In the only city in the world named
"Eternal," where the age of monuments -- as often as not --
is counted in millennia instead of years, a building that
recently celebrated its centennial can hardly lay claim to
Yet the Hotel Excelsior exudes just such a
timeless appeal. Across the decades, people stop at the
corner where Via Veneto meets Via Boncompagni and look up
the curved facade to the rooftop cupola where "Excelsior" in
green lights is banded around the rim like an emerald
necklace. The sight inspires memories.
"I came here right after I graduated from
college." "We were here before our children were born." "We
spent our honeymoon here; now we're back to celebrate our
They've kept the promise to return, a private
pledge implicit in the strands of remembered melodies --
"Arrivederci Roma," "I'll See You Again" -- sentimental
ballads that, after so many years, still bring a catch to
enter the Excelsior, and it's like the first time. The sweep of the
lobby stretches before them: gleaming marble -- pink and cream wall
panels, enormous checkerboard floor tiles, black-veined table-tops
atop gold-leafed winged lions bearing tall glass vases filled with
daffodils and tulips; Renaissance and Baroque-style paintings;
oversized mirrors surrounded by decorated enamel frames, great
chandeliers dropped from the soaring ceiling, every teardrop crystal
sparkling with the clarity of light.
the elevators and through the rooms and suites, the palatial theme
continues. They remember the highly polished furniture of classical
or Biedermeier design, the drapes of gold brocade framing French
doors that open to balconies overlooking the American Embassy just
across the street; from the top floors, a panorama of Roman rooftops
as far as the cupola of St. Peter's on the other side of the Tiber
"Everything looks the same," the couple who honeymooned at the
Excelsior 25 years ago say as they take the measure of their
two-room suite. Then they notice the two flat-screen television sets
and the high-speed Internet connection. They think they'll dine at
the hotel this first night of their stay. The man picks up the
phone. He presses a button marked "Service Express" and asks to be
connected to the restaurant reservation desk only to discover he's
pressed the right button after all. In days to come, he'll press the
same button to get his shoes polished, the beds turned down, room
service ordered, massages arranged, taxis delivered -- and all in
record time. That night, he and his wife fall asleep as soon as
their heads hit one of the five pillows on the all-white, king-sized
Westin "Heavenly Bed" made up with 180 to 250-thread-count linens
atop a custom-designed pillow-top mattress.
next day, they walk over to the Spanish Steps, descend to Via del
Corso and window-shop along the way, ending up in the dreamy
landscape of the Borghese Gardens. When they return to the hotel,
they check out the fully-equipped health center that -- like the
flat-screen TVs -- wasn't there last time they were in town. They do
a few laps in the indoor pool, unwind in the sauna, and indulge in
the luxury of an Excelsior massage.
I first decided to bring in masseuses and add some treatment rooms,
I was told people don't come to Rome for massages," says Paolo
Lorenzoni with the mischievous grin we remembered so well. We get
it. The man who's been the Excelsior's gm since 1992 has a
reputation for unfailingly good hunches.
has just returned from a skiing vacation. He's sun-tanned and
relaxed. We're having espresso in ORVM ("It's pronounced 'Orom,'"
Paolo tells us, "the 'V' gives it a Latin feel"), the lounge off the
lobby named for the topaz color of a splendid chandelier that
dominates the room, a trio of fat cylinders -- each made of what
appear to be hundreds of little gems -- shaped like gigantic hat
boxes piled one atop the other. Otherwise, the bar is done in
subdued shades of taupe and silver, black and brown. Floors are
glossy hardwood; original art evokes Matisse. ORVM, which serves a
wide range of cocktails and distillations and also provides light
Mediterranean-style meals, is yet another surprise the Excelsior has
in store for repeat guests. They recall a continuation of the
lobby's classical ambience. This room is a study in Art Deco design.
Everything's been changed save for the beautiful wooden bar.
is an example of how the Excelsior blends the classical and
contemporary," says Paolo's assistant, the lovely Manuela Dell'Orsi.
"In this way, it's a reflection of the city itself, where old and
new not only co-exist comfortably, but in an exciting juxtaposition.
It is a good mix.
also working on a wine cellar, Vino ORVM, for wine tastings and
private parties," she adds. (It would open in May 2008 two months
after our visit.)
know how people nowadays want to be connoisseurs of wine," Paolo
interjects. "We make jokes among the staff when we do our own
tastings, like putting a Brunello in the wrong bottle. But
seriously, a hotel like this needs such a place."
Paolo Lorenzoni, general manager of the
Excelsior since 1992
And his assistant, the lovely Manuela
a balancing act that Paolo has managed over the past five years --
retaining the classical and, at the same time, making innovations
demanded by a sophisticated 21st-century clientele. "A while ago we
decided to close one of the hotel's major restaurants and make it
part of a three-room meeting space," said Paolo. "It would leave us
with one restaurant that would serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. We
envisioned an informal setting offering the very best of Roman
debuted in 2006 on the site of what had been the Excelsior's La
Cupola. Formerly beige walls were now patent-leather black and gray.
Mirrored pillars were now the attention-getters in place of the bas
relief behind the bar. Staid bowl-like ceiling fixtures and sconces
had given way to shimmering strands of glass beads, masses of them,
spilling down from the ceiling to several feet off the ground. In no
time, the new dining room claimed a widespread local as well as
tourist following, its Sunday brunch becoming one of Rome's most
popular weekly events.
we arrived at the Excelsior on a Sunday several months ago, it was
early evening. The dynamic brunch scene had ended some hours before.
In the quiet, unhurried, atmosphere of a Sunday night, we were able
to get an in-depth sense of the place and the full attention of
Doney's genial, soft-spoken maitre d' Francesco Lorentini whose
tenure at the Excelsior is only two years' less than Paolo's.
"People come here who know about Italian/Mediterranean preparations,
the home-made pasta, the quality ingredients, the fact that
everything is fresh, nothing frozen," Francesco said, as he guided
us through the menu, explaining the many options of this
easy-to-love cuisine: the choice of ten starters including sea bass
tartar, parmesan cannoli with porcini mushrooms, deep fried cod with
ricotta, anchovies and mint; the range of pasta dishes from risotto
with sea scallops, to ravioli filled with lobster, to cannelloni
with mozzarella, artichokes, and sage. Grouper with king prawns and
porcini mushrooms was on the menu that night along with pan fried
John Dory with champagne risotto. Among the meat offerings were beef
fillet with Brunello sauce and breast of duck with a meat sauce
flavored with cherry liqueur.
Maitre d' Francesco Lorentini
|Choices made, we asked
Francesco to suggest a wine. A student of viticulture, he is
attuned to the ascendancy of quality Italian wines over the
past twenty years. "We have everything here, the weather,
the soil, the grapes," he told us as he opened a light, dry
and wonderfully aromatic chardonnay from Assisi. "At one
time, they used to export the grapes, but now there is a
focus on smaller production of grapes used to make finer
wines. We do have chardonnays that are made in oak barrels.
But not this one -- it is fresh, from last year. We prefer
the fresh, young wines. They are so drinkable."
at the end a long day, service at Doney was impeccable, perfectly
timed, gracefully executed. But it was at breakfast the next morning
and lunch a few days later, that we got to experience the lively
bustling atmosphere that, along with the excellent food, defines
this restaurant. It seems new and fresh. There is a substantial
local element in the crowd particularly at the buffet lunch which
attracts businesspeople from the area.
|Happily our stay coincided with the onset
of artichoke season. There were artichokes aplenty --
stuffed with red peppers, with eggplants, with endives,
with smoked salmon. Also a squid ring surrounding bread
pudding, many pasta dishes, an equal number of chicken and
veal dishes with braised potatoes, red peppers filled with
risotto, endless arrays of shrimps and prawns, salad greens
in square glass buckets, manifold desserts.
door, in another transformation of space, the historic coffee shop
Gran Café Doney, where the La Dolce Vita crowd once hung out and
where, some years ago, we first tasted blood orange juice, is now
the H Club Doney, sleek and mirrored, black and silver, with black
Chesterfield sofas. A café by day and after-hours club from sunset
to sunrise, it has a DJ on weekends when, according to manager
Giorgo, "it really swings."
the outside, neither the restaurant nor the club appears to be part
of the hotel. "People walk by the restaurant, look at the menu, and
decide to come in," Paolo said. "And as soon as the weather is warm
enough, we roll down the canopy and open the sidewalk terrace."
the sidewalk happens to be Via Veneto -- a boulevard whose "La Dolce
Vita" sheen has never dimmed -- only enhances the walk-in appeal.
are modest in size; the restaurant accommodates only 80 diners, an
additional 20 to 25 outdoors. At the same time, the hotel has 267
rooms and suites and an entire lower lobby of ballrooms and
conference spaces. It's as if the Westin Excelsior has a dual
identity attracting conference-goers as well as those who prefer
more intimate environments. Yet like the mixing of the classical and
the modern (and the cool), these two seemingly divergent directions
comfortably co-exist. Groups have their own check-in and dining
facilities. The lobby is an expanse of space. There is never the
sense of a crowd.
appears to be a tricky combination, and Paolo admits running the
Excelsior is a constant challenge. "Now we will begin renovation of
the bedrooms," he tells us. "Some are eight years old. You have to
keep changing. But today the big change is in the service you
provide. That is the most important thing."
that is what is delivered. A decidedly first class experience from
the concierges, to the front desk, to the housekeepers, to the
servers, to the guy who answers the service express button, to the
woman who delivers a bottle of champagne when you check in.
years ago, I was offered a job in a big hotel in Rome for more
money. I thought to myself you cannot only work for money. You
should work for satisfaction, to be happy. That is what I find here.
The money makes a difference, I agree. But I have a relationship
with the employees, with the clientele. I believe in the importance
of these relationships. I love this job. I have passion for what I'm
The Westin Excelsior
Via Vittorio Veneto, 125
00187 Rome, Italy
Phone: (39) 0647081
Photographs by Harvey Frommer