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It's Still "La Dolce Vita"
At The Westin Excelsior Hotel, Rome

It is the last week of January, and blossoms of fuchsia and white coleus in flower beds all along Via Veneto are opening to the morning sun. Spreading plane trees seem about to bud. A few brave souls have even ventured out of the cafes, cup and saucer in hand, to sip their espresso at an outdoor table. Can primavera be in the air? So it would seem this beautiful morning standing on the corner of Via Veneto and Via Boncompagni, across the way from the pink villa that houses the American Embassy and just in front of the beautiful white palace that is the Westin Excelsior Hotel.

A beaux arts building with a single corner dome, the Excelsior embodies the very essence of the flamboyant, fashionable boulevard that is Via Veneto. Strolling among elegantly dressed Romans past five-star hotels, swanky restaurants, posh shops, and sidewalk cafés, it is hard to believe that around the turn of the last century this thoroughfare was a quiet road on the outskirts of the city that carriages crossed to connect from one larger byway to another and locals used for games of bocce. A more unlikely locale for a 200-room luxury hotel would be hard to imagine. Yet here was where the Excelsior was built, opening its doors in January 1906.

Despite expectations, the hotel was an almost instant success and over the decades evolved into one of the great hotels of the world. And as it did, Via Veneto basked in its glow. By the post war years, the one-time sleepy country road had been transformed into a glittering byway frequented by an international crowd of the cognosotti with “paparazzi” in their wake, immortalized as the mythic byway of high style and modernity in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” But it was the Excelsior Hotel, standing at the apex of a triangle with the Borghese Gardens and Spanish Steps at either end, that brought the world to this crossroads of Rome. There is not only  Imperial Rome, Renaissance Rome, and Baroque Rome, but Modern Rome. It is epitomized by Via Veneto, and the Excelsior Hotel is at its heart.

It is a large property with 316 rooms and  function areas for up to 1,000 people. The lobby is predictably palatial. Brilliant chandeliers hang from soaring ceilings, floors are gleaming marble, windows are draped with rich golden fabric and Roman (what else?) shades. Yet despite the grandeur, the atmosphere is inviting. Luxurious Empire furnishings are arranged into comfortable seating areas. Staff members are congenial and helpful. The ambience is one of gracious informality, a quality personified by the Excelsior’s exuberant general manager, Paolo Lorenzoni.
Comfortable seating areas and friendly staff underscore a mood of gracious hospitality Comfortable seating areas and friendly staff underscore a mood of gracious hospitality
Comfortable seating areas and friendly staff underscore a mood of gracious hospitality

When he began working as banquet manager in 1990, the mood at the Excelsior was very different, Paolo told us. “There was a snob approach. The thinking was we are the best. Who cares about the customers?” he said.  “Today we think about the customers. We want them to feel at home.  If they have any problem, whether or not it’s related to the hotel, we are at their disposal.”

This comment brought to mind an anecdote told to us by Sirio Maccioni, the owner of Le Cirque 2000 in New York City. When he began as maitre d’ of the Colony, a one-time exclusive Manhattan restaurant, he approached a table of diners and asked if everything was all right. The owner swiftly called him aside. “At the Colony, everything is always all right,” he said. “Today, with an attitude like that, a restaurant wouldn’t last a day in New York,” Sirio said.

Palatial interior at the Westin Excelsior Hotel
Palatial interior at the Westin Excelsior Hotel
At the Excelsior, the change in attitude was spurred by a change in ownership in 1997 when Starwood Hotels and Resorts took over the hotel making it a Westin property, a name familiar to North American visitors. Beyond changing the mood, Starwood invested $25 million in a refurbishment project that began in December 2000 and is expected to be completed this year  -- although whatever construction was going on during our stay was completely concealed behind closed and evidently soundproofed doors.

“The Excelsior was the flagship hotel in Italy,” Paolo said, “but it was tired and old. It needed to be brought up to date. We’re putting in all the new technology, restoring the art, putting in new fabrics and carpeting. But the personality and décor remains as it was.”

Our two-room suite had already been renovated. Embraced by a wrap-around balcony that overlooked Via Veneto and the American Embassy, it seemed like a glorious turn-of-the (last) century apartment, stunning to the very last detail of period furnishings in Roman red and gold. But in terms of communications connections and modern amenities, it was twenty-first century all the way.

Before the hotel-wide refurbishment got underway, Starwood had already inaugurated the duplex beneath the dome: the Excelsior’s fabulous Villa La Cupola. With a sundeck that overlooks all of Rome to the dome of St. Peter, a private cinema (with a DVD library of more than one hundred films), sauna, steam bath, and fitness center, the Villa La Cupola is an 11,700 square-foot suite befitting a Ceasar. There is a dining room lit by an antique Murano chandelier and served by a private wine cellar, a study paneled in Italian walnut, a pair of opulently furnished bedrooms. Still nothing prepares one for the cupola itself, the domed ceiling of the living room. Covered with hand painted frescoes that were inspired by the art in Roman palaces of the renaissance and baroque periods, it is no less than breathtaking.

The frescoed domed ceiling in the Villa La Cupola
The frescoed domed ceiling in the Villa La Cupola
Beneath the domed ceiling in the Villa La Cupola
Beneath the domed ceiling in the Villa La Cupola

Our tour of the regal quarters of the Villa La Cupola on the fifth and sixth floors was followed by a lunch at La Cupola without the Villa on the ground floor. Paolo Lorenzoni joined us at the Excelsior’s popular restaurant which typically draws a crowd of Romans for both lunch and dinner. A buffet was set out on a balcony beneath a classical-looking bas relief, but following our host, we ordered from the a la carte menu: caviar with fresh goat cheese and grilled whitefish with artichokes “done in the Roman style,” according to Paolo, “where the heart is stuffed with a paste of parsley, garlic and olive oil and cooked in olive oil with a little water. I learned from my father to do it.” At Paolo’s suggestion, we drank “one of the most important of Italian red wines,” a 1997 Turriga from Sardinia which was full-bodied and rich with an excellent finish.

The exuberant general manager: Paolo Lorenzoni
The exuberant general manager: Paolo Lorenzoni
Umberto Vezzoli, Executive Chef stopped by our table
Umberto Vezzoli, Executive Chef stopped by our table

We were surprised when dressed in his chef’s whites, Umberto Vezzoli stopped by our table. We had already met Umberto at Vivendo, the gastronomic restaurant at the nearby St. Regis Grand Hotel which is also operated by Starwood. “Umberto is the Executive Chef of both hotels,” Paolo explained. “Each has a different type of kitchen. Vivendo is contemporary Italian; La Cupola is a more traditional Roman kitchen. We are looking to expand our menu, to turn the buffet level into an open kitchen so people can watch the cooking. People want something new.”

 

Busy, bustling La Cupola
Busy, bustling La Cupola

True, but we were enjoying La Cupola just the way it was, busy and bustling with a lively Roman crowd and an air of joie de vivre on this spring-like afternoon. We could imagine the scene in warmer weather when the big awning was rolled down over the sidewalk of Via Veneto and tables were set up along the boulevard. Adjacent to La Cupola is the Gran Caffe Doney, the Excelsior’s famed coffee shop which also spills out onto the sidewalk. It remains the scene where celebrities congregate. “Roberto Bellini (the star of “Life is Beautiful”) comes in very often,” Paolo told us, “goes to the bar, has a sandwich.”

Paolo is steeped in the legends and history of the Excelsior. He’s heard about the movie stars from the time of “La Dolce Vita” like Anita Ekbert and Audrey Hepburn who were regular guests. He’s heard about how the Excelsior served as headquarters of the American Allied Forces headed by General Clark at the end of World War II. And he senses history is in the making during his tenure at this famous hotel. “We are the typical place for American functions. During the elections, CNN and  ABC were stationed here. All the Americans in Rome come to see the coverage. Madeline Albright, Collin Powell have been here along with many important political figures. It is our job to manage security for them.”

At one time Paolo thought of going into banking. He contemplated working for an airline. “I’m glad I didn’t,” he told us. “Working for a company like Starwood is terrific. There are so many challenges. I was able to go to Paris with the mayor of Rome to meet the mayor of Paris. I was the only hotelier in the delegation, selected because of the Excelsior.

“When I was younger, I passed in front of this hotel many, many times,” he added. “I always looked in, but I never imagined that one day I’d be the G.M.

“The Via Veneto is the street with seven hotels. However the Excelsior is the most famous and the most beautiful. Someone may say ‘I’ve been in Rome at the so and so hotel. The service was good, the room was huge.’ People will say ‘Oh?  I don’t know this hotel.’ But if someone says ‘I’ve been in Rome and I stayed at the Excelsior,’ people will say ‘Oh, the Excelsior.’ And you are proud because you have been in a hotel that other people know.’”

Now he turns to us. “You have stayed here. What do you think of the Excelsior?”

“Il pui bella di Roma,” (the most beautiful in Rome) we say.

The Westin Excelsior Rome
Via Veneto 125
00187 Rome, Italy

Phone: (39) 0647081

http://www.westin.com/ExcelsiorRome 

All Photos 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
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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