- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

ROME — Francesco Apreda has a job any chef in Rome would aspire to at age 35 — or even older.

For about a year, Mr. Apreda has been the chef at the Hassler, the venerable five-star hotel at the top of the Spanish Steps, next door to the twin towers of the Trinita dei Monti Church. That’s about as high as a chef can go in Rome.

Reserve a windowside table in the Hassler’s Rooftop Restaurant, but arrive before your guests. They walk in, and you greet them, but there are only two words to say, with a gentle sweep of the hand toward the window: “Behold Rome.”

Then there is the food.

Mr. Apreda grew up in Naples and still goes there once a month to visit family. He goes to the Rome markets to find the freshest and best ingredients.

He attributes much of the Italian aspect of his cooking to his grandmother, including the paccheri di Gragnano con sugo di moscardini e olive nere di Gaeta.

This is a dish of tubular pasta larger than rigatoni from Gragnano, a small hill town near Naples known for its pasta, with a sauce of baby octopus — so baby that they are called “moscardini” and not “pulpi” — and chopped tomato and black olives from Gaeta, between Naples and Rome and the home of the best olives in Italy, Mr. Apreda says.

It is an incredible dish: the moscardini so tender, the tomato and black olives so subtle with the pasta.

“It is the way my grandmother made it,” says the chef.

Of course, the fresh — not frozen — seafood served in Rome contributes to the success, but the sauce could easily be overcooked in lesser hands.

Mr. Apreda’s cooking is Italian with some touches he picked up at other well known establishments where he worked earlier in his career, such as Gavroche and Green Olive in London. Before returning to Italy, Mr. Apreda was kitchen manager of Cicerone, the Italian restaurant in the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

A stellar dessert from a previous kitchen in Mr. Apreda’s career and now part of his repertoire at the Hassler is pineapple ravioli, in which pineapple is sliced across in very thin slices that then receive a spoonful of lime parfait and are folded to look like ravioli. The result is the ultimate pineapple dessert. No wonder that Mr. Apreda loves making desserts.

The Hassler owner and manager, Roberto Wirth, continues his family’s operation of the hotel, which began in 1921 when Oscar Wirth took over the business from the Hassler heirs. The Rooftop Restaurant, the first of its type in Rome, was built in the 1940s.

During World War II, Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini decided that the name Hassler did not sound Italian enough and changed it to Villa Medici, a name some travelers still used until late in the 20th century. The Wirths dropped Villa Medici from the name, now Hassler Roma or Hotel Hassler Rome, but let it remain on the marquee for its historical context. The real Villa Medici is on the other side of Trinita dei Monti.

After the fascists were driven out of Rome, the Hassler was requisitioned as headquarters of the American Command until the end of the war. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower converted a suite into a study. The Hassler reopened to travelers in 1947.

Mr. Wirth was planning to add another story and move the restaurant up, but he decided that because it would have to be set back from the street facade, too much of the incomparable view of Rome would be lost.

As it is, large glass windows afford guests an expansive view of Rome. Instead, the Rooftop Restaurant will be refurbished by spring, the spectacular view intact.

The Hassler already has a wonderful Palm Court off the lobby area that makes a quiet, elegant spot for lunch or cocktails or for meeting friends.

If location were everything, the Hassler would get an extra star, but the venerable hotel has been a favorite with generations of guests.

Its Golden Book contains the signatures of royalty, heads of state — three U.S. presidents have stayed there, and two British prime ministers — Hollywood stars, two of the Three Tenors (Jose Careras and Placido Domingo), and pop stars such as Sting and Madonna. Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco stayed at the Hassler during their honeymoon.

The guest rooms and suites have been handsomely renovated; one of the suites is very trendy and dramatic in black and white. Astrid Schiller Wirthy, wife of the owner and also an interior designer and former fashion model who appeared magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, has used sumptuous Italian silks in the refurbishing.

Mrs. Wirth also had a perfume, Amorvero, created. It is available only at the Hassler; the scent also perfumes the soaps and lotions in the marble bathrooms.

The Hassler now has several desirable rooms in the Palazzetto del Vino, to the right when one is descending the Spanish Steps from the Piazza Trinita dei Monti to the Piazza di Spagna.

These rooms, furnished in a spare but elegant contemporary style, can be entered from the Vicolo del Bottino, an alley running from the Piazza di Spagna to the elevator for the Piazza Trinita dei Monti. The Palazzetto del Vino is the home of the International Wine Academy of Rome and is owned by the Wirths. Lectures and tastings precede dinners served on the premises.

Guests at the Palazzetto have access to a lovely terrace near the Spanish Steps. Sitting on the terrace, relaxing, looking at the parade of people on the steps, enjoying a languid conversation and a glass of vino, well, life can be very good. No doubt life was very good in a more decadent sort of way, though, when the legendary banquets of Lucullus were staged in the neighborhood.

The Palazzetto del Vino was built in 500 but was rebuilt as a Roman family’s retreat in 1989. Bernardo Bertolucci used it as a setting for his film “The Siege.” Mr. Wirth acquired the property in 1999, and with a group of friends, he established the clublike International Wine Academy, which opened two years ago.

The ground floor of the palazzetto uses the original marble, but reset, and wrought-iron railings are more than 100 years old.

This is a different world from the Hassler at the top of the steps, but both have the Hassler quality.

Another venue of Hassler hospitality is the Borgo Bastia Creti near Umbertide in Italy’s Umbria region, an area rich in art and architecture. Lately, Umbria has been nudging Tuscany as a retreat and place to visit. Bastia Creti is near the highway that connects the Tiber Valley to Cortona in Tuscany.

A chef who turned to winemaking in New Zealand and now works in Umbria said he was living in Tuscany but was ready to go back home until he discovered Umbria. He said the Umbrians are friendlier and make better wines than the Tuscans, and that Umbria is less crowded with tourists and is cleaner and greener.

Visitors to Italy should not miss the Umbrian towns of Assisi, Spoleto, Orvieto, Gubbio; and the capital, Perugia. The Tiber River runs south through Umbria on its way to Rome. The countryside is beautiful, filled with fields of grains, tobacco and cattle; valleys with small towns and fast streams; and hills rolling toward distant mountains.

Bastia Creti entered recorded history about 1200, when it was home to the nuns of St. Lucia; a church, now a clubhouse, was dedicated to the saint. In the mid-15th century, the area was destroyed by soldiers from Citta di Castello in northern Umbria. It was rebuilt with the help of Pope Eugene IV and the magistrate of Perugia.

The late Carmen Bucher Wirth, whose son runs the Hassler, is credited with rescuing Bastia Creti and transforming it into suites and apartments in cottages and four-story buildings on the property. The apartments include kitchens, but meals can also be taken in the Club, once the chapel of the hamlet.

The apartments are comfortable and usually have fireplaces, and the look is country, not city — think exposed wooden beams and ceilings and tile and wooden floors. It is of the area, the way it should be. Plumbing is up to date, and radiators provide heat in the apartments on chilly Umbrian nights. A swimming pool and tennis courts are part of the complex.

The site, the surroundings, the quiet and simplicity, and the gentle folks who look after the property make Bastia Creti so rewarding.

Near the Borgo is a farm and vineyards owned by Ursula and Carlo Massimiliano Gritti. One of his ancestors, Andrea Gritti, was the doge of Venice from 1523 to 1538.

The Grittis plan to have a butcher shop on their property — Girasoli di Sant’Andrea — and sell meat from their cattle and sheep. Their top wine, Il Doge, is produced only in great vintages of sangiovese and merlot grapes. As their neighbors in an adjacent region have created super-Tuscan wines, the Grittis’ Il Doge is a super-Umbran.

Also in Umbria is Podernovo, another vineyard offering apartments — and two large swimming pools and a charming restaurant in the spectacular Umbrian countryside. Podernovo is in San Liberato-Narni, 38 miles from Rome and then five miles from Orte.

• • •

Hotel Hassler, Piazza Trinita dei Monti 6, 00187 Rome; phone, 39/06-699-340; reservations in United States (Leading Hotels of the World), 800/223-6800; Web, www.hotelhasslerroma.com.

International Wine Academy of Rome, Vicolo dei Bottino 8, 00187 Rome; phone 39/06-699-0878; fax, 39/06-679-1385; Web, www.wineacademyroma.com.

Bastia Creti, Umbertide, Italy; phone 39/075-941-0854; fax, 39/075-941-0725; reservations 39/075-941-0464; e-mail, [email protected]

Girasoli di Sant’Andrea, Molino Vitelli, 06010 Umbertide, Perugia, Italy; phone 39/075-941-0798; fax, 39/075-942-7114; e-mail [email protected]

Podernovo, Strada Ortanaa Vecchiaa 2/V; San Liberato-Narni, Umbria, Italy; phone 39/0744-702-005; fax, 39/0744-702-006; Web, www.podernovo.com; e-mail, [email protected],

Alitalia’s flight from Washington Dulles International Airport to Milan connect smoothly with flights to Rome. The return flight from Rome to Milan is early in the morning, but it is a pleasure to breeze through Rome by the Campidoglio, Circus Maximus and Baths of Caracalla in practically no traffic.

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