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Report 1084: A Springtime Slow Travel Prize: Ten Glorious Days In Umbria And A Little Bit Of Rome

By Stella from New York, NY, Spring 2006

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Page 10 of 12: Seeing Rome with 'Gusto

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Beautiful Villa Borghese

Palm Sunday morning dawned to the sound of church bells, a sound I dearly love. Not having any provisions, we had to strike out early to get some coffee, which I needed badly to help erase the slight pain from the bottle of prosecco the night before. We showered and hit the streets; the sun was shining and Rome was pleasantly quiet. C. decided we should walk a bit further down the Tiber, and we crossed at the Ponte Mazzini, working our way towards the Campo from another direction. Bar Farnese, my favorite spot for cappuccino in that area, was closed, which just about destroyed my fragile emotional state, the state in which I would remain until I had my morning coffee. I knew Tazza D’Oro was closed on Sundays, so I crossed my fingers and hoped that St. Eustachio would be open. Luckily it was, and once I had my cappuccino and cornetto fix, my mood was decidedly better.

We passed by the Pantheon, which was more peaceful than the previous afternoon; we stopped in and C. got a chance to really enjoy it in the calm of a Sunday morning, just before a Palm Sunday mass was about to begin. From the Piazza della Rotunda, we made our way towards the Trevi Fountain, which C. had wanted to see. By this time, I became acutely aware that my blistered feet were no better, and in fact felt a little worse. My attempt to walk in spite of the pain then caused me to turn my ankle, twisting my knee in a most unnatural way. My entire right leg, from the knee downward, was pretty much a disaster.

C. and I sat a bit at the Trevi Fountain, happy to be there early while our fellow tourists were still enjoying their complimentary breakfast rolls and coffee. The sound of the rushing water was soothing, making me wish I could dip my right leg directly into the fountain. Perhaps it had restorative powers? C. didn’t think so, and I resigned myself to another day of limping.

From the Trevi Fountain, C. walked and I hobbled alongside until we reached the Spanish Steps. By now, more of Rome’s visitors had greeted the day, and the Piazza di Spagna was lively, if not yet full. We climbed the steps, admiring the view from various vantage points. At the top, I led C. towards Villa Borghese, excited to show him Rome’s version of Central Park. After entering the park, we walked to the circular area overlooking the Piazza del Popolo; it is one of my favorite spots to enjoy a gorgeous vista over the rooptops of Rome, especially St. Peter’s magnificent dome. We sat on a stone bench and relaxed, giving me a much-needed chance to prop up my sore mess of a leg.

Deeper into the park, we came across two young men who were demonstrating their considerable talents at in-line skating. They had set up little makers at fixed intervals, and were practicing intricate footwork in and out of the markers; their skates flew by in a blur, and we were mesmerized. Knowing they had a very impressed and captive audience, they started hot-dogging. I clapped enthusiastically as their moves grew more and more challenging and showy, and I nearly yelped when one of them took his shirt off, which had little to do with the actual skating skill he had just demonstrated. C. gave me a poke, and I told him to mind his own business.

We left the Villa Borghese and hiked down to Piazza del Polpolo, a public space that never fails to impress me. The obelisk in the center of the Piazza was covered with scaffolding and a tarp; I was sad that C. did not get to see it, but the sheer scale of the Piazza was still impressive, with its twin churches sitting side by side at one end. From the grand Piazza, we walked down Via di Ripetta towards Piazza Augusto Imperatore, where we would find our next destination, ‘Gusto.

‘Gusto is a must-visit stop for me whenever I am in Rome. It more than a restaurant, it is seven special spaces housed in one building: an upscale restaurant, a hip wine bar, a casual pizzeria, an osteria, a wine shop, a cheese shop, and fantastic cookware shop, known as the “Emporio.” Once we stepped inside, we knew we would not walk out without dropping some serious cash. The Emporio at ‘Gusto has everything a chef or aspiring cook would want: books, linens, cookware, applicances, all manner of kitchen accessories, pasta making tools, coffee pots, linens and gorgeous serving pieces. We happily browsed for over an hour, agonizing over how much we could actually fit in our suitcases; I found gifts for all of my assistants, as well as a few for myself, and C. found some great things for his family, including a magnificent fire-engine red wall clock.

Now that we were burdened with shopping bags, we had no choice but to take a taxi to Piperno, the wonderful restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto where we had chosen to have our Sunday lunch. This time, I had secured a reservation, and we were happy to be seated outside. There were many Roman families there, enjoying their midday meal following Palm Sunday Mass, and the mood was very festive. Piperno is known for its authentic Roman-Jewish specialities, such as Carciofi alla Giudea, or crispy-fried artichoke. We knew that neither of us could bear to share one of those gems, so we started by each getting one of our own. They were not in the least bit greasy, huge flowers of crispy, pure, artichoke joy, and we devoured them.

After the artichoke we safely ordered some wine, since the two don’t really pair well, deciding on a nice Negromaro from Puglia. For our primi course, I had a special pasta, delicious tortelli stuffed with roasted veal in a rich tomato sauce; C. had the Roman classic pasta Cacio e Pepe. We split an order of Coda Alla Vaccinara, or braised oxtail, which was unbelievably rich and satisfying. Everything about Piperno is charming; the waiters are all older gentlemen, very professional, and you should listen to every bit of advice they give you. Ours was especially sweet, allowing us to linger over our espressos as we enjoyed the sunny afternoon and the parade of diners coming and going on a busy Sunday.

From Piperno, we slowly walked through the streets of the Ghetto, one of my favorite neighborhoods of Rome. I showed C. the Portico d’Ottavia, the Synagogue, and the Palazzo Cenci. We walked back up Via Arenula, past Largo Argentina, and did some shopping at the La Feltrinelli, the large and wonderful bookstore on the corner of Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II and Via Torre Argentina. I can never resist the large selection of art books on the lower floor, and C. lost himself in the video department. After Feltrinelli, we strolled back to Trastevere, this time taking the Ponte Garibaldi and walking down Viale Trastevere and towards Piazza Trulissa from the opposite direction. Trastevere really has its own pace and feel that is very unique within Rome. In some ways, it reminds me of how gentrified the East Village in New York has become, but on some of the quiet side streets, Trastevere seems frozen in time.

Back at our apartment, I decided to soak my troubled feet, then take a shower and nap, while C. ventured off to find an internet café and catch up with the real world back home. I couldn’t quite manage the nap, so I lounged on the couch, pondering our trip as a whole and how different this time in Rome was for me. This was now the second time in six months that I visited Rome with someone else, the previous trip being with my elderly mother. I enjoyed Rome no matter what, but in both instances, I was retracing my same steps, over and over again. I loved being in my favorite city and re-visitng my favorite places, but I longed to be on my own again, exploring the Rome that I had not yet seen.

While C. was out I had managed to get a reservation for dinner that night to one of the restaurants that had turned us away the night before, Da Lucia, a simple little trattoria just a few steps from our apartment. He was happy to hear the news when he returned, and we spent the next few hours relaxing, reading, and watching incredibly weird game shows on TV.

Relaxed and refreshed, we left the apartment about two minutes before our reservation time of 9:00; it was literally around the corner and a few footsteps away. A tiny, entirely unpretentious place, it was packed with Italians, with a few smatterings of tourists here and there. Da Lucia had been around since 1938, and was once the favorite trattoria of Vittorio Di Sica; it specializes in traditional Roman cooking. If you visit, don’t expect any frills; the tables are rickety, the waiters are rushed, and the house wine is delicious. We were happy as clams at our cozy table, watching the frey around us.

We started with an antipasti of fresh anchovies and a simple plate of proscuitto with buffalo mozzarella. Next, we both had to try the house specialty, Pasta alla Gricia, with guanciale, pepper and cheese. It was delicious, and we understood why it was the house specialty. I keep trying to re-create that dish at home, but without real Roman gunanciale, cured bacon made from the cheek of the pig, it simply isn’t the same. We decided to again split an entrée of chicken with peppers, served with perfect roasted potatoes and side of spicy spring peas, cooked until they were soft, tender and very sweet. We finished with a plate of fresh fruit and two glasses of the house grappa. It was everything a simple trattoria meal should be.

I longed for nothing more than my bed after a long day of wandering around Rome. It was still relatively early, so C. dropped me off at the apartment and decided to take an evening stroll along the Tiber. On his way back, he was shocked to run smack into an old friend from college on a street near Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, a priceless small-world moment that kept a smile on his face for days. It also solidified my belief that the air in Rome is laced with magic.

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