Under a Roman Sun

Posted by on Jan 5, 2012 in Europe, Italy, Travel | 0 comments

Under a Roman Sun

Guest post by Wayne

The night we arrived in Rome, we headed straight to a basic, traditional Roman restaurant which reportedly made the best spaghetti carbonara in Roma – the city in which the dish was supposedly invented.  Antica Trattoria da Carlone is on our side of the river, in the heart of Trastevere.

We chose an apartment in this area as it has a reputation for being the most authentic suburb in Roma, and while it has gentrified somewhat from the humble, working class suburb it once was, it still has a tangible charm about it.  The narrow, twisting medieval streets never lead where you think they will, and the orange glow from the old, lantern style street lights dances on the cobblestones, illuminating the dark alleyways as we walked towards the restaurant.

By the time we reach the restaurant, we’re starving.  It’s 6:30pm and we haven’t eaten since midday. We burst through the door, practically salivating at the prospect of Rome’s best carbonara, but all we receive is a confused look from a large Italian man with snow white hair, a moustache and big round belly who we will come to affectionately nickname ‘Papa’.

We ask if we can come in, but he’s still setting the tables.  Papa looks at his watch, and then gives us another look of confusion, “sette” he says.  They don’t open until 7:00pm, which puts a halt to our culinary fantasies, at least for a short while.  Lesson number one: Italians don’t eat until 8:30 – 9:00pm. Any time before this, it’s purely tourists.

Our local restaurant is strictly a family business.  Papa plays host, Mama is in the kitchen cooking and their son is a waiter.  The décor isn’t fancy or fashionable, but instead you feel as though you are eating in the extended dining room of a particularly friendly Roman family.

The food is incredible.  It tastes like authentic homemade Italian food, and it is everything we ever hoped the food in Rome would be and more.  I can’t categorically confirm that it’s the best carbonara in Roma, but it would take a lot of beating.

Something is amiss though.  In our first night, we’ve found our dream restaurant – family run, close to home with amazing homestyle cooking.  But for some reason, we don’t quite feel as though we fit in.  For instance, Papa greeted us warmly but it was clear from the start that he didn’t speak a word of English.  Instead, he left us in the hands of his English speaking son (despite our enthusiastic but woeful attempts at speaking Italian), while he tended to the Italian speaking guests, smiling and joking with them along the way.

As time ticked by and it got closer to the traditional Roman meal time, the restaurant began to fill up.  We became surrounded by laughter and passionate conversation, as Papa greeted each group at the door, seemingly knowing each new guest personally.

They would swap jokes as he animatedly explained the specials and made recommendations, using his hands as much as his words.  It was fantastic to watch, and we had a great time riding the vibe that filled the room, however we were never quite a part of it.  We were the foreigners in the corner with a front row seat to the action, but not playing a part.  We put it down to being tourists in a predominantly local restaurant, savoured every last morsel of our meals and rolled ourselves home, ready to take on Rome the following day.

There is a lot to do in Rome as a tourist.  As a city, Rome has existed for roughly 2,600 years.  That’s a lot of history and can be overwhelming at first.  We got stuck in, throwing ourselves amongst the hordes of tourists, ancient ruins and medieval churches.

Over our first two days in Roma, the Coloseum amazed us with its size, faded grandeur and complexity.  The Pantheon stunned us, with its architectural perfection.  We bargained at the markets in Campo De Fiori, marvelled at the fountains in Piazza Navona, walked in the footsteps of the Caesars through the Roman Forum and climbed the Spanish Steps.  Finally, we dutifully threw our coins in the Trevi Fountain, ensuring our return to the Eternal City.

Funnily enough, everything we had seen so far was as inspiring and amazing as we had hoped it would be, yet we hadn’t fallen head over heels for Roma.  Somehow, it all felt a little bit sterile, despite ticking all of the boxes – sort of like our first meal at Papa’s (as we now refer to it).  We wanted to love Roma, and we expected to love Roma – but for us it was still missing that special “Je ne Sais Quoi”, to borrow a phrase from the French.

 

The Forum

The Forum

 

After spending our third day at a tattoo parlour in the suburbs of Rome (sorry Mum!), and our fourth at the Vatican, we decided to try and spend our remaining two days finding out what made Roma and its inhabitants tick. The night before, we had returned to Papa’s, and had made some slight progress.  To start with, we arrived at 8:30pm along with everybody else.

We were greeted warmly by Papa, who managed a “hello” in English, after his warm and passionate “Buonasera!”  We ordered a litre of house wine, which is a third of the price of the cheapest bottle from the cellar (a mistake we made on our last visit), and made some new choices from the menu (it’s all good!).

We had a different waiter this time, but we traded a bit of friendly banter, and used our very best Italian whenever we could.  We even had a bit of a joke with the Italian couple next to us as they left.  We hadn’t cracked the inner circle just yet, but we were farewelled with an enormous smile from Papa and felt we fit in just a little more this time around.

Our first day of la dolce vita started with coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and a cornetto (a sort of Italian croissant, though much sweeter) at a café in a quiet and sunny piazza, adorned with two renaissance fountains.  We bought a magazine each from the newsstand next door and spent the better part of two hours soaking up the sun on the edge of the piazza, watching Romans go about their day-to-day, listening to a busker belt out Italian love songs with a guitar and thoroughly enjoying being in Rome.

Next, we climbed a hill behind Trastevere to be treated to magnificent sweeping views of the city, with only a handful of other people to share it with.  For lunch we grabbed some Suppli from a street vendor, a uniquely Roman delicacy which are essentially just deep fried balls of tomato risotto, with a centre of melted mozzarella cheese.

That night we had a delicious dinner in another piazza with copious amounts of wine, before rolling ourselves home. We spent our next day in much the same fashion as the first, lazing around in piazzas before having a bottle of wine on our sunny terrace. We had discovered the magic of Rome. We were blind, but now we see.

The secret to Rome isn’t in its ruins or its churches. It’s too easy to try so much to love Roma, that you miss the point entirely.  Romans have been living in this city in one form or another for over 2 millennia, non-stop.  Over that time, they have managed to get living pretty much down pat. They have perfected the art of living.  The food, the coffee and the wine are all divine, and Romans take the time to appreciate these important things in life.

In fact, the city itself seems to be designed for this lifestyle with the plentiful piazzas which accommodate an astounding variety of cafes, bars and restaurants.  On a Sunday all of the shops are closed except for restaurants and cafes, and the streets are full of Roman families, couples and groups of friends out for a stroll, enjoying each other’s company and walking nowhere in particular.

Don’t get me wrong, the sites of Rome are incredible, amazing and inspiring.  There is nowhere quite like Rome and you are doing yourself an injustice by ignoring the major tourist sites – they really are a must see.  But, the true joy of Rome is in the company, the coffee, the food, the wine, the weather… the true joy of Rome is in the Roman lifestyle.

On our final night we returned to Papa’s. Our last two days of living la dolce vita had left us craving one last meal of home-cooked Italian goodness.  “Buonasera!!” Papa greeted us at the door, with a smile he had previously reserved for his Italian regulars.  We had already shared a bottle of wine on our terrace that afternoon, so we greeted him in Italian with equal enthusiasm.

We could hear Mama shouting in the kitchen over her AM radio as Papa escorted us to our table and then brought over our menus – he was going to be our waiter for the night!  Papa gave us an enormous smile that was as warm as the Roman sun and tried his best to explain to us the special, surprising us with his English.  It was gnocchi pasta with some sort of undecipherable sauce.

From what we gathered, it had bacon and/or pork, tomatoes and garlic. He also rubbed his ribs at one point during the explanation.  We couldn’t tell whether that was because he was itchy, or perhaps he was trying to communicate pork ribs.  Either way, he seemed very excited by the new dish so I ordered it, which garnered another enormous Papa smile.

Needless to say, the food was delicious, the wine perfect, and Papa our new best mate.  After clearing our plates, he was anxious to know what I had thought of the gnocchi, “Benne?” he asked, “Molto Benne!!” I replied heartily, now two bottles of wine down.  The smile we received in return was immense, I even got a firm pat on the back, and that was when we knew we had done it.  We had achieved the impossible, we had cracked the inner circle.  We’re a long way from being Roman, but for a night at least, we got to play the part!

 

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

 

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