Rome Journal

Andrew moves to Italy. Hilarity ensues.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

ara of not so pacis

I mentioned, in yesterday's post about 'Gusto, the new museum designed by Richard Meier to house the Ara Pacis (the Altar of Peace, dedicated by Augustus) that is going up right next door to the Mausoleum of Augustus. I was just sent a link to this photo essay about the new museum, with some mock-ups of what the completed structure will look like. I don't have a whole lot to say about it, just two things.

First, the photos are carefully staged to steer around one of the most controversial aspects of the project, which is that it doesn't take its setting into account at all: it's sort of plopped down as if the mausoleum and piazza weren't there. In a way, that seems appropriate to me: after all, the altar was originally located elsewhere, and was moved to its current spot by Mussolini. So I don't know if I buy the arguments that have been made about the structure "damaging the urban fabric", et cetera.

And second, what the heck is that column doing, standing by itself at the top of the stairs? I may not know much about architecture, but I know what looks weird. And that? Looks weird.

anarchy in the SPQR

Above an ATM machine, Via Carini:
E piu immorale fondare una banca o rapinarla? -H. Fantazzini (followed by an anarchist symbol)

"Is it more immoral to found a bank or rob it?"

Wow. That's, like, all deep and stuff. Still, I want to give the anarchists equal time, you know?

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

obligatory food porn post

Dinner last night involved a long walk, through the Campus Martius, and ending up back near the Tiber, in the Piazza Augusto Imperatore. This is the ugly-ass structure, constructed in classic heavy Fascist style, that Mussolini had built around the mausoleum of Augustus. The piazza sort of crowds the tomb (though, I suppose, no more than the medieval buildings that Il Duce had stripped away from it); on the other side, the controversial Richard Meier structure for the Ara Pacis is going up, still covered in scaffolding.

I wish my photos of the mausoleum had turned out. We were there right at dusk; the sky was fading from rose to purple, and you could see light pouring out of the darkening tomb... It was beautiful, and I (characteristically) spoiled the moment by speculating about how cool an Emperor Augustus-themed horror movie would be: after two thousand years, he's back... for REVENGE! In The Curse of Augustus' Tomb! Coming soon to a theater near you!

Foodie-types who know Rome at all will have already guessed where we ate, at 'Gusto, under the columns that surround the piazza. Because I'm slow on the uptake, I only just now realized that the name is a pun: it means "taste", of course, but it's also a play on the emperor's name:

'Gusto is something like an Italian version of an American theme restaurant, only here the theme is focused sharply on food. Still, it has an "it's a floor wax! no, it's a dessert topping!" feel to it, with a restaurant, a pizzeria, a wine bar, a wine shop, and something like a Williams-Sonoma outlet (expensive cooking supplies, good culinary bookstore), all lumped together in a gastronomic three-ring circus. It's a big place, with attractive, modern decor, lots of wait staff striding purposefully through the room, and a dolce vita-style clientele.

We got a table in the restaurant section, outside under the colonnade, with a nice view of the emperor's tomb. After a glass of prosecco, we got down to bizness, starting with a couple of antipasti for the table. First, an insalata di pesci e verdure (grilled fish, a couple of clams, some octopus, with a sort of mild citrus sauce). From the description, I'd expected something more like ceviche; this was more like, um, assorted cooked fish with some veggies and a light sauce.

Next, polpo verace in amatriciana. More grilled octopus, this served with a classic amatriciana sauce. A great amatriciana, actually, with lots of smoky bacony goodness; I happily sopped up the extra sauce with some bread.

'Gusto's primi and secondi are sort of all over the map, from relatively traditional to completely non-Italian, and I think the rest of our meal reflects this. I ordered lombo di agnello al forno, which arrived with what was described as a pizzetta di patata (to you or me it'd be described as a loose potato pancake, or fried mashed potatoes.) The lamb was medium, but still juicy and with a nice herb flavor:

I don't have a photo of the stinco di vitella, which is a shame, because it was terrific: boneless braised veal shank, unctuous and just wonderful. I don't know enough about Italian cooking to know what they do with shanks besides osso buco; this was really good, if maybe a little heavy for a summer evening. (Though any worries on that front were more than made up for by the immature thrill of learning the word "stinco". Hee!)

Here's tortelli di faraona (I think, but can't remember and am too lazy to check, that that's guinea hen):

And finally, 'Gusto also has a couple of couscous selections, as well as "wok cooked" dishes. This is spaghetti with cabbage (and I can't remember what else; probably some sort of protein? I only tried a little bit of it, and found it okay but not so special). And when they say "wok", they aren't kidding; while most of the dishes are moderate-sized, this one is massive:

Peace, love and noodles, man.

We finished off with a plate of Italian cheeses, served with bread and a couple of honeys. (And not just the ladies sitting at the table next to us! But seriously...) The cheeses were good, but I was a little irritated that we couldn't get a waiter to let us know what they were. There's a pecorino there, and what I assume is a gorgonzola (actually, those were the best of the bunch, though they were all pretty good), but I'm not sure about the rest. I wish I were at the black-belt level of fromagerie that I could tell you instantly what a cheese is, but I'm not; it's nice to have a server, you know, help out with that:

'Gusto is an interesting place. I'd definitely head back to the wine bar, snack on some different cheeses and bites, and try some of their wines. (After the prosecco, we had a pretty decent Falanghina, and with the cheese, a glass of some sort of red wine that I can't remember now). But I'm not sure how crazy I am about what's on offer in the restaurant. I appreciate that they're trying to do something modern, and mix traditional elements with the non-traditional (tempura baccala, for example). But I don't know how well it works in practice. Take the octopus in amatriciana: both of the elements were pretty good. But I don't think the dish gains a whole lot from mixing them together. I suppose there might be sort of a joke in serving long, skinny octopus tentacles in a dish where you'd expect spaghetti or bucatini; however, that only gets you so far. Still, it's a fun place, it's great for people-watching, and it's nice to eat with the spirit of the first emperor watching over you.

if Rome's a-rockin', don't come a-knockin'

There was a small earthquake (magnitude 4.5) yesterday afternoon, with its epicenter near Anzio, around 30 miles south of Rome. I wish I could say that I noticed it, but I just found out about it on the news this morning. Though evidently I stood up and looked out the window then (I thought it was to check whether it had started raining), and last night I had a dream about earthquakes, so maybe I picked up on it in some sort of spoooooky subconscious way.

Anyway, here's an article about the quake, with a potted history of the earthquakes in Roman history (executive summary: gods angry, things fall down.) It duly mentions the Lacus Curtius, a strange monument in the Roman Forum, which just maybe got its name from an earthquake-related incident, way back in hoary antiquity...

Saturday, August 20, 2005

sweeter sweetness

Just a very short post today, because I'm super-tired: went for a long walk around the centro storico and tried to hit as many churches as I could. If you're sufficiently motivated, you can see a lot of churches in a morning, and a lot of church art: a Caravaggio here, a Raphael there, and before you know it, bam! it's afternoon, and you need some gelato and maybe a lie-down.

The first, at least, was completely doable: Gelateria San Crispino. Spitting distance from the hordes at the Trevi Fountain, and another of the famousest gelaterie in the city. Lampone was every bit as good as Giolitti's, and the San Crispino (cream and honey) a nice complement.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

graffiti pazzi

I'm really taken by the quantity and variety of Italian graffiti. You'd have to look pretty hard, I think, to find a city in the US that has just so much, covering every square inch of some blocks (in most places, only up to about shoulder height, though: it is foretold that some day a graffitist will come along who knows how to use a stepladder. He will be the Chosen One, and he will OWN the CITY). Also, a lot of it's political. Incoherent politics, maybe, but political nonetheless; something you'd never see in the US.

With that as a preamble, here's the graffito of the day, written in pen on the back of a seat on the number 75 bus:

[swastika] WHITE POWO!

Which I like to think was written by a Nazi with a really bad lisp.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

nobody puts Gallienus in a corner!

Okay, I'm going to indulge myself in two teensy little rants today:

First, evidently Ferragosto is more like Chanukah than like Christmas: it can't be contained in just one measly little day. At least, that's the only explanation I can come up with for why the damn Auditorium of Maecenas was closed when I tried to visit it. I stood there at the locked gate, staring forlornly at the sign with the dates and times marked on it: open every day except Monday (it was Tuesday) after 9 AM (it was 10 AM). Maybe they figured that, hey, it's only the measly Auditorium of Maecenas, not the Colosseum; only real archaeology geeks want to see it; and screw 'em. Bleah.

Second, what's the deal with the Italians and making change? Seriously; I know that this is a cliche, but it's absolutely bizarre. I went to Feltrinelli (Italian for "Borders") to buy the 2005 Gambero Rosso guide to Rome, and the clerk gave me massive amounts of attitude because I was paying for 25 euros worth of books with a 50-euro bill. If it were a bar or a little shop, I might understand: the owner doesn't want to schlep all the way down to the bank to get change every morning; that's valuable cappucino-drinking time wasted on customer service. But this is a big store! I've gotta figure that there's no logic here; just the reflex to defend her precious, precious change, and wrath at the customer who's just there to screw everything up...

Okay, enough ranting. Here's a photo I took on my walk yesterday. From the Esquiline, it's the so-called "Arch of Gallienus". So-called because while it has an inscription honoring the emperor. But it's actually one of the city gates of the old Servian wall, pimped up into a triumphal arch. Nowadays, it's in pretty bad shape, which is what I sort of like about it; it's kind of a seedy, broken-down ol' arch, wedged between a church and a block of apartments. Sure, it needs a little TLC, and nobody pays a lot of attention to it nowadays, but it's still standing, dammit!

It's sort of like Gallienus himself. The guy was in power from 253-268, which alone makes him one of the more successful rulers during the "Crisis of the Third Century," aka "Rome, It Sucks To Be You Right Now." He doesn't get a lot of respect, and pretty much only ancient historians even know much about him nowadays. (And he isn't even a punchline, like that other -ienus emperor. You know the one I mean.) But as ruler in a horrible period of Roman history he had his work cut out for him just keeping things from really going to hell in a handbasket, and he put into place a lot of reforms that were followed up by Aurelian and Diocletian and that put the empire on a firm footing again. So I give him props: you go, Gallienus!

Monday, August 15, 2005

tumbleweeds on quattro venti

Today is Ferragosto, a national holiday that has a religious basis (the Assumption of the Virgin? after what happened to her, you'd think she'd know better than to make assumptions, ba-dump-dump! Seriously, folks...) But in effect, it marks ground zero for the Italian summer holidays. Which means that Rome is empty, man. Empty like a neutron bomb hit: the buildings are still there, but where are the people? Before leaving for Italy, I'd heard that "everybody goes on vacation blah blah Rome in August ghost town blah blah" but, in reality, while there were lots of shuttered store fronts, there was still a lot of stuff going on. Not now; wow. I should totally use this as an opportunity to go commit some awesome property crimes. Or stay in air-conditioned comfort and read Ovid. Whatevah.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

sweet sweet sweetness

It's gotten hot again here-- temperatures in the 90's-- and so yesterday evening after it had cooled off a bit, I decided to take a long walk, with a theme. That theme, you ask? Baroque Rome? The splendors of antiquity? Oh no: as I said, it's hot, and hot weather demands some icy sweets.

With that in mind, I started in Trastevere. On the Lungotevere degli Anguillara, on one end of the Ponte Cestio leading to Tiber Island, is a little stand called Sora Mirella la Grattachecca. They do one thing, very well: shaved ice. I have the sense that this treat used to be more common in Rome than it is now; there's another stand up the street, but grattachecca doesn't fill the streets the way gelato does. It's a shame, because as far as I'm concerned, as a hot-weather treat, it can kick gelato's butt around the corner every day of the week and twice on Sundays.

Superficially, grattachecca is like a snow cone, but I've always hated snow cones: massive granules of ice that threaten to break your teeth and lousy artificial-tasting syrup don't really have much to offer. This is a lot better, for several reasons. First, the ice is finely shaved by hand into a soft texture, then scraped into a cup. The syrup is also good quality-- for me, amarena (sour cherry)-- and you know, actually, like, tastes what it's supposed to be. And best of all, they top the concoction with a little bit of fruit: in this case, a few sugared black cherries.

This gave me the strength I needed to cross the bridge into the centro storico, where I wandered (lonely as a cloud) and ended up not in a field of daffodils, but the Campo di Fiori. There I walked by the famous forno, which, I'm told, turns out the best pizza bianca in the city. They were closed, of course (damn you, August!) but the sign promised that they will be back later in the month.

And finally, ground zero for frozen goodness: Giolitti, near the Pantheon and in the eyes of many, the best gelato Rome has to offer. How can you live up to that? It's hard, but they make a good go at it. They had a large selection of flavors (Champagne gelato, anyone?) but it's hot, so I like to go for fruit: this time, I tried mora (mulberry) and lampone (raspberry, which had just come out from the back: good to see that they make the gelato continuously) topped with a nice big dollop of soft, fluffy panna. I don't, frankly, know what to make of the mora: its color was outstanding, purple verging on black, but had a flavor that you might describe as "subtle" or, less charitably, "not much". But I'll be honest: I don't think I've had mulberry before (I just like Pyramus and Thisbe), so that might be a characteristic of the fruit. Lampone, on the other hand, was outstanding. You know how raspberries (and some other berries, too, like blackberry) have, underneath the bright berry flavor, a sort of green, vegetal taste? I don't know if it comes from the seeds or what, but the presence of that flavor has always been a touchstone for me in judging whether a gelato is really good. Giolitti's lampone had it, oh yes. Good stuff, and I'll be back.

I couldn't eat any more sweet stuff that night, but this afternoon's walk oh-so-conveniently brought me back to the neighborhood of the Pantheon (hey, it was closed last night.) This time around, I went over to the dark side-- literally, in this case-- at Tazza D'Oro. This is another super-famous place; one of the top caffes in the City, and particularly well-known for their granita di caffe.

I don't remember exactly when granita machines started appearing in cafes in the US: maybe the mid- or late 90s? I was never all that impressed; they always struck me as sort of a fancy, or at least Italianified version of a milkshake, sort of like the frappucino explosion that hit a few years later. Mostly sweet, not much character. But Tazza d'Oro's granita is the real deal: sweet, true, but with a dark richness that comes from using absolutely first-rate coffee. It's very strong, like good (frozen)espresso, but without any bitterness. And it doesn't hurt that the granita comes sandwiched between two layers of first-rate whipped cream, like a coffee parfait.

I sat on the porch of the Pantheon and savored the granita, then went inside the building. There's not much I can say about the Pantheon that hasn't been said, or that won't make me sound pretentious or geeky. So I'll just mention how wonderful it is to see an ancient building that's still intact, that's still in use, and that shows so clearly what the Romans could do when they put their mind to it. Here's a photo of the ceiling: for some reason, a seagull kept flying in circles around the oculus while I was there. I don't know if it couldn't figure out how to get out, or if it just liked the view. You can just make it out at about the five o' clock position.

Finally, I felt that it'd be wrong to check out Tazza d'Oro without hitting its competitor, Caffe Sant' Eustachio. This is the Rolling Stones to Tazza d'Oro's Beatles (or maybe it's a Roma/Lazio sort of thing, if you prefer a soccer analogy): you're supposed to like one or the other. I can't make a fair comparison yet, but the espresso at Sant' Eustachio is wonderful; I don't know what sort of black magic they use, but somehow they wind up with pillows of smooth crema that covers the coffee. Lovely.

It's a completely unprepossessing place from the outside: here I am in front of it:

Just a hole-in-the-wall, almost literally. But one that really knows how to work a bean.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

atkins strikes again?

There's graffiti down the block from me that reads PATATA TI AMO. Which, of course, means "potato, I love you." You wonder what that indicates: pet name or side-effect of a low-carb diet?

Saturday, August 06, 2005

il vicinato

Monteverde Vecchio, where I live, is on the west side of Rome, up the Gianicolo from Trastevere. It's a relatively new part of the city: through most of the nineteenth century, it was farmland, and didn't begin to be developed until about 1900-1930. Which makes me wonder: why didn't the Roman government take the chance to develop this area along a grid plan? There are some right angles, but also lots of curves. Maybe they're concessions to topography, or maybe it's just that wacky Italian character.

The other thing I realized the other day was that my building, which was built in the 1920s or 30s, is a century younger than my house in Philadelphia! Funny, that.

the price of pizza

One of the things that's kind of a drag about being in Italy right now is the state of US currency: day after day, the euro keeps taking the dollar back behind the woodshed and beating it until George Washington bleeds green. Which means that lots of things are pretty expensive, including food. It doesn't have to be expensive to go out to eat, but it's tough to do it on the cheap, if you want something other than, say, pizza. I'll grant you that that's in part because of being in Rome, but even food at markets isn't cheap.

Fortunately, I've found a couple of exceptions. Outdoor markets seem to be a little bit cheaper than stores; this is a good thing, because they basically rule. There's one in Monteverde, a couple of blocks from my apartment, where I've done a little bit of shopping. It's a little bit like the Italian Market in Philadelphia (oddly enough), only clean, and with a huge variety of really good quality produce (I counted four different kinds of peaches this morning. You know that's a good thing.)

The other exception is wine, which is ridiculously, laughably cheap. It's super-easy to get a bottle of good wine for less than $10, and decent wine for 6 or 7 bucks. Wine in restaurants is more expensive, of course, but lots of places have a good house wine that's not expensive at all. What that means is that the average cost for a restaurant meal, with a bottle or two of wine, winds up being pretty comparable to a meal in the US.

Best of all, there's a store up the block from me that sells vino sfuso: "loose" wine. They have giant vats of wine; you bring a bottle (like a mineral water bottle) and fill it with whatever you want. I bought a 1.5 liter bottle of a totally acceptable Montepulciano for 2,20 euros: eat your heart out, Two-Buck Chuck!

Monday, August 01, 2005

un giardino romano

Just after midnight, I was awoken from my jet-lagged slumber by a series of explosions. I was sure for a moment that Al Quaeda had chosen its moment to strike Rome (though in the light of day I realized: really, terrorists hitting Monteverde? Unlikely). Probably it was just fireworks- SUPER LOUD Italian-style fireworks- though it sounded like world war three out there.

That set me back, sleep-wise, so I missed breakfast. No worries, though; I took a couple of peaches and a roll and sat out in the garden. The Centro's garden is lovely: there's a fountain against one wall (pictured) with a little statue, koi and a couple of shy turtles, and another, circular fountain with more koi. Both are artfully covered with moss, and the bigger fountain has sprays of water that cut through the summer heat.

I'd forgotten just how many fountains there are in Rome: the big ones, of course, like the Trevi or our nearby big monument-style fountain, the Acqua Paola on the Gianicolo. But then there are all the little fountains that appear when you turn a corner, or (best of all) the municipal drinking fountains that are scattered here and there: you gotta love those Romans and their aqueducts!

Our garden also has a couple of lime trees (the fruits aren't so nice, but I think they're out of season), lots of shade and a little grill. A lovely retreat from the burning Roman summer.