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 A Woman with Brio in Charge At The Hotel De Russie of Rome

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

Rome lures through its layers. Stumble over a stone, and a record of civilization appears underfoot. Walk down a street, cross a piazza, and the collective impact of the centuries resonates. Take in the Piazza del Popolo bordered by the ancient northern gate of the Aurelian Wall. Its centerpiece is the famous obelisk: Obelisco Flaminio, booty taken from Ramses II, brought to Imperial Rome on the order of Emperor Augustus. On the piazza's northern edge, the lovely Santa Maria del Popola, built at the close of the 11th century on the site where (legend has it) Nero was buried, embraces the Early Renaissance, High Renaissance and Baroque periods with masterworks by Pinturicchio and Raphael, Caravaggio and Bernini. Along its southern edge, a pair of cafés echo with the stridency of political argument that defined them for a good part of the twentieth century: Art Nouveau-styled Café Rosati haunted by left-wing intellectuals, Café Canova brimming with right-wing ideologues. And just a few steps down from the Café Canova, the Hotel de Russie, born in the first spring of the twenty-first century, adds yet another layer to the eternal story of the Eternal City.
Looking up the Via del Babuino to the Piazza del Popolo - click to enlarge
Looking up the Via del Babuino to the Piazza del Popolo
Looking down the Via del Babuino from a de Russie balcony - click to enlrage
Looking down the Via del Babuino from a de Russie balcony

Predictably, the property inhabits a place that embodies a historic past. Built as a luxurious hotel in the early 1800s, it was a stop on the "Grand Tour" and a regular destination for Russian nobility including Tsar Nicholas and his family (hence the eponymous name de Russie and the Romanoff crest that serves as its  logo). After being usurped by the German army during the Occupation, it became the offices of RAI, Italy's television and radio network, from 1975 until 1992. Then it languished for the next half dozen years until Sir Rocco Forte bought and transformed it into a new hotel.

As a listed property, the basic structure was not able to be altered, and so the new hotel retains its original neo-classic façade that blends with neighboring buildings along the busy Via del Babuino (one of the three roads that empty into the Piazza del Popolo). The noble proportions of the interior remain as well although reconfigured into spacious public and guest rooms. Here, the gifted Olga Polizzi, Sir Rocco's sister, who designs the Rocco Forte interiors, has matched strikingly modern furnishings in cool, muted tones, with original art and accessories. While all are works of well-known contemporary Roman artists, in style and substance, they evoke the spirit of the classical era.

A simple street entrance hardly prepares one for the drama of the open, high-ceilinged space within where a single round table bearing an enormous floral display creates a heart-stopping first impression. A glass door beyond frames the de Russie's courtyard bordered by both wings of the u-shaped building. At its far end, a magnificent stone Palladian stairway rises. Painted pink to match the building's surface, with a radiant white balustrade, it beckons visitors to ascend to a terrace on the next level where amidst potted lemon and orange trees, tables are set for alfresco dining outside of Le Jardin, the hotel's gastronomic restaurant.

Here begin the lush Giardino Segreto, six terraces of garden beds, ivy-covered stone walls, huge pines and palms, ilex bushes, and a scattering of ruins -- a marble bust, part of a pillar, even a Roman basin -- along gravel paths that wind up to a road leading to the Picino on the western edge of the Borghese Gardens in one direction, and the Spanish Steps in another. There is probably not a more enchanting place in all of Rome.

No sooner did the de Russie open, than the cognescenti descended, the aptly-named Stravinsky Bar swiftly becoming the place where prime ministers and presidents, fashionistas and financiers, celebrities and CEOs met  and mingled over aperitifs.

"At first many people thought oh well, one of those trendy places. It won't last," said general manager Elena Bruno. "But the de Russie's success has not stopped. Why? Because it is so beautiful and obviously so chic. But also the service is so attentive. And everyone on the staff has the personality that is so appealing. It is the mix of people we put together that makes the place so attractive."

If there is a dynamism that defines the de Russie staff, it is a reflection of the enthusiasm and energy of the woman we dubbed "Electric Elena" when we first met her a few years ago. Back then, she was in charge of sales and marketing. Today, she adds a personal strata of history to the Roman narrative as the first and, thus far, only female general manager of a five-star hotel in Rome.

"I absolutely did not apply for the job," the vivacious, auburn-haired g.m. told us over drinks in the courtyard outside the Stravinsky Bar. It was early March, the start of a Roman spring, mild enough to sit outdoors although most of the midday crowd still huddled within. In a week or two, the action would decidedly shift to the courtyard beneath the terraced garden where rose bushes were cut back in readying for blooming and magnolia trees and camellia bushes were already in bud.

"Electric" Elena Bruno - click to enlarge
"Electric" Elena Bruno

"I knew the previous g.m. was moving to Germany. Still when the position was offered, I was flabbergasted," Elena told us in her typical animated manner. "I loved marketing and sales; I still do -- it is in my blood. But one day, I was called by the managing director. I thought he wanted to talk in general about the business, and I said, 'Oh yes, I'm coming.'

"'I just wanted to check with you because I'm thinking about something,' he said to me.

"'What is it?' I asked. 'Please tell me.'

"'What if I proposed you to be the g.m. of the Hotel deR?'

"'Are you joking or what?'

"'I'm not. I'm very serious.'

"'I never did it.'

"'You can do it.'

"It was a Friday. I said, 'Let me think over the weekend.'

"I called my mother. She was so excited. 'Elena, it's fantastic.'

"Then I spoke to my husband. 'That is so amazing,' he said.

"So after the weekend, I went back to the managing director and said, 'Okay, fine.'"

She went on, "I knew I had a big advantage because I had opened this hotel; everyone on staff knew me and trusted me. Still, I was sorry to lose my team, to tell them I'm moving. And I knew the responsibilities would be enormous. But you don't want to think about the problems. You want to think about the things you're going to learn, your development, the opportunities."

The opportunities abounded. When we were last in town, the de Russie spa was a small and rudimentary affair operated by an outside company; we didn't even know it existed.

"That's because we didn't push it much; we didn't think it was up to our standards," Elena told us. "But we managed to get it back, and I took it over."

Today the full-service "Wellness Zone" spreads through a suite of rooms in soothing shades of powder blue -- even the swimming pool and hot tub area are all blue mosaic. Bouquets of  hydrangeas, scented candles, and soft music induce a state of blissful serenity, while fifteen professionals are at the ready to make one feel and look like the proverbial million dollars via body scrubs, facials, beauty treatments, hot stone therapies, ancient Roman foot rituals, a four-handed body and face massage, and a color-coordinated massage where the special energies of a particular shade are employed as lights in a treatment room move through the spectrum.

"We try to keep the Wellness Zone very up to date for hotel guests and also our limited membership. It's become a little club," said Elena as we exited onto a long corridor that leads to the hotel lobby. Here, another opportunity emerged for the creative g.m. Lined with elegant boutiques, the corridor now doubles as a showcase for contemporary Italian art with works supplied by local galleries for month-long exhibition. Recently, at an exhibit of photographs of lips by a recognized Roman photographer, attendees at the show's opening received fancifully decorated lollipops as a favor. "We had lollipops all over the hotel" Elena said, presenting us with a pink and white beribboned concoction.

Such projects were outlets for Elena's creativity and fun-loving nature. But her deepest, innermost reserves did not get tapped until representatives of the World Wildlife Federation paid a call. "It was a month before I became general manager when some people from the WWF approached me and asked if there was some marketing project the hotel could engage in to help publicize their work. I didn't want to do anything that would ask guests to contribute money. But, on the other hand,  I did think it would be wonderful for the de Russie to be involved in a worthwhile environmental cause. So I said 'Let's brainstorm.'

"Then I remembered when I was vacationing in Cancun, Mexico with my daughter, we visited a beautiful park that was filled with butterflies. 'How about butterflies?,' I asked. 'Can we do something with butterflies?'"

The WWF sent a biologist. He made a study of the Giardino Segreto and came up with a plan. Little greenhouses were built; they were filled with fennel, cabbage and other greens. Caterpillars were imported; they fed on the greens and grew fat. Nature took its course, and when the time was right, the caterpillars retreated into their cocoons and metamorphosed into butterflies. Emerging into a pollution-free environment (butterflies and pollution cannot co-exist) filled with plants that attract them, they flitted about the terraced gardens.

This is the Butterfly Oasis, now into its third year, and growing yearly as more plants are added, and more caterpillars are turning into more butterflies. Today, ten species of day-flying butterflies and over one hundred species of nocturnal butterflies can be seen floating through the terraced gardens (identified by discreet little signs along the gravel paths) and from there out over the domes, treetops, and rooftops of Rome.

All the more reason to return, we thought, conjuring up a summer evening in the gardens of the de Russie. We'd begin in the courtyard outside the Stravinsky Bar, have one of the famous James Bond-inspired martinis, look around to see what world leader or movie star was around. After a while, we'd walk up the Palladian stairway to the dining terrace of Le Jardin and over dinner decide which we'd rather do: spot a celebrity or identify a nocturnal butterfly.

The chill of a March night had kept us indoors during our recent stay. But who could complain seated at a spacious, well-laid table in the palatial dining room of Le Jardin which serves elaborate buffet breakfasts and full lunches and dinners for a local as much as a tourist crowd. It is a grand place, big and high as a ballroom, hung with Murano chandeliers that seem to be made of giant strands of burnished pearls. With draperies, upholstery and tablecloths of silken fabrics in shades of magenta and salmon, and tables set with fine china, crystal and silver, the ambience is decidedly luxurious. But the Mediterranean menu, under the direction of chef Nazzareno Menghini, follows a credo of Italian-style, simple cooking, dishes made of fresh, quality ingredients with a focus on the specialties of Rome.

"We are moving into the spring menu," Roberto Narni, Le Jardin's maitre d' and sommelier, told us. "We change the menu every season, and now as it is almost spring, we are entering the artichoke season." He pointed to the John Dorry with artichokes on the menu. "But also there is an excellent mullet made with lentils and black truffles. It's late in the season for truffles, but we still have them." And then he described how the mullet is grilled quickly before being baked with lentils, tiny as beads of caviar. Both recommendations were immediately accepted as was the pasta starter: hand-made taglionilli with tiny clams, parsley and olive oil.

We remembered the tall and sensitive Roberto from our previous visit and knew we could turn to him not only for menu selections, but an appropriate wine. This night, he picked a new, clear and refreshing Italian chardonnay Cervaro della Sala from Umbria which, as anticipated, proved a perfect match.

Maitre d' and sommelier Roberto Narni at Le Jardin - click to enlarge
Maitre d' and sommelier Roberto Narni at Le Jardin

Maitre d' and sommelier Roberto Narni at Le Jardin - click to enlarge
Headwaiter Mario Sciascia (left) and Chef Nazzareno Menghini

"All the restaurant staff are involved in the wine selection process," Roberto told us. "Every so often, we will make a trip to different wineries and decide which wines would be right for our guests. We try to match the wine with the menu, but we also listen to our guests, try to understand what they would like before we make our recommendations."

Le Jardin is famous for sublime desserts like baba with wild strawberries, tiramisu, and homemade coffee ice cream with almonds. It's also a great local draw for Sunday lunch, "A simple affair," deputy manager Francesco Ascani told us, "a meal that evokes what an Italian family would typically have with 'comfort food' specialties like mashed potatoes made with olive oil from Tuscany and just a little bit of butter. That has become a favorite"

A recent newcomer to the de Russie family, Francesco had been resident manager at a hotel in Sardinia for a decade when the opportunity arose to come to the premier hotel of his native city. "Of course, I had heard about the hotel; it is very famous. I was impressed with Elena and the staff. And so, I've returned to Rome"

Another newcomer is Fulvio Pierre Angelini. Swirling dramatically into the courtyard outside the Stravinsky Bar, (somehow we picture him wearing a cape) with tousled hair, he could be taken for a Bohemian, an artist or poet. But Fulvio Angelini is the acclaimed chef/owner of a two-star Michelin restaurant in San Vincenzo, Livorno and now the consultant chef to Rocco Forte properties. His first assignment is Le Jardin.

"Unique del mondo" he says, gesturing theatrically to the gardens above, "one in the world. This is a beautiful restaurant, not like what you'd find in other hotels. When you dine here you must feel that you are in Rome, that you are in Italy. You must feel that you have a good chef working for you, not for the Michelin stars  but for your pleasure." He looked about him and sighed, "The potential is enormous."

Deputy Manager Francesco Ascani - click to enlarge
Deputy Manager Francesco Ascani

Consulting Chef Fulvio Pierre Angelini - click to enlarge
Consulting Chef Fulvio Pierre Angelini

in the front office: Head Concierge Simone Simone Paolo Moscone - click to enlarge
In the front office: Head Concierge Simone Simone Paolo Moscone

And the dynamic de Russie gang. Francisco is front left, Elena front right - click to enlarge
And the dynamic de Russie gang. Francisco is front left, Elena front right

Elena chimed in, "Nothing too formal, nothing too stiff.  We want people to feel comfortable here."

Clearly, the atmosphere at the de Russie is comfortable, and apparently the gender of the g.m. has something to do with it. "The hotel industry is an open industry," Francisco said. "You don't it find it hard to accept women in executive positions."

The g.m. with brio concurred. "The hotel business is very appropriate for ladies. It is like a house where you spend most of the hours of the day, every day. We have to make our guests feel like we are welcoming them into our homes. We pay attention to the details: to writing cards, to apologizing if a room is not ready, to sending a little gift upon arrival.

"I love being in this role."

Hotel de Russie, Roma
Via del Babuino, 9
00187 Roma

Phone: (39) 06 32 88 81

A member of The Leading Hotels of the World

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

#  #  #

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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