Unlocking Rome's Coolest Under-the-Radar Neighborhood

Courtesy Casa Fabbrini Piccola Londra

The opening of the Casa Fabbrini Piccola Londra hotel is the key to the city’s undiscovered Flaminio district.

In northern Rome there’s a strange and wonderful sight: a street that seems to have been copied and pasted from an entirely different city. Its name is Via Bernardo Celentano, but Romans call it La Piccola Londra, or Little London. With its pastel-painted two- or three-story houses set back behind iron railings and globe-topped stone gateposts, it might have been beamed down from Pimlico or Notting Hill. The only real local nod is the typical Roman-green window shutters.

The street was one of a handful of similar terraced rows built between 1907 and 1913 at the mandate of the city’s then mayor, Ernesto Nathan, born in London to Italian parents. The surrounding Flaminio district would soon be laid out on a high-density blueprint, but this one street was left as an oblique thorn in what is mostly a grid-plan layout.


Courtesy Casa Fabbrini Piccola Londra 

An oft-used movie set and backdrop for TV commercials, Via Bernardo Celentano has long been off-limits to casual visitors, hemmed in at each end by iron gates that, while rarely locked, bear signs discouraging nonresidents. Now, however, one has an excuse to push open the pedestrian gate at the Viale del Vignola end of the street: the four-room hotel Casa Fabbrini Piccola Londra (rooms from $170).

Opened last September, it’s the third outpost of what has become something of an insider Italian hospitality brand. Its first hotel to open, in 2010, was Casa Fabbrini Val d’Orcia, a boutique Tuscan agritourism property in a restored 17th-century estate house near the thermal resort of San Casciano dei Bagni. In 2014 came Roman offshoot Casa Fabbrini Campo Marzio, a luxe B&B on a secret street near the Spanish Steps.

The Piccola Londra hotel is in an entire narrow townhouse, with the emphasis on house. Two floors are given over to, respectively, a living room and a fully equipped kitchen, where guests can make tea or coffee and tuck into homemade cakes and pastries. “There’s a trick I use to encourage people to treat the place as a house rather than a hotel: small bedrooms,” says architect Simone Fabbrini, whose parents, Paola and Giorgio, run the family’s Tuscan property. The interiors are done in vibrant colors, with Escher-like hexagonal bathroom tiles, vintage furnishings picked up in flea markets and antiques fairs, and quirky, retro-style lamps designed by Fabbrini, alongside original details like the ornate cast-iron radiators.

The townhouse is just ten minutes by tram from Piazza del Popolo and the Via Condotti fashion triangle. But before taking this obvious route, dedicate some time to the surrounding quartiere of Flaminio. Unlike Pigneto, the once-hip southeast Rome district, which in the last couple of years has spiraled down-market, a victim of its own popularity, Flaminio is protected by its ordinariness. A low-key neighborhood with a residential heart, it’s inhabited by a broad social mix of families, young professionals, artisans, and retired office workers. In other words, it’s unlikely to lose its head to craft cocktail joints any time soon.


Courtesy Casa Fabbrini Piccola Londra

That’s not to say that it’s all early nights in the neighborhood. Head for Scandi-style wood-and-glass chalet Treebar. Even on a Monday evening you’ll find a lively aperitivo scene. Spots like the compact wine bar Mostó (39-392/257-9616), which stocks small, organic Italian and French producers, and the Michelin-starred trattoria Bistrot 64 fly a quietly cool flag for a district that even has a beard-oriented barber called Skilio (39-6/322-5781). The new-school gelateria Neve di Latte (39-6/320-8485) regularly tops Roman gelato aficionados’ best lists. Try the Abinao dark chocolate.

Then, of course, there are the two starchitect draws that have pinned Flaminio on the global art map. In 2002 came Renzo Piano’s live-music and performing arts center, Auditorium Parco della Musica, which has been enthusiastically embraced by Romans despite its out-of-the-way location. Bureaucratic snags and funding issues meant that Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI National Museum of 21st Century Arts took longer to see the light. But when it finally emerged in 2009, it was clear to all but a few naysayers that this audacious rethink of the way a museum contemplates art was the Roman answer to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, in Spain.

With a program of modern and contemporary art and architecture, plus a small permanent collection, MAXXI only occasionally finds the content to match the container. (It did so, exhilaratingly, with William Kentridge in 2012–13.) But the quartiere has adopted it nevertheless: The plaza outside the museum has become a meeting point and crèche, children’s playground, business venue, and lovers’ nook. This casual, laid-back embrace of the new—Hadid’s sharp concrete edges softened by moccasins, tricycles, and cappuccinos—is molto Flaminio.