The Outskirts of Rome
Text Nikki Werner Photographs Bond, Getty Images/ Gallo Images, Sigrid Verbert/ Food Republic Besides the oppressive temperatures, visiting Rome during peak season is like trying to win over a good-looking Lothario. No matter how much you fall over yourself to please, if you’re not Roman (or Italian, at least) it’s as if you simply don’t exist. It was en route to my Italian contact’s cool parquet-floored apartment bordering the Via Borghese that a cab had pulled up beside me; a large, red-faced American man rolled down the window. ‘Hey man,’ he said, clearly flustered, ‘do you know the Italian for “Colosseum”?’ I opened my map and pointed out the landmark to a mischievous-looking cabbie, who threw up his hands in a feigned light-bulb moment: ‘Oh! Colosseo!’ I wondered how many circuits of Rome they had completed before the appeal for help. My personal Colosseum experience had put an end to any thoughts of engaging with other sites. There is no question that the magnitude of the amphitheatre is impressive. That is, once you make it past the touts offering private tours and the fake centurions with Australian accents and toy-store crowns to don when you sidle up for that photo-op. Most interesting, though, are the documented cultural remnants that confirm its status as man’s earliest sports stadium. The evidence of big-match snacks such as olive pits, date pips and melon seeds, once strewn among the sandalled feet like naartjie peels at Loftus. And depictions of favourite gladiators – ridiculously well endowed in every way imaginable – etched into seats by fans. The rudimentary beginning of Formula One, the Circus Maximus, is within walking distance. Every summer visitors descend en masse to say they’ve seen this evidence of the Empire. And so many bits of ancient civilisation protrude amid the business of daily life that many don’t have labels. Finding the larger-than-life Pantheon slap-bang in front of you when emerging from a narrow via can take you by surprise, and turning a corner to discover the Trevi Fountain is like finding a misplaced piece of movie set. The Romans’ plight is that of the custodian: they have to share it with everyone else. I empathised when observing that any dolce vita spontaneity would be witnessed by an audience eight-backpackers deep and found consolation in gelato from Crispini: hazelnut-and-meringue; seed-flecked strawberry, not in neon pink but the palest rose; and honey, the house speciality. I didn’t press on but savoured my scoops, loitering around the entrance. I sensed the possibility of seconds, and decided the only counter for the lows of Rome rage was surrendering to the highs of these stolen food moments. To a food nerd like myself, even the equivalent of a convenience-store sandwich can inspire as much awe as the Pantheon. Triangular halves of soft, crust-free white bread are filled with thin herby frittata, salami and artichokes, or bresaola (air-dried salted beef) and chopped rocket, and covered with dampened linen napkins to keep them fresh, the old-fashioned way. The cut sides of the sandwiches artfully display the circular pattern of the mortadella (charcuterie studded with pistachios). The pinnacle was on the perimeter of the Campo de’Fiori market where I watched a man making gentle indentations on long boards of proving dough – it was the flour-dusted back entrance to legendary bakery Forno. Out front, his colleagues held up lengths of Roman pizza, a bread knife poised while customers motioned to indicate how long their piece should be. Fresh sections arrived at a steady pace: potato and rosemary, zucchini flowers and anchovies or thinly sliced courgette and mozzarella. It was while deliberating over pizza bianco or the foccacia-like base brushed lightly with tomato that I saw Australian food writer Kylie Kwong. I gushed away and shook her hand madly. ‘Nice to meet you,’ she said, ‘I think we’re both in the best pizza place in Rome.’ Momentarily buoyed by these food epiphanies, I moved on to Nino’s classical bucatini amatriciana, which I’ll forever associate with being directed to a dining room filled with English-speaking guests. You don’t have to venture far out of Il Centro to be welcomed as a long-lost friend – a fellow diner in the nightclub district of Testaccio even offered a papal audience: ‘I work at the Vatican, you know. I can put your names down.’ To the tattooed Bohemians at restaurant Primo in the working-class neighbourhood of Pigneto a stray South African is a novelty. And what you spend on the taxi fare you save on the food bill. At lunch, where juice from fragrant melon wedges dribbled down my chin, ricotta was bundled up in sunshine-yellow ravioli, the result of a completely indulgent egg-yolk-to-flour ratio. ‘This is just our fast food,’ said the owner. ‘You must come back at night!’ But my evening was already dedicated to eating the traditional cacio e pepe – thick spaghetti embraced by a buttery melding of pecorino cheese and black pepper. Some diners have followed chef Flavio from Da Felice to his new kitchen for his way with this recipe, but his repertoire extends to other truly authentic Roman dishes such as coda alla vaccinara – oxtail simmered with tomatoes and celery. Seated on the terrace encircled by terracotta flowerpots and my left elbow dangerously close to the adjacent roof tiles, I was made to feel like a loyal regular. It was that elusive Italian moment we’re all searching for: families chatted in Italian and a waiter tossed this rich and delicious speciality with great drama right under my nose. It’s understandable that the city’s residents might look down their aquiline noses; they have His Holiness for a neighbour and are surrounded by genuine reminders of their Renaissance genius. They’re not short on style either, with Rome’s snappy Carabinieri uniforms designed by Valentino and Armani. Historically, goods simply arrived in Rome from the colonies; the world has always come to them. Making the masses invisible may simply be the Romans’ mechanism for coping with the onslaught. But before you land up feeling like a spurned lover, spread your affections, snub the obvious and invest in a ride to the emerging suburbs.