We’ve landed in Italy, folks. Brace yourselves, there’s about to be a lot of food on this here blog for the next several posts. Screw the Hunger Games, welcome to the Eating Games.
First of all, Italy is amaze-balls. The people are effusive and expressive and stylish and beautiful. The architecture is grand, ancient and impressive nearly everywhere. And, of course, the food is phenomenal. Also, we finally got some much-appreciated sun. So, basically, we’re in heaven.
While much of Rome is beautiful, it’s quite touristy in the places you’d expect. Our neighborhood, on the other hand, while still somewhat touristy, definitely had a lot of local flavor. We were often the only English-speaking patrons in local cafes and on the cobblestone streets, and we just adored it. I think it helped that we chose an Airbnb apartment off the main tourist attractions’ streets and tucked into the stylish alleyways near Piazza Navona. This didn’t mean we were far away from the good stuff, though. We were practically right above one of the great gelato spots: Gelato del Teatro. The fig, cheese and almond offering was the perfect treat to grab on the way in the door after a full meal of pasta.
Plus, Piazza Navona is definitely the best piazza. This can’t be beat.
As soon as we’d dropped our bags at our flat, we went out seeking our first tastes of that famous Italian food. We settled on a cozy restaurant a few blocks down the lane from our place. It was not a mistake. My cannelloni was divine, and the boys enjoyed their first tastes of the Roma carbonara (so different from – and better than – what you get in the States). This is also where we downed our first liter of Italian table wine (absurdly cheap, and oh so fine). Oh and fun fact: carbonara was invented as something to feed American soldiers during the war. The Italians thought, well, Americans like bacon and eggs, let’s put in on pasta!
We spent the better part of one day on a food tour in the Testaccio neighborhood, which was an epic feast, and super informative. Small world, our awesome guide, Tiana, grew up in the town next to me in Massachusetts! What made her even cooler, she knows her food, loves it and takes it seriously. And better yet, she taught us all about it. We started our day the way Italians do, taking our coffee and cornetto standing at the bar. Italians are not often in a rush, unless they are driving or eating breakfast. From there we moved onto a classic margherita pizza, pausing from the face-stuffing to take a photo with the master.
At a fantastic meat and cheese shop (called Volpetti) we gnawed on some pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, a wild boar salami and Prosciutto di San Daniele. In the Testaccio Market we made our own pomodoro bruschetta and a caprese salad. Lunch at Flavio Al Velavevodetto was the highlight for me, because we got to nosh on loads of pasta and wine. Their caccio e pepe (a Roman classic) was lovely, as was the unique yolk-only carbonara (talk about tasting like bacon and eggs!), but the best was the amatriciana. Divine. In Roma, they generally use tonnarelli (not spaghetti) for the cacio e pepe and often guanciale in place of bacon. It was also pretty cool that this restaurant is built into Monte Testaccio, a large hill made entirely of shards of terra cotta from discarded olive oil containers.
Lest you were worried we didn’t eat enough sweets on this tour, our last stop was at a gelato spot where we learned how to distinguish authentic gelato from the fake stuff.
In between all the calories we took quick digestion breaks while exploring a few cultural attractions like the non-Catholic cemetery where Keats is buried, and a former slaughterhouse turned contemporary art museum slash art school slash rec space.
Fortified from all the pasta, we did some serious walking around Roma’s must-sees. First up was the Pantheon. Cool, no? And it’s absolutely free. Worth the entry price, for sure.
Next up were the Coliseum, the Forum and Palatine Hill. It’s amazing how the city has just been built up seamlessly around these ancient ruins. To be honest, I found these bits a little less exciting since I have a hard time getting into the history when I’m just looking at ruins, but the sheer number and size of the ancient and intricate churches, buildings and statues in this city (and country, really) is just mind boggling.
The gigantic Victor Emmanuel Monument is huge beyond comprehension. Our guidebook said the guy’s mustache is wider than I am tall!? Insanity.
The Trevi Fountain, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Rome, was completely covered in scaffolding, and drained of water. Womp womp. So we walked to the Spanish Steps instead. And the fountain in that piazza was covered with plastic, as was the church at the top of the steps, including a big billboard advertisement in its stead. Total womp. So we took a picture that showed how we felt about it, and promptly left.
We woke early our last day to beat the crowds on our visit to Vatican City. Highly recommend this move, as the herd and queue were insane when we left. It’s a really, really big church. Again, not a big religion or history buff, so I’m not the best critic here, but…I was kind of more impressed with a few other churches we saw in Italy, especially one we’ll cover later in Tuscany.
That said, we walked up to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, and it was definitely worth it for the views of the city. The stairwell is extremely narrow in parts, though, and claustrophobia inducing.
A few other areas we perused were Campo de Fiori (a bit touristy, but fun to visit, just avoid most restaurants on the piazza), and Trastevere (Piazza di Santa Maria is beautiful, and its church is lovely) . The riverfront area on the walk to Trastevere was pretty cool as well. While it was in sleep mode when we walked by during the day, it looks set up for some cool restaurants and hang-out areas.
My favorite part of Roma was just meandering down the narrow roads enclosed by multi-story buildings. While there are no modern skyscrapers in the city (nothing may be built taller than St. Peter’s Basilica), most buildings are about five or six stories high, and they are old, old buildings with small windows, all connected to each other, so you feel kind of like a mouse walking through a giant maze, unable to see what is around the next corner until you discover another ancient church or spill out onto a dazzling piazza.
Also, these continuously running water fountains all over town are pretty cool.
And the food and drink places on all these adorable streets and alleyways are to die for. One random find that I have to give a shout out to is Giulio Passami L’Olio, where we stopped for a few pre-dinner drinks during their aperitivo. While we didn’t sample the foods, they looked and smelled amazing, and we enjoyed a phenomenal wine recommended by the waiter.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, I have to give a bad shout out to Roscioli. It gets rave reviews, but it was the most offensive service I can ever remember having. I don’t know what was up with our waiter, but he was awful. The pasta was great, but surprisingly the burrata was underwhelming, and the wine he recommended was the complete opposite (oaky, buttery) of what we had asked for. (They have gigantic wine lists at these spots, so big they fit in books, so we put ourselves in the hands of our not-so-trusty waiter to help steer us towards a new Italian find.) Also, it’s pricey, and there are TONS of amazing Italian eats for much less money than they charge here. So, skip it. Anyhow, that’s my rant. I rarely go out of my way to talk about places I view negatively, but I was so offended by this experience, and our snooty, rude, and wine-clueless waiter, that I have to warn you guys. That is all, the rest of Roma was fantastico!
Transportation: We arrived on an easyJet flight from Amsterdam, which was much less smooth (it was fine, just long lines for everything) than our first easyJet experience. From Rome’s airport (FCO) we took a taxi to our apartment. There is a flat rate of €48. I think this covers up to four people and luggage, but confirm and also be sure your taxi isn’t licensed elsewhere and not bound by the fixed fare. I think there is a bus into the city for ~€5 and an express train for ~€14.
We walked much of the city and also used taxis, which are not that expensive. For example, the fare between Piazza Navona and Piazza Testacci is €9-10. We departed for Tuscany with a rental car picked up from Hertz on Via Sardegna.
Accommodation: We stayed in an Airbnb place on Via dei Coronari, a little northwest of Piazza Navona and a fairly easy walk to Campo de’ Fiori and to the Vatican. This is a great area full of piazzas and narrow cobblestones streets with plenty of shops, restaurants and bars. It is far from the subway, but we loved the location. Other popular areas to look include the Piazza Venezia/Forum/Colosseum area and the Spanish Steps. A friend of mine prefers to stay in Trastevere.
Food and Drinks: This was our first stop in Italy, and we were fired up for pasta et al. The cuisine differs by region in Italy. I think everywhere we visit will have ample pasta and gelato, though. Among other things, Rome is known for its cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) and its carbonara pastas. These typically cost €7-10. It is a good idea to book a table at popular restaurants, even if only doing so in the afternoon for dinner that evening. The rumors of inexpensive and pretty good table wine seem to be true. We found bottle-size equivalents for €5-10 at many places.
Some places we particularly enjoyed include Flavio Al Velavevodetto; Ristorante Tre Archi da Loreto; Gelateria del Teatro; Cul de Sac. We had a pre-dinner bottle of wine at Giulio Passami L’Olio and loved the vibe and non-sweet Malvasia Bianca.
We were especially disappointed with Roscioli. Kenny said he could only think of one place where the hype to reality ratio was worse (The Hump in Santa Monica). The food was good but overpriced, and we did not like our waiter at all.
Other places we considered or couldn’t get into include Armando Al Pantheon, Pizzeria Da Baffetto, Pizzeria Ai Marmi, Forno Campo de’ Fiori, Il Gabriello, Cesare al Casaletto…
Here is a list of stops we made on our Eating Italy tour: Barberini; Volpetti Piu; Volpetti; Testaccio Market (Enzo e Lina stall, among others); Flavio Al Velavevodetto; Trapizzino; Giolitti.
I am obsessed with hydration, and therefore I am a huge fan of Rome’s abundant public water fountains. These are usually low to the ground and continuously stream water. They also have a neat feature where you can plug the spout with a digit and then water shoots out of a hole, facilitating drinking straight from the tap.
Activities: As with most places, we did not cram in as many museums and historically significant sights as possible. One could spend a whole lot of time on these in Rome. Consider research on buying tickets in advance and/or reserving time slots, as this may be required and/or save you a multi-hour line.
We did visit the Pantheon (free); the Colosseum, Forum and Palatine Hill (€12 ticket gives access to all); Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican (basilica is free, the dome costs €5 to walk the whole way up or €7 to take the elevator part of the way, the museum is separate and we skipped it). Trevi Fountain was fully shut down and covered by construction, as was the fountain in Piazza di Spagna and the church at the top of the steps. :(
Our little walking with lots of eating tour (Eating Italy: Taste of Testaccio Food Tour, which costs €75/person and takes four hours) was very enjoyable. As was just strolling around the city’s many narrow lanes and piazzas.
September 2-5, 2014 (Tuesday-Friday)