F is for Foodies

Today’s post subject is taken from my A-Z Challenge Suggestion Box:

Why don’t you write more about Italy and its heavenly cuisine through the rest of the month? At least, that is what I want to know more about. A closeup of a gelato stall, tossing pasta, cooking seafood…. drooool! You get the picture right?’

Good idea but I’m not much of a foodie and don’t tend to rave on about food.  I may have mentioned it before, but I don’t really love Italian food.  Yes, I can see the positives in fresh pasta, creamy tiramisu or an aromatic cappuccino.  I enjoy a good ragu or minestrone soup as much as the next woman. And I’ve had some extremely tasty meals in both restaurants and friends’ homes.

But I’ve also had a lot of plates of bland spaghetti, bowls of cold spinach and many, many dishes featuring sliced hotdogs.  Trips to restaurants where the menu is identical to the last restaurant I visited and the one before that. Fine when you’re in Italy on holiday for a week, but when you’re there for three years?? Sometimes you do just yearn for something different.

Anyway, putting all that aside, last week in Rome I really did have a couple of wonderful meals and this month I will develop my foodieness and share some of the highlights with you.

AristoCampo is a restaurant in Trastevere that I’ve walked past hundreds of times and it always caught my eye.  Mainly because of the sign, ‘We are against War and Tourist Menu’.     So when we were debating where to eat on our big (smokey) night out, this was my first suggestion.

I don’t eat tons of meat so after a starter of Bruschetta with tomato, I opted for one of the specials: Pasta with Aubergine, Tomato and Ricotta.  It was the tastiest dish I had in my whole time in Italy.  Rich, flavoursome and with plenty of sauce.

I’m sure the enjoyment of the meal was enhanced by the thrill of being back in Rome and really making the most of our short time there, and, after a couple of beers and half a bottle of wine, anything would have been tasty, but it was seriously good!

We finished the evening off with a shared tiramisu (it disappeared too fast for photos) and a moonlit stroll to Piazza Del Popolo.  A perfect Italian Foodie Evening.

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C is for (Cigarette) Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Friends in the UK used to ask me if smoking was a problem in Rome.   I always said, nope, not at all – no one smokes in restaurants and it’s not too bad on the street. Well, it turns out that I was living in some sort of fantasy Rome, where I only ever went to ‘naice’ middle-class areas to visit family run trattorias, kiddie friendly pizzerias and modern shopping malls.

We’ve been in Rome for a few days (lots more on that to follow – I need material for the A-Z Challenge from somewhere), catching up with friends and revisiting favourite places (but back tonight, Mr Burglar, if you’re thinking our house in England is going to be empty!) and we had dinner last night in Trastevere.

Trastevere is one of the loveliest areas in Rome, full of tiny lanes just perfect to wander aimlessly.  Last night was the first time I’d been there in the evening…I’m less of a social butterfly and more of a miserable moth who wants to be in her pyjamas by 9pm. Actually, that’s a lie – it’s more like 8pm. Or as soon as I get in from work if I’m really being honest.  Any nocturnal social life in Rome involved either a quick pizza with the kids before being home and tucked up in bed by 10pm or going to friends’ apartments for dinner, drinks and drunken dancing (as long as I knew them well enough to wear pjs).

Old lady, google images
Yes, hipsters like this one…

Anyway, Trastevere during the day has enough restaurants and shops to satisfy the fussiest of tourist, but at night hundreds of trendy bars and restaurants suddenly appeared from behind unmarked shuttered doors that give no indication that anything more than a lock-up lies behind them.   And with the trendy bars, came thousands of trendy hipsters, students and young people – WHO ALL SMOKED LIKE BLOODY CHIMNEYS!

I grew up in the 70s and 80s so I well remember pubs, clubs and people’s homes being full of cigarette smoke.   Coming home from a club at 2am (yep, that’s how early they shut in those days!), stinking of smoke and having to have a shower and hair wash before I could go to bed.   Eating a meal with the guys next to you blowing smoke all over your meal. Working in an office where everyone smoked and had an ashtray on their desks!   But things have moved on from that so I’m just not used to cigarette smoke anymore.

After a couple of drinks outside a bar where we were surrounded by smokers, and a meal just inside a funky restaurant where everyone outside the entrance was smoking, my eyes were streaming and my throat was sore.  I came home and actually put used teabags on my eyes to attempt to recover. It kind of worked plus I developed a nice, but very localised tan.

So, no, Rome doesn’t have a problem with smoking – but only if you don’t leave the house after 9pm.

When In Rome

 

Well, it’s been a few months since we returned to the UK and Rome now just seems like a two-week holiday that I enjoyed over the summer.  And, just like a holiday, apart from the occasional, ‘How was Rome?’ from acquaintances I bump into in Waitrose [Ed: what the hell are you doing in Waitrose?  You haven’t got a job, you daft bint.  Off to Lidl with you], nobody’s interested and I don’t really think about it, unless a TV show has the hero driving around the Colosseum on a scooter and I suddenly blurt out, ‘Bloody hell, I used to live there!’

But then the lovely Elaine from I Used To Be Indecisive asked me for my insider tips for a weekend in Rome and I remembered how much I loved it and decided that I really should reminisce more.  So here are my suggestions for a great visit:

DO NOT go in the summer.   It’s ridiculously hot and sweaty, there are thousands of tourists everywhere you turn and it’s ridiculously hot and sweaty.  September or October are the best times to visit, followed by April or May.   Roman autumns are just beautiful with warm, sunny days and cool evenings.

Unless you’re HWW or Lewis Hamilton, DO NOT attempt to drive.  Or cross the road.

If you decide to speak Italian while you’re there, Romans (yes, they are called that!) WILL laugh at you.  Possibly not to your face, but the waiter will be sniggering when he walks away from the table.  My coffee shop Italian spoken with a strong West Country accent was a particular source of amusement for pretty much every Italian I ever met.  I don’t have this accent when I speak English, only Italian…

WATCH OUT for the dog poo.  Italians are far too cool and lacking in a well developed sense of community spirit to worry about picking up cacca from the pavement.

Drink cappuccino after 11am just to annoy the locals. If you avoid the real touristy places, you shouldn’t have to pay more than €2 for a cappuccino. I can honestly say I never had a bad cappuccino but they are always served luke warm so if you like it hot (as I do), you have to ask for ‘bollente’ or ‘molto caldo’.

Ok, where to go.  Obviously all the usual places first:

The Colosseum, Forum and Palentine Hill.  Yep, definitely worth seeing, even after my sixth visit (tour guide duty for various sets of visitors).  The Colosseum often has long queues but you can get tickets online, or at the Palentine Hill ticket office (the ticket is for all three sites) which has smaller queues.

Trevi Fountain (once all the scaffolding is off).  Throw those coins in.

Vatican City.  St Peter’s Square and the Basilica are free to get into but the Basilica usually has huge queues. Tickets for the Sistine Chapel can be bought online if you fancy this, but it might take a long chunk out of a weekend visit.  Once you’re in the vicinity of St Peter’s Square, you immediately get hassled by tour guides who promise that you will skip the queues if you buy a tour with them.   I never did it but could be worth it if you’re time poor but cash rich.  I have to confess that I was underwhelmed by the Sistine Chapel.  Yes, I’m an uncultured oaf.  I did however, adore the spiral staircase that you sweep down to exit the Vatican museums!

HWW’s favourite place to visit is the Pantheon, with its amazing concrete dome and oculus open to the elements.  Stunning to look at and totally free to get into, it has been in continuous use since it was built almost 2,000 years ago. It’s still a working church so expect to be ‘shhhhhh’ed every five minutes.

Now some of the less well known spots.  One of my favourite places to visit is the Aventine Hill, not far from Circus Maximus. It’s a lovely place to walk around, with great views over the city (from the gardens) and the most wonderful view through the keyhole of the Knights of Malta doorway.  Not far away is the Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth), made famous in the film Roman Holiday and now a popular photo-opportunity for Japanese tourists.

Trastevere is a lovely area to visit with lots of shops, bars and restaurants, especially in the evening when they all appear from behind shuttered doors.

The Vittorio Emmanuel Monument (or The Wedding Cake as the locals call it) has stunning views over the city, along with information boards so you know what you’re looking at.  Most importantly, it has a lovely roof top cafe with reasonable prices.

I will let you in on my secret bar where you can get a cappuccino for 90c. Go up the right hand set of stairs to the right of the Vittorio Emmanuel monument, through the statues of Castor & Pollox then across the Capitoline Museum Square.  Keep to the right and head through a small lane where there is a locals’ bar with the 90c cappuccino.  Not bad for the centre of Rome.  If you walk to the end of the lane, there is a fabulous view over the forum (almost better than going into the forum!)

Piazza del Popolo is up past the Spanish Steps and worth a visit.  There are two cafes at either side which are Roman institutions. Pricey but we had the best spag bol we had in Rome at the one on the right hand side looking back towards the Spanish Steps. From the piazza, you can walk up to Villa Borghese (more great views), where the Romans go for a stroll on Sunday afternoons whilst the tourists ride around on Segways.

Piazza Navona is a stunning square and has lots of touristy places to eat or grab a coffee.   There’s an excellent gelato shop, Grom, which offers natural, traditionally made (and delicious) ice-creams.

The Island in the Tiber is beautiful, it’s joined by two bridges so you can walk across the river and stop for a coffee halfway (well, it is a strenuous two minute walk…) In the summer, the usually neglected banks of the river are full of pop-up bars, restaurants and shops and the island is also alive with music and people.

I can’t help with many places to eat as we had two fussy-ish kids with us, so usually just got a plate of pasta which is much the same everywhere, or we went to La Boccaccio in Trastevere.  It’s just a tiny shop, with a few bar stools inside and three tables outside, but it does amazing pizza by the slice with a wonderful ever-changing selection of toppings, anything from pizza bianca (totally plain) or margarita, through to bacon and potato (the best!), peppers, courgette and aubergine or rocket and mushroom.   Sadly, no pineapple.  When will Italians learn that adding pineapple to a pizza takes it to a whole new level of yumminess??   You pay by the weight so a couple of slices of pizza and a beer would cost around €5/6.  Not bad for a lunch in the centre of Rome.

I’m sure I’ve missed off loads of my favourite places and I’ll update if I remember any more so that this becomes my tribute to my time in Rome.

I'm pretty sure David Tennant would stop for a Spritz so that fully justifies a random picture...
I’m pretty sure David Tennant would stop for a Spritz so that fully justifies a random picture…

But my biggest tip is just to take it easy.  Don’t try to pack too much in.  Enjoy a cappuccino at Caffe Greco and admire all the fashionistas tripping along, with their Dolci & Gabanni handbags in one hand and mini sausage dogs in the other.  Go into a church (they’re all lovely and individual) and contemplate the meaning of life…or just rest your feet.  Get lost in all the little lanes around Campo de’Fiori and stop for a Spritz and antipasti at 6pm.  Think of me back in England drinking tea and wondering why it’s so bloody cold.

PS And for god’s sake, whatever you do, please pack a guide book so you’re not relying on me and my half-arsed recollections.

 

Don’t Leave Me This Way

One of the conditions of my WordPress Least Prolific Blogger (Overseas) award is that I’m only allowed to blog twice a year.  So here is my bi-annual update.

Unbelievably, we leave Italy in just over a week.  Three years have flown by and, despite all my bitching about Italian drivers, Italian shoppers, Italian rudeness, Italian lack of awareness, mossies, unbearably hot weather, bland food, graffiti, rubbish strewn across the streets…etc etc, I’m going to miss Rome more than I ever thought possible.

View from my apartment towards Tivoli.
View from my apartment towards Tivoli.

I’m going to miss:

The hot weather (I finally got used to it just as we’re leaving!)

Cheap prosecco.  Cheap wine.  Cheap beer.

Perfect cappuccinos served in a proper sized cup, rather than a bucket.

My apartment, which is bigger and nicer than any house I’ve ever lived in. We’ve actually played tennis in the living room.  It’s ten minutes away from the centre of Rome but it looks towards the mountains on one side and over a nature reserve on the other.

Walking through Rome whenever I like and being surrounded by history and beautiful sights.

But most of all, I’m going to miss the wonderful friends we made here.  Both Italian and other nationalities have been so welcoming, generous and sociable.  I’m not overly emotional but there will be tears when I say goodbye to everyone.   I’m half-inclined to tell everyone I leave a week later so I can just sneak off and not have any blubbering farewells (red and blotchy is not a good look on me).

I won’t miss:

Conversations like the one HWW had in his canteen at work a few weeks ago –

HWW: Tre caffè (three coffees)

Lady behind counter: Eh?

HWW: TRE CAFFÈ

Lady behind counter: EH?

HWW (very slowly and loudly): TRE CAFFÈ

Lady behind counter (getting very flustered): SCUSI SIGNORE, NON PARLO INGLESE… (EXCUSE ME SIR, I DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH…)

Yeah, maybe it is time to go home 🙂

Locked Out of Heaven

Near where I live is Ponte Milvio, Rome’s oldest bridge.  First built in 206 B.C., the bridge has always been a site of interest.  According to Tacitus, the first century Roman historian and statesman, it was ‘famous for its nocturnal attractions,’ and was where the Emperor Nero conducted his debaucheries.  In 312, Constantine, the first emperor to convert to Christianity, defeated his rival Maxentius at the Battle of Ponte Milvio.

Today Ponte Milvio is better known as a symbol of love.  In 2006, Federico Moccia wrote I Want You, a story of young lovers in the north of Rome.  The hero tells his love interest of an old legend: if lovers wrap a chain around a lamppost on Ponte Milvio, lock it with a padlock and throw the key into the Tiber, then they will never leave each other.

It’s a beautiful story but one that was simply invented for the book.  The book and subsequent film were a big success, leading to life imitating art.  Thousands of young lovers flock to attach their love locks, inscribed with their names and the date, onto the bridge.

What if you visit and decide on a whim that you’d like to make a gesture of love but haven’t brought a lock with you?  Don’t worry – there’s usually a couple of vendors on the bridge who will sell you a lock for about €5; you can even buy a nice, heart shaped lock.

The weight of all these locks endangers the bridge’s delicate stonework and caused two lampposts to almost collapse.  Steel bars were installed along the bridge as official sites for the love tokens in an attempt to stop lovers attaching their locks to the lampposts.  It didn’t seem to make much difference so now they’ve been taken down and, instead, the city council regularly removes the locks from the lampposts.

So you may think your lock is a touching emblem of your everlasting love, but it just ends up at the city dump.  Who says romance is dead??

Rome Revisited: Fountain of the Four Rivers

Hope that's just an oar in your hand, young man...
Hope that’s just an oar in your hand, young man…

When I first came to Rome, I did all the touristy things and spent hours wandering the tiny lanes, visiting piazzas and admiring monuments.  Then real life and plain ol’ laziness took over.  Having guests last week (who seemed to appreciate all my cleaning efforts and brought a hefty supply of goodies so they can come again) pushed me into becoming a tourist once more.  I think I’ve become a bit blasé about the sights of Rome and I’m not a real art lover so many of the treasures are probably lost on me.  After visiting four or five churches, they start to all look the same.  And seen one Caravaggio, seen them all.   However, I do appreciate a decent cappuccino, a nice fountain or man dressed up as a Centurion.

Look carefully and you can even see a Roman Centurion in the picture!
Look carefully and you may see a little Roman Centurion 

So, first stop on the tour: Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) in Piazza Navona in downtown Rome.  It was designed in 1651 by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (a name you hear a lot in Rome) for Pope Innocent X.

The rivers represented by four giant figures at the base of the fountain are the Nile (Africa), the Danube (Europe), the Ganges (Asia) and the Plate (Americas). An ancient obelisk, topped with a dove holding an olive twig, rises up through the centre of the fountain.  I don’t know why the Tiber wasn’t chosen as one of the rivers but if you know, please send your answers on a postcard to the usual address.

The Nile’s head is covered with a cloth because, at that time, no one knew where its source was. The Danube touches the Pope’s personal coat of arms, as the river closest to Rome.  The Ganges carries a long oar, representing the river’s navigability.  And the Plate is sitting on a pile of coins, a symbol of the riches America could offer to Europe.

So that's where all our money went...
Hey Plate, when are these riches showing up??

Piazza Navona also has two other fountains: Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moor) and Fontana del Nuttuno (Fountain of Neptune) but Fontana dei Quatrro Fiumi is the most notable.  It’s usually full of tourists (the piazza, not the fountain), overpriced restaurants and street hawkers.  There’s a (pretty tacky) Christmas market in December if you’re planning on a winter visit.  The Piazza is a good place for a photo opportunity and this is where Julia Roberts sat in Eat, Pray Love, eating gelato and looking smug.  Probably because she’d managed to learn fluent Italian in six weeks and bag herself a hot Italian lover – two things in which I’ve failed miserably…