If you’re feeling the slightest bit lonely and hunger for some friendly faces, get yourself to Rome immediately!
This is our first full day back in the Eternal City, and we are definitely not alone. The weather is warm and breezy, and the wisteria is in bloom. What more could one ask for?
We were very lazy yesterday and mostly explored our hotel neighborhood before getting a wonderful night’s sleep. That set us up for today’s planned visit to the Palatine Hill and the Forum.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. Don’s meticulous planning to get us there fell apart when someone fell/jumped/was pushed onto the metro tracks a few stops down the line. (Just like home.) Plan B involved a partial metro ride, an aborted attempt to get the bus to the Coliseum, and an eventual taxi ride. Those who know Don know this was not the best way for him to start this oh-so-nicely planned trip.
But we made it! We focused on the Palatine Hill this trip, as the Coliseum has not changed much since we saw it two years ago and the times before. But we missed the Palatine on our last trip, so today we had a chance to explore its nooks and crannies – of which there are many.
With remains of the palace of Augustus, the house of Livia and even the hut of Romulus, this was always the address in Rome, even before there was a Rome.
Now that we know a little more about Roman history (from many academic studies like re-watching “I, Claudius”), it was a thrill to see things like the view of the Circus Maximus from what would have been the royal skybox, the mosaics and tiles in the tablinum where the rich and famous dined, and the curved apse where the emperor sat on his throne to recent his supplicants. It’s all still here.
The setting is beautiful, and it’s easy to understand the appeal of the location.
Looking down on the Forum, you have to just marvel that there is anything left, rather than mourn what once was. Scavengers in the Middle Ages evidently once had kilns all over the Forum to melt down marble in limestone to make cement to build the Rome of that era. Sigh.
The Forum tour starts at the Arch of Titus, commemorating his victory over Judea, which included the destruction of the temple. One side of the arch shows Titus being crowned by Victory; the other shows the parade of the booty from the temple, including a menorah and other plunder.
The rest of the Forum has such treasures as the house and the temple of the Vestal Virgins, the temple columns remaining from the temple of Castor and Pollux and their sacred spring, the Basilica of Constantine with its huge arches and the temple of Caesar where flowers are still left on the mound of earth commemorating his ashes.
The Temple of Antonius Pius and Faustina clearly became a church in later life – and its green doors show where the ground level was in the 16th century. See the horizontal marks on the columns of the temple? That is where unsuccessful pillagers used rope and vinegar to try to bring the columns down. The place must have been gorgeous in Roman times.
Years ago, we were able to go into the Curia, the Senate building. It has been closed up ever since – at least when we visit. But it is a lovely – albeit stripped – building. Must have been wonderful clad in marble. And then there are all the other wonderful ruins which hint at such glory and wealth. Yes, those were the days.
After lunch, we strolled down past Trajan’s Column to the Trevi Fountain, with Victor Emmanuel’s monument and various emperors cheering us along. A fortifying stop for gelato was necessary to prepare ourselves for the crowds.
And then it was on to the Spanish Steps, closed two years ago for a complete restoration, now gloriously repaired. Just a few people with the same idea.
It’s wonderful to be back. Feels like visiting an old friend.
Don’s Food Corner
There’s an old saying that promises that “You can’t get a bad meal in Italy.” Two years ago when we traveled through Italy for three months we found to our disappointment that that adage was no longer valid. We felt that too often we were getting indifferent service, indifferent preparation and indifferent observation of the standards of traditional Italian cooking. Had the Italian restaurateurs become overwhelmed by the throngs of tourists that they would never see again and so didn’t have to worry about whether or not a customer would come back? Had the kitchens been taken over by people who were not even Italian? Perhaps.
Happily, however, for the first two days of our current trip to Rome we’ve enjoyed meals that are up to the standards we routinely enjoyed 40 years ago during our first trip to Italy.
Yesterday’s delights were served up in an old-timey neighborhood restaurant recommended by the hotel. We’re a couple of Metro stops away from the main tourist centers and the sense of a being in an area almost completely Italian is evident. We had two meals at this neighborhood restaurant yesterday. For lunch, we shared a pizza Marghertia — the simplest of pizzas with just light tomato sauce, fresh mozzerella and a few fresh basil leaves thrown on. And, as expected, or, rather, hoped for, it was served on the perfectly thin, perfectly crispy crust that characterizes the Roman-style pizza.
Because this simple lunch was so successful we returned for a more complete, more complicated dinner. We started by sharing spaghetti carbonara. Just as you would expect it was made as it should be made and so often is not in New York restaurants that pretend to serve Italian food — no matter how much you spend. Jo moved onto veal Milanese (of course) and I went for veal limone. Again, perfect. I had a clear view into the kitchen and was able to watch the not-too-young woman preparing all the various dishes for all the customers. Clearly she has an encyclopedic knowledge of Italian cuisine and how to do it right.
Watching her pound the veal for each individual serving and then sauteing the thin slices of meat without letting it arrive at the table overcooked and tough (as we have had far too many times) was a delight to behold.
Then watching her quickly put together the carbonara with bits of bacon, eggs and eyeballing just the right amount of cream in the pan before tossing in the al dente spaghetti and flipping everything into the air before plating it made the process look simple. But I know it isn’t. We had a side of roast potatoes with our veal dishes and washed it all down with some sparkling water and a terrific bottle of red wine from Sicali.
A nice feast in a homey family-run place, serving mostly neighborhood customers well-known to the staff at the restaurant. It made us feel that we had really arrived in Italy. (Most impressive was that with a pasta first course, veal dishes, a side and a full bottle of wine, the total cost with tip was $60! For those of you who have not visited New York City recently, you don’t get much for $60 and certainly nothing like this.)
Today, following our visit to the sights of Ancient Rome, we returned to a restaurant that we ate at the last time we were in Rome and liked very much. This is the place where we had our first Aperol spritz. The high standards of both service and food is surprising since the restaurant is located directly across the street from one of the entrances to the Roman Forum. But it has no sense of being a tourist trap. We of course started with Aperol spritzes. Jo ordered lasagne. I had the special of the day — gnocchi Roma — potato gnocchi tossed a meat ragu with peas. The lasagne had thin layers and an unusually creamy texture. While I’m not sure the gnocchi was homemade, the texture was light and fluffy and the ragu was flavor-layered and hearty. A great combination.
And a great food start from which we will be judging the rest of our time in Italy.