Posted on February 13, 2008 in Travels

When in Rome
in which I reconstruct a trip there from my journal and photos

The Pantheon. The Forum. Borromini, Bernini, and Michelangelo. The Piazza del Popolo. The Colosseum. The Vatican. The Caesars. Western Civilization. Fellini. Aqueducts, arches, and concrete. Valentino. La Dolce Vita. It seems unbelievable to me that I have only spent time in Rome twice, especially considering how much I love the city. Late in 2004, when Mikel accepted a promotion and we moved to DC, he was still being considered for a job at the FAO, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN that is based in the southern part of the city, near Circus Maximus. We had already rented an apartment for the Christmas holidays in this building in Testaccio, the former working class neighborhood south of the Aventine hill that is now, like everywhere else, a trendy and desirable part of town. For centuries, it was the slaughterhouse area of town and it has always been known, along with the Jewish quarter (the Ghetto) near Campo de’ Fiori, as the place to find authentic Roman cooking, often based on the quinto quarto, or “fifth quarter,” which is the offal that was left for the butcher’s families after he had sold the prime cuts to wealthier citizens. For centuries, slaughterhouse workers had been paid in offal as well. Ironically, many guide books still do not mention Testaccio, though some of the best restaurants in town are there. Checchino dal 1887 has been open for over 100 years, for example, but it was closed for the holidays when we went.

We purposely went at Christmastime, when many businesses are closed and Romans are spending more time at home with their families. We knew that it could be cold and rainy, and that even some of the museums would be closed. But we wanted to see Rome at its worst, when we, too, might want to be home with our families. We wanted to see what living in Testaccio would be like, to check out the dog parks, and to shop in the markets, getting around town on public transportation. Monte Testaccio is a hill that was formed from 150 BC to 250 AD by the dumping of millions of teste, shards of the amphorae that were used to tote goods do and from the local markets and warehouses. At the center of the neighborhood is the covered market, one of the city’s best, a veritable stage set of butchers, bakers, fishmongers, salami makers, vegetable stands, cheese shops, and farmer’s wives selling eggs. It is ringed by flower vendors and others selling cheap clothes, shoes, and toys, but it is one of the most convivial places you’ll ever go and the food is gorgeous. Our apartment, where I planned to cook a lot, overlooked it.

We were warmly welcomed into the neighborhood. If it was working class for many years, now it is filled with restaurants, wine bars, and gourmet shops. One small shop sold only imported, exotic, and organic foodstuffs. Two featured chocolate. The feel of the neighborhood, though, was familial, and we saw folks from all walks of life who lived there.

Before we went, I must have read two dozen books about Rome – histories, guide books, art books, memoirs, literary works, and some current events. I read Pasolini’s stories and essays. In “Roman Slang,” he wrote, “What a Roman admires above all is a person’s oratory skills, his linguistic inventiveness, or at least his vivid usage of slang expressions.” I was so impressed with the translation that I wrote to the author, Marina Hass, who quickly replied, telling me where in Rome I could find the original manuscripts. In all three of the modern memoirs I read (which is now one of the most popular genres of “travel writing”), the authors described the same highs and lows of Roman history and culture. I first read Franco Romagnoli’s A Thousand Bells at Noon, because I knew his culinary work. This is his finest writing, but he does harp on bureaucracy, traffic, queues, street vendors, and noise while embracing the menefreghismo and arrangiarsi (a couldn’t-care-less attitude and a managing to get by). He goes into detail about SPQR, Giordana Bruno, la bustarella (bribes), the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, and the proper meals for each day of the week, which are often a restaurant’s specials. (The latter was handy: tripe is traditional on Saturday, for example.) He also ranted about the really bad popes and the haphazard cleanup for Jubilee 2000.

Nearly all these topics were also covered in William Murray’s City of the Soul, part of the (2002) Crown Journeys series. Murray’s book sounded condescending to me, and the most interesting bit of information came in the last paragraphs where he revealed that his mother was Janet Flanner’s lover. Casting off all current music in Rome as inferior while continuing to attend admittedly mediocre opera is his m.o.. I wonder if he got his job at The New Yorker via Flanner, but his brief essays aren’t personally revealing. I thought the purpose of the genre, as Casey Blanton has written, is to illuminate “encounters between the self and the other and the mediation between the familiar and the foreign.” To narrate both literally and symbolically.

Paul Hoffman’s The Seasons of Rome says la dolce vita never existed, at least not on Via Veneto. I’m not surprised. An Austrian refugee who has been living in Rome since the 1930s, Hoffman’s writing and outlook on life reflect his prudish leanings. It’s as though he has found Rome merely tolerable over the years. You’d think he would have embraced the wild 60s in the aftermath of life under Mussolini, but as The New York Times bureau chief there for many years, he writes his memoirs as if it were journalism, not the diary it purports to be. He’s no Johnny Apple!

All three of these authors complain about the city’s traffic and noise. Murray and Hoffman come off as downright chilly. They obviously enjoy being outsiders, as though they think that that allows them to observe and criticize objectively rather than learning more about themselves as well as the natives. For me, living abroad has always made me get outside my own petty thoughts (and for an artist such as myself, this is very difficult). When I moved to Italy without speaking a word of Italian, for example, I found that if I wanted to participate in conversation, that I had to really want to say whatever it was that I was going to say, and that it had to genuinely add to the conversation, because coming up with the words and sentences was a major effort for many months in the beginning. In other words, I had to really listen. These authors, on the other hand, are much older than I am and they seem to be writing for their own “amusement” (if you can call their griping fun in any way) or for their contemporaries, not mine. All of them must be well over 70. Hoffman’s book was written as a journal he kept from September 1994 to August 1995. He’s such a curmudgeon! If he’s not complaining about cell phones and the tifosi (the word literally means typhoid fever, of course, but it is what soccer fans are called), he’s moaning about the mafia-like loan sharks, prostitutes, and illegal aliens. Since these books told me nothing about home life, I had to go find out for myself. (Far more instructive were several historical treatises, in particular, Tom Holland’s excellent Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic and Jake Morrissey’s The Genius in the Design : Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome.)

Getting to Rome was a nightmare, and while I detailed the horrors of my experience with United Airlines (who lost our bags for 5 days!) in my personal journal, I decided that my blog would never become the rant that others’ have. I had read enough ranting in the forementioned books. Arriving on Sunday afternoon (our original tickets were for Friday), we ate in the first local restaurant we came to, Ne Arte Ne Parte (“Good for Nothing”), diving immeditately into the fifth quarter for which our Roman neighborhood has been known for 2500 years. Mikel had coratella, an elegant dish of lamb heart, spleen, lung, and liver with artichokes in a brown sauce. I began with stracciatella, a type of egg drop soup, followed by spinach cannoli, then sweetbreads. Artichokes (carciofi), perhaps more than any other food, are at the heart of Roman cooking, and they are in season throughout the winter. We would go on to sample them classically prepared in a half dozen ways.

We had thought that our time in Rome would possibly be a little lonely, but our first night there we got a call from my old friend Ester Carla de Miro d’Ajeta, the feminist film scholar whom I’ve known since I lived in Genoa twenty-five years ago. Ester teaches film theory and splits her time between Rome and Genoa. She had us over for dinner on Monday after we had walked for miles and miles, from Testaccio and Circus Maximus to St Peter’s. We ate in a touristy restaurant in Trastevere that day, but we knew to order simple classics such as pasta all’amatriciana (bucatini with bacon, tomatoes, onion, and pecorino), pollo alla cacciatore (simplified bollito, the proper Monday dish of simmered chicken or beef), and greens wilted with sausage. And we didn’t want to spoil our supper at Ester’s, which I knew from experience would be elegant, simple, and ample.

I hadn’t seen Ester in years and I nearly burst into tears when she brought out some of the rare and delicate Salame di Sant’Olcese that she somehow remembered that I cherish. Americans are used to something called Genoa Salami, the likes of which I never once saw in Genoa. The definitive local sausage in the region of Genoa is the Sant’Olcese, a soft, mortadella-like sausage made high up above the city in the little village of Sant’Olcese that you reach by taking the tiny Casella railway with its wooden cars, up through the hills of chestnut trees. She had other Ligurian treats for me, and I marveled once again at her simple cooking (she’s from the South, like me): pasta with funghi secchi, the other stracciatella (stir-fried beef with arugula), and an amazing dessert she concocted with baked pears and marscapone dusted with cocoa and hot pepper! In her living room I was contemplating a huge pastel of Ester, nude, on her balcony in Genoa, when she asked me, “Do you remember?” I had nearly forgotten: the work was mine!

On day five we walked again for hours, to the Colosseum, through the Forum, and up the Equiline hill; we ate delicious carryout pizza in a residential neighborhood; and on the Via Aventine, we saw septuagenarian twins, blue-haired, identically dressed, and walking arm in arm. We came home to our returned luggage! I had made reservations at Trattoria da Oio in Via Galvani, which Arthur Schwartz had recommended on his website. Mikel had excellent pajata, one of the signature dishes of Rome. It sounds odd and a bit disgusting but in fact it is one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted, of veal intestines that are still full of its mother’s milk, which is clotted as it is poached in a thin celery sauce. I ordered oxtail, another Testaccio specialty, but it was tough, however tasty. (I see now that the trattoria is no longer on Schwartz’s site.)

At the Scuderie del Quirinale, we saw a fascinating exhibition of Alberto Burri’s work from 1945-2000. We had made a special trip in Western Sicily a few years earlier to see his controversial Labyrinth of Gibellina (where he covered the remains of the earthquake destroyed city with several meters of concrete, leaving only the “streets” in this massive cement artwork), but I hadn’t seen a collection of his sculptural works, or those on paper and canvas or in plastics. Barely known in the US, he is finally getting his due here, as to which several 2008 shows in New York attest. We strolled again for hours in lower Testaccio and Ostiense, and were delighted with the Centrale Montemartini, the new Capitoline Museum that is housed in the former electric factory, where several ancient statues seem positively modern. We never could find the recommended restaurants in the area, but did have excellent pizza, fagioli con coltiche (pig’s skin) and cicoria at the popular, unpretentious, and inexpensive Da Remo back in Testaccio.

When Mikel and I visit cities such as Rome, Paris, or London, we tend not to plan too much, but to try to seek out the artisans and cooks whose work reflects the cities’ heritage. We often walk with no real destinations in mind, ducking into restaurants that seem to be serving honest local fare. I usually avoid the places in guidebooks, unless a friend insists that I go, and, instead, comb the internet. For Rome, all my searches online were done in Italian, which I fortunately can read. I punch something like trattorie tipiche into a search engine. 

Our friend Terry Berch, co-owner with her former husband Michael McNally of Philadelphia’s popular London Grill (where I did Book and the Cook events with them for 10 years), arrived on Thursday and we went to Augustarello in Testaccio, which we had heard about from locals (you can find it online now, but in 2004 there was nothing written about it) and where we ate for four hours. It was one of the most memorable meals of my life. We each began with pasta: Terry had rigatoni alla carbonara, I had tonarelli a cacio e pepe, and Mikel chose gnocchi di patate (Thursday’s classic) al ragu. Again I ordered coda alla vaccinara (braised oxtail with celery and tomatoes) only this time it was perfect – a rich red tomato sauce, meat falling off the bone, making the previous version seem awful. Terry had mounds of sweetbreads with artichokes; I also had carciofo alla romana; and Mikel had agnolotti scottadito (“scorched finger” lamb chops — that is, served hot off the grill but so delicious you can’t stop eating them even though they burn your fingers).  The wine was special, the 1998 “Grugnale Riserva” from Antonio Cugini’s local Strade Vigne del Sole label, a Rosso de Lazio of Merlot, Sangiovese, Cerasolo, Canaiolo, and Cesanese in equal proportions and aged 6 months in small oak casks. We rarely eat desserts and I’m rarely impressed when I do, but Augustarello’s were exceptional. In my journal I called them “stupendous!! Possibly the three best I’ve ever had. The crostata di visciola [wild local cherry tart] had ricotta in the dough – thick – and on top too. The chocolate flourless cake had hazelnuts, walnuts, cornmeal, ricotta, sweet wine, cinnamon and Madeira. The beer cake had almond paste, eggs, and nuts. None were too sweet; all, simply perfect, as was the coffee.”

Cacio e peppe (“cheese and pepper”) is one of the great dishes of Roman cooking, which is invariably simple. There is nothing a modern chef could do to jazz it up or to make it “his” because the very essence of the dish is its simplicity. (I am reminded of one of my favorite Karen Hess quotes from The Taste of America in which she says that Americans have come to prefer “pretentious failure” over “simple perfection.”) In his engaging Cooking the Roman Way, David Downie calls it “the simplest and one of the tastiest pasta dishes in the Roman repertoire…. Romans use black pepper lavishly and always have: pepper saved the city from total destruction twice.” The ingredients for the sauce are freshly grated Pecorino Romano and freshly ground black pepper, and, according to Downie, “the trick … is to dilute the cheese and pepper with 1 tablespoon of pasta water per serving, and to amalgamate the ingredients in the pot the pasta water was boiled in, a technique called mantecare, meaning to mix and meld.” Use ? pound of pasta, 1/3 cup of cheese, and about 2/3 teaspoons of pepper per person.

We saw an excellent exhibition at the Colosseum called Misteri in Grecia e a Roma: Il Rito Segreto, with statues, busts, altars, reliefs, and idols representing the Elesian mysteries, initiation rites, Cerere’s cult, Dionysian rites, and other ancient beliefs. A week went by and the following Friday we met Terry and Brent and Alessandro of Priello in the Campo de’ Fiori and walked to Trastevere for lunch at Asinocotto, where the chef opened and cooked just for us, letting us sample the delicious cheeses and cured meats from Priello. Brent and Alex have since bought the restaurant and are running it themselves. I wanted to spend some more time in Old Rome, so afterwards we walked back to the Pantheon, one of my favorite manmade structures. The Pantheon is one of the most important buildings in the world, one of the oldest, and is made of concrete, which is the material I will use in our country home which I designed myself. I love the area of the Rotunda, as it is called, where the nearby Piazza di Sant’Ignazio boasts one of the most exuberant examples of the Roman Rococo, in stark contrast to the city’s conservative buildings in the Classical style. Look at the playful curvilinear facade of this remarkable private home designed by Filippo Ragguzinni in the early 18th century (and next to it the remarkable 2000-year-old rotunda.
For months before going to Rome, I had heard about and read about the famous Felice restaurant, just a few blocks from our apartment. Nancy Harmon Jenkins, the Mediterranean scholar and cookbook author, had encouraged me to go. David Downie wrote: “Felice…is probably the city’s most authentic burbero-style trattoria today. Felice himself is an unprepentant, crusty character right out of Cinecitta Central Casting. Gaunt and grizzled, with a telegraphic delivery, he smoothes his perfectly ironed white smock and assigns tables by reservation only, at strategic intervals so as not to be overwhelmed. When he feels he has enough customers, he simply locks up and won’t let anyone in. If you arrive even a few minutes late, he might not serve you.” The burbero is the classic crank, “a professional grump” in a “wondrously hideous decor” with “tacky paintings lit by fluorescent strip lights.” A few months before we went to Rome, The New York Times rhapsodized about this most famous trattoria in the Eternal City, cautioning its readers: “You have little chance of ever eating there.” It then explained how the 83-year-old Felice’s nephew was beginning to take over, and that it had become only difficult to get in then, instead of “very difficult.” I felt I had to give it a try.

Rather than chance a misunderstanding over the phone, I appeared at the door of the brightly lit, hip and mod restaurant with plate glass windows that opened onto the corner it occupied. Surely this couldn’t be the same Felice. I asked to see the owner or manager and explained that I was an American food writer, asking politely if there were any way that I could come in sometime that week. “Certo,” he smiled, booking us a table for three the following night. Obviously the nephew, or someone, had taken charge and spruced the place up. We were greeted warmly the next night and the service was excellent, but the food was mediocre at best and not the traditional Roman cooking we were seeking. Ester was with us and was especially disappointed since she had also been wanting to try it for quite a while. The bread was dry, the cacio e peppe was bland, and the peas were frozen.

I cooked at the apartment several times. On Christmas Eve, I bought a lot of food, but I got to the market too late for quail, part of my family’s traditional Christmas meal (and apparently popular in Testaccio as well). That evening we went with Ester to the home of Sophie Marland, a French comedienne. I took pickled shrimp, and her brother Ian arrived from Brittany with fresh oysters. His wife Madot and their daughter Elsa were also there. Elsa had just flown in from Beirut where her boyfriend lives, en route home from the Sudan where she had been working for the UN, interviewing preteen rape victims. Sophie’s daughter Harmonie Toros (her father is Turkish and headed the Press Corps of the FAO for 20 years) flew in from Istanbul, after a morning of tasting caviar, the best of which she brought with her. She lives in Wales, where she’s working on her PhD in International Politics, hoping to learn to mitigate terrorism through dialogue. She and Elsa are both learning Arabic. The evening was a blast, with lots of Champagne. When we first sat down at table, it was covered with chilled platters of what appeared to be unopened oysters. Since we were all dressed up, I couldn’t imagine wielding an oyster knife, though I have been known to do so in a tux. Sophie just laughed and said, “Don’t worry. They’re already open. It’s an old Breton trick: you open the oysters carefully so as not to lose any of their precious juice, then replace the top shell and set them to chill before your guests arrive. They release more of their juice. Try them, you’ll see!” In all my years of oyster-gathering, oyster roasts, and eating bushels of raw oysters, I had never seen or heard of this culinary wonder. It works! The oysters were some of the best I’ve ever had.
Ester came for Christmas. I bought several types of oysters in the market and several local dried sausages, all of which were excellent, and served a pork roast with greens and potatoes. We had Champagne and cheese and an apple cobbler, then went to see the eccentric Marie-Eve Gardere, the President of Licra Italia, the League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism. In her seventies, she smoked two huge joints, offering it to no one else, and served us tea, cookies, and fresh citrus. Her apartment is perched high on the Janiculum hill, near the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, one of the best vantage points to take in the vast Eternal City. Our conversation, in French, ranged widely from the arts and philosophy to current politics.

We got to take a private tour of the ancient monument called the Ara Pacis, which at the time was being covered by a contentious modern building designed by Richard Meier, the first modern structure in Old Rome since the Fascist era. The “Alter of Peace” was commissioned by the Senate in 13BC to celebrate the peace that spread throughout the empire after Emperor Augustus conquered both Gaul and Spain. Afterward we walked in the rain for hours, touring the Capitoline and ending at Michelangelo’s gorgeous Piazza del Campodoglio just as a second hail storm began. We hopped on the first bus we saw and got off near the Ghetto, wandering into the hip Bartaruga in Piazza Mattei. The plaza is defined by one of the lesser known, beguiling fountains in a city famed for them. The Fontana delle Tartarughe (tortoises), as it is known, is a jewel of the Renaissance. Bartaruga is a play on words (ruga means “wrinkle”), but the clientele was young and stylish, and we enjoyed both their signature cocktails and their music.
The glamorous and charming Jo Bettoja, the author of several cookbooks who for years ran her world-renowned Lo Scaldavivande cooking school, had us over for drinks in her elegant apartment near the Trevi fountain one evening. She implored us to be sure to sample the homemade ice cream at the nearby Gelateria di San Crispino, and we had to admit that we had indeed done so before coming to visit her! Jo was a bit distracted by her husband’s illness, but she has not lost her graciousness or her southern hospitality (she grew up in south Georgia), and we fell in love with her cute Boston Terrier Billy Boy (Billy Boy #3, she informed us), who was spoiled rotten. Just before we left, Mikel and Jo discovered that they are both descendants of Lanes and Purvises, and, as such, are probably related! Afterwards we we joined Ester at Due Ladroni, where we had very good fish and pasta with white truffles (nothing but butter on the pasta, per tradition).

Walking around Rome for two weeks, we decided that we could definitely live there, though we are a bit spoiled here in DC by our excellent subway sytem. The problem in Rome is that every time they inch forward with the third line of their metro, which is to snake through the city, the builders run into a priceless archaeological find that then must be excavated in full before the work continues. It’s been being constructed for 30 years now! Modern Rome is exciting in just about every way you would want a city to be. Where else can you see the latest designs in public structures right next to ancient temples (in this photo, the modern glass phone booths are positioned right next to the temples at the Bocca della Verita). Rome has its drawbacks, of course, such as the infamous traffic, but it also offers the best of nearly 30 centuries of culture. It can be crowded, even at Christmas, but if the Vatican is simply too packed to deal with, take a bus, tram, or metro to one of the dozens of other fascinating sites. There are two museums in the Villa Borghese that house the outstanding private collections of the family, including stunning works by Bernini, such as his Apollo and Daphne, Canova’s famous reclining statue of Napoleon’s sister Pauline, and, in the Villa Giulia, a startlingly modern 6th Century BC Etruscan masterpiece (pictured below) that depicts a deceased couple on their sarcophagus at the eternal banquet.

In the Capitoline museum, a Roman copy of the revolutionary sculpture, The Dying Gaul, from the 3rd Century BC, is not to be missed. It was the first piece of western art to depict compassion in an enemy (see above).

Every neighborhood is full of gems, even as you marvel at the modern bourgeoisie standing in line to get into the Gucci store. One of my favorite buildings in the world (and I travel the world specifically to see architectural masterpieces, both ancient and modern) is Borromini’s wondrous chapel, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane on the Quirinale. The facade, the interior, and the dome use bold curves that fill the tiny church with exuberance and light. The dome, lit by concealed windows, appears to float much higher than it actually is. Its design is an ingenious interlocking of coffered hexagons and crosses. While I am in no way religious and, in fact, resent the church’s manipulation of art’s power to ensnare the masses, I, too, am mesmerized by this chapel’s energy, and will always return to see it each time I visit Rome.

It was our last day. Never expecting to repeat the perfect dining experience we had had at Augustarello, we were led, just in time, to another authentic regional meal that we could have found nowhere else. While shopping for candy for our dogsitter in the Ghetto, I asked the elderly Jewish confectioner where he himself would dine if he wanted local fare and he were not eating at home. I told him that I had yet to sample, for example, carciofi alla guidia (fried artichokes Jewish style). It had begun to rain again and it was right about noon. “If you hurry,” he said, handing me a card for Sora Margherita Associazione Culturale. “It’s a Jewish kitchen run by two sisters, but you have to be a member to get in. Go as my guests. Here’s a card for each of you. It’s right around the corner. There is no sign.”

It was the proverbial hole in the wall on Piazza delle Cinque Scole. We introduced ourselves to Margherita and she explained that she keeps the place alive to preserve the culture. It’s a sort of nonprofit organization. You fill out a form to become a member and part of the cost of the meal goes toward administration. There are thirty seats. One seating. First come, first served. We sat at a table with Roman Jews, Lidia and Mario Mondavi, who helped us translate some of the dialect. I got my Jewish artichokes. They were delicious. Mikel had liver with arugula and I had alici con indivia, an unusual cake of anchovies and endive. We went home to pack, then went to dinner at Ester’s where she made a simple pasta sauce combining both pesto and tomato sauce.

I can’t wait to go back.