ROME — 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.
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.
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!"
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.
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.