Thursday, January 10, 2008
Ah, Rome. Where else could you buy cappuccino for €1 on top of a landmark cathedral, sip tea in a room cluttered with pensive statues, or fall madly in love with a dish containing just four ingredients?
My weekend getaway in early January with two girlfriends was my second time in Rome, and though this was by far the wetter visit I also got a much broader view of the city. For two nights I stayed in the northern part of Rome - not something I would necessarily recommend, since what we saved on accommodation we easily made up for in taxis - before moving to the funky new Orange Hotel near the Vatican. Not being in the center of Rome, I got to see how "real" people live (on buses and trams) and also came across what I will forever think of as the ultimate Italian deli.
As always when I visit Italy, it's impossible to say what I loved best. Was it the intensity of the coffee? The unfailingly al dente pasta? The majesty of the monuments? The shoes, which belatedly got me in touch with my inner Cinderella? Or the shopkeepers, who always greeted us with a cheerful and willing "Prego" despite it being the first day of the sales?
Maybe what I love best in Rome is that, for all its grandeur, the city doesn't take itself too seriously. Modern buildings stand alongside ancient ruins with no hint of a complex, and the people don't seem to have that capital city attitude that you find in, say, Paris (I couldn't help thinking of Paris often during this trip). Prices are sometimes high, but you can also eat and drink for a laughably small amount of money - and places that are well-known don't necessarily charge a premium.
A few things I will never forget about this trip, in no particular order:
A snack at Rosati - This elegant yet somehow down-to-earth tea room was the first place we dropped into and, though the tea isn't exceptional, there was something so very Italian about this place with mandarin walls, hanging globe lights and ceiling moldings that we knew we had arrived. You pick your sandwiches from the bar at the front and they will toast them on request.
Piazza del Popolo 5, Tridente
Gran Caffe at Sant'Eustacchio - I had read a lot about the coffee here before making my own pilgrimage to this crowded café, where the method is so top-secret that the baristi are kept hidden. We couldn't resist peeking through a tiny slit and were able to determine that if you order a cappuccino the milk froth is scooped into the cup before the coffee is poured in. The beans are wood-roasted and have a distinct smoky scent; there are a few coffee grounds in the bottom of the cup. Not everyone loves this coffee, but I did, despite having officially given up coffee more than a year ago (except when I'm in Italy). Sugar will be added automatically to the house specialty, the Gran Caffe, unless you ask for it "senza zucchero."
Piazza di Sant'Estacchio 82, Navona
Caffe con panna at Tazza d'Oro - In the summer this café near the Pantheon is known for its coffee granita layered with whipped cream. During the January downpour what they served instead was caffe con panna (espresso topped with whipped cream), which is not something I expected to like since I usually push whipped cream to the side of my plate. Here, I found myself happily eating the stuff by the spoonful - this was more of a dessert than a coffee, since the cream cools off the coffee immediately. I later discovered, thanks to my friend Judy, that Rome is known for the exceptional quality of its whipped cream, which is something that you can even buy on its own (with a small biscuit) in gelato shops.
Via degli Orfani 84, Navona
Crema al passito di Pantelleria at Il Gelato di San Crispino - For ardent ice cream lovers, this legendary gelateria - considered Rome's best, if not the world's - needs no introduction. We visited the branch near Trevi fountain, though I later learned there is now one just a couple of streets from where we were staying in northern Rome. Passito di Pantelleria is a sweet wine similar to Sauternes, and the resulting gelato brought me to my knees.
Via della Panetteria 42, Tridente
Lemon and chocolate muffins at Le Flaneur - Way off the beaten track in our northern neighborhood, this adorable flower shop and tea room was an unexpected find. Though the name is French, the dainty cakes are more reminiscent of England. I loved the way they baked their muffins in rose-shaped molds and presented each one alongside a single orchid.
Via Flaminia Vecchia 730/A
Hanging out at Al Vino al Vino - It's almost impossible to get away with eating a light meal in a Roman restaurant, which is one of the reasons why it's worth seeking out the city's many great wine bars. We liked this Sicilian bar so much that we visited twice in one night - once for a glass of wine, and again to nibble on caponata and torta rustica over a second helping of wine. Though it feels quite cool, there is a family atmosphere and there were children running around until late at night.
Via dei Serpenti 19, Termini
Cappuccino on the Dome of St. Peter's Cathedral - I know, there are a lot of coffee moments for someone who doesn't drink coffee, but who could resist a café in this location? You'll spot it after taking the elevator up to the Dome (€7) and before you enter the Dome itself. Cappuccino is served in a paper cup for a mere €1 and you sip it outside while admiring the view. Divine! Thus strengthened, you can climb the 300 or so steps up to the claustrophobic cupola.
Tonarelli cacio e pepe at Da Felice - This was not the first version I tasted of the classic Roman pasta dish tossed with nothing more than pecorino, butter, plenty of pepper and a little of the cooking water, but I doubt that it will ever be equalled. Everything was perfect in this out-of-the-way trattoria, from the carciofi alla romana (a whole artichoke in a pool of oil) to the tuna polpettone alongside a heap of sautéed greens. It helps if a Roman makes the reservation for you, but you can still expect the waiter to be comically exasperated with any foreign behavior.
Via Mastro Giorgio 29, Testaccio
Lamb's brains at La Taverna del Ghetto - Who knew that lamb's brains could taste so crunchy and light, like tiny deep-fried clouds? As Judy explained to me over lunch, the Romans - and particularly the Jewish Romans - are known for their ability to dominate the deep-frier. Don't forget to taste the fried artichokes, which are first boiled, then smashed, then twice-fried.
Via Portico d'Ottavia 7B, Ghetto
Pizza at Zazà - Sometimes all you want is a simple slice of pizza al taglio, for which the Romans are also famed, and we could hardly have done better than at this little joint. The dough is proofed for no less than 60 hours, then topped with organic ingredients and baked until very crisp - try the spicy cabbage version for an unexpected twist on pizza. Three of us ate to our hearts' content for €6 in total. I didn't note the address and couldn't find it on the Internet, but it's facing the Caffe Sant'Eustacchio.
Porchetta at Franchi - I was thrilled to discover this old-fashioned deli a 10-minute walk from the Vatican, and my farewell to Rome was a heaped porchetta sandwich perched at the counter here. The meat comes from a small farm outside Rome and is deboned and rolled with herbs before being roasted. I loved watching the locals tuck into full meals at the tiny stand-up counter - one man ate five arancini (fried rice balls) the size of tennis balls in less than a minute. This is the place to buy a huge chunk of parmesan to take home and perhaps, as I did, a few carciofi alla romana to make the memories last a little longer.
Via Cola di Rienza 200, Vatican
A glass of wine at 'Gusto - This huge, modern complex dedicated to food and wine is just off the main drag of Via del Corso in the center of town. After picking up a collapsible colander in the kitchen shop, we stopped into the vast wine bar, where during aperitivo time a glass of wine with an antipasti buffet costs €9-€12. The name comes refers to the location and not just to taste - hence the apostrophe.
Piazza Augusto Imperatore 9, Tridente
Tea (almost) at the Canova-Tadolini museum - Opened in 2000, this museum is the former workshop of sculptor Antonio Canova and four generations of Tadolini sculptors. It houses a few of their finished works alongside many of their work models and sculpting tools. The museum now serves tea at tables scattered throughout the house, and amazingly enough the prices are very reasonable. Sadly it was about to close for the day when we visited.
Via del Babuino 150A, Tridente