The first thing that happened to me in Rome, as I stepped out of the train station into the street, was that a pigeon shit on my head.
The next two weeks were spent in Rome with our friend Jenny, who didn’t have two weeks of vacation, but arranged with her boss to work in Rome, as I did. Both of us took off both Fridays and the second Monday. (We got a late start on the second Wednesday as well.) We were in a fabulous airbnb apartment in the Testaccio area, right next to the Piramide metro station and the Ostiense train station. This is about a half-hour walk from downtown, and while we took the metro sometimes, there were many mornings and evenings that we just walked.
The apartment had two bedroooms and two bathrooms, a clothes washer and a dishwasher, and it was the only apartment which opened onto the courtyard behind the building. There was also a living room and a kitchen. It was awesome in about every way except for the WiFi, which kept kicking us off.
Jenny’s friend had sent an extensive guide of what to see and what to skip, and the apartment people had left a handy guide to the immediate neighborhood food stores and restaurants. These were both instrumental in our planning.
We started our touring on Sunday (October 22) just after we arrived, walking past the Pyramid up to the river, along the river then up to the Pantheon, and from there to the Trevi Fountain. We walked back via Piazza Venezia, and went to the first dinner suggestion: Trapizzino in Testaccio. They serve triangular bread stuffed with some sauce, a combination concept of Roman sandwiches and pizza. Each one is 3€50. We bought about five of them for the three of us. Fantastic spot.
The work days were pretty routine: bread or some pastry in the morning with coffee from the Mr. Coffee machine, oranges bought from the Egyptian guy around the corner and squeezed by Ray in the juicer that came in the apartment. One day Ray and Jenny walked to the Jewish neighborhood downtown and got a ricotta and sour cherry cake from Pasticceria Boccione (which has no sign). Though it was delicious, it was large and lasted two days.
There were unfamiliar 100% deep green oranges in the fruit stand, and immediately bought two. Research reveals that the green does not mean a different breed. They were just ordinary oranges with green skin. If you search for “regreening”, you will find that the green is chlorophyll. If the weather is warm, the oranges become greenish. If it is cold, they will be orange. This year, cold weather has yet to arrive in Spain, and the oranges are still green. So Tesco, among others, have had to conduct a public education campaign in their stores in Great Britain, to inform consumers that green oranges are still oranges and are just as good as orange ones. Our green orange was good, too.
Generally we went out for dinner, though Ray and Jenny cooked on Tuesdays, as it turned out. The area has as many restaurants as does the Mission: Jenny was right at home.
Monday we went to Hostaria da Enzo, one of the closest Roman restaurants (a block away), and had some nice pasta and oxtail. Tuesday Ray cooked pasta with what Jenny had bought when she arrived the day before we did, and with some of the salami that we’d brought from Paris. Wednesday we went a few blocks further to Trattoria da Oio a Casa Mia, another Roman restaurant with typical Roman pasta, bitter vegetables (chicory and puntarelle), and a plate of lamb parts which unfortunately was too much liver and not enough lung, etc.
Thursday we went to Doppio Zeroo, another nearby restaurant, for dinner, which was perfectly fine and tasty. But we figured out that the time you’re supposed to go there is at 6pm for their “aperitivo”, in which you buy a drink for 10€, and then it’s all-you-can-eat pizza and pasta salad and vegetables and dessert. (There wasn’t a lot of meat, and aside from the vegetables, it was all carbo-loaded. But it was all-you-can-eat! For 10€!) We returned the following Monday and took advantage of that.
Touring began in earnest on the Friday. We decided to visit the Capitoline Museums, starting with Centrale Montemartini. It is a decommissioned power station, with old Roman sculpture standing in front of the most beautiful of the remaining generation machinery. After that, we took the metro up to the main museums on the Capitoline Hill, spending the next several hours looking at palace murals and lots of sculpture and paintings. After that we were very hungry and tired, and went to celebrate Ray’s birthday at La Fata Ignorante (“the ignorant fairy”) which was slightly upscale, but not amazing.
La Fata Ignorante is a) the patron spirit of painters, b) a painting by Magritte c) a movie by Ferzan Özpetek (“Hamam”) who lives near here, according to the man at d) Fata Ignorante, the restaurant. Lingua in salsa verde. Rigatoni Amatriciana. An Italian version of gazpacho, at room temperature. Oxtail. A nice wine from Tuscany. Bitter greens whose name escapes me now. A semifreddo that was supposed to taste like mango but didn’t. A thing called Caprese which was a lemon-soaked cake.
Saturday we had reservations for a tour at the Borghese Gallery. It was a bit touch and go getting there on time (bus from the Termini metro, or taxi?), but we did. The major problem was that there was no coffee for sale at or near the museum. Another problem was that the tour left without us, and someone had to lead us to the tour in progress. It was the first time I’d been on a tour with the little headsets, and it was brilliant. Visiting the Borghese happens in two-hour slots: they completely clear the museum before opening it for the next slot. Given that limitation, it was nice to have a guide to steer us to the most important works, while still having 30 minutes at the end to stroll on our own. Here were many important sculptures by Bernini, and a special exhibition honoring him was in the process of being set up. It was OK to take pictures of the paintings and sculptures in the permanent collection, but pictures of the wrapped-up exhibition pieces were strictly off limits.
Afterwards, we worked hard to find coffee, finally settling on Dagnino, a Sicilian bakery. It was a bit expensive for table service, but it was worth it after the standing and walking. We headed to Piazza Barberini, and the crypt of St. Maria dei Capuccini church which had about seven rooms decorated with bones, somewhat outclassing the ossuary we’d visited in Kutna Hora. The thing about this one was that you couldn’t take pictures. The funny part was the use of scapulas as wings, in combination with skulls, to build the little bodiless putti you so often see in Italian religious art. We walked down the Spanish steps (the Dolores Park of Rome) and up to the Piazza del Popolo and into the Basilica, where a euro would light up the two Caravaggios for a couple minutes. By then we were a bit tired, and did the half-hour walk down the river back to the house, and then to Porto Fluviale, which was a very large and popular restaurant with a pizza section and a trattoria section. It was quite good.
Sunday (October 29) we decided to see what Rome had for contemporary art. The answer was “not much”. Their museum MACRO has two locations. One of them was near the house in Testaccio. It had two rooms, one with works from three artists, and another special exhibition from another. That was a bit more interesting, with maps showing the sky in various locations just before they were invaded, and another inviting you to write your problems down on rice paper and leave them in a bowl of water and they would go away. We took a tram to the other location (after waiting for the infamous Bus 83 that never came, and then having a snack at Trapizzino). It was a huge metal and glass building with wide open spaces. That way they didn’t have to fill as much actual gallery space. Most of it was of the artist ORLAN who, as a protest against plastic surgery, had it performed on her to make her uglier, and had the process filmed. It was a bit painful to watch.
Afterwards we decided we’d try to find a Sardinian restaurant, in honor of having eaten at one when we were there 16 years earlier. The nearby ones all seemed to be closed, though Google said they were open. We finally went to Sapori Sardi, which was just fine and quite festive. We had black pasta with bottarga, and a “dentice”, a whole fish. They gave us glasses of Mirto, the single piece of Sardinia which seems to be missing from our favorite restaurant La Ciccia, inspiring us to hunt some down and buy it and bring it home.
Monday was another touring failure. We went to the Vatican and determined that we really needed to have gotten reservations beforehand. So we got them online — for the following Friday at 2:30pm.
I saw a guy with no legs and only one arm walking steadily down the sidewalk near the Vatican, paying no notice to anybody, just like any salary worker getting off his shift and heading for the bus. He was so normal acting that I did not take undue notice — of course you always notice amputees and Negroes and cute 11-year-olds and Vietate signs and well-dressed women, for what they are, but without prejudice. So here was an amputee living his life. And then when I got to the Vatican, there were mutilated beggars in a row doing the begging thing. And some time later, I realized that the first fellow was probably just taking a lunch break from begging. And after two hours, and his coffee and his slice of pizza and his smokes, back in the saddle for another shift of begging. It may not have been so, he might have been a website designer, but this is my guess.
We walked over to St. Peter’s Square, and marveled at the length of the line to get into the Basilica. After that we went to Pizzarium, a somewhat gourmet pizza-by-the-slice place (they just opened one in Chicago!), having arugula/ricotta/onions, nduja/broccoli, and one other. We walked around the other side of the Vatican (dumb idea, it turned out), and got to St. John the Baptist church about 2:30. Which was closed until 5pm. So we decided to check out Gelateria dei Gracchi, and were rewarded with super-intense flavors: pear, chestnut rum (it was the rum that was intense), pistachio, gianduia, persimmon. Three flavors in every size. Wish I could have gone back. On the way back we stopped at a white Gothic church on the river we’d seen a couple days earlier, and checked out their tiny museum of evidence of souls in purgatory trying to communicate with the living by leaving burned fingerprints on various documents. Finally St. John the Baptist opened, and while its little crypt was open, its museum wasn’t. We gave up, and walked the half-hour directly to Doppio Zeroo for their “aperitivo”. We could have taken a bus, but walking seemed faster given the amount of traffic.
Tuesday night was another dinner at home. In the morning we went to Eataly, a four-story high-end grocery store brought to you by Mario Batali. In addition to groceries, there are numerous little cafe areas where you can have various meals. We bought fresh pasta and chicken, and Ray and Jenny made it into dinner. Eataly is basically Whole Foods. Bunny suicides calendar for example. But four floors of it. You could get Stendhals syndrome just walking down the 6 aisles devoted only to pasta (2 fresh, 4 dried).
Wednesday we decided to have a “late workday”, and we returned to the Capitoline Museum to finish our visits there before our 7 days were up. One of the guards recognized us from our previous visit and showed us the snapshots he had made of the funny looking tourists. I forget which kind he was: Gandalf or maybe Papa Noel. We saw the Dying Gaul and somebody else’s Venus. From there, Jenny went back to work, and Ray and I went to a couple of other churches. One of them, St. Maria Maggiore, was actually open, and we took a tour of the mosaics at the back, and a Bernini spiral staircase which did not go anywhere, but you could go and look at it and walk a little ways on it. We also walked around the museum which had the usual Catholic vases and robes and other treasures. We returned to the house, and I went to work.
We had a reservation at Da Felice Testaccio, a Famous Restaurant famous for its “cacio y pepe”, or pasta with cheese and pepper. Unlike the Sorrento place a block away, which was empty, Da Felice was packed and needed reservations in advance. We were seated immediately, and the selling began. What? Only one order of pasta? What? You’re ordering from the Wednesday menu which is the reason you came on Wednesday? Many of the things we’d scoped out seemed not to be available, yet items from other days’ menus were. We did allow ourselves to be upsold to three orders of artichokes, and they were very, very good. We got the cacio y pepe, some other pasta, and some meat thing. The wine person started out recommending the 85€ bottle, and eventually came down to the 45€ bottle; most other restaurants recommended really good bottles in the 20€ range. The food was just OK (except the artichokes which were great) and the experience was pretty darned annoying.
Thursday night after work we went to a very close place we’d walked past, Trattoria Pennestri. It wasn’t in anybody’s top list (though it was decently high in TripAdvisor’s). It was basically San Francisco comfort food, ie Italian food made with creativity and attractive plating and interesting and non-traditional flavor combinations. It was by far the best meal we had in Rome, in my opinion. It wasn’t crowded, though we always ate earlier than most Romans.
Friday we had reservations for a tour at the newly opened highest levels of the Colosseum. The people who sat on these levels were the lowest levels of society: the guide said that fat senators couldn’t be expected to climb all those stairs. But now, you can only go there on one of these tours, so it’s kind of an elite thing, you’re there behind a locked gate. The views of Rome and of the lower levels are great. Definitely recommended if you’re going to go there.
When we were done, we returned to Pizzarium for three more flavors, including anchovy and sausage/gorgonzola/almonds, and then got to the Vatican half an hour early for our tour. It was packed with tour groups. We did our best to stick together, but it was a struggle. The guy at the Sistine chapel said to “exit to the right”, but you never know if that’s right in your direction of travel (towards the back of the chapel), or right when facing the front of the chapel. We opted for the former, which had a Do-Not-Enter sign, “Groups with Guide Only”. We ended up going through this secret Ikea-shortcut-like passage which became Skip The Line To St. Peter’s, which we were happy to do. For all the lip service about charity and helping the poor, the church sure does pour tons and tons and tons of money into building impressive churches. Sigh.
Friday night we met up with our friend Bill, who had just arrived in Rome for a few days. We went to Il Ciak, a game restaurant in Trastevere, and had three mixed grills, but above all a great conversation about traveling and art and Venice and Rome and catching up just generally.
Saturday was our last day in Rome. We packed up and finally met Bill at St. Maria Maggiore, where he and Jenny had a chance to go on the tour, and we all examined its mosaics and gold more closely. When Spain repaid (in gold) their loan from Italy which financed the Columbus expedition, Italy used the gold to line the ceilings of this church. We then went to San Pietro in Vincoli, St. Peter in Chains, with a Michelangelo sculpture of Moses and the chains that St. Peter was fettered with. Below that was a window through which you could see the sarcophagus of the Maccabee brothers. The Maccabees are not technically Catholic, but the torture martyrdom was too good a story to pass up, and so they are celebrated and have a saints day and everything.
Then to a bakery for a snack before our departure. Ray and I left Bill and Jenny, who went on to have a night Forum tour. We walked to the train station a couple blocks away, took the train to the airport, and flew to Addis Ababa. Overnight.