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Acqua di Roma

Beauty: Skin Deep, As Usual

When a new spa opens in San Francisco, especially one touting itself as a high-end luxury escape, the perfectly plucked brows of spa mavens perk up across the city. But as a seasoned spa-goer can attest, there can be a pretty big difference between the PR hype and the naked reality.

Thus begins the tale of Acqua di Roma, the new pampering enterprise from Alioto family scion Gianpaolo Veronese, whose other brand new baby -- the chic restaurant, bar and social club Taverna Aventine (a partnership with the Vintage 415 restaurant group) -- also premiered in October 2008 less than a block away.

Although the spa is marketed as a plush, imperial hideaway for luxuriant bathing which "Re-creates the healing properties of ancient Italian thermaes, or hot springs," the truth is that it is simply a very nice European skincare spa. Don't expect any soaking pools, whirlpool tubs, steam rooms or saunas in the locker rooms; in fact, there aren't any locker rooms. Or spa robes.

On my recent visit for a standard 50-minute massage, I was left to undress in my treatment room with nowhere to hang my clothes, and no surface but a chair seat for my jewelry. Come on. Spas are about pampering. And pampering is about details. I understand that you just opened a few weeks prior to my visit, but anticipating a customer's needs is central to the whole pampering concept!

There is a small bank of lockers in one of the hallways abutting the private hydrotherapy room ($80 for 25 minutes, a standard offering in many upscale spas these days), but the two comfortably large unisex bathrooms are the only primping zones made available to patrons.

There is actually a small private, infrared sauna ($40 for 20 minutes) but it is literally the size of a telephone booth -- no room to stretch out those muscles here. A small, tranquil relaxation room is offered to spa guests; it is furnished simply and lit pleasantly, furnished with a few deck chairs, magazines, an urn of water, compostable cups (hooray!) and on my visit, a single bowl of almonds and a small dish of Andes mints. (Andes mints? Really?)

Before getting too critical, however, let's look at some of the pluses. Head Aesthetician/Technical Director Alma Arciniegas is the epitome of an elder spa stateswoman of the European school. She's gorgeous, her skin is flawless (always a good sign), and she carries herself with a subdued, knowing demeanor that whispers, "I know a thing or two about skin, young lass." (It doesn't hurt that she’s spent the last two decades growing her business, Alma European Skin Care of San Francisco, and that she's fresh off of two years of skincare study in Europe.)

Another very cool detail is that since the spa is located in the Alioto law building at Montgomery and Washington -- an old bank facility -- one of the treatment rooms at the spa is tucked inside the historic old vault. It's not often that you have the option to receive your Fountain of Youth facial ($170, 80 minutes) in a bank vault. You know this will appeal to the fellas; certainly the coolness will take the priss factor out of that Gentleman's Facial ($110, 50 minutes) you got him for his birthday.

Acqua di Roma does pride itself on its skincare, offering such high-tech bells and whistles as treatments like the Crio Glacial Facial ($130, 50 minutes). Employing a technology called "Criosystem" -- marketed by Acqua di Roma partner Dr. Carlo Barrella's beauty and wellness company, Intégrée -- an aesthetician uses a thick wand to massage frozen essential vitamins into the skin via electrophoresis. "The vascular system is constricted," notes a recent press release, "Allowing vital nutrients to penetrate past the veins and into the deeper layers of the skin, where traditional masks and other products do not reach." Interesting.

For my part, my recent massage was fine, though obviously not particularly notable since I haven't had call to describe it in detail in the 8 or 9 paragraphs I've let loose thus far. You know those massages that are simply "fine" -- they feel pretty great, but not mind-blowing, and the results are minimal in a therapeutic sense. A typical day spa massage. (But one rarely expects rolfing in a day spa environment.)

When we get more intel on the skincare aspect, we'll publish an update. As it is, Acqua di Roma is still working out the opening kinks. However, without such basic pampering elements as robes and locker rooms, it won't progress beyond the rank of "upscale skincare salon" in San Francisco spa-goers' books.