Revelations in High-End Rome

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IT was one of those absurdly hot Roman afternoons when the sun-blasted plazas empty out and the sherbet-hued town houses, peach and lemon and lime, look ready to melt into the cobbled streets. Weary of the touristy Tridente district, I crossed the tony Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina and slipped into a tiny new art-house cinema, savoring the air-conditioning. Within seconds I was lost in a movie that I had never heard of: "Cracker Bag," a moody coming-of-age film from Australia. The credits rolled and I fixed my eyes on the screen, eagerly awaiting the next movie -- another obscure film from another far-off land.

Was I really in Tridente, that haven of accessible pleasures and oft-visited sites, from the well-worn seats of the Caffè Greco to the even more worn stones of the Spanish Steps? The delight of discovering a thoughtful global cinema in this enclave of Gucci, Prada and Fendi was compounded by my astonishment at its location: the second floor of a new Louis Vuitton emporium, a palace where most eyes are trained on handbags, not art films.

I wouldn't have found myself in Tridente had I not been asked to explore a side of Rome that I had always dismissed as too predictable and too expensive. On previous visits, I had been one of those pavement-pounding budget travelers battling past the Colosseum touts, getting by on classic pizza and tossing in a lumpy hotel bed, far from the rarefied air of Tridente. But this time I was on a mission to experience the city's opulent side. Equipped with a substantial budget, I plunged into Rome's pricier pleasures and discovered it is now a Janus-faced city, looking increasingly to the future even as it contemplates its remarkable past.

The serendipitous moment at the Louis Vuitton boutique -- which opened last year in a century-old building that once held Spazio Etoile, the city's first cinema -- embodied all the ingredients that make an upscale stay in Rome so appealing: innovative hangouts where you least expect them, an appreciation for the good life tempered by an indie spirit, and original tributes to the city's past that update history rather than getting bogged down in it.

Rome, in short, is surprising these days -- not an adjective that is normally applied to the Eternal City, which often seems the Immutable City. Normally we go to Rome for its long-enduring pleasures -- Caravaggio's church paintings, spaghetti carbonara -- not its attempts to be cutting-edge. But Rome is sporting some contemporary threads, chic without being showy, that blend well with the familiar ones. So on a recent weekend, I began my exploration of new and old Rome in Tridente, on the cobbled, tree-shaded Via Margutta, which would become my base.

My first revelation came when I walked inside the Hotel Art by the Spanish Steps, a rare outpost of the 21st century on this venerable street (my room there was 245 euros, about $315 at $1.28 to the euro). Old Rome disappeared as the door swung shut behind me. The vaulted lobby, a former chapel, held two space age pods that contained the reception area and the concierge desk. Above, wire filament had been twisted into silvery bird's-nest lamps by Enzo Catellani, who recently won a design award from Wallpaper magazine for another project.

Back outside, the surprises kept coming. On Via di Ripetta I found MIA, a cavernous showroom of modern housewares and avant-garde furniture. If you're seeking a colorful rug from the Hay outfit in Copenhagen, it's here. It would look great under the Bibliochaise -- a boxy armchair with bookshelves built into its frame -- from the young Italian duo Nobody & Co. Nearby, on the narrow Via del Vantaggio, the proprietors of Basilico Design showed off their line of robot-shaped coat hooks, geometric wall clocks by Ari Kanerva from Finland and leaf-shaped serving dishes by Nao Tamura of Japan.

Later, as I sipped wine atop the rooftop terrace of the adjacent First hotel, a new inn with its own collection of contemporary art, the church domes of Tridente glowed in the late afternoon sun. Three Italian beauties sat on banquettes, making plans to hit up some local bars. New things were buzzing all around the core of the ancient city, it seemed. Clearly it was time to revise my opinion of Tridente -- and possibly of Rome itself.

In a city with so many ancient architectural masterpieces, a quest to find a modern structure of equal grandeur seems like folly. Most seekers run to Maxxi, Zaha Hadid's two-year-old contemporary art museum, with its curves and space age sheen. But my friend Marta, a student of contemporary art, encouraged me instead to go to the new wing of the Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Roma and to visit an artist in residence who was there for the summer.

I was struck by the sheer blackness of the soaring asymmetrical space -- black walls, black floor, black catwalks overhead -- and by the vibrant red auditorium building, shaped like a jagged stone. This is what happens when you hand the drawing board to Odile Decq, a French architect with Gothic black hair and black eyeliner.

UPSTAIRS, in a cluttered atelier, I found Graham Hudson, a 30-something British artist whose studio was open to visitors. His provocative work, which often incorporates found objects and contains clever subtexts about art and commerce, has landed him shows at prestigious spots like Rome's Monitor gallery (where he has an exhibition this fall) and commissions by vanguard fashion brands, including Comme des Garçons.

His studio looked like a municipal office after a hurricane. Broken desks and smashed computers were surrounded by asphalt slabs and other urban junk. Every day, he explained, he drove to construction sites around Rome and brought back refuse, some of which wound up on a pedestal or in a display case. "I'm trying to play with how we ascribe value to history, how we build the story of history, how we perceive art by glamorizing banal locations and things from around the city," Mr. Hudson said.

So while downstairs Macro was rounding up the best contemporary art, upstairs Mr. Hudson was taking a swipe at archaeology, history and museums themselves, a holy trinity in Rome.

By noon the next day, the usual hullabaloo was in full, chaotic swing around the Colosseum. Tour buses disgorged passengers while hucksters worked the ticket line.

As I took in the scene, a man approached me with a solicitous smile. "That was the gladiator training area, like a gym," he said with a heavy Italian accent. Normally I would run away at full speed. But this man was my tuxedoed waiter, Mauro, and he was brandishing my appetizer, scallops on a bed of beet root gnocchi and asparagus. Mauro left me to admire the commanding view of the ancient arena, which lay across the street from the rooftop terrace of the Aroma restaurant. Atop the new Palazzo Manfredi hotel, the restaurant offered the privilege of contemplating one of the city's oldest icons while relishing excellent meals from one of its latest ones.

In search of dessert, I headed to the San Lorenzo neighborhood where I found the Said chocolate factory. Built in the 1920s to make products for confectioners like Perugina, the manufacturing facility was reborn several years ago as a restaurant, lounge and boutique dedicated to the dark (and semisweet) arts.

I sunk into a black velvet couch. Around me was yet another Rome institution that had gone contemporary. Baking molds in various shapes were mounted on the walls, and old machines sprouting gears lined the adjacent hallway. At a nearby table, British couples talked in plummy accents about Notting Hill real estate. My hot chocolate arrived topped with orange dust. By the time the waiter delivered the next round -- a chocolate shot glass of chocolate mint cream -- my blood-chocolate level was spiking dangerously.

But true intoxication was yet to come.

I found the red door of Vino Roma, a sleek wine school and tasting room, among the grimy buildings in Monti, between the Termini rail station and the Colosseum.

"The street has a documented history of 1,200 years," said Hande Leimer, the director of Vino Roma, which established its new digs in Monti in 2011. "It used to be the red light district from the eighth to the 13th centuries or so," she went on, ushering me into a cavernous stone room decorated with minimalist furniture.

With her cropped black hair and rectangular glasses, the Turkish-born Ms. Leimer looked the part of a scholar. "How do Italians drink wine? Always with food," she said, laying out some bread and charcuterie. As afternoon turned to evening in the Via in Selci, Ms. Leimer poured vintages from Piedmont, Abruzzo and Basilicata before leading me into a 1,500-year-old cellar to show off bottles of a 1949 Primitivo.

"It's not one of those famous wines everyone is after," Ms. Leimer said. "Only cognoscenti seek it out."

The same might be said for the night's dinner destination, the restaurant Giuda Ballerino, with the chef Andrea Fusco at the helm. Far geographically and ideologically from the pasta palaces and established haute cuisine of central Rome, it hides near the end of the metro's A line, a culinary no man's land in the city's southeastern corner.

The location, the elevated prices, the daring riffs on traditional Italian cuisine and the recent distinction of a Michelin star all promised innovative dining.

Following a 20-minute ride on a graffiti-covered train, I entered an unremarkable plaza, pushed open the restaurant's door and walked through a casual osteria where I was ushered into a tiny inner sanctum. Only six tables, with chairs in Philippe Starck's translucent neo-Baroque Louis Ghost style, graced the room, which was occupied by two other diners -- a suave Italian fellow and his girlfriend. With its yellow brick walls, cartoon art and swirly black and white wallpaper, the room had a kooky funhouse feel. The menu featured dishes like pigeon with "playful artichoke corn sauce," foie gras accompanied by a "Black Russian cocktail," and chicken cooked in a milk and tobacco sauce. The latter sounded too curious to pass up. After ordering, I worried that the dish might end up tasting like a stogie. But the tobacco gave the dish a light roasted sweetness.

Back in the tourist-filled passageways around the Pantheon, boisterous Italian families and gaggles of tourists filled the spider web of narrow passages. I slipped into a new nightclub called Shari Vari, sank into a white leather couch, ordered Champagne -- a quiet toast to Rome seemed in order -- and wondered what other surprises the night might hold in store. 

SETH SHERWOOD, based in Paris, is a frequent contributor to the Travel section.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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