Like every great city, Rome is far from insular, and can be defined so many different ways.
We began with Catholic Rome, at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the oldest churches in Rome. A church has been on this site since the fifth century. This one is quite important as a citadel to Mary. It has all the gilt and marble that Rome could provide, along with one amazing relic which falls in the category of Religione Fantastico, which I will refer to often during this trip. That is the supposed remnants of the manger in which the infant Jesus was laid. Once again, someone with terrific foresight was on hand to recognize the value of this object, and save it till the right pilgrim came along. (This is related to the umbilical cord of Jesus, which we had the privilege of seeing in France.)
The Holy Family would not recognize this humble item, ensconced as it now is in crystal, gold and jewels. And the variety of marble surrounding its approach could not be counted. The many visitors must come with varying degrees of belief, but whatever their thoughts, they do come in large numbers.
And then there is High Alert Rome. Yes, Europe is under siege at the moment, and the military presence here is very strong. The machine guns are off-putting, but it is somewhat comforting to see the level of readiness everywhere in this city.
Then of course there is Retail Rome and Fashionista Rome, two fascinating subjects.
The major category of Tourist Rome leaks into every nook and cranny, and feels like the major part of the population in some places. As card-carrying members, we marveled at Bernini statues and Caravaggio paintings in Santa Maria del Popola and appreciated the new no-car policy in the Piazza del Popolo,
The next highlight for tourists took us toward the Tiber, where one can see a Mussolini contribution to architecture, part of Fascista Rome. It is across from the Mausoleum of Caesar Augustus, which is seriously in need of restoration.
In the category of new and shiny, a few steps away is the Richard Meier-designed Museo dell’ Ara Pacis – Museum of the Altar of Peace. In 9 BC, Augustus led a procession of priests up the steps of the altar to celebrate his appointment and recent victories over the barbarians, and to signal the dawn of the Pax Romana, two hundred years of peace and prosperity. We have Mussolini to thank again for a civic work, this time reconstructing the altar from fragments buried for centuries. Personally, I dislike the building from the outside, but it does provide a lovely home for this monument, and is filled with light on the inside. (But just to be really petty, can you believe there is only one toilet each for boys and girls – right next to each other?! Far too modern for us.)
Back to Tourist Rome, and the major shocks of the Trevi Fountain. It has been cleaned, and is so sparkly white that you almost can’t see its gorgeous details. But the bigger shock was the crowds surrounding it. Again – we are early in the tourist season, so we were amazed at how many people and how many selfie-sticks were jostling for position. Of course, the fountain was just finished on our first trip to Rome many years ago. And ten years ago, there was nothing like this crowd around. Just try to imagine what July must be like…
The last stop on our walk today was the Spanish Steps. This iconic sight rivals Trevi in popularity – except not now. We had to laugh to see that the Steps are closed for a cleaning, which must disappoint thousands of visitors. And in a glimpse into Municipal Works Rome, it was charming to see that one single industrious fellow is being entrusted with hurrying this project along before the real tourist season begins.
And now the moment you have all been waiting for: a visit to Culinary Rome, hosted by my able companion.
Don’s Food Corner
Leaving nothing to chance today for what we wanted to be our first real full meal in Rome, we searched out the restaurant that food writer Mimi Sheraton considers the best spot for traditional Roman cooking — La Matricianella. Located a few blocks off of the main shopping street Via del Corso, the restaurant is an old-timey place that shows its age in a charming and colorful way.
We followed Mimi Sheraton’s suggestions for ordering Roman specialties. We were not disappointed.
We started with artichokes prepared two ways. One was poached in olive oil (carciofi alla romana) and one flattened and deep fried (cariofo alla guidia). Both spectacular in its own way. Tender and flavorful all the way through down the entire stems.
Then we moved onto the pasta course. One choice was a house specialty of tomato and bacon sauce on very thick spaghetti (bucatini all’amatriciana). Surprisingly, the dish was served with the sauce already incorporated into the pasta and not just on top. Rich and peppery. The other pasta dish was the cream/egg/bacon Roman classic, spaghetti carbonara. It was somewhat lighter than we are used to seeing back home but still rich and delicious.
Those two courses would have been enough. But we soldiered on in the interests of the followers of this blog. We shared veal scallopine in lemon sauce. Perfect, except I wish we had spoons to scoop up the sauce without having to rely on a basket of bread to move it from plate to mouth.
Although we rarely eat dessert, when we encounter an unusually good kitchen, we give it a go. When they brought us a pile of light-as-feather Italian cream puffs (profiteroles) smothered in chocolate sauce and whipped cream, we didn’t think we’d be able to finish it. But somehow we did.
All was accompanied by a bottle of very nice Montepulciano wine and a large bottle of sparkling water. The cost of this memorable four-course feast for the two of us, including tip: $88. Money well spent – Mimi knows her stuff.