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 All Roads Lead to Rome's Hotel De Russie

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

If all roads lead to Rome, all roads in Rome, it would seem, lead to the Hotel de Russie. Start at the top of the Via del Corso in front of the Piazza Venezia just beyond the Forum, skirt the Fountain of Trevi and the Spanish Steps, and proceed to the end of the avenue at the Piazza del Popolo. Or enter the Borghese Gardens via the Via Veneto, wander its wooded pathways into the Pincio pausing at the overlook resplendent with church domes, then trace your way down the many-leveled stairway to the Piazza del Popolo. Or from the Vatican, proceed along the Via Cola di Rienzo, cross the bridge over the Tiber and walk straight-aways to the Piazza del Popolo. Or enter the Piazza del Popolo through the gate in ancient Aurelian Wall. Come from any direction, from the north, south, east and west, and you will find yourself virtually on the doorstep of the Hotel de Russie.

The building’s classic 19th century façade opens up into a spacious 21st century lobby of noble proportions with an unpolished marble floor and minimal furnishings. An enormous floral centerpiece on a gleaming pedestal table partly blocks the view on the other side of a great glass door directly across from the entrance. But upon closer inspection, a pink and white courtyard is revealed with tables set out under opened market umbrellas.

The pink and white courtyard at the base of a terraced garden - click to enlarge

The pink and white courtyard at the base of a terraced garden

At its end, a terraced garden begins to climb through divided stone stairways framed by white balustrades where cedar and orange trees, palms and cypresses mass on the hillside, flowers overflow onto gravel paths, and cascading white roses fill the air with fragrance.

The combination of a strikingly modern interior with a romantic Giardino Segreto (secret garden) hidden behind an urban exterior is one of the things that makes the Hotel de Russie unique, unique being an apt adjective for this celebrity destination, the hottest property in town since it opened in April 2000. Naomi Campbell was expected the day we checked in. Later in the week George Clooney and Julia Roberts would be arriving. “Oceans Twelve” is scheduled to be filmed in Rome. Guess where the cast will be put up during three months of shooting?

“When the hotel opened, its contemporary look was very new for Rome. No one expected it,” said Sara Zanazzo who is the de Russie’s North American sales manager. “But if you think about it, Italy has become such a leader in design, food, fashion, cinema. The de Russie  fits right into this conception. People come to Rome expecting tradition. They’ll find it here, but with a new twist. It is contemporary yet not too hip. Rather it has a kind of classic feel that blends in well with its Roman setting.”

We were having breakfast with the stylish Sara, who apparently knows a thing or two about Italian design, and head concierge Antonio Barbieri in Le Jardin du Russie, the palatial, airy restaurant whose windows are French doors that open onto a dining terrace on the second level of the garden. An elaborate buffet offered fresh fruits including figs at the height of season, yogurts and cereals, prosciutto and salamis, omelets, smoked salmon and swordfish. The a la carte menus beside our place-settings remained unopened.

The tall and charismatic Antonio was telling us about the excitement that had been generated some years before when word got out that Rocco Forte would be turning the building on the Via del Babuino into a five-star hotel.

“I was a concierge in a four-star hotel at the time and out walking with my wife when I saw the sign,” he said. “It stopped me. The building  will have to be completely transformed, I told my wife.

“It had had a long and interesting history as a hotel,” the affable Antonio continued. “During the 19th century it was a favored destination on the ‘Grand Tour.’ The last Tsar of Russia and his family stayed here often. That explains the de Russie name and the Romanoff crest which is the hotel’s logo. For many years the Carnival was held on the Piazza del Popolo, and the rich families of Rome would gather on the de Russie’s roof to watch the festivities.     

“But during the Second World War, the building was usurped by the occupying Germans for their headquarters. Afterwards, it served as the offices of the RAI national media network. They left in 1993, and since then it had stood empty.

“So the idea that the Hotel de Russie would be being back in business, and  Rocco Forte would be the one to put it back in business -- this was news. Everyone -- taxi drivers, passersby, Romans as well as tourists – was surprised.”

Intrigued, Antonio applied for a concierge position and was ultimately interviewed by the electric Elena Bruno whose connection to the Fortes had some history. Elena had been director of sales and marketing at Rome’s five-star Hotel Eden, a Forte property until the hostile takeover of the London-based company in the late 1990’s. Now Sir Rocco, Lord Forte’s son, was back in town and back in business but with a new concept. Instead of developing another vast collection of hotels, restaurants, and motorway cafes, Sir Rocco was creating a select line of deluxe hotels in different European cities. Reaching back to the Eden, he asked Elena Bruno to head the sales and marketing division of what would be his first Italian property.

Not only did Elena respond to his call, she, in turn, lured  clients as well as staff to follow in her wake.

Hearing this story, we could imagine Elena as she went about, a glamorous pied piper, assembling her staff of talented young men and women from different backgrounds and of different styles, each possessed of the particular élan that has come to define the de Russie ethos. They are a remarkable group, unobtrusive, but there whenever needed, be it behind the reception desk, at the front door, in the lounges, bar and restaurant, at the spa, in the rooms.  

The electric Elena Bruno (left) with Antonio Barbieri,  Sara Zanazzo, and one of the welcoming doormen - click to enlarge

The electric Elena Bruno (left) with Antonio Barbieri,  Sara Zanazzo, and one of the welcoming doormen

At the de Russie, the only thing you might have to wait for is the elevator. Should Antonio be busy with a client, his associate the genial Caroline Villermose appears -- as if from out of nowhere -- ready to answer questions, make reservations, organize sightseeing expeditions (like our private tour of the Forum area that was, in the space of a few hours, a mini and memorable course in Roman history). 

Antonio still recalls the giddy excitement of the pre-opening days. “It was very challenging,” he said. “We had to get used to the procedures, the building, the technical problems of heating and air conditioning. We were many young people coming from different places with different experiences. There were no guests. We were waiting for the guests while we got ready.

“Sir Rocco threw an opening party for his friends and associates,” Sara interjected. “Over 1,000 people attended. It was the 15th of April, a lovely spring night. I don’t remember him making a speech, but I do remember him singing. I think this opening was special to him because Sir Rocco is of Italian ancestry and his wife is from Rome.

“Later on we learned Sir Rocco was competing with the Four Seasons for this property,” she added. “But the former owner was more comfortable selling it to a company with roots in Italy. They live next door and often I’ve heard them say ‘We made the right choice.’”

We felt we made the right choice when we had lunch at Le Jardin during a tightly scheduled visit to Rome several years ago. But this time we were unhurried guests staying at the hotel with time enough for a leisurely dinner. Our only regret was coming a few weeks too late for al fresco dining on the beautiful terrace one level up from the courtyard. In warm weather, we were told, tables in the gardened setting are hard to come by -- although an ample amount are always reserved for hotel guests .

But our timing was just right in terms of that rare Tuscan delicacy: the white truffle. Antonio had forewarned us: “This year because of the hot summer they are very hard to get and therefore very expensive.” But at the Jardin du Russie they had just come in, and the menu was adjusted to reflect the chef’s suggestions of dishes that go especially well with truffles.

But first there was the pan brioche with carrots on top and a little foie gras, and the oysters from the north of Corsica. There was the salad of greens, radishes and cucumbers dressed (very slowly) with the right ratio of balsamic vinegar to olive oil -- less than one to three parts -- from Savina north of Rome, and a velvety vegetable soup with carrots and mushrooms and a clove of garlic at the bottom. And, of course, pasta. Can one have a Roman dinner without pasta? The dilemma was should it be risotto with broccoli and oysters, guitar spaghetti with tomato and basil sauce, gnocchi of semolina with asparagus and ricotta? We went for spaghetti carbonara made with hot olive oil and in lieu of cream, the yolk of an egg and never looked back.

Now for the truffles. Although Le Jardin is renowned for its fish preparations and red mullets, monkfish, John Dory, and turbot were among the day’s catch, truffles grow far from the sea. Restaurant manager Gabriele Pinzi, whom we remembered from our last visit, suggested the veal fillet accompanied by celeriac which looks like a big turnip and has the consistency of mashed potatoes.  Shaved onto veal that had been braised with rosemary in its own natural juices, the truffles provided that incredible zip. As Gabriele put it, “They add life.”

Chef Nazzareno Menghini whom we also met last time around, was away this evening. But after such a dinner, which concluded sublimely with a poppy seed soufflé with persimmon pureée and a turnover filled with apple and currants, compliments had to be paid.  Sous chef Alessandro Cecere modestly accepted our bravos and shared his cooking philosophy. “Use the freshest Mediterranean ingredients and the highest quality meats and fish and prepare them simply. Don’t hide the taste of the products by using cuisine techniques. Instead of complicated sauces, cook foods in their use natural juices. Look at the truffle. All you do is get it out of the earth, clean it and eat it.” True. Still the banquet Alessandro had prepared this evening only looked simple.

click to enlarge

Assistant restaurant manager, the amiable Roberto Narni, is also a sommelier, and he recommended a chardonnay from Planeta in Sicily that was exceptional. Deeply golden in color, it is quite strong, 14%  alcohol, yet so smooth, you hardly feel it. “This wine is produced in small quantities and is very hard to get,” Roberto told us. “There’s such great interest, people are buying futures of it.

“Sicily is doing well in the wine business, production is increasing all around,” he added. “Eighty percent of our wines are Italian. We also have a good selection of important French wines, but it seems people want to drink Italian when they are here.”

And why not? Le Jardin, although French in name, is definitively Italian in ambience. It is also the most traditional space in the hotel, evoking  a kind of Grand Epoque elegance. Olga Polizzi, Sir Rocco’s sister and the hotel’s interior designer, chose to add warmth to the room by ample touches of reds. There are red velvet chairs and draperies, red tablecloths and swirls of red branches on the round table in the center of the room. Even the floor is red marble, and it takes on the glow of candlelight and crystals from the pair of exquisite Murano chandeliers. In this welcoming environment, indoor dining is hardly an unhappy alternative.

The décor throughout is engaging. Our beautiful high-ceilinged room overlooked the Piazza del Popolo on one side and the Via del Balbuino on the other (there are 125 rooms at the de Russie which either share our view or look out over the garden). Walls, bed coverings, draperies, and upholstery were in restful shades ranging from celadon to lime green that blended well with Asiatic-looking cabinets of black wood. Just the kind of place to come back to after a long day.

The public areas, on the other hand, are stronger with the rough texture of the unpolished marble floors, the walls painted pale gray, the deep sofas and armchairs of garnet, gray and mauve, the tables of highly polished wood – all evocative of the silver screen, a kind of 1940’s Hollywood glamour. And here and there, the vision is enlivened by an eclectic mix of art -- classical Roman sculptures, medieval and baroque antiques, and framed paintings and photographs.

Beneath a huge abstract oil in the Stravinskij Bar we met Martin Elsner who had recently come over as general manager.  Young and enthusiastic, he seemed to easily fit into the espirit de corps that defines the de Russie which was only to be expected. He’d been part of the pre-opening team. Returning as G.M. was a kind of coming home.

“The hotel has had an impressive story of success which I want to continue by adding and fine tuning little things, by listening carefully to guest comments, by changing things to keep the hotel interesting, innovative and young,” he told us. “But one thing I’m determined to maintain is the excellent team spirit of the staff.”

click to enlarge click to enlarge

General Manager Martin Elsner - click to enlarge

General Manager Martin Elsner

We were enjoying excellent martinis, the specialty of bar manager Massimo D’Addezio who claims the secret to a good martini is the right distance between the martini glass and the vermouth. A well dressed man came in, ordered a martini, and sat down at the table beside ours. He lives in the neighborhood, he told us, often stops by on his way home.

“As a rule fifty percent of the people at the bar are Romans. That’s quite unusual for a hotel catering largely to American tourists,” said Martin Elsner. “The hotel has this strong local quality.”

A strong local quality. Beyond all the luxe features common to a five-star hotel, the unique décor, the outstanding table, and the irrepressible staff, the Hotel de Russie gives its guests something else – an omnipresent feeling of being in the Eternal City where past, present and future merge. That alone can make a stay unforgettable.

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Hotel de Russie
Via del Babuino 9
Rome 00187

Phone: +39 06 328881

Photographs by Harvey Frommer


**Hers: A return to Rome meant a return to Femme Sistina just off the Spanish Steps where once again, a much sought after dress for a big event was plucked right off the rack. Since 1959, Lisette Lenzi  has been running this beauty salon/spa/boutique, developing an international clientele along the way. Downstairs in her bi-level shop is the beauty salon where hair styling and treatments, facials, makeup, manicures and pedicures, and a range of massages take place. On the main level are an au courant collection of accessories and a sampling of prete a porter gowns and sportswear designed by Lisette. A few well placed nips and tucks by Loredana Bramante, Lisette’s long-time assistant, and my dress fit as if it were custom made.

Femme Sistina
Via Sistina 75, A-B-C-D

Phone: 06-67-80-260

**His: Just across the Via Veneto from the legendary Excelsior Hotel, the family owned Rinaldi shop  has been selling pens and other writing instruments, leather goods and men’s accessories since 1930. If you like to write the old fashioned way, Mauro Rinaldi can help you select from among a great range of Italian and French pens.

Via Veneto 86

Phone: 39064452389

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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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