Go Thou To Rome

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

Month: April, 2017

Mortacci tua, Carlone: restaurant adventures in Rome

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Valeriano and I agree about most things.

There are a few exceptions: Brexit; dogs wearing coats; whether Bob Dylan should have won the Nobel Prize; the dangers of electric fans; what causes various illnesses; bidets; eating out at restaurants

Valeriano is not a fan of restaurants. He prefers cooking, eating at home, and not being ripped off for a plate of pasta. It’s an attitude shared by many Italians. During a discussion with my teenage students about whether eating out in Rome was good value, I suggested that it was, “As you only pay something like €10 for pasta.” “10!” they cried, “That’s too much!” Their reasoning is that you shouldn’t waste money on a basic pasta dish with cheap ingredients. If you can make it at home for a fraction of the price, why order it at a restaurant?

But I live in Testaccio, where paying 9-13 for a primo is standard, and it doesn’t bother me. As an ex-Londoner, restaurant prices in Rome generally seem reasonable. 20 for some pasta, bread, a side dish of vegetables, wine and water? Sounds good to me.

On average, I probably eat out 2-3 times a week. Sometimes I drag Valeriano with me.

Da Carlone, Via della Luce 5

This trattoria in Trastevere was recommended by a friend of Valeriano’s, who enthused about the enormous portions of pasta. It’s a smart, old-fashioned little restaurant in the quiet part of Trastevere, and we were lucky to get a table without booking. The waiter referred to Valeriano as my “marito“, which was a first.

Of course I was going to order cacio e pepe – the delicious, extremely comforting combination of pasta, pecorino cheese and black pepper that I practically live off. Valeriano decided to order it too, and for 26 (“mortacci tua, Carlone”) the waiter brought us an absurdly enormous dish of pasta to be shared. It was for two people, but it could easily have been shared by four.

Because cacio e pepe is such a simple dish, its few ingredients tend to be added in lavish quantities. Un sacco di cacio, un sacco di pepe. I always say there’s no such thing as too much cheese, but there is such a thing as too much pepper, as we discovered at Da Carlone. It seemed like the cook had taken inspiration from the videos on Tasty, dumping fistfuls of pepper into the dish.

Mortacci tua**, Carlone,” said Valeriano, gulping down water in-between mouthfuls. And to the waiter: “C’e’ tanto pepe.”

Si chiama cacio e pepe,” the waiter shrugged. “Senza pepe sarebbe…” Yeah, we get it. As the name suggests, pepper is a fundamental ingredient of cacio e pepe. But in this dish, Valeriano joked, there was enough pepper to hospitalize someone.

20 minutes later, an ambulance arrived. An elderly lady at another table was taken out for a check-up. Meanwhile, a band squeezed themselves between the tables and performed traditional Roman folk songs, serenading us as Valeriano coughed and I inhaled the remaining pasta.

Would Valeriano eat there again? No. Would I? Probably. I recommend Da Carlone if you’re extremely hungry and feel like a challenge.

A Japanese restaurant, Prati

Japanese food is very popular in Rome. For a long time, I couldn’t understand it. Why were there so many Japanese restaurants in Rome when there were hardly any Japanese immigrants? Chinese restaurants made sense – lots of Chinese people living in Rome. But as Japanese food is no better than Thai or Indian food, for example, the Japanese restaurants popping up all around the centre didn’t make much sense to me.

Even the Italian teenagers I know – those who firmly believe in the supremacy of Italian food, even distrusting foreign food as pleasant and inoffensive as hummus – can’t get enough of sushi. Why?

Another student of mine explained that the sushi trend began in Milan. One good Japanese restaurant opening in Milan was enough to create a trend in Milan, which has since been copied in Rome. Although I don’t deny that Japanese food can be really good, it seems that the prevalence of Japanese restaurants in Rome has more to do with fashion than the superiority of the cuisine.

Late last night, on a whim, Valeriano and I decided to try a Japanese restaurant. We were in Prati – the upmarket neighbourhood near the Vatican – and felt like splashing out, and trying something else for a change. I eat Japanese food occasionally, but Valeriano had never even tried sushi.

I was a little apprehensive, convinced that he wouldn’t like it. While he appreciates Indian and Lebanese food, somehow I just couldn’t see him enjoying sushi. I couldn’t see him appreciating the restaurant either. It was a stylish, slightly pretentious place with black walls, dim lighting and an indoor fountain. In the toilets there was a fancy, waterfall-style tap and 360 degree mirrors that gave you a view of yourself from every angle. Seeing yourself in profile can be a bit disconcerting sometimes, and I’m not sure it’s the ideal bathroom experience, having a minor existential crisis while you wash your hands. (“Is that what I really look like from the side? Is that how other people see me? Who am I?”)

We were both a bit out of place, with our scuffed motorbike helmets, me accidentally wearing my cardigan inside out, Valeriano in his Joy Division t-shirt. He had no idea what to order, and I wasn’t sure either. I’m not used to sushi menus without pictures.

In the end we ordered miso soup, edamame beans, a rice dish with vegetables and fish, a sushi/sashimi mix and a bottle of white wine. Valeriano found everything disgusting apart from the wine, and, much to my surprise, the miso soup, which he declared buonissima. I thought everything was just about okay, but not exceptional. I’ve had much better sushi in Rome, and given the restaurant decor and prices, I’d been expecting something a bit more special.

Mortacci tua,” said Valeriano when he saw the bill. We saw our waiter not-so-discreetly snorting cocaine behind the bar. “No wonder it’s so expensive. Our money pays for the furniture, the fountain and his cocaine habit…”

To conclude: Valeriano’s first and last sushi experience. I wouldn’t recommend the restaurant, but Temakinho (Prati and Monti) and Sampei (Viale Regina Margherita) are very good for sushi. If you like that kind of thing…

** “mortacci tua” is a very Roman expression that could be translated in a myriad of ways – “fuck you”, “son of a bitch”, “bastard”, “motherfucker”. More literally, it means “fuck your dead relatives” and it ranges from extremely offensive to comical depending on the context. As an exclamation, it’s “mortaaacci tuuuuua”, uttered in a tone of outrage and disbelief. If you want to say “fuck their dead relatives”, it’s “mortaaacci looooro”.

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Monte Testaccio and the Via Crucis

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For most people, Monte Testaccio means nightclubs, bars and restaurants – places like Flavio al Velavevodetto, Checchino dal 1887 and Alibi, which circle the base of the hill. When tourists ask me for directions to Monte Testaccio on a Friday night, it’s because they want to go clubbing, not because they want to visit the hill.

Monte Testaccio – the actual hill itself – should be a tourist attraction. It’s an enormous artificial hill made up of broken shards of Roman pottery – an atmospheric patch of wilderness in the heart of the modern city, offering panoramic views over Testaccio and beyond. The Ancient Romans used this spot near the port to throw away old terracotta vases, and over the years the pile grew into a hill. Surprisingly scenic, considering it’s essentially an ancient rubbish dump.

Why are there no tourists? The answer is simple – it’s virtually never open. I’m not sure exactly why it’s closed, but at least since I moved to Rome in 2013, the gates have always remained firmly shut. The most I ever got to see was a window at the back of a restaurant blocked by dense layers of pottery shards.

It was an intriguing glimpse, but I wanted more. After a few years of living in Testaccio, it was frustrating that the place that had given the neighbourhood its name was still off-limits.

While discussing my frustration with fellow Testaccio resident and blogger Isobel (Testaccina), she suggested I attend the Via Crucis procession on Good Friday. This is the one day of the year when the gates of Monte Testaccio are opened to the general public, and anyone can wander up the hill to watch the procession.

At 3pm on Good Friday, I passed through the gates and followed a group of elderly people up the steep, uneven path of Monte Testaccio, listening to them grumble about the climb. Although I spotted the occasional bewildered tourist, the vast majority of people on the hill were locals who had probably been attending the Via Crucis procession every year for decades, shunning the more famous Via Crucis (led by the Pope through the centre of Rome) for a ritual closer to home.

When we got to the top of the hill, there was some time to explore before the ceremony began. Walking through the long grass, with 2,000 year old amphora shards beneath my feet, I went to the far edges of the hill to admire the view. To the east, an industrial panorama – the slaughterhouse complex and the Gazometro of Garbatella. To the west, rooftops and greenery – the terraces of Testaccio, the cypresses and umbrella pines of the Protestant Cemetery, the Pyramid, the churches and monasteries of the Aventine Hill.

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The Via Crucis was conducted by a priest in sunglasses, backed by some Carabinieri, nuns and choirboys. As they progressed through the stations of the cross, some teenagers in jeans and t-shirts dutifully lugged the loudspeakers across the hill. Meanwhile, an archaeological lesson continued in hushed voices beneath the trees – cross-legged children studying pictures of Roman pottery, paying no attention to the familiar story of Christ’s suffering that blared through the loudspeakers.

I’m not Catholic, but I might have been tempted to stay till the end of the ceremony if it hadn’t been for a sudden, severe attack of hayfever. Besides, I thought to myself, it’s not as though there are going to be any surprises in the story of the Crucifixion – we all know how it ends.

After the strange, dreamlike atmosphere of Monte Testaccio, walking back along Via Galvani was a return to chaotic, real-world Rome, with men delivering towers of fruit and vegetable crates to the restaurants of Monte Testaccio, and motorcyclists crashing into each other and then hurling abuse at each other in the middle of the road, while cars honked impatiently. Rome is a city of contrasts…

For alternative accounts of visiting Monte Testaccio check out blog posts at Testaccina and An American in Rome.

Visiting Monte Testaccio

If you want to visit the archaeological site, you have a few options.

-Wait for the Via Crucis procession on Good Friday, like I did. The gates are opened shortly before 3pm.

-Sign the petition to open Monte Testaccio and keep an eye out for guided tours (in Italian).

-Book a private tour with Katie Parla.

-Book a group tour (in advance, on the phone).

You can also get some idea of the sheer size of the hill by walking around the base, with particularly good views on the Citta’ dell’Altra Economia side. While you’re there, stop for lunch at Flavio al Velavevodetto and order the cacio e pepe…