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ROME: Finding The Eternal City’s Hideaways

<i> Times Travel Editor</i>

It’s a long way to travel to check up on a talking parrot, but that’s one of the purposes of this visit.

I was curious to learn how the parrot, Cacao, was getting on and to do a little snooping around the hotels and pensiones I’d covered during earlier visits.

Cacao, as you may recall from our last report, presides over a favorite pensione of mine, the Scalinata di Spagna at the very top of the Spanish Steps, which is just across Piazza Trinita dei Monti from the Hassler, Rome’s No. 1 hotel. No argument about that.

Personally, though, I prefer the informality of the Scalinata, not just because of prices ($26 single/$47 double) but because of the infectious gentleness of the owners, Giuseppe and Gisella Bellia, a husband-and-wife team.

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In our last report on Rome’s unusual hideaways, the Scalinata got a five-star rating in the pensione category. I’m pleased to report its star status remains unchanged. If anything, the Scalinata is even more appealing. Guests dial direct from their rooms to nearly any place on Earth, and Giuseppe has installed a new espresso machine that hisses and wheezes. And certainly Cacao has become an even better-known celebrity.

Cacao, as you may recall, came to the Scalinata with his previous owner to film a TV commercial. Cacao had been taught to praise a popular soft drink. His owner spent months teaching the bird to say, “I love Coca-Cola.” Instead, Cacao fell in love with Giuseppe Bellia’s wife and refused to utter a word.

At Piazza Navona, which was where the commercial was to be filmed, Cacao wouldn’t open his beak. Not one word came out. The owner coaxed. The producer pleaded. The sponsor swore. Finally in disgust, Cacao’s owner gave Gisella Bellia the bird and left Rome in a huff.

The man was barely out of sight when Cacao began cooing. He had eyes only for Gisella. The fact is, he’s been chattering ever since. Incessantly. Cacao occupies a perch near the reception desk. Other times he flutters over to a winged statue in the little lobby.

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Not only is Cacao in love with Gisella Bellia, he’s also sweet on actress Stephanie Powers, another patron of the Scalinata. Whenever she’s away the actress sends mash notes to Cacao, signing them Con motto effecto , Stephanie.

Although Cacao isn’t from Italy, he’s crazy about pasta. Especially spaghetti. Dry, brittle, uncooked spaghetti. He also has a taste for champagne and gets rather tipsy on occasion. Only recently he insulted a group of German guests. (Cacao prefers Americans.)

“Get lost!” he cried as the German entourage arrived with its luggage.

Cacao also does a lot of squawking whenever Gisella or Giuseppe is talking on the telephone. “Hang up,” he’ll screech. “Hang up!”

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Is this any way to run a pensione? Well, apparently so. Because the Scalinata at Piazza Trinita dei Monti 17 is packed every single night. It even has been recommended by First Lady Nancy Reagan. Guests write two and three months early for a reservation.

In truth, the pensione is really rather ordinary. Its big attraction is that it occupies this enviable position at the top of the Spanish Steps and because it is a genuinely friendly place with a wonderful vista of Rome from its rooftop garden, which is where breakfast is served on sunny mornings.

Appearing on the front door are the words Your home in Rome . Guests in our survey chose the Scalinata because of Giuseppe and Gisella. The owners care. This is a friendly little 14-room pensione with great warmth. And so once again: five stars.

Our top ratings for small properties go also to the charming little Hotel Raphael behind Piazza Navona, the Lord Byron and Hotel d’Inghilterra as well as the Internazionale, which is mere steps from the Scalinata. A former 16th-Century convent, the Internazionale, 79 Via Sistina, provides 38 tastefully decorated rooms. Like the Scalinata, it is booked weeks (sometimes months) ahead during the busy summer season.

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The Internazionale features antiques and lofty ceilings. There are rooms with garden terraces and others whose balconies overlook busy Via Sistina, a scene which American artist Janice Haefner was sketching the day we happened by.

Fluted chandeliers add charm to the breakfast room at the Internazionale along with its cheerful lobby. This little hotel has been the choice of knowledgeable travelers since the 1920s. (Rates: $50/$75.)

Leading the lineup of choice small hotels is the Lord Byron, which occupies an elegant old mansion in a quiet residential neighborhood directly behind the Borghese Gardens at Via G. de Notaris 5. It is simply a gem. Once a private villa, it is tastefully furnished with priceless antiques and boasts one of the prettiest restaurants in Rome--a combination of three small dining rooms featuring floral fabrics and vases spilling over with fresh-cut flowers.

The menu at its Relais le Jardin lists a caviar salad, wine-flavored risotto with pumpkin flowers, spaghettini with duck and mulberries, and a sole stuffed with pumpkin flowers and rosemary. Desserts are outrageous. Everything from fig pie with vanilla sauce to gooseberries and yogurt flavored with almond cream.

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or some guests, the Lord Byron’s location may be a handicap, for others a blessing. While delightfully quiet, it is a 10-minute cab ride from the Spanish Steps and about a 30-minute stroll from the Via Veneto. Once arrived, though, there is the impression that this is a private home, complete with a tiny bar that turns out the perfect martini.

At the Lord Byron--it smacks of luxury and elegance--guests are put at ease by manager Mariano Paesani and concierge Jose Bonilla, along with others with a knowledge of a dozen languages. Their credo: service, care, comfort at rates starting at $125 single/$165 double.

A favorite small hotel of mine, the d’Inghilterra, is just off fashionable Via dei Condotti and only a couple of blocks from the Spanish Steps. This is where Hemingway used to put up whenever he was in Rome, along with Sir Alec Guinness and Anatole France.

In one corner there is an oak-paneled, four-stool bar, which happens to be film maker Fellini’s favorite watering hole. Recently renovated, the d’Inghilterra ($95/$200) is air-conditioned throughout and features a newly completed Roman-style coffee garden. This former 17th-Century town house at Via Bocca di Leone 14 looks out on a tiny piazza that is surrounded by ancient buildings.

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Nor has the little Hotel Raphael lost its appeal. This choice of romantics rises just steps from Rome’s storied Piazza Navona at 2 Largo Febo. The Raphael is like a small museum, its walls hung with paintings. Spread across its lobby are Roman statues and an antique sleigh. At sunset, couples gather on the rooftop garden to watch lights flash on across the Eternal City. Ivy covers its outer walls and inside there’s the warmth of a relaxing lounge--the perfect choice for a campari and soda after a long day of sightseeing.

Dinner in the Raphael’s attractive restaurant figures out to around $40 per couple and rooms range from approximately $50 single to $75 for a double.

Barely beyond the door of the Raphael crowds gather in Piazza Navona, which remains Rome’s most romantic square. The restless still gather at Tre Scalini to sip wines and spoon ice cream. It is the square’s No. 1 choice among weary sightseers. More so than Caffe di Colombia opposite Tre Scalini. This is because Caffe di Colombia gets the heat of the afternoon sun during summer. So the masses choose Tre Scalini. Unless, of course, one wishes to improve one’s suntan. In this case Caffe di Colombia will do just nicely.

During this survey of small hotels and pensiones, I stopped off to exchange pleasantries with an old friend, Domenico Guarnera, at Caffe Greco, the ancient coffeehouse at Via Condotti 86. Like other waiters at Caffe Greco, Domenico was resplendent in his swallow-tail coat and wing collar. Never mind that it was only 10 a.m. This is the uniform of the day, morning, afternoon and evening. The customers may look like bums, but the waiters strut about like ambassadors at a White House ball.

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Caffe Greco turns out marvelous cakes and finger sandwiches in addition to espresso and cappuccino. Through the years it has been favored by painters, writers, sculptors and musicians. My friend Domenico, who speaks French, English and Arabic, switches languages like an automatic transmission turning gears. During 31 years at Caffe Greco he has served kings, presidents and film stars with the poise of a valet de chambre reigning at Buckingham.

Caffe Greco is a nifty choice when the feet give out while hoofing it around Rome. Papa Hemingway used to stop by. So did Ludwig I of Bavaria, Mark Twain, Franz Liszt and Casanova. Even Pope Leo XIII paid a surprise visit once. Caffe Greco has been doing business non-stop since 1760. Murals, portraits and landscapes line its walls and the hum of conversation swells from the entrance to the ornate back room, patrons ranging from cops to contessas.

For Watching People

Other people-watching perches include Ristorante Il Bolognese on Piazza del Popolo and Giolitti’s (for ice cream) at Via Uffici del Vicario 40.

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For travelers with an adventurous spirit, I have another hotel in mind that’s only five minutes from Caffe Greco. Hotel due Torri faces a narrow, cobbled street at Vicolo del Leonetto 23, midway between Piazza Navona and the Spanish Steps. Ancient apartments line the alley, laundry fluttering from the balconies. It is like a scene from an old Fellini flick.

Plaster peels from the walls of the buildings along Vicolo del Leonetto and pigeons roost in tiles. The Due Torri is the choice of the adventurer, the traveler doing Rome on a budget. At about $28 a day, the rooms aren’t bad and if it’s atmosphere one is seeking, well, the Due Torri drips with the stuff. When one strolls out the front door it’s evident that one is in the arms of old Rome.

Other atmosphere is provided at Hotel Fontana, a former convent facing Trevi Fountain at Piazza di Trevi 96. Although a trifle shopworn, the Fontana’s prices are a reasonable $35/$55 and the setting is smashing. Particularly if one lands a room facing this storied fountain.

Escape Street Noises

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Other budget-seeking travelers escape street noises at that old standby, the Pensione Texas at Via Firenze 47. A single here goes for less than $30 a day and doubles fetch about $55, including breakfast and/or lunch and dinner. Skip the midday or evening meal and proprietors Marvin Hare and Guido Agnolucci kick back 6 bucks.

The proprietors have been greeting guests at the Texas for 35 years, among them actor Vincent Price, Cornelius Vanderbilt, anthropologist Margaret Mead and singer Jan Peerce. Hare recalls how Peerce moved over from the choice Excelsior and entertained guests by singing in the shower.

To reach the Pensione Texas--it occupies a spot in a building not far off the Via Veneto--one takes a creaking, postage stamp-size elevator to the fourth floor where on chilly nights the atmosphere warms up as Hare and Agnolucci samba forth with the cocktail shaker.

For further information contact the Italian Government Travel Office, 360 Post St., Suite 801, San Francisco 94108.

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