Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Hungry Dog goes to Italy: Rome

The Spanish Steps.
Part 1 of 3.

A few weeks ago, we returned from Italy, and since then I've been struggling to pull a post together. Returning to real life has been difficult. When something you've looked forward to for a long time is suddenly behind you, you have to readjust your mindset. Daily life can look pretty boring in the afterglow of a great trip.

While you wipe away your tears of sympathy, I'll fill you in on our travels. Of the three places we visited, Rome was our favorite.  I'd heard mixed things about the city--its detractors said it was crowded, hectic, loud, and dirty. Turns out those things don't bother me. In fact, I felt much more comfortable there than on the precious streets of Florence or in the idyllic hills of Chianti, where we were largely surrounded by wealthy tourists.

We stayed in Rome on both the front and back ends of our trip, in two different places. At the beginning, we stayed in Trastevere, a lively neighborhood packed with restaurants and shops. At the end, we stayed in a funny little hotel in the Trevi/Tridente area. Although the lodging was nothing special, the location was preferable, as it was within walking distance to lots of sites and accessible to the metro.

We did enjoy exploring Trastevere, though. Here's the view of the street below our apartment, which was located along the Tiber River. Vespas were everywhere and everyone was riding them! Women in skirts and high heels. Little kids with their schools bags clinging to their parents' backs. Men in suits.

Next door to our place was a little grocery store which kept us in espresso, wine, bread, meats, and cheeses. Here's the front window.

Our first major site-seeing was the Vatican museum, which we found impressive (did you know they have a  modern art collection, including works by Salvadore Dali?) but also upsetting. The museum is filled with art and antiquities worth hundreds of millions of dollars and everywhere is gold and marble. Meanwhile, out front, old women are literally begging for crumbs, change, anything. Am I the only one that thinks there's something wrong with this picture?

Social injustices aside, the Vatican does have at least one thing going for it even to an atheist like me: the Sistine Chapel. I wish I could show you some pictures, but you're not allowed to take any. You're also not supposed to speak inside the chapel, but of course people do, so mostly what you hear are peevish guards hush-shouting, "SSHHHH. QUIET PLEASE." It was not lost on me that they assume the rude talkers are English speakers, which seems to be unfortunately accurate.

Here's the front of the Vatican museum. Not too shabby.

Our next order of business was the Spanish Steps (pictured at the top of this post), which we loved, and the nearby Trevi Fountain. Though packed with tourists, the fountain was an undisputed favorite for both of us.

It's HUGE.

Here's a closeup.

Rome has fountains everywhere. It was one of the things I discovered I loved most about the city--how many there were, how beautiful I found them, and how well they have survived.   In Piazza Navona, there are three fountains, the most famous of which is the Fountain of Four Rivers by Bernini. Not a great picture, but this is a view from one side.

We also greatly enjoyed the Pantheon. Did you know that when it rains, the water that comes in through the 27-foot oculus drains quickly through tiny holes drilled into the slightly slanted floor? That's some crafty design work.

It was hard to get a shot of the front of the's just so enormous. That, combined with my well-established mediocre photography skills, resulted in this being my "best" shot. Sorry.

The Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill were also among the highlights of Rome. No matter how many photographs I've seen of these sites, seeing them in person is overwhelming. Although much of the original architecture is gone, it's incredible to see how much remains, in spite of the effects of time, wars, pillaging, people, pollution, and natural disasters.

Here's the floor of the Colosseum, where they kept wild animals and gladiators.

 Constantine's Arch.

 Roman Forum.

And here's a small thing I liked: Throughout the city, there are water fountains from which you can drink clean spring water. Like much of what the ancient Romans built, they continue to endure. We came across this one on Palatine Hill and filled up our bottle.

Sightseeing makes you feel like you've accomplished something, but to me, one of the best things about traveling is just wandering. We walked and walked and walked, because we like to, and because taxis are not easy to come by, and because the metro is limited. Plus, when you're eating multiple plates of pasta each day, plus gelato, plus wine at lunch and dinner, plus balls of mozzarella the size of your fist, you'd better walk so you can fit into the airplane seat on the way home.

We walked down little alleys, where we saw restaurants on every corner, preparing for patrons.

And chestnut roasting stations.

Beautiful buildings at every turn.

We walked to Campo di Fiori, a big piazza lined with restaurants and shops and filled with merchants selling flowers, pastas, wine, and cheese.

We discovered the smaller Piazza Farnese, where we stopped for prosecco and snacks one day. Pretty much everywhere we went, we found that when you order a couple of drinks, they bring out a stream of complimentary snacks. At Cafe Farnese, where we stopped to rest our feet and people-watch one afternoon, we got potato chips (a surprising Italian staple)...

 Arancini (fried risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella)...

Mixed bruschetta...

And little sandwiches.

People have asked us what was the best thing we ate on our trip. Let me tell you: the food was good everywhere, at fancy places, holes in the wall, odd little sandwich shops. On this trip, I confirmed what I long suspected: Italians have the best food. French people, Chinese people, Spanish people--you put up a good fight but you can't compete with the Italians. As someone without a speck of Italian blood, I feel I can say this without bias.

One day, for lunch at a plain old restaurant we stumbled upon, I had radicchio involtini stuffed with ham and smoked mozzarella.

 Followed by spaghetti with tuna amatriciana.

While the husband started with tomato and mozzarella salad.

And then rice and mussels.

Then espresso.

We had a standout dinner at a Sicilian restaurant called Le Gensola--so delicious that at the end of our meal, we made a reservation for the following night. Over the two nights, we shared, among other things, swordfish involtini with eggplant caponata; ravioli with sea bass, grey mullet roe, and sage; tagliolini with porcini and shrimp; and tuna polpettini with tomatoes.  We also had an excellent meal at Il Gabriello,  where I had the best rigatoni carbonara, period. We also tried grappa for the first time, which the husband declared could power a lawn mower.

Throughout our trip, we embraced a common practice of something the Italians actually call Happy Hour. This usually entails paying a modest fee for one drink and lots of snacks. Our last night in Rome, we made our way off the beaten path to Gusto, a wine bar frequented by locals after work. For 12 euros, you could have one drink of any sort and unlimited access to their buffet. At home, I hear "unlimited buffet" and I head in the opposite direction, picturing warming trays, that weird sterno smell, and desiccated food I probably didn't want to begin with. At Gusto, I sipped my Aperol spritz and ate fried Castelvetrano olives stuffed with mozzarella, arancini, grilled eggplant and zucchini, farfalle with cherry tomatoes, artichoke frittata, and couscous with chicken. Happy Hour indeed!

We had some great pizza in Rome. Among the best was at a little shop near the Vatican that my brother-in-law recommended called Bonci's. You walk in, point to what and how much you want, which they then cut with scissors. You can get as many kinds as you like. They weigh the pizza, throw it all in the oven, and when your order is up, you stand outside and eat. While we were there, we saw businessmen, police officers, and any number of locals stop in for a quick lunch.

We also had some good pizza at Obika, a mozzarella bar. We had eaten there once before for dinner (prosciutto with burrata; arugula with bresaola, cherry tomatoes, arugula, and fennel; and pasta with smoked swordfish, buffalo ricotta, and hazelnuts) and it was good enough to fit the bill for a late lunch one day when we found ourselves in Campo di Fiori again.

Pizza with prosciutto, arugula, and mozzarella.

On our very last day, we found a perch at the top of the Spanish Steps. There's a church up there.  It's very, very pretty.

But instead of going to the church, we went to a nearby bar, where we sat on a patio and looked down at the steps and all the people, just like us, enjoying this beautiful city on a warm October day.

 I drank my last Negroni for awhile.

I felt sad to leave, but I don't need to throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain to know I will return.

Rome at night.
Next, we went to Florence.


  1. Ooooh, sounds like an amazing trip already! I remember that one afternoon day in Rome, I got lost in a non-touristy neighborhood and had to walk far just to get back to the metro, but it was my best day because I got to see Romans just enjoying life (and even an afternoon wedding at a park), dropping into a grocery store, and photographing lots of fountains. Your food adventures sound great. How did you find ordering at the restaurants? Some of the dishes you had sounds really unique, and not sure if I would have known what they were on the menu unless it was in English.

  2. Thanks, Ben! yes, we loved getting away from the tourist-packed sites and being among the actual Romans...I'd love to spend more time in the city and do more of that now that we've covered the big things. As for the menus, many were in English, but not all. We asked a lot of questions, and when that didn't work, we just ordered stuff and figured there would be a pretty good chance it was delicious!

  3. i've always wanted a vespa. :)
    thanks for sharing these pictures, especially the ones of the food. i'm always curious about what authentic ethnic cuisine actually looks like.

  4. Fabulous post! Must admit I liked Rome, but Florence better and Venice the best. Can't wait for your next post.

  5. Love the photos! And the food! Happy hour is an absolutely fabulous concept. Can't wait for parts 2 and 3.

  6. grace: I want a vespa too!

    Barbara: Venice is next on our list for sure!

    shaz: Thanks! And yeah, happy hour--Italian style--is a total winner!

  7. That was such a fun read! Thanks for posting all the pics and putting such a personal spin on the familiar (the sights - oooohh!) and the yummy (all that FOOD!). Looking forward to seeing/reading about the rest of the trip. - Pete

  8. Thanks, Pete! You know, our dinner at Locanda really reminded me of our trip.

    Installment #2 coming this weekend (I hope).

  9. So fun to read! I haven't ever been to Italy but I do want to go - it's on my bucket list. Sounds like you made the most of a wonderful trip. Can't wait to read the rest.

  10. Zoomie, I hope you go soon! We really enjoyed it and feel there is so much more to see...and eat.

  11. Wow. Just wow. Beautiful pictures, and what a dream trip. Can't wait to read about the rest of the trip!

  12. tamilyn! It's so nice to see you here. And I just realized your blog is back up and running! Wow! Glad you have returned to us :)

  13. What fantastic descriptions. I feel like I was right there with you! I was in Rome in '96 - what feels like forever ago - when I was a poor college student. It was an incredibly amazing place to visit, but it definitely would have been better if I could have afforded more of the food... And yes, the Trevi Fountain floored me too.

  14. ash: Thank you! I hope you get back sometime soon...maybe there's an Italian honeymoon in your future?!

  15. Wow...I have never wanted to go to Italy as badly as I do now! Dad would also have conceded the Italians' culinary edge.

  16. Wow...I have never wanted to go to Italy as badly as I do now! Dad would also have conceded the Italians' culinary edge.

  17. Jary: Yes, he probably would have. Btw I was just thinking about that good stuffed calamari he used to make, do you have that recipe?

  18. I am newly obsessed with Rome. It started when I saw To Rome With Love (great, see it if you haven't) and is continued in a major way with this post.

  19. camille: Rome was, in a word, amazing. The only city we felt rivaled it was Paris...and we actually prefer Italian food to French (though only a little) so we were truly in paradise. I have seen the movie--both before and on the plane ride back!--and loved it--especially because they showed so much of what we saw.