The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone by Tennessee Williams brought inspiration to my recent time in the Eternal City, taking me back to its glamorous post-World War II era: Negronis at the Doney and Rosati, strolls along the Via Veneto, sublime times in the Borghese Gardens, dinner in Trastevere.
In the novel, Mrs. Stone is a wealthy, middle-aged signora who lives in a luxurious villa flanking the Spanish Steps in Rome. Recently widowed, feeling lost and alone, she becomes entangled with a devastatingly handsome young Italian named Paolo. The only thing I have in common with Mrs. Stone’s story is the middle-aged signora part. My trip lacked her melodrama, but I still went after the novel’s atmosphere, which proved to be a beautiful background for fun Roman days…
Here are some excerpts from “The Roman Spring of Susan Van Allen”:
My base is the lovely Rose Garden Palace Hotel, that’s just steps away from Mrs. Stone’s beloved Via Veneto. While the other hotels in the area pay homage to Baroque or Neoclassical styles, the Rose Garden Palace (Dream of Italy reviewed the hotel in 2006 and we loved it) is refreshingly contemporary: ivory walls, chic furnishings, and fresh flowers to add bursts of color. The upbeat staff seamlessly pulls off a perfect blend of friendly and professional, so I feel watched over in the best way from the moment I check in. I really appreciate the free Wi-Fi all over the place and what seems to be especially flattering lighting… Or maybe my reflection in this hotel’s mirrors just looks better to me because I feel oh-so relaxed here.
My room is a tranquil oasis: comfy bed, fluffy bathrobe, spacious pale marble bathroom, good sized writing desk. In the morning I wake to the view of rondini circling the clear spring sky and a mesmerizing sight below: handsome uniformed guards at the American Embassy across the street, ceremoniously ushering visitors in and out. Mrs. Stone would highly approve.
If the sublime weather hadn’t beckoned me outdoors, I would take advantage of the spiffy fitness center, which also has a sauna and pool (rare to find in Rome). The hotel’s most charming aspect is naturally its rose garden, a narrow blooming courtyard that adjoins a glass-enclosed dining room. I enjoy the roses every morning over breakfast — a delicious buffet of everything from fresh fruits to pastries, cheeses, cured meats, and bacon and eggs for the American clientele. I also have a wonderful light lunch there (fennel, orange, olive salad), wishing my appetite was bigger so that I could try the thin-crusted pizza some guests nearby are raving about.
Following Mrs. Stone’s footsteps along the Via Veneto, I hit these spots…
- The Doney Restaurant Café in the Hotel Westin Excelsior where she’d pal around with Paolo and drink her Negronis. The place has been hiply renovated and is now celebrating the 50-year anniversary of Fellini‘s La Dolce Vita with a special cocktail menu and happy hours every Thursday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
- The Marriott Grand Hotel Flora (Via Vittorio Veneto, 191) where 25 cartoons drawn by Federico Fellini are displayed in their dining room until May 30. The drawings are a real scream, showing Fellini’s appreciation of womanly curves.
- Hotel Majestic dining room, (Via Vittorio Veneto, 50): This place has been getting lots of buzz since June 2009, when young (and by the way molto bello) chef Filippo La Mantia took over and brought his innovative touch: Sicilian inspired dishes that use no garlic, onion, or butter. The lunch buffet in the airy, elegantly appointed dining room was delightful. And it seemed like the spirit of Mrs. Stone came through — across the room was the devastatingly handsome actor and Rome native, Raoul Bova. (Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday dinner.)
- Going further afield… Borghese Gardens Bike or Cart rentals: Bici Pincio (two locations: Viale della Pineta, Viale di Villa Medici; 4 euros an hour for bikes.) Mrs. Stone went horseback riding in this park, but I rent a bike and spend a dreamy hour gliding along sun dappled paths…the smell of orange blossoms perfuming the air, magnolias in bloom, mammas watching their kids playing around the fountains.
- Rosati, Piazza del Popolo — also a cocktail spot for Mrs. Stone and her lover. I make it a habit to stop here for an excellent Negroni and people-watching. Open until midnight daily.
- Alfredo alla Scrofa (Via della Scrofa, 104) Mrs. Stone and Paolo go here on their disastrous last night together. At the time Tennessee Williams wrote the book (late 1940s) the restaurant was a happening spot for the Hollywood glitterati. It’s claim to fame is that Fettucine Alfredo was invented here in 1914, and the dish is still served there with much tableside flair.
- Carol Malzone and I choose to dine instead at another Trastevere institution, Checco er Carettiere (Via Benedetta, 10; closed Tuesday) that’s been around since 1936. Like Alfredo’s, it’s been host to celebrities, but Cecco is lower priced, and packed with locals. We haven’t made reservations and walking in on a Monday night, we can’t get a table at the restaurant, and are ushered into the next door osteria. The menu is an abridged version of the restaurant’s, and they do a good job with Roman classics. Talk about atmosphere… Once again, the spirit of Mrs. Stone seems to be in the air… Suddenly at the table next to us, appears a most charming young man with a guitar. He serenades his friend, a birthday guest, and then turns to the two American signoras and breaks into song, with a chorus of Susanna, Susanna… Mrs. Stone would highly approve.
If you’re not in Rome this spring, bring the Roman spring home: Watch The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961 version) on YouTube, featuring Warren Beatty as the devastatingly handsome, pouty Italian. Check out Filippo La Mantia’s Web site and try out some of his recipes. The caponata is excellent!
— Susan Van Allen
Frequent Dream of Italy contributor Susan Van Allen is the author of 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go. Visit her Web site at www.susanvanallen.com.