HOTEL DE RUSSIE
I hope that even my worst enemy would never call me a populist. Nevertheless, I am happy to let it be known that my favourite square in Rome is the Piazza del Popolo. On its northern boundary is the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, wherein can be seen two of Caravaggio’s finest paintings, The Martyrdom of Saint Peter and The Conversion of Saint Paul. To the south, guarding the entrance to the Via del Corso, are the two absurdly beautiful (and very nearly identical) churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto. And then, as if these cultural and artistic riches were not sufficient, trying to nudge into the piazza at its south-eastern corner, there is what is widely regarded as one of the very best lodging-houses in the Eternal City – the Hotel de Russie.
Why does it have the unusual name? Well, it was even more unusual originally – The Hotel de Russie et des Îles Britanniques. The Isles were dropped, however, when the place came to be crowded with Russian princes and nobility, rather than with the penny-pinching British. (Hoteliers can be a cruel lot.) Diaghilev and the stars of the Ballet Russe laid their heads here, as did Picasso and Jean Cocteau. Monsieur Cocteau even wrote about it to his mother: “I am in Paradise... I can pick oranges from my bedroom window.” Another Frenchman had a less happy time: the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte died here in 1891, a departure from this life noted on a plaque fixed to the front wall of the hotel.
This was 80 or so years after the building was erected in 1837 by an architect named Valadier. He it was who was responsible for setting out – in the style of the 18th century, with lots of stone balustrades – the gardens at the rear of the property. These zoom up the steep Pincio Hill towards the park of the Villa Borghese and are now one of the hotel’s chief assets. They form an oasis of beauty and calm in the centre of the busy capital city. And here are those orange trees, should you wish to emulate the talented Mr Cocteau – although you would need arms of super-human length to reach them from the window of any of the hotel’s 122 rooms.
My own accommodation was on the fourth floor, and looked out from the side of the hotel at the roofs and terraces of the neighbouring buildings. Room 420 was a ‘Classic Double’ and therefore 504€-751€ a night for two, according to season, breakfast extra. This is the basic room, and I suspect that readers of Bown’s Best might want a more spacious apartment. (In which case, I would recommend a ‘Deluxe Double’ at a higher rate.) Still, it was a comfortable and stylish billet and I liked the sense of sophistication created by the colour scheme of white, grey and brown. Like the corridor outside (decorated with plaster casts of Antique friezes picked out with spotlights), it was immaculately maintained. I saw no dents or scuffs at the De Russie.
My bedroom (air-conditioned, as you would expect) was entered via a small hallway, with cupboards and a safe, and was about twelve feet square. Lighting was from a standard lamp, a table lamp and two wall lights. On the wall was a photograph of flowers by Robert Mapplethorpe. One easy chair and one upright armchair provided the seating, and the gilt pedestal of the circular occasional table provided a pleasing hint of Art Déco. It was good to find both a clothes brush and a shoe horn – items too often missing, even in grand hotels. Within the bathroom I found one wash basin, a bidet and a loo. Over the tub (which I found of comfortable size) was a mosaic of fish. Beige marble clad the walls up to the dado rail. I settled happily into these surrounding, although I would recommend strongly to the hotel that net curtains be supplied to the window to ensure privacy. Strangely, I found that I liked best the walk-in wardrobe – a facility which enabled me to close the door on the Savile Row suits and think of higher things.
And those, of course, included dinner. One of Italy’s most famous chefs – Fulvio Pierangelini (pictured), chef-patron of the Michelin two-starred restaurant, Gambero Rosso, in Tuscany – now oversees the menus at the Hotel de Russie and the Executive Chef in charge of the kitchen is the widely admired Chef Nazzareno Menghini. I was therefore full of the highest expectations as I buffed up the brogues and struggled with my collar stud, in preparation for my evening visit to Le Jardin de Russie.
In the warmer months, the dining is, indeed, done in the garden, but the air was now chilly, so my eating was by the white columns and under the crystal chandeliers of the dining room. The atmosphere was the one I like – tasteful luxury. The tablecloths were grey, the waiters – orchestrated by the charming maitre d’ Luciano Zanazzo – wore black aprons and the good glassware was by Bormioli. I was pleased to observe that the napkins of those who left their places for a moment were replaced.
It was the Season of the Divine Fungus, and Chef Menghini came to my table to show me a large and exquisitely aromatic specimen. I do love truffles, both black and white. This was a white truffle from Alba. The sight and smell of it made the choice of my first two courses quite easy. I began with seared scallops, with grated green apple and apple sauce, topped with numerous slices of truffle. (The truffle, being, of course, immensely expensive, was charged at 8€ per gram extra.) Scallop and truffle is one of the finest combinations of tastes one will ever encounter – charming, delicate and seductive. I could not quite make my mind up about the apple, which – for my palate – seemed to upset the balance very slightly. But I had no doubts about the pasta. ‘Tagliolini with white truffle’ – it sounds so simple, and it is. But when it is done as well as it was here, it is akin to the Beatific Vision. My main course was a chicken breast with butter and sage. This was a very tasty piece of meat, accompanied in considerable style by lovely mashed potatoes, green beans and splendid sautéed onions. To finish, I tucked into lovely marinated pineapple, served with mint ice cream. (These four courses were 100€, plus the charge for the truffle.)
The wine list has around 600 offerings, ranging in price from 30€ for a Sicilian nero d’avola to 2,100€ for the 2003 La Tâche. The presence of sweet German wines is a sure indication of a good list, and the example here is a beauty: a Riesling auslese by Dönnhoff (120€, half). Other bottles to catch my eye were some of the best wines from Italy, Spain and France: 1998 Ornellaia (420€), 1997 Sassicaia (600€), 2010 Masseto (800€), 1996 Vega Sicilia Unico (550€), 1986 Latour (900€), 1995 Cheval Blanc (1,100€) and 2006 Montrachet (Louis Latour – 680€). My own drinking included a primitivo from Puglia which I will now regard as the King of Primitivos, its characteristic earthiness, high alcohol (16∙5%) and dense black fruitiness combing to make something truly regal (Salento Primitivo Brandisio, 2009 – 80€).
I returned to the restaurant each morning to break my fast. I do love my breakfasts, and there was a great deal here to make me smile. Everything I tried was of high quality. I commend to you particularly the smoked salmon and the ham on the bone – both waiting on the buffet table to be cut by the guests or the waiters. As well as these, I tucked into rare roast beef, Rice Crispies, muffins and slices of melon, pineapple and orange. The crispy bacon, sautéed mushrooms and grilled tomatoes were cooked to order and brought from the kitchen. They were absolutely delicious, and gave me the energy for my days of joy and wonder in Rome.
Not that I needed all that much energy, for outside my front door was the magnificent Piazza del Popolo. I did, it is true, indulge in the ten minute meander to the Spanish Steps, and I even occasionally ventured further afield. But, with a location this good, it seemed unwise to move too far away. Instead, I stayed for most of the time in my favourite spot – happy that I could return at any moment to the comfort and elegance of the Hotel de Russie.
HOTEL DE RUSSIE
Via del Babuino 9, Rome 00187, Italy.
Telephone +39 06 32 88 81
Fax +39 06 32 88 88 88
Double rooms from 504€-751€, according to season, breakfast extra
Check the hotel website for the rates for specific dates and for special offers