Today we and many, many teenage school children took a day trip from Rome to Ostia Antica, ancient Rome’s main seaport. These excavated ruins are amazingly complete, often described as a small version of Pompeii.
Ostia had a good run for about 800 years, as it was so perfectly perched at the mouth of the Tiber for trade and defense. At its height, its population of 50,000 had everything one could want within its walls. Living space was tight, but most people only used their homes to sleep. Life was lived in the shops, cafés, theaters, temples and the forum.
We have Mussolini to thank for the excavations that revealed all that the silt of a thousand years had covered. And quite an undertaking that must have been, as this town is enormous, if you are on foot.
The order of a Roman town is always quite impressive. We walked the same cobblestones over which Roman chariots traveled, leaving their ruts for us to trip on. While most of the ruins only go up to the second floor (thanks again to builders of the centuries pillaging what was then at the surface), this town appears to still be alive. It is easy to imagine the shopkeepers, grain merchants, city council members and the general populace going about their day, with the energy of thousands around them. It must have been amazingly noisy, colorful, exciting and dangerous, all at the same time.
There is a small museum where sculptures and sarcophagi have been collected to protect them from the elements – meteorological and human. Some lovely things.
The most evocative place for us was the Thermopolium, an ancient café with its frescos, bar, kitchen and small courtyard that is still so welcoming you want to order a drink and find a table. And then – quite conveniently nearby – the latrines that always attract great attention from the school-age crowd.
It was a lovely day among the ruins. And here’s a special note for Justine, in case you are watching this space. My taped knee has made it this far! (The rest of you can relax: the knee is normally covered.)
Don’s Food Corner
When it was nearing lunchtime my heart sunk. We were in the middle of the ruins of Ostia and the only choice was the site’s cafeteria. The second day in Rome and we’d have to eat our main meal of the day, which is almost always lunch, in an institutional cafeteria? Well, maybe tomorrow we’d experience the kind of meal we had been looking forward to since boarding the plane to Italy two days ago.
We arrived at the cafeteria just before noon. As we stood there looking at the possibilities, tray after tray of prepared dishes kept arriving from the kitchen and put on display: different kinds of chicken, fish pies, meats prepared in different and exotic ways, plates after plates of various combinations of salads. Jo chose a disk of deep-fried something that was described as chicken. Plus, she added some potatoes which looked boiled and oven roasted. Then she started pointing to different platters of the salads — oranges (both regular orange and blood orange) with fennel, small pasta tubes with corn and olives, sliced tomatoes of the deepest red imaginable. There were other choices, but those filled the plate.
In the meantime, I was looking at the casseroles of baked pasta. There was one that clearly was a lasagna made with flat pasta sheets. Then there were two other alternatives with ziti-style pasta. I asked the man behind the counter what they were. “Lasagna,” he said. I questioned that, “But that looks like ziti.” He rolled his eyes, looked heavenward and with hunched shoulders proclaimed “Lasagna!” as if he knew better than me what lasagna looked like. Then he pointed to the flat-pasta dish and said that version was vegetarian, that the second choice was with chicken and the last was with meat. I chose the chicken version.
Although wine was available and the server clearly assumed wine would be selected, we grabbed a couple of Diet Cokes (which provoked another little roll of eyes). When we took the first bite of our choices, we knew this was no ordinary cafeteria. The deep-fried chicken had a crispy outer crust, two layers of succulent dark chicken with a layer of cheese in the middle. The three salad selections were each perfectly prepared in their own way. Those tomatoes were as ripe and flavorful as any tomato I’ve ever had. And the “lasagna” was hearty and perfect. We should have had the wine.
Later in the early evening we made it back to the restaurant that we missed yesterday because it was closed. We settled on a half carafe of Montepulciano wine and a four-cheese pizza. (We actually had only three cheeses because I didn’t want Gorgonzola included.) Another perfect thin-crust pizza like we had the day before. Interestingly, I saw that they had pierced the entire underside of the pizza with a fork. I guess that makes the crust even crispier without allowing it to bubble up.
OK, now we’re starting on the food roll we’ve been anticipating.