Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Italy Part 2: Rome: "Avrai tu l'universo, resti l'Italia a me."

Approximately two years and two months ago, Matt and I were in Italy, celebrating our unofficial 8-year-meeting-anniversary.  And almost exactly two years ago today, I wrote the first part of what was meant to be a duet of posts - a musing I called: Italy Part I: San Martino: "Il Bel Far Niente."  Needless to say, things in the early parts of 2011 got crazy for us - on many levels - and I never got to write the second part.  Two moves later and two years later, today I was prompted to finally do so by the happy and unexpected request from a friend to give her some recommendations for good food and beautiful sights to see in Rome.  After writing an inappropriately long list for her, I also spent some time re-living our last trip there through the beautiful photos we took and felt compelled to share here - if for no other reason than just to prolong the feeling of delicious nostalgia all this has provoked.

I believe we left off somewhere in Campania...

* * *

Have you ever had ten shots of espresso in one morning?  I don't recommend it. That's precisely the reason that I found myself suddenly vomiting out the rental car door on a rather hideous side road in the south of Italy on the morning we said goodbye to Matt's family in San Martino.  We were headed to Rome.  And, as if to purge it of any lingering non-Roman commitments, my body decided that all the good-intentioned-Campanian-caffe's of the past few hours had to go.  Basta already with all this Campanian-sciocchezze: there's only room for Roma.

It was fitting because, for me, as a rule, vacation is a delicate and constant struggle between eating too much and not seeing enough.  I am a self-professed not-doer on vacations - I prefer not to fill my day with places I have to be at a certain hour, things I have to see to check-off the endless mental list of "been-there-done-thats" - but I like to take in the scenery, the people, the feel of the place -- and eat.  A LOT.  For me, the memories are made at the lunch table, at the coffee-stop, at the random bench where we sat and chatted for an hour while eating strawberries from the market (where I still regret not getting some porchetta to-go as well).

*  *  *
"You may have the universe - but Italy is mine."

Italy has always had its hold on me - for no good, particular reason.  And within Italy, despite two years in Trieste, Rome is the favored, overflowing cup of happy memories for me.  I could sit in almost any spot in that city and feel happily satisfied just to be there, without seeing or doing anything else (except maybe eating, of course).  It holds so much meaning, so much history for me, that simply having made it back there with Matt once more was almost enough for me.

Matt and Roman Fecit.

I wanted to go back and bask in all the old and new (for Rome) and old and new (for me).  I
wanted to see our school, stop at our favorite bar, see the restaurant where we had our first date.  And I wanted to try all the restaurants (or at least a few) that we never could have afforded in our college days, to bring our son Roman (!) to the garden where I met his father, stay at a hotel in the center of it all, buy useless mementos, drink good wines.  I wanted to see how the city had changed, relish how much it had stayed the same.  I wanted to take destination-less walks - in circles, even - and admire the stores that I'd frequented once, or the new ones that had taken their place.  And despite my otherwise aimless wandering, I wanted to gleefully check off every single thing and place I wanted to eat or eat at off my impossibly long food-itinerary (I can't entirely let go of type-A Brenda).  And I did.  We did it all.  And, to-date, that brief moment of time in Rome stands out as one of my favorite vacations we've ever taken.

I often tell Matt that I think I'll never be one of those people who can find a place they want to go back to every year and not get sick of it.  In some ways I'm addicted to finding and experiencing newness.  But if I'm really honest with myself, I know that, if given half a chance, I'd be back in Rome every single year if I could.  You may have the universe - but Italy is mine.

*  *  *

Top Five Memories of Roma 2010
the old-the new, the very long-winded

5. The Only Real Roman.
There was something about seeing Roman in Rome.  It was like my life had come full-circle for one brief second, like all the things that meant most to me had been fulfilled, granted to me in complete perfection for just one moment, to observe and enjoy. 

The little man & Stone Pines at Villa Pamphili Park

He had no idea where we were and much less why it held so much meaning to me and Matt.  And perhaps that innocent glee was what made watching him - run in the rain in Piazza del Popolo (the first sight in Rome-proper that Matt and I ever visited together), or snootily lift his nose and pretend to drink wine at his first Roman lunch, or splash the water in the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi with utter disregard for Bernini's sculpture - all the more endearing and perfect.

Piazza del Popolo in the rain.

Doing like the Roman does.

4.  Boring Pretty Things Everywhere.
One of the first things that ever struck me about Italy was how - to me - everything looked so pretty, no matter how boring.  Literally, everything.  It still does.

I had a few chances to walk around Rome by myself on this trip and it was often at those moments - temporarily removed from Roman's demands - that I had the chance to savor the beauty of quotidian life in Rome once more.

A city of fountains, ruins, strong opinions and a mish-mash of cultures that all somehow converge into a mutual - and expected - reverence for all things Italian. But mostly all things Roman. Filled with beauty to the very brim, for anyone willing to stop a moment and find it: A dimly lit barber shop on a cobblestone street. The perfect espresso with the perfect schiuma, gone almost before you can even admire it. The most impossibly tiny little car parked on what surely must be a sidewalk - and no parking tickets on the window. A fountain with a serendipitous mosaic of red, orange, brown and yellow Autumn leaves floating on the water's surface; a temporary art installation by nature herself, gone with the next flow of water. Chestnuts - castagne - arranged just-so on a street vendor's fire pit, their familiar scent filling everyone's mind with unmistakably Autumnal smells. Rows of stores selling hand-crafted Saint figurines. Priests walking together, laughing, in the Vatican. A man sitting on thousand-year-old ruins, smoking a cigarette, talking on his telefonino. Giant puddles of water forming in between imperfectly laid cobblestones. My son hugging a column at the Pantheon. The Carabinieri standing in the Piazza - enjoying their cigarettes and coffees more than keeping the peace. Or maybe that's just how they do it - keep the peace, I mean - by living well, and beautifully, alongside everything and everyone else.

3. Back to School.

It's difficult to describe seeing your one-year-old stand in the courtyard of the school where you met his father - the same courtyard you snuck into by climbing over the wrought-iron fence because you broke curfew.

 It's strange to watch him sit on the chair in the classroom where your then-boyfriend had Latin class and loved to hang-out at night reading Tacitus standing up, at the professor's podium (after he'd all but done your Latin homework for you :)).

the courtyard
It's a completely bizarre sensation to take him down to the little dining room where you and your now-husband first got to know each other over pumpkin risotto and a somewhat unorthodox version of veal Carpaccio that you still talk about to this day.

But it's also pretty fantastic.

Even more fantastic, somehow, than that same blonde-Italian secretary (Letizia - "Titz" for short, if I recall), still there 8 years later, recognizing you both and being blown away that you actually did get married - just like everyone said you would.

2. Simple food, joyfully served. 

One of the things I recall vividly about living in Rome as a student was the real feeling of indignation I carried with me over the fact that I could not afford to eat everywhere and everything I wanted to.  In that sense, this trip was near-complete vindication.  

Our meals were not extravagant.  They were not particularly fancy or expensive, nor were they at the trendiest or most talked-about spots in Rome.  They were something far better than that: they were elegant, simple, and joyfully served.

Italian food is not complicated, - sometimes I would even say it is an endless collection of variations on a theme - but what makes the food stand out is the care and the true joy you find in how it is crafted, cared about, and passed over to you - an edible representation of all the culture and history behind that person, that family, that city, that particular moment.

Here are my three favorite meals from our trip:
Piazza delle Coppelle
I. Osteria Da Mario
Piazza delle Coppelle, 51  00186 Rome, Italy
A short-and-scenic-walk from the Pantheon through winding streets leads to a small courtyard filled with a small food market and a covered seating area for this family-owned osteria. 

As our first Roman meal - salsiccia e broccoletti for Matt, pasta pomodoro for the Master, and saltimbocca alla Romana with carciofi alla Romana for me - it was perfection.
salsiccia e broccoletti

II. Da Lucia
The dining room at Da Lucia
Vicolo del Mattonato, 2b, 00153 Rome, Italy
"Da Lucia," in Italian, means "at Lucia's place.  It feels like a Roman house in this trattoria, tucked away in a beautiful corner of Trastevere, family-owned and run since WWII.

We had a quiet, beautiful lunch of stewed rabbit, involtini con piselli and - because we were lucky enough to be in Rome while they were in season - Puntarelle alla Romana (chicory sprouts with a pungent but delicious anchovy dressing) while Roman slept in his stroller.  
It was pouring rain outside that day, so we didn't get to take the leisurely stroll through Trastevere that we'd hoped for, but instead we stopped by a nearby bar for a quick caffe' and chatted about the good old days.

It was almost too good to be true.

III. Piccola Cuccagna
Vicolo della Cuccagna, 13  186 Rome, Italy
Piccola Cuccagna
Piccola Cuccagna is just the type of place I would have never stopped had it not been recommended to me.  On the corner of Piazza Navona, in plain view of Bernini's 4 Rivers, I'm fairly certain that most people who don't know Rome write it off as a tourist trap.  Well, it's not.

The combination of the setting with, an unrelenting penchant for, as one writer put it, the "unapologetically impolite foods favoured by Romans" - pasta with small intestines, Tripe alla Romana, and Puntarelle (vinegared chicory shoots with anchovy sauce) - left nothing to be desired.  We were utterly satisfied and even giddy.

For primi piatti we had: prosciutto e melone (because it never gets old), bruschette, and some buccattini all'ammatriciana - a Roman pasta specialty.

For the secondo, Matt was bold and ordered the roast branzino (fileted and deboned at the table) served with perfect rosemary potatoes and some radicchio and lemon.

I,however, was vastly bolder and ordered the Trippa alla Romana (tripe in tomato and parmesan) served with - what else? - lovely Romanesco broccoli.

Trippa alla Romana
Dessert was, as always in Italy, a delicious but forgettable afterthought to the main event.

1. Oldies but Goodies. 
I don't remember when it happened, but I do recall the odd sensation of suddenly realizing that the world no longer saw me as a kid.  It didn't change how I saw myself - eternally in my mid-twenties for the record - but it changed the way I experienced other people, and other places too.  It is lucky, therefore, that certain things in this life - only a few, really - never get old.  And, in fact, they often get better the longer they're around.

walking our old path up the gianiculum hill

We might have returned to Rome almost a decade older and, for the sake of argument, wiser - suddenly, it seems, married, parents, professionals.  But we still felt the same exhilaration when we saw the forum, the Colosseum, the Victor Emmanuel Monument again that we did in our college days.   And we loved going back and taking cheesy pictures together, re-living the places, sights and smells that have thrilled people for more than two thousand years, the same places that make up a special piece of our past - and now, present - lives together and forever will.  Oldies but Goodies.

kisses in front of Vittorio Emmanuele

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  1. What a great read and it certainly brought back memories of my trip to Rome. I plan to go back soon not too much older and probably not wiser. You've certainly given me some good ideas including doing as Roman does =)

  2. Oyster! So nice to hear from you :) Your suggestions for restaurants in Rome were definitely on my food itinerary that trip. Good memories.