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
Looking down the Via del Babuino from a de Russie
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
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
"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
|"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
"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
"'I just wanted to check with
you because I'm thinking about something,' he said to me.
"'What is it?' I asked. 'Please
"'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
"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
Maitre d' and sommelier Roberto Narni at
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
Consulting Chef Fulvio Pierre Angelini
In the front
office: Head Concierge Simone Simone Paolo Moscone
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
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
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
Phone: (39) 06 32 88 81
A member of The Leading Hotels
of the World
Photographs by Harvey Frommer