Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Roman Holiday, Part 11: We Eat Our Way Across the Eternal City

I cannot tell you how much of a disappointment it has been to come back to my own cooking.

I’m not even a bad cook. There are a few things I do really well. There are a bunch of things I do tolerably well. There are some things I know better than to try again but in general I’m not bad at it. But there is nothing like the food in Rome, nothing at all, and I miss it.

One of my goals in Rome was to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and while I can’t say I achieved that completely – it’s pretty much by definition unattainable, an aspiration more than a mission – I did my best and I regret nothing.

Almost nothing.

There was the one time we needed to find a bathroom in central Rome and the closest establishment that offered one was a KFC and we felt sort of obligated to buy something from them in return, which is how I found myself eating popcorn chicken at a sidewalk table on a bright sunny day in Italy. Popcorn chicken is the same the world over and the sauce was definitely not “2 Hot 4 U” as it promised on the label, but it bought us a bathroom pass and that has to count for something. Also, the manager went out of his way to warn us about pickpockets in the area which I thought was nice of him, so I don’t really regret this either I suppose, but I can't say that it was part of the original plan.

That aside, Rome was almost literally a feast.

A few things about eating in Rome, if you think you may end up there at some point:

First, plan to eat dinner late. The early bird special doesn’t start until 7pm and most people don’t eat until after 8. It can end as late as midnight, but 10pm seems to be more usual. And on weekends everything is later. The first place we ate dinner after we got to Rome didn’t even open until 7pm. We got there around 7:15 because we’re Americans and we were jet lagged and we just wanted to have a good meal and stay up as late as we could to get adjusted to the time. We stayed until 8:45 and saw nobody else sit down the whole time we were there (though many orders were picked up and taken away). It was a Friday. We were early. We later asked Andi the Tour Guide how he managed that schedule and he said he usually eats something small when he gets home to tide him over, which seemed reasonable to us.

Second, plan to spend some time. Americans eat like vacuum cleaners and I am more guilty of that than most. You are expected to spend time eating in Italy, however. The structure of the menu almost demands it. If you do the whole thing, there are four courses to a meal. First there is the Antipasto, the appetizer, which can be anything from bread and olive oil (and let me pause right here to say that if I were given a chance to live solely on Italian bread and olive oil I would take it in a heartbeat and die happy) to vegetables to prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella or more. Then comes Primo, which is a pasta course. Pasta is not a meal in Italy. It is part of the meal. Then there is Secondo, which is usually a meat of some kind. Then there is Dulce, dessert. We never managed to do the whole thing – mostly we stopped after the first two, to be honest, as we are no longer young and hungry – but you can see how this would take some time.

Third, there are things you just don’t do. You don’t order cappuccino after 11am because it’s a breakfast drink. And you don’t order chicken with pasta because, well, just because. Andi the Tour Guide was quite firm on this. It is simply not done. I follow an Instagram page called Italians Mad At Food, which is exactly what it says it is, and this is one of their bugaboos as well so I’m assuming it’s not just Andi or even just Rome.

Also, bear in mind that beverages are generally served in bottles and this goes for everything from water to wine. If you ask for water it comes in two forms – aqua naturale (regular water) or aqua frizzante (sparkling water) and it comes in a 1L bottle that they will open for you and plop down on your table. This can produce surprising results if you’re not careful.

The first place we went to was La Botticella a Testaccio, mostly because it was literally around the corner from where we were staying and we were, as noted, jet lagged and just looking for a good meal. We saw it on our first exploratory swing through the neighborhood, checked when it opened (7pm) and went back shortly after that time. It’s a neighborhood place and nobody there spoke any English besides us but we managed to get our first dinner in Rome. It was a good place to start. 

We started with bread and olive oil and I thought well, that’s it, I’m set for life now. And the cacio e pepe was wonderful – I’ve been trying to make cacio e pepe for a year or so, apparently incorrectly, so now I know what it is actually supposed to taste like and will be working on that forthwith. It was my go-to meal while we were in Rome and it never let me down though this place was the best. The cook was very pleased when we managed to tell him that. I think he thought we were amusing, and we probably were.

At this point, however, our lack of facility with the language became an issue. After we’d somehow managed to order our food, the waitress asked “Vino?” Sure! We’re jet lagged and four thousand miles from home! Vino sounds great! “Rossi o bianco?” Well, I’d like a rossi and Kim wanted a bianco. “Mezzo o grande?” And this is where my linguistic skills ran out. I knew that grande meant big and I’ve been in enough choirs to know that mezzo means medium, and we figured that we deserved a big ol’ glass of wine to celebrate our arrival in Italy. Grande, per favore!

This is how we discovered that “Grande” meant “375ml bottle.” Each.

We slept well that night.

We liked the place so much we went back for our last meal in Rome as well, and it was quite full this time. We got there at around 8 and stayed for nearly two hours, and the place was hopping the whole time though nobody changed – the people who were there when we got there were still there when we left. By this time I had cottoned on to the whole “let’s take pictures of food like we’re Instagram influencers” thing, which is good because we had lovely food. We started with prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella, along with a different form of bread and olive oil than usual.

Then we had pizza. We ate a lot of pizza in Rome. It’s apparently something that Romans do, and we figured the cliché is there for a reason so that’s what we’d do too. And it was all, uniformly, wonderful. Most of it looked like this.

As with most pizza in Europe, it’s meant for a single person. The idea of cutting pizza into slices and then sharing them out among more than one person – or, frankly, cutting it into slices at all, since mostly we were expected to do that ourselves at the table – doesn’t seem to have made it across the Atlantic, and each of these pizzas was about fourteen inches (thirty-five centimeters) across and you’d think that this would be way too much food but the fact is that the crust was about an eighth of an inch (half a centimeter) thick and even having eaten quite my share of these I have no idea how they get it that thin. But it makes it easy for one person to eat a pizza that size, and it’s wonderful. Mine was “diavolo,” which has spicy salami on it. Kim’s was “funghi,” which is mushrooms.

On our second night in Testaccio we went to Pizza del Remo, where we had both kinds of pizza again. Pizza del Remo is a busy place at the intersection of two busy streets with almost all of its seating outside in heated tents and where almost nobody speaks English. The guy roaming the sidewalk shouting at people took our names and very quickly sent us into one of the tented seating areas where we waited for nearly forty-five minutes until the one guy on staff who spoke English came on shift. I’m not sure why since we could have just pointed at the menu – it’s a pizza place, it’s not that complicated – but there you have it. Meanwhile we had a different guy who came by now and then to check on us – a burly guy in a Lazio jersey who wore three analogue wristwatches and carried zip ties and wire cutters in his back pocket. He taught us to cheer for Lazio, which didn’t survive being seated in the Roma zone at the stadium the next night but when a burly guy with zip ties and wire cutters asks you to cheer for his team you cheer for his team. Eventually we got our pizzas and they were as good as we’d hoped they’d be.

Before we left for Italy we were told we also had to try “pinsa Romana,” which as near as I can tell is basically Sicilian-style pizza. It’s baked in a straight-sided oval about two feet long and eight inches wide, and this you actually are supposed to buy by the slice – about three inches is good for one person. There was a place that one of Kim’s friends had recommended for this, but when we got there it was closed – possibly forever, though it was hard to tell – so we ended up finding another place. It was really good but I preferred the thin crust.

If there was one place that stood out, though, it was a tiny little deli called Fuorinorma, not far from the Colosseum. It was maybe twelve feet (four meters) wide and twice that deep, including the workspace, and had maybe half a dozen tiny tables pressed up against the wall with wooden blocks as stools, and if I could go back there now I would.

It’s actually a pretty straight shot from the Colosseum once you climb the path and dodge the selfie-stick vendors, but we ended up making a bit of a strategic error because when you get on that road you can either go up or go down.

We decided to go up, which had some nice qualities to it but none of them involved getting us to our destination. The lower road went straight there, but the upper one went only so far and then turned off and down a hill, which meant a fair amount of sightseeing to get back on track but eventually we found the place. And it was so worth it. We had bread with olive oil. We shared a panino (which is the proper term, as panini is plural). And we had this:

I think the Italian term for it is taglieri, though in the US it’s mostly known by the French word “charcuterie.” It’s a plank of wood with meats, cheeses, bread, bruschetta, olives, fruit, and vegetables, and it was just perfect. We watched them make it – honestly, they couldn’t hide in a space that small even if they wanted to – and my only regret is that I didn’t have room to order another one.

The other place we went for dinner in Testaccio was called Trattoria Pecorino, and it was a small, friendly place even when confronted with two Americans who didn’t realize that they were supposed to make reservations and didn’t speak enough Italian to fix that. They found us a table in the corner of the upstairs part of the place and I had carbonara which is something else you’re supposed to do in Rome. Carbonara has no cream. It does have guanciale. Kim tried the fettucini alla Gricia, which was also tasty, but her big discovery was Carciofi alla Giudia (artichokes in the Jewish style).

It was artichoke season in Italy, and they’re pretty much everywhere. They get prepared one of two ways. Carciofi alla Romana is poached while Carciofi alla Giudia is deep fried, and if you like artichokes this is apparently a wonderful thing. What Kim discovered, however, was not the artichokes themselves but rather that if you eat some of the Carciofi alla Giudia and then take a drink of aqua frizzante, it tastes sweet. SCIENCE!

We ended the meal with limoncello, since that is another thing you’re supposed to do in Rome. I like lemons – I eat them plain sometimes – and this was pleasant, but I can’t say it’s something I will do again.

It wasn’t just meals. There was also dessert. We became regulars at the Pasticceria Linari a block or so away from our apartment, where the cannoli are coated inside with dark chocolate and the sfogliatelle were amazing.

We also found gelato, which in Rome is kind like saying that you found cheese in Wisconsin since it’s pretty much everywhere. My favorite place was called Glauco and it was a tiny little hole in the wall that we stumbled across while walking randomly through the city. It’s on the left of the street scene below, though you can’t see it because I’m looking down the street instead, but it was a nice little place about the size of an American minivan and filled to the brim with all sorts of flavors of gelato at reasonable prices. There were even a couple of seats outside for you to take your time and watch the world parade on by while you ate. Take it from me – there is no grander frozen dessert than lemon gelato. None at all.

There was more, of course. Bread and taglieri in Trastavere. Amatriciano at the Testaccio Market. Cappucino at the airport. Little bits and bites pretty much everywhere. If you’re hungry in Rome you have nobody to blame but yourself.

But sometimes we just ate in. There was a lovely little grocery store not too far from the apartment we stayed and I just love going to grocery stores in foreign countries to see what’s there. It fascinates me what other people see as just normal everyday food.

Perhaps my favorite discovery there was this:

It helps to know that “8” in Italian is “otto.” Otherwise the pun (“Chinotto”) is lost somewhat.

Chinotto is the Moxie of Italy, and if you’ve ever been to Maine you’ll understand that reference. In both cases it’s a strong, almost bitter soda (although chinotto also comes in an alcoholic version). Moxie gets its flavor from gentian root, while chinotto comes from a small citrus fruit. In both cases you take your first sip and you think, “Ugh, this is terrible,” but you bought the can and don’t want to waste it so you figure you might as well keep going, and about halfway down you think, “you know, this isn’t half bad,” so you continue drinking and then you get to the end and your first thought is “I AM AN ADDICT. WHERE DO I GET MORE?!?”

You can get it in the US, it turns out, but not easily. I found a small bottle in southern Wisconsin not long after we got back and then got some kind of mild stomach bug that didn’t wipe me out but made me feel like the loser in a poorly planned circus stunt for a week, so it’s still in the refrigerator waiting for me.

Soon, my precious. Soon.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Roman Holiday, Part 10: Further Adventures With Buildings and Fountains

I never did get my bearings in Rome.

I usually have a pretty good sense of direction. Even if I don’t know the precise route I need to take, I can usually point in the direction I need to go and I almost always have a sense of where I am relative to the things I need to find. None of this applied in Rome. I was constantly turning the wrong direction, even when staring directly at GoogleMaps. I never even figured out the apartment we stayed in, which is impressive considering that it was a single hallway that had, as you traveled from the front door to the kitchen, a living room on the right, followed by a bathroom on the left across from the bedroom on the right, and finally the kitchen at the end. Every time I left one of those rooms I turned the wrong way down the hallway. It got to be funny after a while.

When I was putting this part of the story together for this post I called up GoogleMaps on my computer and traced out the route that we took on Andi’s tour. It looked nothing like what I thought it did in my head and it passed by things that I thought were in entirely different places. My mother spent her whole life this way – my dad once said that she made two separate trips any time she went somewhere, one to and the other from, and they had no overlap at all as far as she was concerned – and it grieves me that I can’t just call her and tell her that I understand how she felt now, after a lifetime of always having that sense of place and direction. She’d have laughed herself silly, and so would I.

When we left Piazza Navona we headed over to the Pantheon.

The Pantheon is a marvel of engineering. Completed somewhere in the early second century CE, it is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built and in the middle of it there is the oculus – a hole that leaves the interior open to the elements – and it impresses me that they managed to build such a thing without it falling down right away, let alone having it last for millennia. The dome is exactly a hemisphere, as tall as it is wide, and it has been in constant use, either as a temple or a church, for nearly two thousand years. Andi pointed out that it is owned by the Pope even though it sits in central Rome, and there is a certain amount of tension there when it comes to revenue possibilities, general use, and maintenance.

We got there just as the light was failing, and it was a magnificent sight. Andi was kind enough to take our picture in front of it.

It was just as impressive the next day.

With Andi we mostly stood outside and talked about it, but the next day we were going in. We got in line – a very long line that snaked through the piazza and was full of tour groups speaking all manner of languages, but one that moved along fairly quickly – and eventually we were able to convince the security people that our vaccines were in order and our masks were up to par and they let us in.

The Pantheon is bigger than you think it is. You can go online and read the statistics if you want, but none of that will give you a sense of just how impressively huge the space is. Some of that is simply design – it’s a big, round, open space with no interior support structures, so you can see it all at once in a way that you can’t with the Basilica of St. Peter’s, for example, where you’re always peering around columns and buttresses. It’s just … space. They block off the middle of it so you end up walking counterclockwise around the edges, always with an eye to the dome above or the artwork that is never scarce in Roman sites like these, and when you look down you can see how small the rest of your fellow visitors are by comparison. There were a great many people in there with us, but it never felt crowded because everyone was simply dwarfed by it all.

I spent a lot of time just marveling at the dome and the oculus, because very few buildings I’ve been in have a hole at the top. It was a bright sunny day – on rainy days it just rains onto the marble floor below, which must be slippery – and you could track the progress of the sun by the bright circular light moving slowly along the base of the dome. We were there for a while.

Don’t lean on things when you’re there, though. They don’t like it when you lean on the ancient things. Let that be a lesson.

Like many churches and temples, there are some famous people buried there. Raphael, the artist, for example, and Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of united Italy. The one that I thought was fascinating though was Margherita di Savoia, who was the queen when Victor Emmanuel ruled and who is mostly remembered these days as the namesake of the Margherita pizza. And honestly? That’s a far better way to be remembered, I think, than as just one more in a long line of royals whose accomplishments never reached down to the level of ordinary people the way hers did. We spent all last summer trying to perfect our Margherita pizzas and it kind of felt like a pilgrimage there in the Pantheon.

After we left the Pantheon with Andi we walked over to Hadrian’s Temple.

Hadrian’s Temple is just a façade now – a massive row of columns that fronts a more modern building – and it sits on a little piazza that during the day is full of people hanging out and eating, which are two of the things that Rome excels at as far as I can tell. This is one of the many reasons why Rome is a grand place in my eyes and definitely worth revisiting.

When we went back the next day it looked like this.

We actually went inside the modern building because a) it had some interesting exhibits and b) it had public bathrooms, though in the grand European tradition you had to pay one euro to use them. It took me forever to find the gents’ and it was quite possibly the smallest such facility I have ever found that wasn’t going to be hoisted onto a truck and hauled off when the festival ended, but it was clean and functional and I feel I got my euro’s worth that way.

The sun had well and truly set by the time we got to Hadrian’s Temple with Andi the previous night and he insisted we wait a bit to see what was coming because Andi “knew a guy” and there would be interesting things happening soon. We stood there, staring at the columns and making conversation, and then suddenly this appeared.

The show went on for about fifteen minutes – a brief history of the structure with graphics that showed you how the building used to look like projected onto what remained now, which is a strategy that we first ran into at the Forum where it was used to show how the interior of one of the big churches had changed over time – and it was fascinating.

When it was over we went to Trevi Fountain.

Trevi Fountain is one of those impossibly gorgeous places that you really don’t get until you’re standing in front of it. 

It’s got blindingly white marble and clear blue water and it is always crowded no matter when you go because why wouldn’t it be. We’d actually gone there before going on Andi’s tour – it was one of the places we found while we were wandering around after getting off the Tourist Bus a day earlier – and there were all sorts of people just sort of milling about, watching the water splash, and generally having what appeared to be a grand time.

The place was also crawling with Instagrammers, all posing photogenically in front of the fountain with soulful expressions on their faces, and they were fun to watch. I hope they got good page views for their efforts.

We were no less susceptible to the Call of the Selfie than anyone else so we took a few to prove to doubters that we were actually there, and eventually some kind soul volunteered to take a picture of us as well.

It was dark when we got there with Andi and mostly we stood on the periphery while he told us stories about the place. My favorite of those was the one about the cup statue. We didn’t take any picture of it (it’s kind of off to one side so we missed it the first time and it was full night when we were there with Andi) but you can kind of see it in the photo of the right-side of the fountain, on top of the wall. It’s a bit obscured. There is, said Andi, some controversy over why this particular statue is there. He ran through some of the competing theories, but the one I loved was that it was placed exactly where it would obscure the view of the fountain from the barbershop behind it as part of a spat with the owner of the shop, and that is a level of petty to which one can only aspire these days.

Andi left us there and headed off home, and we moved on to other things at that point.

Most of the sights we saw other than these were things we stumbled across at random and I’m going to group those separately but there was one other thing that we went out of our way to see and that was the Piramide Cestia. This was not all that far from our apartment in Testaccio so it made a convenient side trip on the way home from somewhere else.

Getting there, it turns out, was an endeavor.

This was the day we went to St. Peter’s Basilica for the second time so we were a good hike away. Fortunately the Piramide is also a subway stop in Rome and therefore easy to get to if you take the Metro. Rome has two subway lines – the archeology that building those must have entailed would probably beggar the imagination – and we’d need to use both of them.

First this entailed a fairly long walk from the Vatican to the nearest Metro station, though it was a straight run down a single road with no turns and was clearly marked with signs helpfully suggesting that the Metro was just a little bit further, Montressor, so it went well. It was a lovely spring day and the walk was pleasant. Eventually we found the station, paid the fare (our bus tickets were good for the Metro as well), figured out what side of the tracks we needed to be on, and hopped on board. After transferring to the second line at the main station, we rode that one to Piramide Station and emerged into a giant flea market.

There were tables and more tables and yet further tables piled high with every conceivable item – clothing in heaps, kitchen gadgets, gizmos, whatsits, and more. It was full of people, and just getting through it all took some time but eventually we came out the other side and saw what looked like a castle across the street, along with a portion of the old city wall.

It turns out that the castle was one of the gates in the original wall. It’s called Porta St. Paolo these days – St. Peter’s Gate – but originally it was known as Porta Ostiensis since it was the gate that led to the road to Ostia, Rome’s port city where the airport is now.

The Piramide is an impressive building and it is, however surprisingly, an actual Roman construction. Like most pyramids it was built as a tomb, in this case for a man named Gaius Cestius who died somewhere around 15 BCE.

We walked around it for a bit – it’s taller than it looks, since the ground level has risen considerably since it was built – and it is deeply strange to see an actual pyramid in Rome, since last I checked Rome was not in Egypt.

Apparently Rome was going through a kind of Egyptian phase at the time though, which is one of those manias that happen to many civilizations across the world from time to time (if you’ve ever wondered why the Washington Monument in the US looks the way it does, well, now you know). It was a pretty impressive pyramid, it has to be said, there in the middle of a Roman neighborhood.

After we left the Piramide we walked most of the way home, hopped on a bus for the last few blocks, and then went back to our apartment.