Italian Iter | Rome

Altare della Patria

Roma. A delightfully complex and dense city where a lifetime would never be enough to experience every stratum of this unbelievably rich place. We must go back.

In five days we visited 13 churches, petted at least 6 cats, toured 4 Roman sites, saw many more ruins, took the metro once, went to 3 markets, were impeded by 2 of Donald’s motorcades, and saw 1 Pink Floyd cover band in the Campo de’ Fiori.

Food and Drink
Mashed potato cheese balls at Open Baladin
Mashed potato cheese balls at Open Baladin

We may have been too exhausted to investigate Rome’s after midnight cocktail scene, but we did find plenty of other delights:

Open Baladin – A brewery with amazing food near Campo de’ Fiori. We loved our burgers (mine was eggplant) and the little potato ball appetizers (pictured above).

Ai Tre Scalini – A bar/restaurant in Monti with highly addictive bar snacks and a great selection of wine.

Vinaietto, Enoteca di Goccetto, Il Piccolo – Three fun little wine bars not too far from Campo de’ Fiori.

Pianostrada – Make reservations and prepare for delicious, creative cooking at this hip spot.

Alice – Yummy Roman pizza joint with crispy crusts and fresh toppings.

Roscioli – A foodie empire! We loved the bakery (forno), but next time we should eat at the restaurant too.

Mercato Testaccio – Great place for lunch and trying new foods. Beware the aggressive pan-handlers.

De Bellis – A tiny, exquisite pasticceria.

Giolitti – The grand dame of gelato shops. My black cherry and chocolate gelati were divine.

Punto Gelato – They have at least five kinds of chocolate! Get una pallina and then eat it while walking by the Tiber.

Frankie with bag
Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary bag

Instead of a recipe, I offer notes on our favorite shopping experiences in the Eternal City.

Comics and illustration– In the shadow of St. Peter’s, one may find excellent fumetti shops filled with classics from Dylan Dog to Milo Manara. Pocket 2000 Libreria on Via Famagosta has everything! For prints, books, and silly gifts featuting modern illustrators and designers, visit Fox Gallery near Torre Argentina.

Books – Italians read! How refreshing to find a robust offering of bookstores, including specialized shops — one dedicated to travel, another to cinema and pop culture, for example. Off Via del Governo Vecchi is where I think we found some unique shops, but even the big, bright Feltrinelli overlooking Torre Argentina didn’t disappoint! So many things we wish had been in English.

Pope clothes – Just south of the Pantheon…for all your religious bling! Giant chalices, swinging crosses, flouncy gowns. We should have taken a picture of the perfectly dressed windows.

Cat sanctuary souvenir – Cat lovers the world over will marvel if you have a bag from Largo di Torre Argentina (pictured above).

Top Five Sites

Impossible to pick just five, but if pressed:

Caravaggio at San Luigi dei Francesi
Marveling at Caravaggio in situ at San Luigi dei Francesi, Sant’Agostino, and Santa Maria del Popolo
Non-Catholic Cemetery
Paying homage to the dead at the verdant Non-Catholic Cemetery, home to Keats (whose stone was easy to find) and to Shelley (whom we missed). We also visited the Crypt of the Capuchin Friars, where the bones of 3,700 people — primarily monks — were arranged into ornate designs in the early 18th century. As a piece of art, the work is strange, beautiful, and moving.
View from St. Peter's Dome
Climbing for views in high places. We dug deep in our pockets to scrounge enough coins to cover the cash-only entry fee to St. Peter’s Dome. Besides majestic St. Peter’s, we also enjoyed surveying Rome from the southern edge of the Villa Borghese and from the Gianicolo Hill.
Baths of Caracalla
Wandering through the massive Baths of Caracalla. We also visited the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Ara Pacis, which had an excellent exhibit on slavery in the Roman world. I liked the Baths of Caracalla best because there weren’t many people and from the well-preserved remains we could get a good sense of the scale of Roman architecture — BIG.
Bernini's elephant
Hunting for Bernini:  his fountains — Four Rivers, Tritons, Turtles — and his sculptures in piazzas and in churches. They brought such delight to our wanderings.
Toilet Troubles

Sometimes when one travels, one’s “system” does not work normally and finding a bathroom, preferably comfortable and private, becomes a serious priority. So it happened on our super intense All-Things-Ancient-Rome-Day. The Capitoline Museums may have an excellent collection of sculpture, including Constantine’s Monty Python-esque feet in the courtyard, but the bathroom — at least the one we found in the labyrinthine bowels of the building — left much to be desired. However, our search for the bathroom did lead us to the other half of the museum, which we would have otherwise missed due to the horrendous signage. Anyway, relief I found at the Ara Pacis Museum, which we visited after the Capitoline (hurrah for buses!). Clean, quiet, spacious — with seats! — one of the best restrooms we found in Rome.

Social Encounters
Around Trastevere
Around Trastevere

I’m so very lucky that my job connects me to wonderful people all over the world. In Rome, we met up with two friends – Sara and Angela – on separate nights. Sara, a native Roman, took us for a long walk through Trastevere, dinner back near Torre Argentina, and drinks at Open Baladin. At last John could ask someone about Italian curse words! Angela invited us to dinner at her apartment in San Giovanni. We took a crowded bus — nose to armpit — but no matter, it felt good to be in a residential part of the city with shops geared towards the average person. Angela and her husband prepared a lavish Italian meal — appetizers, risotto, eggplant parmesan, tiramisu! We’re so grateful to Sara and Angela for all their hospitality, generosity, and good advice!

Notes for Next Time

The Roma Pass guide opened our eyes to so many other sites of interest that don’t make the cut for a basic guidebook. Plus, there’s a whole contemporary art scene. On a future visit, we’d like to see:

  • Borghese Gallery
  • GNAM – Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea – 19th and 20th century art
  • MACRO – Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Roma – contemporary art
  • Palazzo Massimo – Museo Nazionale Romano – ancient sculpture
  • Botanical Gardens at the foot of the Gianicolo

I also wanted to catch jazz at Alexanderplatz or Casa del Jazz, but that didn’t happen. Next time!

We stayed near the bustling Campo de’ Fiori, but on a future visit we’d prefer an area that feels more like a neighborhood and is accessible by metro — Monti (metro: Cavour) or Prati (metro: Ottaviano, not far from the handy Mercato Trionfale).

So we have to go back, if only to watch the sunset over St. Peter’s again.

St. Peter's at sunset

Want more photos? See the rest on Flickr.


Italian Iter | Florence

Giotto's Tower
We arrived on a bustling Saturday when Florence’s narrow streets were particularly packed with leather hand bags and tour groups. I had forgotten about transportation on wheels. Suddenly surrounded by growling motorcycles and careening bikes, I had to remind myself how to share the streets after Venice’s pedestrian paradise.

We stayed a short walk east of the Duomo on a street where every door and window was shuttered, save for the corner convenience store where John bought a shaving razor. The street may have been unwelcoming, but we loved our AirBnb, a sunny, spacious, top floor apartment.

Food and Drink

We ate very, very well, but there were some awkward moments. At Vivanda (listed below) we had a 7pm reservation, but were told multiple times that we needed to finish by 9pm even before we had ordered. We wanted to say: We’re American; we can eat and be out of here in 30 minutes if necessary! Also, at the Florentine happy hour buffets, it’s either buffet or nothing. At one such place, when we really wanted to rest our legs and have drink, the woman behind the counter politely asked us to leave since we weren’t planning to eat. I’m always fascinated by the protocols of food in other cultures. In the US, everyone wants to make a buck; we’ve never been turned away from a mostly empty restaurant or bar.

A directory of favorites:

Mercato Centrale – Downstairs is a traditional market, where John had a boiled beef sandwich at Il Nerbone — definitely worth the long line. Upstairs is a food hall, very New York. At Marcella Bianchi’s Il Vegetariano e Vegano, we had phenomenal veggie burgers, like one with eggplant and spicy mayo. We ate food from a few of the stalls and everything was excellent. No pressure, no reservations, but there is always a line for the bathroom.

All’ Antico Vinaio  – This sandwich spot has opened up three storefronts on the same street to accommodate its steady business. John loved his porchetta sandwich, and while there was no stated vegetarian offering, a man begrudgingly made a sandwich for me with artichoke spread, roasted zucchini and eggplant.

Eby’s – Because sometimes you just want sangria and empanadas.

Archea Brewery – Great selection of house brews and guest beers with friendly bartenders.

Gosh – Visit this bar for the fabulous flamingo themed wallcoverings.

Il Santino – One side is a formal restaurant and the other side is a winebar, which is where we went. We had a delectable Tuscan cheese plate and tried different wines. From our seats at the tiny bar, we watched three women handle the orders coming in; they’d chop herbs, pour wine, use a hand-turned slicer on cured meats. The best of kind of theater!

Vivanda – At this tiny vegetarian-friendly spot, the server might tell you to hurry up at first, but eventually she will relax, smile, and leave you alone. We had an excellent dinner — pea fritters, asparagus ravioli with sausage, farro bowl with pesto.

Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina Across from the Pitti Palace, this winebar offers exquisite food (scallops; crustless zucchini tart) and wine (an orange pinot grigio). I really only want to return to Florence so that I can eat here again.

Recipe – Farro Salad

Inspired by Vivanda:

Mix warm cooked farro with pesto — any pesto whether made with basil, radish greens, beet greens, etc. Throw in chopped walnuts, olives, and grated Parmesan to taste.

For a more substantial salad, add sauteed zucchini, beans, chopped tomatoes.

Recipe – Olive Caprese Snack

Inspired by Il Santino:

Chop a tomato. Toss with red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Let sit for 30 minutes.

Slice a loaf of good bread. Smear olive tapenade, like Divina Kalamata Olive Spread, on a slice. Top with the marinated tomatoes. Pull apart a ball of buffalo mozzarella and arrange the pieces on the tomatoes. Garnish with shredded basil, salt, and pepper.

Top Five Sites

I visited Florence for two days back in March 2006 on a college trip. This time, I had the chance to explore much more of the city. John and I especially enjoyed:

Seeing the most magnificent sculpture on Earth. We also visited the Medici Chapels, but beware:  the Basilica di San Lorenzo is a scam. Go to the back — not to the church entrance! Otherwise you’ll have to buy two separate tickets.
Basking in the gold of Botticelli’s luminous paintings at the Uffizi. Photo source: Wikimedia, Google Art Project.
View from Piazzale Michelangelo
Walking along the verdant, villa-lined Viale Machiavelli and Viale Galileo. We started at the Pitti Palace and walked up and around to peaceful San Miniato al Monte, where the monks were singing. Our excursion ended with this splendid view from Piazzale Michelangelo.
Firenze street art
Celebrating the work of living artists. Blub always depicts his iconic subjects underwater. We loved Florence’s playful street art, which gave the city a little edge along with its awesome vintage stores and hip arts center in an old prison near Sant’Ambrogio market. We also enjoyed exploring traditional workshops, like I Mosaici di Lastrucci (inlaid stone mosaics — no grout used) and L’ippogrifo stampe d’arte (etchings and prints).
Blessing the vines
Sampling the bounties of Tuscany! Through Viator, we signed up for a half-day tour of two wineries: Tenuta del Palagio and Famiglia Mazzarrini – Poggio Amorelli. At the tastings, we enjoyed not only Chianti Classico, but the more experimental “Supertuscan” wines along with aged balsamic vinegar, olive oils, pecorino cheese, and bread. It felt great to ride in a bus and let someone else make all the decisions for us!
Toilet Troubles

A very quirky washer/dryerIn Florence my misadventures did not concern a toilet, but a different piece of hardware in the bathroom of our AirBnb: the combo washer/dryer. Although our host had given John a thorough orientation and even supplied us with the manual, we still missed an essential step. For the thing to dry, it must be on “1/2 load”. We thought we’d run it over night and wake up to dry clothes. Instead we stayed up half the night wondering where the machine was in its endless 14-step cycle. Fed up, we found a huge drying rack and used that instead. However, for the second load, we used the proper setting. The clothes turned out to be about 40% dry. Better than nothing! It was worth it to have clean clothes!


Social Encounters

Another restaurant anecdote: We arrived at the exact same time as another couple. Although all the tables outside were empty, we were seated next to each other. They were mid-20s; he was American, she was South African, which we deduced from her accent and stated dislike of Afrikaans rap. In such close quarters, just a few inches apart, John and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop and, of course, judge. The other couple closely followed the art market, but neither were artists — she was on break from law school; who knows about him. He was trying to remember the name of the artist whose painting recently sold for more than $100 million. I can’t remember what clues he gave, but John said “Basquiat” out loud. He said it again louder. They ignored him.

Notes for Next Time

Take the train in for the day and go all out for the prix fixe lunch at Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina. Stop at Mercato Centrale and buy a bunch of goodies to go. Escape to the Tuscan hills.
Chianti country viewContinue reading: Rome 

Italian Iter | Venice

Cannaregio building

Venice has two faces. Walk one way and it’s a floating historical park, corroded by touristic cruft, cruise ship day trippers, aggressive rose peddlers, and well-marked routes that all lead to the McDonald’s on Strada Nova. Walk another way and the city is a man-made miracle, a living example of magical realism, where the sun sets in crystal skies over the lagoon, Maine coon cats lounge on a wooden bridge, pastel laundry hangs out to dry. At night, a labyrinth of empty streets, dark alleys, blind corners — the kind of places you would avoid anywhere else — usher you toward unexpected surprises, like an Italian band playing “Jailhouse Rock”.

View from our window
View from our room
Food and Drink

We loved staying in Cannaregio around the corner from Tintoretto’s workshop. We had our breakfast spot, our wine spot, and our gelato spot. Really, we needn’t have gone anywhere else, except that we were born to wander. A directory of favorites:

Vino Vero (Cannaregio) – elegant, fresh cicchetti with many vegetarian options; stellar wine list including an ambrosial Lambrusco and a sparkling pinot nero rose so delightful John had a glass two nights in a row

Il Santo Bevitore (Cannaregio) – beer

Enoteca Al Volto (San Marco) – a classic wine bar; source for the recipe below

Gam Gam (Cannaregio) – delicious Kosher restaurant on the canal near the Jewish ghetto; get the eggplant appetizer called massa’bacha

Paradiso Perduto (Cannaregio) – best cacio e pepe ever!

Suso Gelatoteca (San Marco) – creative, swanky, intensely flavored gelato

Bacaro del Gelato (Cannaregio) – the creamiest gelato; not fancy, just really good

We tried so many varieties of wine we’ve rarely seen at home: soave, arneis, malvasia, franciacorta. Heaven!

Cannaregio living
After dinner at Paradiso Perduto: finishing a bottle of Tokaj
Recipe – Artichoke Cicchetti

We loved Venice’s wine bars and cicchetti — little snacks, usually sliced bread with different toppings. We went to Enoteca Al Volto twice to eat their one vegetarian option and I have successfully recreated it at home.

Slice up a baguette. Top each disk with artichoke spread, like DeLallo Artichoke Bruschetta, and a slice of smoked cheese — provolone or mozzarella. Garnish with chopped pistachios.

Top Five Sites

We visited the Doge’s Palace with its militaristic murals, traveled to the fabled islands of lace and glass, gazed upon Carpaccio’s epic paintings in the Accademia, but my favorite things were:

Monteverdi's burial
Paying homage to the father of opera at Frari Church
San Marco
Marveling at the Basilica di San Marco with its Byzantine flourishes and thanking the heavens for no entry line
Exploring Torcello, the smallest, quietest island with its beautiful flowers and Byzantine mosaics
Castello cat
Walking through the Castello district on a quiet morning from  Arsenale to the Chiesa di Sant’Elena
Going to no place in particular. I learned to accept that we would get lost. We were always winding up at dead ends, doubling back, looking for bookstores that had disappeared years ago, but somehow we would always end up on a bridge with a glorious view.
Toilet Troubles – As Promised

Listening to a bandThursday night in Dorsoduro, we walked by the Venice Jazz Club, but it was closed. On our way back north, we came across a cover band playing at San Duich Bar. The band occupied most of the tiny interior, so we joined the audience outside and sang along since we knew every song. A glass of sangria later, I needed the restroom. I locked the door and when I was done I couldn’t get out. I jiggled the handle. Rattled the door. Turned the key this way and that. When my maneuvers became more forceful, a bartender shouted something at the door in Italian, switched to English, and then came to my rescue. “See, it’s easy,” he said while showing how smoothly the key turned in its lock. I had to disagree.

Social Encounters

Before I got locked in the bathroom, we had dinner at an unremarkable place on the Campo Santa Margherita. An older American couple — she was Jewish, he was black — sat next us and struck up conversation by first thanking us for not smoking. Later the wife invited us to share a bottle of wine with her since her husband doesn’t drink. We couldn’t say no to such an invitation! It’s the kind of thing I would like to be able to do in the future when we are too old to be mistaken for swingers. Turns out the couple are from California and work in higher education. We had a free-ranging conversation about the Donald, traveling, Jewish ancestry, wine, Italy. They warned us about Florence. “If you think this is crowded…”

Notes for Next Time

Peggy Guggenheim Museum.

Marciana Library. It was closed for some unexplained reason.

Basilica di San Marco. Again.


Continue reading: Florence

Italian Iter | Prologue

In the Roman Forum

John and I last traveled abroad for vacation in 2014. In three years, I forgot how much work it is to be a European tourist. How incompetent I feel mumbling unfamiliar words, re-orienting myself again and again, visiting historic sites and wondering how a person with 19 years of formal education can know so little. How bound by the limitations of my body, always needing something: food, bed, drink, a sit-down, the bathroom. One need met and another supplants it. Forever in a desperate search for a toilet with a seat. Truly, we had a wonderful trip, but it provoked much more self-reflection than I anticipated.

I didn’t come back from Italy refreshed. I came back from 2 weeks of walking about 12 miles a day thoroughly exhausted and as relieved as Frank Capra’s George Bailey to be back in my comfy old life: Hello, graffiti on the metro! Hello, ugly office building! Since returning, I’ve made three vows:  to go out more in my own city, to eat my dinners in courses at home whenever I have time to make more than one dish, and to increase my daily level of activity (I thought I was in shape, but the walking and no space for stretching really beat me up). Yet as happy as I am to be home, I’m already scheming for the trip back. The trip where we correct our mistakes, like concluding the journey in the most vibrant, intense place (i.e. Rome) when we had so little left to give. Next time we’ll have a SIM card so we can look up bus schedules instead pounding our feet into numb filets! Next time we’ll make it a habit to buy our breakfast the day before (I’d take cold pizza over a honey-brushed croissant any day)! We’ll make our dinner reservations in advance! We’ll limit ourselves to only two sites per day!  We’ll bring mosquito repellent and anti-itch cream! Dress only for comfort — who cares if Italians don’t wear shorts! There was so very much to learn.

In the next three posts, I’ll share our favorite sites and food spots in Venice, Florence, and Rome along with a recipe for each city and tales of restroom misadventures and social encounters. But first, an aside:

View from the plane

The Flight Saga

On the journey over, everything that could go wrong, went wrong. So maybe an Icelandic volcano didn’t erupt, but an endless parade of little problems dogged our trip to Venice. The first flight is delayed due to air traffic control, then mechanical difficulties, then a disabled passenger who requires assistance disembarking. Airport staffers take three wheelchairs down the jet bridge, but the man really only needs one, his own. Finally boarded, our plane misses its spot in the take-off queue; then turbulence forces us to stay below 10,000 feet; then the landing has to be delayed, just because. At last in Newark, we run to the people mover bus. Every time the bus starts to pull out, a straggler appears and the driver lets him board. This goes on until passengers begin yelling they have connecting flights. The driver decides — at last — to roll on toward Terminal C. He stops for every pedestrian crossing the tarmac and dutifully slows to a crawl when a golf cart pulls in front of us and leads the rest of the way. It would be faster to get out and push. Eventually in Terminal C, our gate is the absolute furthest possible gate at the end of a cul-de-sac of gates. We sprint with the other crazed passengers and arrive just in time to board with our group. John gets shin splints and I spend the flight with a squeezing, searing upset stomach that happens whenever I’m really anxious. But we feel so grateful to have made it. And when a faulty jet bridge in Venice impedes our exit from the plane, we laugh.

Continue reading: Venice