ROME, ITALY: The Westin Excelsior is a stunning historical edifice and 5 star luxury hotel in the center of the tony Via Veneto district of the eternal city of Rome. Built in 1906 in the tradition of European grand hotels, its 281 rooms and 35 suites are the epitome of elegance and style.
In fact, the Excelsior’s presence was the spark that actually made the Via Veneto world famous. International stars and royalty flocked to stay here, turning this gorgeous hotel on a quiet suburban hill into the epicenter of the transformation of this part of Rome.
The age of La Dolce Vita
The Westin Excelsior was the center of the world famous La Dolce Vita in the 50’s and 60’s, and a favorite of Italian film director Federico Fellini. Sophia Loren, Gina Lollabrigita and a bevy of stars were constantly seen and photographed at its sidewalk Café Doney.
The term paparazzi derives from the swarm of photographers who habitually photographed the movie stars and celebrities who would stay here, or spend an afternoon at the sidewalk café.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor resided here during the filming of Cleopatra in 1961. Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster and Paul Newman were regular guests. Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck stayed here during the filming of Roman Holiday.
The list of notable figures through the decades who stayed here would fill a book. Picasso, Princess Grace of Monaco, the Kennedy brothers, the Rolling Stones, and Sean Connery were all a part of the history of the Westin Excelsior.
The Rise of the Via Veneto
Exquisite restaurants and fancy stores began locating here as far back as the 1930s, until Via Veneto became synonymous with luxury goods and upscale shopping.
Harry’s Bar opened on the corner, and Café de Paris was across the street. Stars would purposely come to the hotel and dine in the cafes around it to be seen and photographed by the celebrity press.
All of this would not exist, but for the provenance of the Westin Excelsior. Its presence was the engine that turned this part of Rome into the international celebrity center of the world. Fellini made it a center piece of the film from which the era takes its name, La Dolce Vita. The sweet life.
The Westin Excelsior: the premier choice to this day
To this day the Westin Excelsior remains the residence of choice for world leaders and celebrities. Tonight they welcome the President of Chile, while next week the President of South Korea will be a guest of the hotel. The modern parade of celebrities and film stars continues unabated.
While the era of La Dolce Vita may be transfixed in the 60’s, the cache and glamour of the hotel has never faded. Indeed, every 5 star hotel along the Via Veneto owes a debt of gratitude for what the Excelsior began over 100 years ago.
It is easy to see why. The hotel is glorious. Its rises like a white marble castle 6 stories over the street, capped by its trademark two story cupola on the South corner, which holds one of the largest hotel suites in the world. It dominates the street with its gleaming façade.
The Westin Excelsior: grand lobby and Orvm bar
Roman soldiers carved in stone hold up the edifice of its front entrance. Liveried bellman scurry to greet each guest as their car arrives. The reception area is warmly welcoming, and opens up into an expansive lobby area filled with comfortable sitting areas under crystal chandeliers.
The world famous Orvm Bar fills the corner of the ground floor, with a glittering orange beaded chandelier lending a warmth to its classic interiors decorated with art from Mattisse.
The main barman Frederico is engaging and jovially charming as he relates the history of the hotel, and the impact of La Dolce Vita on the worldwide celebrity culture. The sense of immergence into the essential touchstones of cultural history is mesmerizing and palpable.
The Westin Excelsior: The wrap around corner suite
Our second floor corner suite is enormous, a symphony of elegance. The living room area is filled with an exquisite sitting area of gold striped couches and antique wooden furnishings. 15 foot ceilings with crystal chandeliers soar above cream colored walls.
A separate bedroom with a sumptuous king size bed is equally palatial, a tour de force of grand tradition and royal atmosphere. A stone balcony stretches the length of the suite, with French glass paneled doors in the both the living room and the bedroom.
A suite for the ages
The windows of the suite and the French doors are adorned with massive floor to ceiling gold curtains. The bathroom is a statement of gold and black patterned marble on the floors and walls, and has both a deep bathtub and a large shower stall.
The atmosphere is absolutely royal. The sense of the room is palatial. It is the kind of suite where it is tempting to never leave. To merely luxuriate in the precise attention to detail and comfort that is the hallmark of every room at the Westin Excelsior.
Standing on the balcony as the sun sets across the Via Veneto cannot help but propel the mind through the decades of thunderous wonder that has swept through its doors. The combination of history and elegance is a powerful notion, and one that is captured here at the Westin Excelsior.
Dinner at Doney Restaurant
Dinner is at the world famous Doney Restaurant, under the direction of executive Chef James Fogleini. Recently remodeled, the tone and elegance of this world famous fine dining institution has never faded.
One can almost imagine Fellini in the corner with Yves Montand and Sophia Loren. The idea of a candlelight dinner with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor fills the room with the incalculable weight of history. That sense of ephemeral destiny has never faded. The stature of Doney speaks for itself.
Tonight that sense of magic is combined with exquisite Mediterranean cuisine of the highest order. Chef Fogleini has created an innovative menu
The dining room is an expansive open space with expansive 2O foot ceilings under glittering chandeliers. A row of tables along the floor to ceiling windows looks out onto the Via Veneto. The room is ablaze with light, and filled with the din of conversation.
Prosecco and first courses
The evening begins with a glass of fine Proseco, sparkling wine that is the Italian equivalent of Champagne. Fresh bread is served with olive oil and some of the finest balsamic in memory.
The staff is professional and precise, affable and charming. Over the course of the evening Danielle, Antonio, and Emilio create an excellent dining experience filled with personality.
Yellowfin tuna tartare with crudo of Mazara red shrimp from Sicily is an excellent starter. A heaping mound of tartar is rich with flavor, while the crudo of shrimp is like being back in Venice.
Baked zucchini blossom with Roman Caciofiore cheese is served with cherry honeycomb raw honey in a spoon and marjoram. The zucchini blossoms are perfectly stuffed, rich with sumptuous ricotta.
Pasta and Chianti
Pistachio ravioli with mortadella and Morolo cheese filling is dressed with truffle, and is thoroughly delightful. The full flavor of the pistachio is accented with roasted pistachio nuts, while the raviolis are large and beautifully dressed.
Portions throughout the evening are ample. A measured pace is required to get through 4 courses, as each dish is an overflowing bounty sure to both satisfy with both flavor and quantity.
Calamarata black pasta with spider crab, citron and Sambuca essence is a tour de force of color and taste. The crab is sweet and moist, interspersed between a bountiful serving of pasta. The Sambuca lends a rich sweetness to the dish, while the black Calamarata is a thing of beauty to behold.
The evening is accompanied with a beautiful Fonterutoli 2016 Chianti Classico Riserva from Tuscany. A soft, gorgeous wine with hints of flint and overtones of black currents, it slides across the palette with each delightful sip as it blossoms over the course of the meal.
The main courses: Seafood and Fillet
A seafood salad with Leccino olive oil and thyme is a bountiful basket of ocean delights. Clams, shrimp, octopus and mackerel are a lovely and delicious combination, simply but perfectly cooked, and more than enough to fill the heartiest appetite.
Beef fillet cooked in Brunello wine with spinach and a provolone flan is absolutely heavenly. The fillet is tender and moist, perfectly cooked, and accented by the Chianti is a fine climax to a sumptuous meal.
Elba custard desert is a fabulous finishing touch to a wonderful meal. The custard is rich, but not too sweet, with subtle undertones of lavender and a gorgeous texture that slides off the spoon and into the mouth with eager delight. The evening draws to a close after 3 hours of culinary wonder.
Immediately adjacent to the restaurant the Doney Bar encapsulates a different, more modernist motif. Grey walls with a string of copper colored chandeliers line one wall. It has an affable atmosphere that is a throwback to an art deco feel, reminiscent of the 1940’s.
The Westin Excelsior: an epic experience
The Westin Excelsior is part of the Marriot group of fine hotels around the world, formally the Starwood collection. The special history of the Hotel Excelsior sets it apart from the multitude of 5 star hotels that now occupy this section of Rome.
It was the forerunner of what we now take for granted as the Via Veneto. The spark that produced the growth of modern Rome. It made the Eternal City into a glittering city of the stars, film stars, movie stars, directors, and the modern celebrity life that is now ubiquitous around the world.
But there was a day when Fellini would spend hours at the sidewalk café. When Sophia Loren and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor might be ensconsed in the Orvm bar. When Paul Neman, or Audrey Hepburn, or Gregory Peck, or Liza Minnelli might be having casual drinks in the afternoon at the Café Doney. Where Orson Welles might hold court with Burt Lancaster or Princess Grace.
The Westin Excelsior: La Dolce Vita brought to life
There was a day when paparazzi roamed the street, because they knew where the stars would be. Where the stars knew the paparazzi would be. And where La Dolce Vita was not just a phrase, but a way of life. That place is the Westin Excelsior.
Where the glory days of yesterday persist to this day in a temple to all that is holy in the mind of the modern Roman empire. Where the wonders of the eternal city are forever emblazoned in the memory of a grateful planet. A time that is irreplaceable, and unforgettable.
Where Fellini once observed the absurdities of life, even as he embraced them in his films, and created cinematic wonders that have lasted a lifetime. Rediscover that sweet life here, where it all began, at the Westin Excelsior Roma.
Joel Berliner is a travel writer based in Los Angeles @JoelBerliner
All Photos by Alison Reynolds @BigAlPeoplesPal