that pervades every aspect of the St. Regis experience. We will have to tell our Italian friend he is right: the St. Regis is what Americans expect a Roman hotel to be like. And you know what? It fulfills every expectation.

St. Regis Grand Hotel
Via V.E. Orlando 3
00185 Roma, Italia

Phone: 39 06 47092915 

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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