It's 6 p.m. in Rome and a stately woman of late middle age wearing big sunglasses and a white shearling coat sweeps into the discreet lobby of the Hotel d'Inghilterra. It's Carla Fendi, of the Rome fashion family, here to be my Virgil for a night on the town. Tended by a chic trio of Fendi women executives, she requests a glass of mineral water. Then, in the cool and formal way of the worldly and entitled, proceeds to tell me, a vacationing New Yorker, that she did not spend her younger years running around Rome at night.
"I come from a strict family," says Fendi. As a baby, she slept in a drawer at her parents' store--the very one that spawned the $300 million empire she and her four sisters now run (Carla is president of the board and in charge of worldwide communications). "When I was a teenager, if I went out, it was always to the movies with my sisters. When we returned we'd see our mother in the window, waiting for us."
So, no carrying on?No tales of reckless, giddy Fellini-style excess?
"I was a very good girl," she says.
Well, then. What about nightlife in Rome right now?"Since La Dolce Vita, there's been an enormous, disappointing change in nightlife," she tells me. "What Fellini was showing, the princes and playboys on Via Veneto, it's all over."
So, Mrs. Fendi, where do you go?What do you like to do?
"I go to the places I know well because that's where my roots are."
A wild party girl she's not, but when a Fendi in Rome says roots, it shouldn't be taken lightly. After all, the family business--making clothes, furs, shoes, and accessories, including the Baguette (the status handbag of recent seasons that galvanized the company into a major fashion force and led to its acquisition last year by Prada and LVMH)--was started in 1925 by Fendi's parents, Edoardo and Adele. For fashion, that's pretty old, even in a culture where fun (bread, circuses, feasting, Plautus comedies) can be traced back several millennia.
"It's not easy for me to become affectionate for the new," says Fendi, a quietly sociable jet-setter who was a devotee of Mortimer's, Manhattan's now-defunct Upper East Side clubhouse. "But I'm in the fashion business, so it's important to be curious and to see new things--as long as they're the right things." Roots. The right things. Is this going to be any fun at all? Absolutely, but you must understand something about Rome. It's been around too long to get itself worked up about the latest anything. Sure, it has its big, trendy nouvelle pizzeria, Gusto; there's also the arty crowd's Café Riparte in Trastevere; and, for late-night club-hoppers, Café Renault, a throbbing space where the waiters wear headsets and you might as well be at a Hard Rock Café, except that the food's a lot better. But why obsess over the new when the old is so magnificent?Why re-create the Jetsons' dining room when you've got the Colosseum?And why concern yourself with pan-Asian dishes and ice-blended drinks when you have risotto, gelato, and espresso on your menu?
"You can't compare Rome to New York," says Fendi. "This city has died and been reborn so many times that it's impossible to shock the Romans, or even get them to care about anything." Still, if anybody is trying to get a rise out of this town, it's the Fendi family. While other fashion fixtures of Rome have faded--from the Fontana Sisters, who designed Ava Gardner's clothes for Barefoot Contessa, to Valentino, who decamped to Paris years ago--the Fendis have stood by their hometown. Even in the eighties, when Milan's Armani, Versace, and Ferré stole the fashion scepter away from Rome, perhaps forever, Fendi stayed put, and with the help of its designer, Karl Lagerfeld, staged incredible fashion spectacles at the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and Cinecittà, the film studio which is now having a renaissance.
Fendi's main store, housed in a former burlesque theater on Via Borgognona (off Via Condotti, Rome's Madison Avenue), and Fendissime, for younger shoppers, on Via Fontanella Borghese, challenge Romans on a daily basis with outlandish and whimsical ideas. "This is for the person who understands quality," says Fendi, who has shepherded me into the main Fendi store and is smiling wryly as she shows me mink pillowcases and a cashmere blanket lined with sable. "If you don't understand quality, you don't need to have this." Being around such a garden of fabulous things--crystal-studded Baguettes, the new, tiny, gemlike Croissant bags, snakeskin skirts--shaves years off her demeanor. "I adore shopping. It's relaxing to try on clothes; for a moment you only think about yourself."
Outside, as we stroll past monumental buildings cleaned up for the city's year 2000 jubilee, she tells me she enjoys walking. "It's good medicine, but not uphill too much. Life is difficult enough." We haven't even had our first cocktail, and she's already getting philosophical. She has also, I note, taken my arm, in the style of friends on a Sunday passeggiata.
"Mrs. Fendi, isn't it time for our big night out?" I ask.
"Absolutely," she says, "and call me Carla."
If Rome is a city of churches, it's also a city of mobile phones, and before we duck into a wine bar in Piazza Pasquino, Fendi's starts ringing. "The first time tonight," one of her staff mutters. "A miracle." So are the offerings at Enoteca Cul de Sac, Fendi's favorite. "I like it here because it's not so loud, and the place takes its wines seriously." When she orders a glass of Lambrusco, a fizzy Tuscan red, the waiter tells her it's an important wine, with character, then gives us a wine lecture. "This is more complicated than fashion," says Fendi.
En route to dinner, she's compelled to try some vin brlé, mulled wine, served out of a big spaghetti pot on the street by a rosy-cheeked girl. "It's not even like a capital city here," Fendi says as we walk the cobblestone passages behind Piazza Navona. "It's like a small town where a feast-day procession might appear around the corner at any minute." In fact, we're the procession, joined as we are by more of her friends. We all follow Fendi, her white coat flapping and cell phone ringing, into Trattoria della Pace, a modest-looking place for the not so modest, where paparazzi linger around artists and celebrities, and a pan of red coals heats the bathroom. My night out with Fendi has suddenly become a Roman banquet party. She presides over a long, festive, candlelit table strewn with carnations. Her niece, Silvia Venturini Fendi, the youthful designer of the Baguette and one of the feistiest of the 11 nieces and nephews working for the company, has two phones in her bag, one for family matters only. "I have a jealous husband," she jokes. The buffalo mozzarella, delivered fresh from south of Naples, is wonderful. But it's really the atmosphere and people that make the place so delicious. Bartolo Cuomo, the beloved quiet bear of an owner, ventures forward to say hello. "Bartolo!" come the calls from the table. There had been talk of his moving to New York, but tonight he has good news for Fendi and her posse: he's moving around the corner to a bigger spot with a garden. "For the new place, Chia and Cucchi are doing big paintings of Santa Lucia," he says of the extremely successful Italian artists, who happen to be at the next table. "Santa Lucia is the patron saint of Amalfi, where I'm from, and I'm going to open in the spring with a procession on her feast day." "Grazie a Santa Lucia!" shouts Fendi.
She has to go to Milan for business first thing tomorrow, but who cares?Tonight is tonight, and it's time to move on to Cuomo's nearby Caffè della Pace, where he first made his mark on Rome's insider crowd. There we find Dolores, a "vagabonda," as Fendi puts it, in big Gypsy earrings and a fake fur coat, who sits on my lap and regales us with a Neapolitan song. Fendi applauds strenuously. "Che voce! Che sentimento!" she yells. Enzo Cucchi and his crowd walk in now, adding to the commotion. "Rome is always surprising," he shouts to me over the noise. "Like a good girlfriend, she is never the same!"
It's past midnight and I'm exhausted, but Fendi is dragging me to the Magazzino d'Arte Moderna, where a show of Sandro Chia's paintings will open the following night. The owner invited Fendi for this special preview, and she couldn't refuse. "Deve fare le cose come vengono," she says. "You have to do things as they come along."
My head is spinning. "So, Carla," I ask, "is this la dolce vita 2000?" She gives me a bracing pat on the arm. "Yes," she says, "and it's still early!"
Bob Morris writes for the New York Times and Talk magazine, and does humorous commentary for NPR's All Things Considered.
Carla Fendi's Rome Address Book
Bars, Cafés, and Wine Bars
Caffè Della Pace 4 Via della Pace; 39-06/686-1216. Set in a quiet enclave near Piazza Navona. Crowded, but not with tourists.
Enoteca Cul De Sac 73 Piazza Pasquino; 39-06/6880-1094. Oldest wine bar in Rome, with well-priced bottles and good cold food.
Hotel d'Inghilterra 14 Via Bocca di Leone; 39-06/69981; doubles $295. "I once took Catherine Deneuve to the cozy bar in the back of this grand old hotel and she loved it," says Fendi. The perfect spot for a woman traveling alone.
La Vineria 15 Campo dei Fiori; 39-06/6860-3268. Late-night mecca for young Romans.
Café Riparte 3 Via degli Orti di Trastevere; 39-06/586-1816. Trastevere hangout. The place to run into artists and intellectuals.
Camponeschi 50 Piazza Farnese; 39-06/687-4927; dinner for two $180. Tables indoors and out, overlooking the beautifully restored Piazza Farnese. Draws fashion types and the media elite.
Duke's 200 Via Parioli; 39-06/8066-2455; dinner for two $50. California-style fresh fare--a standout among the otherwise staid restaurants on Via Parioli.
Gusto 9 Piazza Augusto Imperatore; 39-06/322-6273; pizza for two $30. Nouvelle pizza in a loftlike space.
Nino 11 Via Borgognona; 39-06/679-5676; lunch for two $68. A 60-year-old Tuscan restaurant; a favorite Fendi lunch spot.
Trattoria Della Pace 1 Via della Pace; 39-06/686-4802; dinner for two $65. Meeting central for Roman society and celebrity seekers. Hearty Amalfi-style cooking.
Hotel Hassler 6 Piazza Trinità dei Monti; 39-06/6992-1111, fax 39-06/6994-1575; doubles from $420. Right on top of the Spanish steps, the Hassler has incredible views. "The very elegant terrace restaurant is the place to go for an aperitif at sunset."
Hotel Raphael 2 Largo Febo; 39-06/682-831, fax 39-06/687-8793; doubles from $325. A beautiful tiny hotel in the social heart of the city.
St. Regis Grand 3 Via Emanuele Orlando; 39-06/470-91, fax 39-06/474-7307; doubles from $445. The former Le Grand has just reopened after a massive restyling. "Luxurious, rich, beautiful."
Fendi 36 Via Borgognona; 39-06/696-661. The main shop; there are two others in Rome and more than 100 throughout the world.
Fendissime 56A Via Fontanella Borghese; 39-06/6966-6654. Devoted to Fendi's younger line.
C.U.C.I.N.A. 118 Via del Babuino; 39-06/679-1275. Everything for the kitchen--strictly in metals or white porcelain.
PaolO Antonacci 141A Via del Babuino; 39-06/3265-1679. Old family business specializing in Italian furniture and paintings.
Contemporary Art Gallery
Magazzino d'Arte moderna 17 Via dei Prefetti; 39-06/687-5951.
Bibli 28 Via dei Fienaroli; 39-06/588-4097; brunch for two $30. Books, computers, and food in an architectural space. Great Sunday brunches.
Sergio Valente 11 Via Condotti; 39-06/679-1268. Where Fendi goes to relax. "The service is impeccable--a dirty ashtray is immediately whisked away. I literally let my hair down here."