Earlier this year, the Café de Paris, on Rome’s once infamous Via Vittorio Veneto, was destroyed by fire. International newspaper headlines screamed with speculations of arson and organized crime involvement. (Back in 2005, the property, valued at approximately €6 million, was mysteriously “sold” to a barber for €250,000). But it hardly scandalized Roman society, who are used to the rumors that a rather staggering percentage of their restaurant business is actually a money-laundering front for Calabria’s brutal Ndrangheta—who make Sicily’s Costra Nostra look like a Kate Middleton tea party.
To wit, count how many foreign celeb chefs have rushed to open an outpost in Rome. Yeah…zero.
We checked in recently to the storied Regina Baglioni, just a few doors down the Via Veneto from the still shuttered Paris. The hotel shares a history with the café: it is one of the few establishments that have survived from when the street was perhaps the most glamorous party in the universe in the 60s and 70s (with apologies to Carnaby Street). It was on this boulevard of dreams that the modern media world was birthed, as the setting for La Dolce Vita—Fellini’s scathing but deeply prophetic condemnation of the escalating celebrity culture. Marcelo Mastroianni’s conflicted journalist character Marcello Rubini reported on the louche goings on of the rich and famous at the Paris and its cognoscenti-magnet neighbors; his photographer was named Paparazzo—and so was born the blueprint for today’s voracious tabloid mania. (And yes, the term paparazzi evolved directly from the character in the film.)
As happens, the Via Veneto is now most characterized by a string of luxury hotels, which dutifully hawk a chance to stay at such a renowned locale (“Come live La Dolce Vita!”). Only the Regina, the Excelsior and Harry’s Bar remain from those heady days. The hallways of the former, which carefully balance classic Italian glamour with cool contemporary chic, are lined with images of Mastroianni, Jane Birkin, Peter O’Toole and the like. Just debuted last year was the spectacular new panoramic Roman Penthouse suite (pictured below), which is now attracting another generation of paparazzi stalked stars.
“Matthew McConaughey was one of the first to stay in the penthouse,” the Regina’s Raffaella Palandri tells us. “He was promoting Dallas Buyers Club, and went on to win the Oscar. So we like to think it’s a good luck charm.”
It’s little wonder the hotel is favored by the famous; despite its high-profile location (actually directly across from the American embassy), it offers a distinctly discreet sort of luxury. The morning we arrived, there was a fashion shoot happening in its lavish namesake café (pictured below)—but there was hardly any gawking to accompany. Its cosmopolitan spaces buzz with stylish internationals, yet there’s little sense anyone is trying to “be seen.”
But times have changed, indeed. There is now a Hard Rock Café (alas, not yet renamed the Hard Rock Cafioso) just down the block. And the Regina boasts a sexy, modern restaurant and lounge, the Brunello (pictured below)—but quite unlike the drill in New York or London, a specific effort is made to treat it as its own entity.
“People in Rome do not go to hotel restaurants,” Palandri enlightens, “so we created a separate entrance for Brunello, to have it stand apart.” Apparently it is working, and the locals readily mix with hotel guests for Acquarello Carnaroli Risotto and Filetto di Manzo, as well as classic cocktails, amidst the sexy black and red color scheme with leopard print seating. (It is Italy, after all.)
She’s a bit more disheartened, however, about the preservation of the “spirit” of the Via Veneto. “The Café de Paris property was bought by an Arabic company,” she sighs. “And it may become luxury apartments. We will lose a piece of our history.”
That is something that might scandalize Romans, whose resistance to modernization and globalization is as stubborn as it is charmingly noble. (For instance, just try to find a Japanese, Thai or Mexican restaurant in the city.)
But Rome is still an extremely influential film market, and so the stars will continue to come to promote—or shoot—their latest. Indeed, the next James Bond film is being made partly in Rome; and a remake of Ben-Hur will also be shot there. As for the famous street itself…in Woody Allen’s quite underrated and apparently misunderstood 2013 film To Rome With Love, he pays fitting homage to Fellini and La Dolce Vita: Roberto Begnini’s once famous for nothing character Leopoldo Pisanello is seen running up and down the Via Veneto begging people to recognize him, to virtually no avail.
One guesses that neither Matthew McConaughey nor the Regina Baglioni will ever have that problem.