Go Thou To Rome

at once the Paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness

Month: April, 2016

Testaccio restaurant guide

testaccio flavio al velavevodettoFlavio al Velavevodetto

One of the many reasons I feel lucky to live in Testaccio is that when it comes to food, I’m really spoilt for choice. Whether I want a cappuccino and cornetto in the morning, a panino or a piadina for lunch, a slice of pizza as a snack, or cacio e pepe for dinner, there are several places within a mile radius, all serving fresh food at reasonable prices. Sometimes it’s hard to force myself to cook, knowing that I can pop down the road to a get a delicious margherita pizza piled high with rocket, and some fried fiori di zucca (courgette flowers)…

This is not an exhaustive guide to eating out in Testaccio. It’s missing places that I associate more with aperitivo (like L’Oasi della Birra), the stalls in the market, and snacky, takeaway places such as Trapizzino and Alice. These are just the proper, sit-down restaurants that I’ve been to in Testaccio. If a restaurant’s missing, it’s because I haven’t been there yet, but with the exception of the steakhouse on Via Galvani (I’m a pescatarian), they’re all on my “to try” list.

For an average dinner at one of these restaurants (starter, main, side, house wine, water) I would usually pay around 18-25 euros. A pizza costs 6-8 euros.

Restaurants

da felice cacio e pepeCacio e pepe at Da Felice

Da Felice (Via Mastro Giorgio 29)
Not only the most famous restaurant in Testaccio, Da Felice is also regarded as one of the best restaurants in Rome, popular with locals and tourists alike. If you haven’t booked, forget it. But at least it’s easier to get a table than it used to be, when the notoriously grumpy owner would put “reserved” signs on all the tables and turn away potential customers if he didn’t like the look of them. Da Felice is great for traditional Roman cuisine, and is particularly famous for its cacio e pepe, which the waiters mix up in a big bowl at your table.

Flavio al Velavevodetto (Via di Monti Testaccio 29)
The location alone would make it special – it’s at the base of Monte Testaccio, so you can see the shards of Roman pottery piled up against the window – but the food is also very good. The menu is similar to Da Felice, and they also do an excellent cacio e pepe. It’s quite smart inside, and I always think it’s more expensive than it actually is. Somehow it just feels a bit posher. There’s also a nice terrace upstairs.

Il Cantinone (Piazza Testaccio 31)
An unpretentious trattoria with a good choice of pizza and pasta. It’s not famous, and in a way, it’s probably nothing special, but I’ve always eaten well here.

Da Bucatino (Via Luca della Robbia  84)
Classic Roman trattoria, which sticks to the Roman tradition of offering some dishes only on a particular day of the week. For example, if you want gnocchi with tomato sauce, you’ll have to go on Thursday. Go there in the winter and order puntarelle (a chicory salad with anchovy and garlic sauce), fettuccine with truffle and mushrooms, and tiramisu. You won’t be disappointed. Alternatively, more carnivorous diners will find all the typical meaty Roman dishes here (tripe, oxtail stew etc).

La Fraschetta (Via Alessandro Volta 36)
If Da Felice is all booked up, go round the corner to La Fraschetta, where you’re guaranteed to get a table. The yellow walls make it particularly cosy in the winter, and I love the Caravaggio theme. From what I remember, it’s pretty cheap, and does really good fresh pasta. They also give you warm focaccia in a brown paper bag.

Assuntina (Via Luca della Robbia 15)
Great for fish and seafood, but I wonder how long they’ll last. The restaurant was half-empty, the waiters were excessively welcoming and attentive (by Roman standards), and they knocked a couple of euros off the cover charge. They seemed a bit desperate. But I hope Assuntina doesn’t close, because the food is fantastic. Octopus and potato salad, gnochetti with shrimp and pecorino, chocolate cake…mmm.

La Torricella (Via Torricelli 2/12)
Without Rachel‘s recommendation, I might never have tried La Torricella, a restaurant on a sleepy backstreet in the west of Testaccio. In her book Five Quarters Rachel summarises the menu: “there are some fixtures: for antipasti, the moscardini, for example, or bocconcini di merluzzo (bites of battered cod) and – my favourite – alici fritti (fried anchovies). Pasta is always a safe bet at Torricella, particularly the gnocchi or spaghetti alle vongole, and linguine with astice (male lobster)”. The food is very good, the service friendly and relaxed, and the “off the beaten path” location means it’s less touristy than some of the more famous restaurants in Testaccio.

Osteria degli Amici (Via Zabaglia 25)
A small, cosy restaurant where all the pasta is delicious, but – be warned – incredibly rich and creamy. The last time I went here for lunch, dessert was unthinkable. I mainly like it for the atmosphere – modern yet old school, in the words of An American in Rome.

Rec 23 (Piazza dell’Emporio 1-2)
I wasn’t sure whether to include this or not, as Rec 23 is really more of a bar than a restaurant. At least, I generally only go there for aperitivo or cocktails. But they have a proper food menu – mainly burgers – and waiters, so I might as well mention it. I haven’t had dinner here for ages, but I think the burgers are pretty good.

La Creperie (Via Galvani 11)
Nice if you want a change from the usual pizza and pasta. Even the decor feels un-Italian – you could be anywhere in Europe. Although I wouldn’t call myself a crepe expert, I enjoyed my meal.

Il Rubino (Via Marmorata 179)
A weird Chinese/Japanese/Thai hybrid. I don’t really trust restaurants that claim to do everything, but I have vague memories of having a decent meal here a couple of years ago. Although there are quite a few Asian restaurants in Rome, I’ve never met an Italian who’s enthusiastic about Chinese food. An Italian friend recently went to another Chinese restaurant (not Il Rubino) and complained about the “horrible spaghetti and ravioli”. Noodles and dumplings, Luca. Noodles and dumplings…

Pizzerias

testaccio da remo pizzaMargherita at Da Remo

Da Remo (Piazza di Santa Maria Liberatrice 44)
“The pizza was good,” said Valeriano. “But my father would come here once, and never again.” Valeriano could not believe how rude the waiters were, but then Valeriano is not from Rome. I think most born-and-bred Romans are willing to put up with indifferent (or downright rude) waiters. I’ve heard from some people that they’re nicer to you if you’re a regular, and although I go to Da Remo pretty regularly, perhaps I’m not regular enough to be considered a regular, because I never get a warm welcome. But if you’re not fussy about the service and you don’t mind bright lights and a chaotic atmosphere (a lot of noise, and getting elbowed by the person at the table next to you), Da Remo is worth a visit. The pizza is very thin, very crispy, and very good.

Il Grottino (Via Marmorata 165)
This is my pizzeria of choice. It’s like Da Remo but without the chaos, and with friendlier waiters. They do classic Roman-style pizza to perfection, but you can request a thicker base if you prefer Neapolitan pizza. They also make mega-pizzas with a variety of different toppings, designed to be shared. I usually go to Il Grottino for a takeaway pizza when I can’t be bothered to cook, but I often bring friends, family and guests here for a sit-down meal.

Nuovo Mondo (Via Amerigo Vespucci 15)
The atmosphere (and bright lighting) reminds me of Neapolitan pizzerias, but the pizza is all Roman. I’ve only come here once, and although my pizza was good, it wasn’t that memorable. Not memorable enough to stop me from going to Il Grottino all the time, anyway. But it’s definitely authentic, and popular with the locals – not a tourist in sight.

So, that’s it so far. Restaurants on my “to-try” list include Lo Scopettaro on the Lungotevere, Agustarello, and Acquasalata Ristopescheria. Divinare looks nice, but I’m suspicious of the fact that it’s survived for so long with an average of 0.5 customers per night.

On the banks of the Tiber

Triumphs and Laments Rome

Last night I joined the crowds on the banks of the Tiber to see Triumphs and Laments, William Kentridge’s 500 metre artwork that covers the walls between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini. It was officially opened to the public on 21 April (Rome’s birthday) with a free concert, which was repeated last night. Romans gathered on the bridges and along the Lungotevere to watch the parade of figures in brightly coloured cloaks, singing and carrying puppets that cast massive shadows. The walls of the Tiber became a backdrop, while the long path running along the waterfront was a stage. Music boomed and echoed along the river – a kind of tribal opera, sometimes a dirge, sometimes a triumphant chant pierced by shrieks and the blasts of trumpets – while tiny bats whirled above the water.

I think I would find it very difficult to write an objective review, to judge whether it was “good” art or “good” music. As a spectacle, I loved it. There was something exhilarating about the sheer scale of it – the length of the stage, the volume of the music – and the fact that it was taking place in the neglected heart of the city.

Rome feels strangely disconnected from its river. The Thames is a busy, working river that plays an integral role in the daily life of London, and parts of the Seine seem quite lively, particularly in the summer, but the Tiber often seems almost dead. I associate it with death – the corpses of executed criminals being thrown into the river in Roman times; the woman who drowned and was found in the water near Ponte Sublicio; the severed foot with the tattoo that read “Ogni giorno è buono per morire“.

The Tiber is so far below street level that it hardly seems to belong to the city at all. Long stretches are overgrown and damaged by regular flooding, and it’s usually only joggers and cyclists who make a habit of using the path by the river. Then there are the homeless, who take shelter under the bridges, as this Guardian photo gallery shows.

Last year I wrote a novel set in Rome, In Exile, where the Tiber makes an occasional appearance:

But as she waited for a bus that would probably never come, staring at a cloudless blue sky and rocking back and forth on her feet, she was taken by a random impulse to go to the river. She found herself longing for the sight of green water, the raging torrent that suddenly calmed and became almost motionless.

She could not look at the river without imagining the thousands of bodies that had plunged into it over the centuries. The water had always had a curious, deadly stillness in certain parts. There were no boats and the branches of the trees were filled with rags and tattered plastic, the remnants of winter floods. The river was so far below, so quiet, that at times it hardly seemed part of the city at all. It was merely a ghostly, pale green stream drifting towards the sea.

Concrete paths ran alongside the water’s edge, but they were mostly deserted, apart from the occasional cyclist and the homeless. The river was not a place to linger. Grace gazed at the water, tranquil and shipless as always, and then looked along the length of the riverbank. There were no pedestrians, only a solitary sleeper basking in the softening rays of the late afternoon. Shielding her eyes from the sun, Grace stared at the man and tried to decide if the resemblance was just wishful thinking.

Against her better judgement, she descended the stone steps and left the shade of the trees and the noise of the traffic behind her. She kept her eyes fixed on the figure below, afraid that if she blinked, he would vanish. Of course she would not talk to him; she only wanted to see.

He was dressed in a loose white shirt and trousers, face tilted up towards the sun. As she crept towards him she became convinced that it was the same man, and she felt a shiver of fear despite the heat. Thank God he was asleep, and she could walk past without ever seeing –

“You again.”

The Tiber isn’t always lonely. In the summer, white tents pop up all along the riverbank – temporary bars, restaurants and shops taking advantage of the river breeze during the heat of August. I missed out last year, and the year before, as I had summer jobs in London, but this year I’ll be experiencing my first Roman summer, and hopefully spending more time by the Tiber. And with organisations like Tevereterno working to revitalise the neglected waterfront through maintenance work and art projects, perhaps the Tiber will eventually be reclaimed by Rome.

Porta Portese

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Porta Portese is a famous (infamous?) flea market in Rome, open on Sunday mornings. I put off going for ages, because I was under the impression that you had to be there at the crack of dawn, which isn’t true. All the stalls are still there late morning, so you can have a lie-in and still spend plenty of time exploring the market.

I go to Porta Portese once every couple of months, but I often come away empty-handed. I can remember everything I’ve ever bought there, and it doesn’t amount to much – a suitcase, a packet of couscous, some silk scarves, a bedspread, a cactus, a Renato Zero record, a framed black and white photo of Venice, and a 10 euro motorbike helmet (my parents persuaded me to upgrade to 90 euro helmet).

The problem with Porta Portese is that it’s so massive, I get overwhelmed and can’t decide what to buy. The other problem is that so much of the stuff being sold at Porta Portese is complete crap, so after a while, everything starts to look like crap. It only takes twenty minutes of browsing for my sense of judgement to disappear, and I can no longer distinguish between good quality products and absolute rubbish. Some of the stalls look particularly suspicious, and a lot of stolen goods end up at the market. The protagonist of The Bicycle Thieves goes to Porta Portese in the hope of finding his stolen bicycle, and it’s probably the first place where most Romans would look.

There are only three things in the market that I would confidently label “not crap”. A stall that only sells cacti, a stall called Il Mezzaro that sells lovely Indian textiles, and a busker called Trashman Blues – a talented one-man band.

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What else will you find at Porta Portese? There’s always an interesting mix of people – nuns, tourists, pickpockets – and it seems as though you can buy almost anything. Antique furniture, paintings of the Virgin Mary, fur coats, power tools, vinyl, comics, light bulbs, GameBoy games, chandeliers, shells, gas masks, stuffed animals, saddles, 1 perfume, underwear, videos, incense, blow-up dolls, terrible paintings (really terrible paintings)…

Here are some pictures to illustrate the variety of Porta Portese. The t-shirt in the first photo reads “Sample Text: place your text place your text place your text place your text”. But hey, it’s only 1.50…

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I always think of Porta Portese as an interesting cultural experience, rather than an opportunity to do some proper shopping. It’s a fun way to spend a Sunday morning – just hold on tightly to your bag…

Firenze

ponte vechio

Ponte Vecchio

I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with Florence. When I first went, for a weekend with a friend a couple of years ago, I spent most of the time comparing everything with Rome. Even the positives somehow turned into negatives – “Yes, it’s cleaner, quieter, less chaotic, with less traffic and dog poo than Rome, and yet…it doesn’t have the same beauty or energy.” Even though I essentially liked Florence, and had a perfectly enjoyable weekend of Renaissance art and Chianti, I felt that the city lacked something.

I returned to Florence last week, to spend four days with my family. This time I vowed to be more open-minded, and to enjoy Florence on its terms, rather than constantly comparing it with Rome. I spent more time exploring the Oltrarno (the south side of the river), revisited the Uffizi and visited some less crowded museums and galleries such as the Bargello, San Marco and La Specola. My brother is studying Renaissance history at university, so we were constantly referring to The List and ticking off must-see churches. When we weren’t looking at Madonnas and Child, we were eating pasta and drinking wine in trattorias, or walking alongside the Arno.

It was a lovely holiday, and when anyone asked me what I thought of Florence, I replied that it was “bellissima”. Florence is beautiful, albeit in a less dramatic way than Rome (there I go again), and even if the city itself looked like Slough, it would still be worth a visit for the contents of the art galleries and churches alone. If I got accidentally locked in the Uffizi overnight I would be quite happy – hours in front of the Botticellis and Titians without getting jostled by tour groups and people taking selfies!

But. But. Two conversations I had with Italians summed up my problem with Florence. One evening we went out for dinner with a friend of my father’s, a Canadian who’s lived in Florence for years with his Italian wife, Erica. While I was talking to Erica, I mentioned the lack of bars in Florence.

“In Rome there’s a bar on every street – you know, full of locals drinking coffee at the counter. I hardly see any bars like that in Florence. Is there less of a coffee culture?”

“No,” she replied, “it’s because Florence is Disneyland. It’s only tourists in the centre. All the locals have moved away, or moved out to the suburbs.”

And then, when I came back to work, a colleague asked me about my trip. I said that I’d enjoyed it, but that although Florence was beautiful, somehow it lacked an atmosphere. “It feels…flat.” We both said “flat” at exactly the same time, so that must be the right word.

Florence feels flat. I imagine this wasn’t always the way – no doubt it felt much more vibrant during the Renaissance, or even the nineteenth century, before the invention of mass tourism. When I think of Stendhal swooning or Lucy Honeychurch admiring the view from her window, they seem to belong to a very different Florence – a fantasy Florence. I just can’t imagine getting overwhelmed by 21st century Florence in the same way.

Of course, it’s a very subjective thing, and it seems unfair to accuse Florence of lacking an atmosphere when so many other people clearly adore it. I regularly look expat blogs such as Girl in Florence and wonder if they’ll change my perspective. I’m also willing to concede that Florence has lots of good qualities, and that it’s a great place to spend a weekend, especially if you’re an art lover.

Venice has a magical, dream-like atmosphere. Naples has a crazy energy. Rome has something so intense and complex that I can’t even sum it up in one sentence, but whatever it is, it’s powerful. Florence, for all its beauty, doesn’t have a particular energy or atmosphere. It just kind of sits there, like a beautiful object in a museum that’s there to be admired, and nothing else.

When I’m in a city I don’t know well, I usually have the urge to walk for hours and explore every street, but Florence doesn’t excite me or give me that sense of curiosity. Strangely, I think that even Oxford – a town that I know well, having studied at the university for three years – has more mystery for me than Florence. Could it be something to do with the local to tourist ratio?

I know I’m not exactly selling Florence, but I did have a nice time, and I would happily go again. Here are my recommendations:

See: The Uffizi, obviously. My personal favourites are all the Botticelli paintings, the Titians, Da Vinci’s Annunciation and Piero di Cosimo’s Perseus Freeing Medusa. The Accademia would be worth visiting even without Michelangelo’s David – the Prisoners are impressive too, and I have a thing for medieval Christian art (gold backgrounds and angels side-eying each other). The convent of San Marco has a great collection of paintings by Fra Angelico; I particularly liked seeing the decorated cells. The Bargello has some lovely sculptures and is refreshingly uncrowded compared to other museums in Florence. La Specola makes an interesting change from Renaissance art – a stuffed hippo that belonged to the Medici and some wax models of nude women displaying their internal organs. Apparently the Marquis de Sade was a fan.

I won’t go into the list of churches we visited, or I’d be here all night, but Santa Maria Novella was impressive.

Eat: The food at Il Vegetariano (Via delle Ruote 30) was excellent, but the chaotic self-service slightly spoiled the experience. Trattoria Diladdarno (Via dei Serragli 108) is good for traditional Tuscan cuisine and felt less touristy than other restaurants in the centre. Hostaria del Bricco (Via San Niccolo 8) was strangely empty, considering the quality of the food – the pasta was delicious.

Stay: We stayed at Hotel David, a three star hotel which is rated the third best hotel in Florence on TripAdvisor. Clean, comfortable, friendly staff, nice atmosphere…the only downside is the location, as it’s about a 20 minute walk to the centre. I suppose the advantage is that it forces you to explore some of the quieter, less touristy streets of the Oltrarno, which I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.