rome: a fall holiday
Upon telling people we were headed to Rome for Thanksgiving, a surprising number admitted that it wasn't their favorite city. Which is absolutely silly because done right, Rome is the most pure, magical holiday you can imagine: a city of hidden art, where you can walk through ruins and see both the most gilded and the most sacred; where wine is wine and history appears everywhere; the land of amatriciana, one of the most perfect pastas imaginable.
But to do it right, there are a few ground rules:
You will not appreciate it at sixteen. Yes, it will be fun to see the sites where Audrey Hepburn frolicked, but the rest will be lost on you as you wish you were in Paris or Berlin or at least hanging out with the cigarette smoking kids down at the fountain.
You will not appreciate it at twenty. There is no truly “hip” neighborhood, you will end up at the most awful restaurants if you do not plan properly, and lord knows the late night scene isn't anything to brag about (...does it exist?).
Do not go in peak summer season. It will be hot, tourists will overrun you, and you will spend the whole time dreaming of how you could be, well anywhere else.
BUT: go. Go in the fall, when you can wander into a small church or gallery and find yourself the only one there. The weather will be mild, the leaves beautifully yellow, the pasta as perfect as ever.
Note that this guide is for those who have been before. If this is your first trip see notes below.
Because in Rome, we begin with the beverages.
Caffe, caffe, caffe: Arguably my absolute favorite thing about spending time in Rome is having teeny tiny coffees all throughout the day, every day. Whether popping into a corner store or bar or beautiful restaurant, they are astoundingly good. Every trip begins with a visit to the mecca: Sant'Eustachio, where crowds now pack but the men behind the bar remain as stoic as always, slamming down orders perfectly prepared. A follow up favorite this trip was the old world Sciascia, where you must be sure to order a caffe con cioccalato, with a thin layer of bitter chocolate beautifully spread in an intricate design below the espresso. (Note: you must always pay for your order first at the cashier, making it clear you intend to have your coffee at the bar--which you must--and then saunter over and tell your order to the barrista. Drink standing, then immediately repeat.)
Caffe ginseng: A second shout out to coffee, because this tip deserves its own call out. Years ago, I spent a whirlwind 48 hours in the city for work, and while many things were memorable about that trip, the insider's tip that has stayed with me is the beauty of the caffe ginseng. What it is exactly, I cannot tell you, but if you demand one, most cafes can deliver. As far as I can tell, it's a separate almost-Nescafe like machine that spits out your cafe with an added richness and sweetness and almost very slightly herbal touch. Ridiculously addictive.
Aperitifs: Only a small step below favorite thing #1 is favorite thing #2: the art of a pre-dinner drink in Rome. Truthfully, it doesn't matter where you go because a negroni or a glass of wine before an enormous meal is a pure pleasure, and in Rome it will almost inevitably be served with some chips or olives on the side. Two favorites this trip were Roscioli Caffe (more below on that) and the totally ridiculous and over the top Hotel Russie (apparently known for their martinis... this is a pricey stop, so I'd strongly recommend going when people watching is in full force and you can take full advantage of the snack plate.) If you're feeling like something a little less swish but potentially more fun, Hotel Locarno comes up a lot too.
Il Goccetto: The happiest place to be at 6pm on a Thursday. A packed little wine bar where the crowds spill onto the street as they drink their drinks and nibble on little bits over their scooters. (Note the crowd got a bit more touristy on Saturday -- our theory is that it's best on a weekday for the post-work crowd given its location).
Litro: Putting this on the drinks list because we (stupidly, so stupidly!) only popped in for an aperitif, but the wine list was dead on, the olives were meaty and delicious, and watching the chef de-head prawns in his tiny kitchen made me think we made a big, big error moving on to our next stop. Next time I will have anchovies on buttered bread and some of that proscuitto leg, and... everything else.
On the don't bother list: Jerry Thomas Project. Supposedly a globally renowned speakeasy with impeccable cocktails... honestly even if it hadn't been hyped up, the drinks would've been mediocre at best. Skip it, and go have another prosecco.
Forno Campo dei Fiori: After taking down a caffe or two at Eustachio upon arriving in Rome, the next step is always this old bakery just off the main drag. Immediately inhale the most perfect slabs of pizza bianca (delicately covered in olive oil, salt, and rosemary), and pick up an enormous bag of biscotti to carry around because if you're not constantly eating in Rome, you're probably not doing it right.
...on the Roscioli empire: Oh, Roscioli. A growing business with very mixed results -- Antico Forno is the original bakery. Their pizza rossa is the perfect counterpart to Forno Campo (above), and must also be included in your first day in Rome. Tack on whatever pizzas have just come out of the oven and eat them standing in the street. The Roscioli Salumeria is a shop/restaurant where years ago the man and I went and fell head over heels in love with their amatriciana - fat tubes of pasta, just the right touch of tomato, and the most crispy, yet not overly crisp, fat chunks of guanciale. Sadly this trip we discovered (to our total consternation after sending many there--sorry guys!) that the restaurant has turned touristy and, worse yet, the pasta totally unmemorable. The only saving grace is Roscioli Caffe next door -- a cafe meets cocktail spot where they'll also provide food from next door to a mostly Italian crowd. A great spot for a drink or breakfast, or in our case, a quick cheese and proscuitto mini meal late one night.
Cesare al Casaletto: By far the best dinner we had all trip. It's a bit of a trek, but once there, you'll find yourself in what seems to be a strip mall, and then warmly ushered into a hilariously bright lit room filled with massive groups of Italian families and friend groups, all out to have a lovely time (and not a one ordering anything less than a four-course meal). Cesare felt like a true Roman meal: the wine plentiful and cheap; their pasta all gricia is known to be the best and did not disappoint. The man informs me the fried lamb chops he had (following an oxtail ragu) were incredible, and most lovely of all, they understood the art of contorni. The special that day was fresh chicory shoots with bits of anchovy and it left the bar really, really high for all following meals.
C'e Pasta... e Pasta: A Jewish cafeteria-style spot, perfect for lunch. The artichokes, marinated zucchini, fish & endive casserole, and gnocci (*thursdays are gnocci days in Rome after all!) were all delicious and a perfect offset to the rest of our meals. I'd go back twice in a trip if I could, and it was one of the few places where no other tourists were to be seen.
Trappizini at Mercato Centrale Roma: We nearly skipped this one as it turned out to have a sister restaurant in the Lower East Side (go figure!), but when we found ourselves in nearby Monti and wanted to hop a train to Testaccio, it seemed silly to go to Termini station without popping into the new food plaza. And then we found ourselves near the Trappizini stall and suddenly the idea of a sandwich made with pizza bianca seemed really like a very good idea, particularly when one of the fillings was tongue in salsa verde, and well kids, that's the story of how Nico found himself eating two lunches and four pastries all before noon.
Mordi & Vai: A small stall in Testaccio market that serves simple sandwiches filled with classic Roman dishes - think tripe, or sausage with broccoli rabe. Be ready to queue up and I'd recommend overordering and taking it to a bench nearby to inhale.
Volpetti: Arguably a stretch to put this one on the eating list, but so worth it. Volpetti is the most lovely old food shop with an enormous cheese counter and prepared foods and wine and meats and fresh made pastas, and I swear an old Italian man was wandering around eating cheese and drinking wine out of a glass so a meal can be done! (And otherwise: store up on snacks and gifts.) Oh and extra note: Cafe Barberini just down the block is a lovely stop for another caffe.
If you have spare time while you're in town (also known as the second tier list): Pizzarium (a modern pizza spot - lots of cool toppings, fun but truthfully we get the good stuff here in NY), Tavernaccia da Bruno (the reality is that all Roman restaurants are hit or miss -- and Bruno was a funny mix of tourists and locals; impeccable maialino and terrible pasta. If you go, stick to the secondi), Supplizio (specializing in arrancini-like fried snacks -- good, but not worth allocating a full-on snack or meal). Also, we skipped pizza as a meal this trip, but have been to Da Remo in the past and loved it, and these days everyone swears by Pizzaria Emma. Also: Trattoria Monti is fantastic for dinner; we regretted not doing it again this trip.
On the sweets:
On previous trips, we focused solely on gelato, with a regimented six flavors a day, from the old classic spots to the latest hip ones. This trip, the gelato was still there (and Giolitti the unexpected favorite this round -- touristy as it is, the ice cream was the most creamy and fresh, the scoops just enormous and shapeless enough.) But the real winner was the pastries. No stale cornettos here, just fluffs of ricotta and cream and fruit.
Boccione Forno: Favorite discovery of the trip - a tiny bakery tucked into a corner of the Jewish quarter. Begin with two of the crostata (a really enormous vaguely hollow pie): both the ricotta e visciole, or ricotta and wild cherry, and mandorla e visciole or almond paste and cherry are totally unreal. And then follow up with their famous pizza ebraica, where biscotti meats fruitcake and outdoes them both. Truthfully, we bought it because we were told to and skeptically looked at the bright green nuggets of candied whatever and the insanely burnt bottom and thought what the hell and took a bite. And then you fast forward and you see me on a flight with a bag of four enormous slabs, eating them for hours until I thought I'd die. I don't know what they are, but I do know you must eat them.
Pasticceria Regoli in Monti: a classic old bakery, famous for its maritozzi - whipped cream layered onto sweet buns. We also got some ridiculous ricotta concoction, and they wrapped them up in blue paper, sweet and cheery as can be (only to be opened by us soon as we were round the door.)
And tiramisu: just order it wherever you go. Sometimes it'll be good, sometimes it'll be great, but it's always tiramisu.
Rome is so funny because I always go in with a clear itinerary of the art I want to see and the churches that must be revisited, but its true charm lies in the ability to just wander--to stroll along the Tiber with its bending trees; to pop into Baroque churches; to wander past the imposing Altare della Patria and discover it is not ancient in the least; to eat gelato after gelato; and to realize that beneath the hordes of visitors, the fountains of Navona have a ridiculous amount of character (and notice that many of the fingers are gone - taken by American soldiers after WWII.)
The Pantheon: Every trip begins here, morning or evening. So self-contained, with its perfect dome from the early ADs and Renaissance touches, including Raphael's tomb. Everyone looks up, at the perfect circle of sky, but don't miss the beautiful flooring as well. It doesn't take long to circle it, and its worth doing every time you find yourself in the area.
Every church you can. I am not normally a church goer; I like a good basilica like anyone else, but to voluntarily spend hours wandering through... I can think of other things I'd do first. But in Rome this all changes. I can't walk down a street--really any street-- without popping into anything that looks like it might hold a cross. Three unexpected favorites this trip: Santa Maria in Trastevere (one of the oldest with impeccable murals and so much gold -- the more you look, the more you find), San Luigi dei Francesi with a trio of Caravaggios hidden in the back corner, and Santa Maria della Pace, which we stumbled into coming out of the Bramante Cloisters, and happened to find Raphael frescoes.
Basilica of Santa Sabina: Perched on Aventine Hill, Santa Sabina is one of the earliest Roman churches, and distinctly medieval. When we were there, it was nearly deserted, with beautiful lighting and a sweet simplicity (at least compared to some of its later counterparts). Outside, wander the garden for sweeping views of the Tiber, and then pop into the Giardino degli Aranci next door for more of the same, set among citrus trees.
Palazzo Altemps: Our first evening, we stepped into this former palace, now filled with Greek and Roman statues and discovered we had it totally to ourselves. The rooms were arranged around a dark courtyard with a fountain, and as we moved through each room--stumbling into antique after antique--it suddenly became easier to imagine the voraciousness of past collectors, and the beauty with which they were surrounded.
Villa Farnesina: A perfect morning is to have your caffe and pastries, and then take a stroll along the Tiber across to Trastevere and then up (stopping along the way for your next caffe of course) and into Villa Farnesina. No antiques here, but rather a Renaissance villa, filled with cheerful fresco after fresco. When we were there the garden outside was filled with citrus of all types. Totally a delight.
Trevi Fountain: I don't care if it's your first trip or fifteenth: Trevi is touristy as all hell, and so.freaking.magical. Giant fountains! Lights! A perfect night walk! I mean: why go to Rome otherwise?
The Non-Catholic Cemetery or Protestant Cemetary: When I first stumbled across a description of the cemetery, I couldn't help but laugh -- such a ridiculously Roman name. But we happened to be in the area so we stopped in, only to discover a beautiful garden and a totally fascinating glimpse into different eras of Romans--from a wave of American professors to large family plots, and even a few of my brethren Parsis. Both Shelley and Keats are buried there, and--fun fact!--each was buried next to his best man friend (...interestingly in the case of Keats, it seems they were only friends for the last three months of his life, but what a three months that must've been.)
And if you have time...
The Vatican: To be fair, this is often #1 on people's lists, and with good reason. Beyond the obvious religious significance, the Sistine Chapel is unlike anything else. Pro tip from my mother: beeline to the Chapel, then loop back and see all the rooms you miss (which we accidentally did not do - learn from our mistakes!), return to the Chapel and wait for a large tour group to decide to leave; when they do, follow them out the righthand door rather than the left. Pretend to be part of their crew for a few minutes, and next thing you know you're in St. Peter's and have skipped the several mile long wait. Phew!
Borghese Galleries: I had been wanting to go for years... and it turned out to be fine. To be fair, we saw approximately 8 million Berninis, which of course was a cool experience, and the grounds are lovely, but the smaller galleries just had so much more character.
And if you're a first-timer to Rome:
Basilica San Clemente (three layers of history piled on top of one other; I typically hate a tour, but couldn't get enough of this one); Palatine Hill (so much history in one place!); Capuchin Crypt (skulls of monks, everywhere! Dressed up in outfits, and posed! Incredibly difficult to describe, but absurdly... absurd. You will not forget it.)
Bonus points: This trip I was dying to go to Centrale Montemartini (ancient sculptures in a power plant!), Sacripante Gallery (art gallery-meets bar with cool design), and take day trips to Cinecitta Studios and Hadrian's Villa, but alas - an excuse for another visit.