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 The Classical Meets The Modern At The Timeless Westin Excelsior Of Rome 

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer


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 the classical.

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 silver anniversary."

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 the throat.

They 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.

Into 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 River.

"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.

The 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.

"When 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.

Paolo 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.

 "ORVM 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. 

"We're 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.)

"You 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 - click to enlarge
Paolo Lorenzoni, general manager of the Excelsior since 1992

And his assistant, the lovely Manuela Dell'Orsi - click to enlarge
And his assistant, the lovely Manuela Dell'Orsi

It is 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 cuisine."      

Doney 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.

When 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 - click to enlarge
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."

Even 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.

Next 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."

From 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."

That the sidewalk happens to be Via Veneto -- a boulevard whose "La Dolce Vita" sheen has never dimmed -- only enhances the walk-in appeal.

Both 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.

It 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."

And 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.

"Four 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 doing."

The Westin Excelsior
Via Vittorio Veneto, 125
00187 Rome, Italy

Phone:  (39) 0647081

 Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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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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