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The Grandeur that is Rome at the St. Regis Grand Hotel, Rome

Two thousand years of human history coalesce around Rome’s Piazza della Repubblica. At the center, nymphs of the Naiad Fountain spurt great jets of water into the air while scooters and cars whiz around the rotary in traffic that never seems to ebb. The main railroad station is just across the way, and Via XX Septembre named for the day in 1870 that Papal forces were subdued and Rome became capital of the secular Italian state is but a few blocks to the west.   St. Regis Grand - Rome

On the north side of the piazza are the Diocletian Baths, largest and most beautiful of Imperial Rome. Michelangelo converted part of the original structure into St. Mary of the Angels Church in the 1560’s; the National Roman Museum with its incomparable collection of classical antiquities is on this site as well. And just beyond, fronting the adjacent Via Orlando and overlooking the piazza, stands a graceful white building that appears to be a nineteenth century Italianate palazzo but is actually the twenty-first century St. Regis Grand Hotel.

The grandest of Roman hotels can lay easy claim to being a landmark on its own.  When it opened on January 11, 1894, it was Le Grand Hotel, the newest venture of Cesar Ritz, the Swiss hotelier whose name was to become a synonym for high style and find its way, some decades hence, in the Irving Berlin tune: “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” A thousand guests braved the anomaly of a Roman snowstorm to attend Le Grand Hotel’s inaugural gala which featured a concert conducted by a leading maestro of the time.   Looking like a 19th century palazzo: The St. Regis Grand – Rome
Looking like a 19th century palazzo: The St. Regis Grand – Rome

They marveled not only at the palatial environs and sumptuous furnishings but at an array of technological wonders. Electric lights, a lift, central heating, and rooms with private baths all seemed advances heralding the century ahead.        

e Grand Hotel lived up to the promise of its debut becoming a storied destination for kings and queens, diplomats and heads of state, movie stars, financial scions, even literary lions like Leo Tolstoy and Emile Zola.  Two years short of its one hundredth anniversary, it was taken over by Starwood Resorts and Hotels Worldwide who thought to bring an American entrepreneurial spirit and know-how to the legendary property. In March, 1999, the hotel was closed down for a nine month-renovation project that cost $35,000,000 and involved 450 workers who labored in round-the-clock shifts.  Reopened in time for the turn of a new century, new millennium, and start of Jubilee 2000, the Holy Year declared by the Pope, it was now the St. Regis Grand, the first St. Regis property in Europe.  Still an enchanting late 19th century palazzo, it was as technically au courant at the dawn of the 21st century as its earlier self had been at the dawn of the 20th century.

Viewed from the Piazza della Repubblica, it’s still Le Grand Hotel
Viewed from the Piazza della Repubblica, it’s still Le Grand Hotel

There are nine St. Regis hotels and resorts in the world today, all offshoots of the original in New York that John Jacob Astor built in 1905. Stephen Alden worked there for five years and brought along a sense of the historic import of the name when he came to the St. Regis Grand as general manager in June of 1999. “All the St. Regis properties share a certain classical elegance, a special meaning to the cities they’re located in, and a special place in the hearts of the people who know them,” he told us.  
A native of Malta, Stephen Alden cuts a dashing figure. He speaks the king’s English in sonorous tones and presents an aristocratic image that befits the palatial environs he is surrounded by, an impression reinforced by the discovery that his his hobbies include such sports of kings such as grand prix horse-show jumping and modern art. But as Stephen Alden warmed to the subject of the St. Regis Grand, a joyful enthusiasm betrayed the commanding exterior of a man charged with operating one of the world’s great hotels to reveal a youthful joie de vivre beneath the surface.

General Manager Stephen Alden with Public Relations Manager Lucilla De Lucca at Vivendo in the St. Regis Grand – Rome
General Manager Stephen Alden with Public Relations Manager Lucilla De Lucca at Vivendo in the St. Regis Grand – Rome

He is still smitten with the adventure of restoration. “The architecture, symmetry, proportions, even acoustics of this place are spectacular,” he told us animatedly when we met for drinks on the balcony overlooking the circular expanse and arched recesses of the Grand Hall off the lobby. Thousands of tiny crystals glittered with reflected light from an array of Murano chandeliers and sconces that ranged from antique to brand new. An enormous fixture from the 1940’s, made of a series of circles of crystals in vertical and ray-like formation, hugged the domed ceiling, a kind of inversion of the traditional hanging variety. Walls were paneled in shades of gold, floors were an intricate swirl of red and yellow marble, furnishings a blend of crimson and gold sofas and chairs from the Regency and Empire periods. Corinthian pillars led the eye to a soaring hexagon-shaped ceiling; beneath it a rim of windows was set into ornate recesses. Spectacular, indeed.

Views of the Grand Hall, the St. Regis Grand -- Rome Views of the Grand Hall, the St. Regis Grand -- Rome Views of the Grand Hall, the St. Regis Grand -- Rome

Views of the Grand Hall, the St. Regis Grand - Rome -

“When we decided on the renovation, our guiding question was ‘What would Cesar Ritz have done?’” Alden said. “We stripped away much that had been added on by other management companies in the hotel’s nearly one hundred year history, but we kept the original architecture and retained everything from the past that was rich, that made the hotel special.

“These floors were covered with wood parquet which is difficult to maintain. When the workers removed the wood, they discovered the original marble floor beneath, in perfect condition.  All it needed was polishing.  Marble withstands traffic much better and also looks very palatial. Hot water pipes under the floor provide a heating system – just like in the Roman baths. And in warm weather, marble gives a cool, fresh feeling.

“A tremendous amount of research went into the renovation,” the affable Stephen Alden added. “Our contractor had access to the best craftsmen. They restored the murals, paintings, mosaics, frescoes; they refinished the wood, polished the marble. There are people here in Rome who can do this kind of work. Surrounded by so much art, they have the sense of what needs to be done.”

We were in the lobby now where black and white marble were the predominant surfaces. A breathtaking abstract sculpture of a horse made of alabaster stood on a black marble table opposite the concierge’s desk. Such  objects and materials so foreign to a classical Roman settings prove to be a rich addition.

“We wanted to maintain the feeling of a Roman palazzo,” Alden noted, “but at the same time we decided to do some provocative things, to include contemporary touches that would project the hotel into the next 100 years.

“This hotel is only 161 rooms. That’s not very big in terms of rooms, but the feeling is very spacious and palatial. I fall in love with it again and again. I never get tried of it.” He stopped, amused at his own exuberance, then added “I think I have the best job in the world.”

The general manager’s infectious attitude has apparently permeated the premises, setting a tone that was picked up by everyone we met in the St. Regis Grand family all of whom projected a pride and pleasure in being associated with a place that beyond being a luxurious hotel, is part of the larger Roman story.

“There are so many great museums throughout Rome, yet the Grand holds its own,” Federico Versari, the front office manager, told us. Nimble as a dancer and possessed of an impish sense of humor, Federico offered to be our private docent in a mini tour of the St. Regis Grand. We began with the Salone Ritz, Rome’s first ballroom which, in its refurbished state, continues to be the site of lavish affairs, but also hosts events unknown a century ago. 

Valentino and Versace present their  haute couture collections here; it is also where press events for the launching of American movies in Italy take place. “George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon – they were all here for the launching of ‘Oceans Eleven,’” Federico said. “Tom Cruise will come for the launching of ‘Vanilla Sky.’ And Anthony Hopkins was here to promote ‘Hannibal.’ We even did a private dinner with a ‘Hannibal’ menu,” he added with a grin leaving us to speculate on its contents.

Antique Murano Chandelier in Salone Ritz
Antique Murano Chandelier in Salone Ritz

Little has been altered in the Salone Ritz. The mirrored walls, marble pillars, brilliant pair of Murano chandeliers and sconces, ceiling frescoes are all original. “Look at the chandeliers,” Federico said. “They appear similar, but each one is hand made and individual. The crystals are in the shape of roses and flowers. When they were taken down to be cleaned, they seemed so fragile. Yet how well they hang together.

“Originally they were candle-lit,” he added, “and the smoke from the candles darkened the frescoes on the ceiling to the point where they could barely be seen.”

In a repeat of the maneuver we’d undergone at the Sistine Chapel the day before, we leaned backwards -- this time to see the idyllic Arcadian scenes painted by  Mario Spinetti which have been restored to their original clarity.

Straightening up, we followed Federico beyond the ballroom and down a chandelier-lit corridor at the back of the hotel where we took an old fashioned cage elevator to a brand new fitness center, a feature emblematic of the modern St. Regis Grand.

But from there, we found ourselves cast back in time to an era pre-dating even Cesar Ritz as we descended a narrow spiral staircase off the lobby to a darkened subterranean chamber where a single rustic dining table was set for eight, and floor-to- ceiling shelves were lined with bottles of wine.

“You know, the buildings of Rome have such interesting stories,” Federico said. “In most cases, it’s easy to find out about the last one hundred years, but not what happened before. It’s believed a Benedictine monastery once stood here, and this was its wine cellar. When it was discovered during renovations, it was in a state of total disarray; the bottles were lying around everywhere.

“But they had the brilliant idea to create a tiny restaurant here. The basic structure of the wine cellar was retained; it was organized, and a dining table was placed in the middle. The old brick floors and terra cotta walls keep temperatures consistent for more than 20,000 bottles of wine of 350 labels, more than half of which are Italian.”

We would sample three of them at Vivendo, whose entrance is but several yards from the stairway leading to the wine cellar but whose mood is centuries into the future. (Our St. Regis Grand experience, we were beginning to think, was taking on the dimensions of a trip through time. But then again, this was the Eternal City.) This award-winning restaurant is decorated in a style Stephen Alden would undoubtedly term ‘provocative.’ “Before renovations it  looked like the rest of the hotel, very ornate and rich,” Federico had told us. “Then it closed down, and when it reopened it was completely new and different.”

For “new and different,” read cool and contemporary in a sophisticated palette of silver, lavender and burgundy, with furnishings that suggest the  1930’s and 40’s.  As much as the St. Regis Grand largely reflects classical, renaissance, and baroque Rome, Vivendi plugs into modern Rome and its connection to the fashion world. This is a theme subtly realized in the carpet’s design borrowed from a high-fashion scarf’s pattern, and framed sketches from 1930’s issues of Vogue Magazine and pieces of ancient dresses that decorate the fabric-covered walls. “There’s rich wood paneling beneath the fabric,” Stephen Alden said. “We left it for the next generation of restorers to discover.”

Umberto Vezzoli, Vivendi’s Brescian-born executive chef, has a low-keyed and modest demeanor that belies such culinary accomplishments as winning a gold medal at the European Championships in Salzburg. He prepares dishes largely in the Mediterranean tradition relying on local products as much as possible, but not without some unexpected combinations. We pondered a menu that offered some half dozen choices in each category: appetizers, pasta/soups, fish, meats, even – and we made a note to tell our sons -- vegetarian dishes, and then throwing caution to the wind, decided to rely on Umberto’s and restaurant manager/sommelier Federico Galligani’s advice. It was a wise choice to the very end which came in the form of a surprise (how did they know?) and sublime “Happy Anniversary” cake filled with ice cream and covered with leaves of bittersweet chocolate. But we are getting ahead of the story.

A glass of Braidealte, a Gran Cru produced by Livon from the Piedmont region, began our meal.  This deeply yellow and fruity wine, which blends Chardonnay, Picolit, Sauvignon, and the perfumed Moscata Giallo grapes, is often served with desert. But it proved a lovely accompaniment to our antipasti: a filo pastry roll filled with Osetra caviar, strips of celery, carrots and red pepper and an incredibly light mousse made of Sake – a touch of the unexpected alluded to above, and a terrine of prawns with  spinach salad.

To go with the second course, we drank a Chardonnay Planeta from Sicily. This new wine, full-bodied and golden, is a copy of the California Chardonnay. “It has great, great potential --you can taste the sun of Sicily in it,” we were told, which made its pairing with pasta just perfect.

Umberto’s pastas were irresistible. The linguini came with lobster from Sardinia and pieces of a Granny Smith apple(!), the taglioni was served with tangy sea bass fishballs, and the risotto with a red wine sauce, chunks of monkfish and the unexpected but delightful addition of tart red currants.

Our third wine was the award winning Avvoltore, a Tuscan blend of 75% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, and to add a touch of spice, 5% Syrrah grapes. Ruby-red and soft on the palate, it had a deep, long-lasting finish and was well partnered with salmon sautéed with pistachios, sesame seeds and asparagus -- a wonderfully novel combination of flavors and textures, and  entrecorte seasoned with four peppers and served with a terrine of potatoes with black truffles in a wine sauce.

A selection of Italian cheeses preceded the surprise dessert which arrived just as we were about to follow the lead of the American woman in the picture hat at the next table who proclaimed her berry ice cream “the best dessert  I ever tasted!”

She and her husband, who were seated before we arrived and were lingering over their Sambuca when we were done, are New York transplants, living in Rome now for half a dozen years. They dine at Vivendo regularly, they told us. It’s one of their favorite Roman restaurants in Rome.

“People often come here and spend an entire evening,” Stephen Alden said. “About one third are guests at the hotel, another third are from other luxury hotels, and yet another third are Romans. As our diners are varied, so are our hotel guests. We have international delegations that are visiting for state affairs, individual travelers from North America and Europe, people from the fashion and movie industries. It’s a very healthy mix, and it gives us an obligation to innovate.

“One of the innovations we plan is to take a category of suites, name each after one of the most sought after contemporary artists in Italy, and decorate each with the artist’s works. That will be another signature characteristic of the St. Regis Grand. I believe the hotel has a heritage of art which we want to enhance.”

Part of the hotel’s heritage of art: a hand-painted mural of a Roman site on the wall behind every bed
Part of the hotel’s heritage of art: a hand-painted mural of a Roman site on the wall behind every bed

Presently every room and suite is named for a Roman landmark that appears in a hand-painted mural behind each bed. This feature was pointed out soon after we checked by Maurizio, one of the two butlers assigned to us during our stay. The St. Regis Grand was the first hotel in Italy to introduce butler service, a luxury option affording guests round-the-clock personalized service. Maurizio and his partner, Martin, who is of French and German extraction and studied literature in Bonn, were charming and charismatic young men who spoke fluent English and were more like informed hosts than servants of a bygone day.

Maurizio the butler, before the bar in the Grand Hall
Maurizio the butler, before the bar in the Grand Hall

Early each morning, we woke to café au lait, croissants and the day’s copy of the International Herald Tribune, courtesy of Maurizio. Late each afternoon, we’d return from a day of sight-seeing and find delectable marzipan tarts waiting for us – treats from Martin. Our anything but silent butlers attended to our dry cleaning, kept the flowers fresh, and were able to provide information about any sites we wanted to see.

But we demurred when Maurizio offered to unpack for us. “Instead,” we said, “we’d like to see the Royal Suite.”

Royal bathroom in the Royal Suite
Royal bathroom in the Royal Suite

Happily he agreed. The next morning found Maurizio at the door of our room, key in hand for the apartment within the hotel that is truly “fit for a king.” Its dining room seats 18 and includes a private wine cellar.  Its living room includes a magnificent 15th century Flemish tapestry, a carpet of fabulous size and intricate heraldic motif, a Bechstein grand piano, and period Louis XV furniture.  The silk bedspread on the master bed is embroidered with lace roses and pearls that two women labored on for four months. The master bathroom has a luxuriantly sculpted tub of gray Carerra marble, “the kind Michelangelo used,” Maurizio told us. “It is malleable and can be sculpted into such shapes.
A study in modernity: the Designer Suite
A study in modernity: the Designer Suite
He then insisted we see the very different Designer Suite.  Once again, the centuries flew by and we entered an apartment of contemporary Italian design studded with art deco accents. Streamlined in black and beige, with stunning sculptures and modern art – one painting appeared to be an Edward Hopper – it is the choice of Hollywood celebrities like Stephen Speilberg and George Clooney, Maurizio said, while the Royal Suite houses national delegations.

It seemed to us these suites also represented, each in its own way, the heritage of art Stephen Alden spoke of. The St. Regis Grand is part of a continuum in a city steeped in artistic creation from ancient through modern times.

Natale Mastrantonio, the head concierge who sees his role as being “a friend to the guests,” was around before the renovations. “We were all sent to work elsewhere during the nine month period,” he told us. “Some went to Sardinia, some to Venice, some to the Excelsior in Rome. We were all happy to go out and have a new experience knowing we would come back to the same job.

“The hotel needed to change. It needed to be cleaned and brought up to date; it needed a facelift. After we reopened, we had a wonderful New Year’s Eve party in the Salle Ritz. The hotel was full. It was a great moment, a new beginning. People were curious because the name Grand is so famous. They came to see what had been done.

“What has changed most is the guests. There are more Americans now because of Starwood.”

“We have a lot to learn from the American people because they are self made,” Maurizio had told us. “Marketing was born in America. And having Starwood running the hotel is a very good thing. One of the things that changed is that the guest comes first. If my guest and director call me at the same time, I first go to my guest, because without the guest, the property will not exist.” Front Office Manager Federico Versari (left) and Head Concierge Natale Mastrantonio – a pair who make it happen at the St. Regis Grand -- Rome
Front Office Manager Federico Versari (left) and Head Concierge Natale Mastrantonio – a pair who make it happen at the St. Regis Grand - Rome.

All Photos by Harvey Frommer

* * *

The St. Regis Grand – Rome
Via V.E. Orlando 3
00185 Rome, Italy

Phone: (39) 0647092736
Web: http://www.stregis.com/GrandRome 

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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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