The Grandeur that is
Rome at the St. Regis Grand Hotel, Rome
|Two thousand years of human history coalesce around Rome’s
Piazza della Repubblica. At the center, nymphs of the Naiad Fountain
spurt great jets of water into the air while scooters and cars whiz
around the rotary in traffic that never seems to ebb. The main
railroad station is just across the way, and Via XX Septembre named
for the day in 1870 that Papal forces were subdued and Rome became
capital of the secular Italian state is but a few blocks to the
the north side of the piazza are the Diocletian Baths, largest and most
beautiful of Imperial Rome. Michelangelo converted part of the original
structure into St. Mary of the Angels Church in the 1560’s; the National
Roman Museum with its incomparable collection of classical antiquities is
on this site as well. And just beyond, fronting the adjacent Via Orlando
and overlooking the piazza, stands a graceful white building that appears
to be a nineteenth century Italianate palazzo but is actually the
twenty-first century St. Regis Grand Hotel.
|The grandest of Roman hotels can lay easy claim to being a
landmark on its own. When
it opened on January 11, 1894, it was Le Grand Hotel, the newest
venture of Cesar Ritz, the Swiss hotelier whose name was to become a
synonym for high style and find its way, some decades hence, in the
Irving Berlin tune: “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” A thousand guests
braved the anomaly of a Roman snowstorm to attend Le Grand Hotel’s
inaugural gala which featured a concert conducted by a leading
maestro of the time.
Looking like a 19th century palazzo: The St. Regis Grand – Rome
marveled not only at the palatial environs and sumptuous furnishings but
at an array of technological wonders. Electric lights, a lift, central
heating, and rooms with private baths all seemed advances heralding the
Grand Hotel lived up to the promise of its debut becoming a storied
destination for kings and queens, diplomats and heads of state, movie
stars, financial scions, even literary lions like Leo Tolstoy and Emile
Zola. Two years short of its
one hundredth anniversary, it was taken over by Starwood Resorts and
Hotels Worldwide who thought to bring an American entrepreneurial spirit
and know-how to the legendary property. In March, 1999, the hotel was
closed down for a nine month-renovation project that cost $35,000,000 and
involved 450 workers who labored in round-the-clock shifts. Reopened
in time for the turn of a new century, new millennium, and start of
Jubilee 2000, the Holy Year declared by the Pope, it was now the St. Regis
Grand, the first St. Regis property in Europe. Still an enchanting late 19th century palazzo, it was as
technically au courant at the dawn of the 21st century as its
earlier self had been at the dawn of the 20th century.
Viewed from the Piazza della Repubblica, it’s
still Le Grand Hotel
|There are nine St. Regis hotels and resorts in the world today,
all offshoots of the original in New York that John Jacob Astor
built in 1905. Stephen Alden worked there for five years and brought
along a sense of the historic import of the name when he came to the
St. Regis Grand as general manager in June of 1999. “All the St.
Regis properties share a certain classical elegance, a special
meaning to the cities they’re located in, and a special place in
the hearts of the people who know them,” he told us.
|A native of Malta, Stephen Alden cuts a dashing figure. He speaks
the king’s English in sonorous tones and presents an aristocratic
image that befits the palatial environs he is surrounded by, an
impression reinforced by the discovery that his his hobbies include such sports of kings such as grand prix horse-show jumping and modern art.
as Stephen Alden warmed to the subject of the St. Regis Grand, a
joyful enthusiasm betrayed the commanding exterior of a man charged
with operating one of the world’s great hotels to reveal a
youthful joie de vivre beneath the surface.
General Manager Stephen Alden with Public Relations Manager Lucilla De Lucca at Vivendo in the St. Regis Grand – Rome
He is still smitten with
the adventure of restoration. “The architecture, symmetry, proportions,
even acoustics of this place are spectacular,” he told us animatedly
when we met for drinks on the balcony overlooking the circular expanse and
arched recesses of the Grand Hall off the lobby. Thousands of tiny
crystals glittered with reflected light from an array of Murano
chandeliers and sconces that ranged from antique to brand new. An enormous
fixture from the 1940’s, made of a series of circles of crystals in
vertical and ray-like formation, hugged the domed ceiling, a kind of
inversion of the traditional hanging variety. Walls were paneled in shades
of gold, floors were an intricate swirl of red and yellow marble,
furnishings a blend of crimson and gold sofas and chairs from the Regency
and Empire periods. Corinthian pillars led the eye to a soaring
hexagon-shaped ceiling; beneath it a rim of windows was set into ornate
recesses. Spectacular, indeed.
“When we decided
on the renovation, our guiding question was ‘What would Cesar Ritz have
done?’” Alden said. “We stripped away much that had been added on by
other management companies in the hotel’s nearly one hundred year
history, but we kept the original architecture and retained everything
from the past that was rich, that made the hotel special.
were covered with wood parquet which is difficult to maintain. When the
workers removed the wood, they discovered the original marble floor
beneath, in perfect condition. All it needed was polishing. Marble
withstands traffic much better and also looks very palatial. Hot water
pipes under the floor provide a heating system – just like in the Roman
baths. And in warm weather, marble gives a cool, fresh feeling.
amount of research went into the renovation,” the affable Stephen Alden
added. “Our contractor had access to the best craftsmen. They restored
the murals, paintings, mosaics, frescoes; they refinished the wood,
polished the marble. There are people here in Rome who can do this kind of
work. Surrounded by so much art, they have the sense of what needs to be
We were in the
lobby now where black and white marble were the predominant surfaces. A
breathtaking abstract sculpture of a horse made of alabaster stood on a
black marble table opposite the concierge’s desk. Such objects and
materials so foreign to a classical Roman settings prove to be a rich
“We wanted to
maintain the feeling of a Roman palazzo,” Alden noted, “but at the
same time we decided to do some provocative things, to include
contemporary touches that would project the hotel into the next 100 years.
“This hotel is
only 161 rooms. That’s not very big in terms of rooms, but the feeling
is very spacious and palatial. I fall in love with it again and again. I
never get tried of it.” He stopped, amused at his own exuberance, then
added “I think I have the best job in the world.”
manager’s infectious attitude has apparently permeated the premises,
setting a tone that was picked up by everyone we met in the St. Regis
Grand family all of whom projected a pride and pleasure in being
associated with a place that beyond being a luxurious hotel, is part of
the larger Roman story.
“There are so
many great museums throughout Rome, yet the Grand holds its own,”
Federico Versari, the front office manager, told us. Nimble as a dancer
and possessed of an impish sense of humor, Federico offered to be our
private docent in a mini tour of the St. Regis Grand. We began with the
Salone Ritz, Rome’s first ballroom which, in its refurbished state,
continues to be the site of lavish affairs, but also hosts events unknown
a century ago.
|Valentino and Versace present their haute couture
collections here; it is also where press events for the launching of
American movies in Italy take place. “George Clooney, Brad Pitt,
Matt Damon – they were all here for the launching of ‘Oceans
Eleven,’” Federico said. “Tom Cruise will come for the
launching of ‘Vanilla Sky.’ And Anthony Hopkins was here to
promote ‘Hannibal.’ We even did a private dinner with a
‘Hannibal’ menu,” he added with a grin leaving us to speculate
on its contents.
Antique Murano Chandelier in Salone Ritz
Little has been
altered in the Salone Ritz. The mirrored walls, marble pillars, brilliant
pair of Murano chandeliers and sconces, ceiling frescoes are all original.
“Look at the chandeliers,” Federico said. “They appear similar, but
each one is hand made and individual. The crystals are in the shape of
roses and flowers. When they were taken down to be cleaned, they seemed so
fragile. Yet how well they hang together.
were candle-lit,” he added, “and the smoke from the candles darkened
the frescoes on the ceiling to the point where they could barely be
In a repeat of the
maneuver we’d undergone at the Sistine Chapel the day before, we leaned
backwards -- this time to see the idyllic Arcadian scenes painted by
Mario Spinetti which have been restored to their original clarity.
we followed Federico beyond the ballroom and down a chandelier-lit
corridor at the back of the hotel where we took an old fashioned cage
elevator to a brand new fitness center, a feature emblematic of the modern
St. Regis Grand.
But from there, we
found ourselves cast back in time to an era pre-dating even Cesar Ritz as
we descended a narrow spiral staircase off the lobby to a darkened
subterranean chamber where a single rustic dining table was set for eight,
and floor-to- ceiling shelves were lined with bottles of wine.
“You know, the
buildings of Rome have such interesting stories,” Federico said. “In
most cases, it’s easy to find out about the last one hundred years, but
not what happened before. It’s believed a Benedictine monastery once
stood here, and this was its wine cellar. When it was discovered during
renovations, it was in a state of total disarray; the bottles were lying
“But they had
the brilliant idea to create a tiny restaurant here. The basic structure
of the wine cellar was retained; it was organized, and a dining table was
placed in the middle. The old brick floors and terra cotta walls keep
temperatures consistent for more than 20,000 bottles of wine of 350
labels, more than half of which are Italian.”
We would sample
three of them at Vivendo, whose entrance is but several yards from the
stairway leading to the wine cellar but whose mood is centuries into the
future. (Our St. Regis Grand experience, we were beginning to think, was
taking on the dimensions of a trip through time. But then again, this was
the Eternal City.) This award-winning restaurant is decorated in a style
Stephen Alden would undoubtedly term ‘provocative.’ “Before
renovations it looked like the rest of the hotel, very ornate and
rich,” Federico had told us. “Then it closed down, and when it
reopened it was completely new and different.”
For “new and
different,” read cool and contemporary in a sophisticated palette of
silver, lavender and burgundy, with furnishings that suggest the
1930’s and 40’s. As much as the St. Regis Grand largely reflects
classical, renaissance, and baroque Rome, Vivendi plugs into modern Rome
and its connection to the fashion world. This is a theme subtly realized
in the carpet’s design borrowed from a high-fashion scarf’s pattern,
and framed sketches from 1930’s issues of Vogue Magazine and pieces of
ancient dresses that decorate the fabric-covered walls. “There’s rich
wood paneling beneath the fabric,” Stephen Alden said. “We left it for
the next generation of restorers to discover.”
Vivendi’s Brescian-born executive chef, has a low-keyed and modest
demeanor that belies such culinary accomplishments as winning a gold medal
at the European Championships in Salzburg. He prepares dishes largely in
the Mediterranean tradition relying on local products as much as possible,
but not without some unexpected combinations. We pondered a menu that
offered some half dozen choices in each category: appetizers, pasta/soups,
fish, meats, even – and we made a note to tell our sons -- vegetarian
dishes, and then throwing caution to the wind, decided to rely on
Umberto’s and restaurant manager/sommelier Federico Galligani’s
advice. It was a wise choice to the very end which came in the form of a
surprise (how did they know?) and sublime “Happy Anniversary” cake
filled with ice cream and covered with leaves of bittersweet chocolate.
But we are getting ahead of the story.
A glass of
Braidealte, a Gran Cru produced by Livon from the Piedmont region, began
our meal. This deeply yellow and fruity wine, which blends
Chardonnay, Picolit, Sauvignon, and the perfumed Moscata Giallo grapes, is
often served with desert. But it proved a lovely accompaniment to our
antipasti: a filo pastry roll filled with Osetra caviar, strips of celery,
carrots and red pepper and an incredibly light mousse made of Sake – a
touch of the unexpected alluded to above, and a terrine of prawns with
To go with the
second course, we drank a Chardonnay Planeta from Sicily. This new wine,
full-bodied and golden, is a copy of the California Chardonnay. “It has
great, great potential --you can taste the sun of Sicily in it,” we were
told, which made its pairing with pasta just perfect.
were irresistible. The linguini came with lobster from Sardinia and pieces
of a Granny Smith apple(!), the taglioni was served with tangy sea bass
fishballs, and the risotto with a red wine sauce, chunks of monkfish and
the unexpected but delightful addition of tart red currants.
Our third wine was
the award winning Avvoltore, a Tuscan blend of 75% Sangiovese, 20%
Cabernet Sauvignon, and to add a touch of spice, 5% Syrrah grapes.
Ruby-red and soft on the palate, it had a deep, long-lasting finish and
was well partnered with salmon sautéed with pistachios, sesame seeds and
asparagus -- a wonderfully novel combination of flavors and textures, and
entrecorte seasoned with four peppers and served with a terrine of
potatoes with black truffles in a wine sauce.
A selection of
Italian cheeses preceded the surprise dessert which arrived just as we
were about to follow the lead of the American woman in the picture hat at
the next table who proclaimed her berry ice cream “the best dessert
I ever tasted!”
She and her
husband, who were seated before we arrived and were lingering over their
Sambuca when we were done, are New York transplants, living in Rome now
for half a dozen years. They dine at Vivendo regularly, they told us.
It’s one of their favorite Roman restaurants in Rome.
come here and spend an entire evening,” Stephen Alden said. “About one
third are guests at the hotel, another third are from other luxury hotels,
and yet another third are Romans. As our diners are varied, so are our
hotel guests. We have international delegations that are visiting for
state affairs, individual travelers from North America and Europe, people
from the fashion and movie industries. It’s a very healthy mix, and it
gives us an obligation to innovate.
|Presently every room and suite is named for a Roman landmark
that appears in a hand-painted mural behind each bed. This feature
was pointed out soon after we checked by Maurizio, one of the two
butlers assigned to us during our stay. The St. Regis Grand was
the first hotel in Italy to introduce butler service, a luxury
option affording guests round-the-clock personalized service.
Maurizio and his partner, Martin, who is of French and German
extraction and studied literature in Bonn, were charming and
charismatic young men who spoke fluent English and were more like
informed hosts than servants of a bygone day.
Maurizio the butler, before the bar in the
each morning, we woke to café au lait, croissants and the day’s copy
of the International Herald Tribune, courtesy of Maurizio. Late each
afternoon, we’d return from a day of sight-seeing and find delectable
marzipan tarts waiting for us – treats from Martin. Our anything but
silent butlers attended to our dry cleaning, kept the flowers fresh, and
were able to provide information about any sites we wanted to see.
we demurred when Maurizio offered to unpack for us. “Instead,” we
said, “we’d like to see the Royal Suite.”
Royal bathroom in the Royal Suite
|Happily he agreed. The next morning found Maurizio at the door
of our room, key in hand for the apartment within the hotel that
is truly “fit for a king.” Its dining room seats 18 and
includes a private wine cellar. Its living room includes a magnificent 15th
century Flemish tapestry, a carpet of fabulous size and intricate
heraldic motif, a Bechstein grand piano, and period Louis XV
furniture. The silk
bedspread on the master bed is embroidered with lace roses and
pearls that two women labored on for four months. The master
bathroom has a luxuriantly sculpted tub of gray Carerra marble,
“the kind Michelangelo used,” Maurizio told us. “It is
malleable and can be sculpted into such shapes.
A study in modernity: the Designer Suite
|He then insisted we see the very different Designer
Suite. Once again, the centuries flew by and we entered an
apartment of contemporary Italian design studded with art deco
accents. Streamlined in black and beige, with stunning sculptures
and modern art – one painting appeared to be an Edward Hopper
– it is the choice of Hollywood celebrities like Stephen
Speilberg and George Clooney, Maurizio said, while the Royal Suite
houses national delegations.
seemed to us these suites also represented, each in its own way, the
heritage of art Stephen Alden spoke of. The St. Regis Grand is part of a
continuum in a city steeped in artistic creation from ancient through
Mastrantonio, the head concierge who sees his role as being “a friend
to the guests,” was around before the renovations. “We were all sent
to work elsewhere during the nine month period,” he told us. “Some
went to Sardinia, some to Venice, some to the Excelsior in Rome. We were
all happy to go out and have a new experience knowing we would come back
to the same job.
hotel needed to change. It needed to be cleaned and brought up to date;
it needed a facelift. After we reopened, we had a wonderful New Year’s
Eve party in the Salle Ritz. The hotel was full. It was a great moment,
a new beginning. People were curious because the name Grand is so
famous. They came to see what had been done.
has changed most is the guests. There are more Americans now because of
|“We have a lot to learn from the American people because they
are self made,” Maurizio had told us. “Marketing was born in
America. And having Starwood running the hotel is a very good
thing. One of the things that changed is that the guest comes
first. If my guest and director call me at the same time, I first
go to my guest, because without the guest, the property will not
Front Office Manager Federico Versari (left)
and Head Concierge Natale Mastrantonio – a pair who make it
happen at the St. Regis Grand - Rome.
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.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
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