Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Light Breakfast

   Still lacking a true American breakfast and still disenchanted with the typical Roman breakfast (see previous post "Colazione Americana") I've crafted my own more personal take on my favorite meal in this Roman setting...this brief sampling of traditional Italian tastes satisfy both enjoyable tastes and experiences.
      Crossing Ponte Sisto from my apartment in Trastevere in the morning I like to meander down a small street called Via Arco del Monte on the way towards Campo de Fiori. On the left side of the road is a beautiful little Pasticeria (pastry shop/bakery) called "Nonna Vincenza" a family operation based on the culinary tradition of the family's very own nonna Vincenza (grandma Vincenza).

      When you walk in you are greeted by a tall bright room filled with natural light and lined with tall walnut cabinets. At the center of the room sits an enormous and broad oak table. On this table and behind the glass of the cabinets sits an endless selection of cakes, pies, cornetti, rolls, fruit tarts, and pastries of every shape. It would take a month to try everything on display there, but I prefer to buy a Brioche, a delicious round bread roll enriched with eggs and butter. It's like a small fluffy loaf of sweet bread and I've found no place that makes them quite like Nonna Vincenza. After giving 1.50 euro to one of the owners at the cash register on the big table, I step back out into the street and head over to Campo de Fiori where the morning produce market is in full swing. 
      The morning market at Campo de Fiori has been a daily tradition since 1869 and it still thrives today. As you walk into the market you are met with a sea of umbrellas and stands selling fruits, flowers, vegetables, dried fruits, beans, juices, plants, and everything you could imagine. Every morning for over a hundred years vendors have set up their umbrellas and their stands, and every afternoon at 2pm they take them back down and get ready for tomorrow's market. 
       I stroll through this old square between stands eating my brioche in search of a stand with a pile of oranges in a basket, an indication that the stand sells Spremunta. A spremunta is a glass of the most delicious fresh squeezed orange juice made right in front of you from blood oranges for a small 2 euro coin. 
    It's not a bad way to spend an hour...I'd recommend it to everyone.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Vintage Finds

     It's hard not to notice the vintage stores on Via Del Governo Vecchio; they seem to burst out their facades out onto the narrow cobbled street in layers of sweaters, shirts, coats, ties, and shoes. These wares are strung out in front on hangers and racks spilling into the pedestrian traffic on the little street in central Rome. You can't help but finger through the racks and peer between the vintage leather jackets, baskets of Norwegian sweaters, and heaps of ties into the little stores as you pass by. If you push through this sea of clothing you'll find yourself in a den of undiscovered and well priced treasures. Every square foot of these small shops are filled. Racks line the walls crammed with vintage sports coats, flannels, dresses, and jackets. Even the ceilings are lined with vintage leather handbags and luggage. It's almost overwhelming.
      What is perhaps even more overwhelming is the selection. You'll find plenty of vintage Burberry overcoats priced from 100 euro, beautiful old Schott leather jackets from 75 Euro, Belstaff Coats from 50 euro, tweed sports coats from 15 euro, and Gloveralls from 100 euro.

    These vintage shops are perfect places for people like myself who enjoy a more classic selection of clothing, something that's hard to find in a country where the most popular brand is Georgio Armani, and its various other subsets.
     The two Barbour Jackets that I bought (a Beaufort, and a Durham) I picked up for 45 euro a piece, a tremendous bargain on a coats that retail between 300 and 500 dollars.

     I believe what must drive these ridiculously low prices for these high end items is a lack of interest in the Italian market for these mostly British brands which don't fall into the popular Italian trends. As a result, if you are in the market for a new Harris Tweeds sport coat, a duffle coat, any style of Barbour, or almost anything else, it's hard to find a better deal or a better selection than what can be found in the vintage shops on Via Del Governo Vecchio. The staff of the shops are friendly, and you can often barter for an even lower price if you play the game right. Via Del Governo Vecchio is a beautiful little medieval street located in the heart of central Rome between Piazza Navona and Corso del Vittorio Emmanuale

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


    First it was the first snowfall Rome had seen in two years, next it was the longest in ten, then it was the heaviest in 30 years. Friday February the 3rd was the coldest day that I've experienced thus far in (with most days averaging around 50 degrees in the winter). After my morning shower I stepped into the kitchen to see the large white snowflakes coming down in the courtyard behind out apartment.
      It snowed in Rome two years ago, but it was immediately clear how unusual this snowfall was after a few hours. On the walk to school at Piazza de Orologio, traffic moved slowly, and the tram along Viale de Trastevere was delayed. As we walked down Via del Governo Vecchio towards a cafe for warmth, a beer, and a panino before class, the Romans stood out in the narrow street with their cameras, making snowballs, or just staring up at the sky in awe. While there was a brief snowfall in 2010, this was the heaviest and most consistent snowfall in over thirty years. It was freezing out and the snow had already begun to accumulate as we walked through Piazza Navona. The streets of Rome are paved with square cobbles called Sanpietrino which proved treacherous and slippers when coupled with the snow and pedestrians moved slowly down the streets to avoid slipping, but also to take in the rarity of the experience.
      A city with an average winter temperature fluctuating between 40 and 60 degrees is never prepared for snow. The tables and chairs of the outdoor cafes were still set for the day as the snow piled on them, and little Fiat 500's crept on their thin tires through the slippery streets; I saw no mopeds on the streets that day. City officials seemed equally unprepared and mystified by the sudden precipitation. Instead of salt trucks and snowplows, men with buckets of salt walked into the center of intersections and tried to spread the salt around while street sweeping trucks used their spinning brushes to try to push the slush and snow off the sidewalks and streets.
       The snow fell steadily through the night and the sky was clear by noon the following day, but the city was in a snow induced comma. The narrow streets of Trastevere were completely shut down and the public transit was too. Very few cars moved down the broad boulevards that cut through the center of town. Instead, the sidewalks knew no bounds as pedestrians spilled out onto the streets to look at the effects of the largest snowfall to hit Rome in their recent memory. There was an look of something extraordinary, unusual, and profound in their faces as they took in the sight of it; the whole city seemed to be paused.
It appeared that everyone had brought out their cameras, and the snowmen that dotted Piazza de Santa Maria leaned against the little cars that were snowed in for the day. Behind these cars boys poked their heads out to toss a snowball across the alley at friends or unsuspecting pedestrians, all to engrossed in the scene to care.
      This rare snowfall will be memorialized in my mind not only by the newspaper photographs of snowmen by the Colosseum and nuns playing in the snow around the Vatican, but also by the feeling of trudging through the snowdrifts on these narrow Mediterranean streets, and the looks on the Roman's faces which told me how special the moment we experienced was.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Porta Portese

     Every Sunday at dawn trucks with all sorts of goods and wares begin setting up tables and tents in long rows down via Portuensis. They unload their trucks and set their stands full with shoes, toys, clothes, books, coats, food, crafts, antiques, art, kitchenware, fabrics, and everything that you could imagine. By 9am the stretch of several miles is crowded with thousands of Italians milling up and down the narrow corridor of pop-up shop fronts manned by salesmen monitoring their flocks of goods; they shout on encouragements to deal thirsty crowds browsing as they pass the tables. It's an unconventional orgy of consumerism; an alluring several miles of bartering, scams, greasy food, deals, junk, and one of a kind finds.
      There's an abundance of junk; This is the most apparent feature; a lot of knock off purses, watches, and rows of miscellaneous junk greet you on the long walk from the entrance at the head of via Portuenses.. Despite this initial sea of sport coats and Tupperware sets, we discovered a handful of interesting stands, some with antiques, some with crafts, even some with higher quality clothing.
    After about a half an hour of meandering at a casual pace, we came to an intersecting path of vendors taking the market in a different direction (in both senses of the phrase). In a matter of feet we found ourselves surrounded by tables and tables of antiques and art, tents over mountains of books, boxes filled with seashells, multi-tiered displays filled with assortments of vintage records and radios, and tons of other eclectic collections.
        I found antique scrimshaws for 60 euro, gold gilted frames, antique paintings from 100 euro, crystal chandeliers, marble mantelpieces, and hundred year old dining room sets. The list goes on. I fingered through leather bound books dating back to the 16 and 17 hundreds (priced at 20 euro), wound the stems of silver pocket watches priced at 35 euro, and picked through oil paintings ranging anywhere from 50 to 250 euro.
       While much of the market was unnecessary junk, this long intersecting avenue of people milling around proved to be loaded with an array of eye catching and unique finds.
  People really do 'mill' around the market, pushing past each other in a ceaseless sea of consumerism. Within the tides of these crowds, you find an assortment of traveling food carts with roasting nuts, beggars shaking plastic cups and pleading with sorry eyes, but also hidden among swarms of people in the middle of these streets are chances to win (but more likely to lose) some money. We found, hidden among the swarms of shoppers an illegal gambling table where passers by put up to fifty euro on one of three blocks with hopes that when flipped over there would be a red square. The man running the operation shuffled the blocks around as he collected the cash which he put into his bag after flipping the blocks to reveal that once again everyone had lost. As I held my phone over the table to snap a photo the man became agitated and pulled the table away shouting 'No Fotografia' before he was lost in the swarming crowds passing by.
           The market is certainly a different experience, and I can think of no immediate parallel in the US other than a flea market. The scale of the place is hard to imagine unless you've walked down the endless rows of vendors; the tables and tents swaying around curves with the flow of the street. Standing in the heart of the market you are lost in a two way road, both the entrance and the exit now too far away, all you see are the lines and lines of tents, and the ebbing crowd. It sort of swallows you up; there are no exits. The first time we went, my good friend and I walked in silence too busy absorbing all the activity around us to say anything. It is a physical and mental workout to digest the scenes as you move through this enormous monument to thrift.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Colazione Americano

A Roman breakfast is a dissapointing one to someone like myself who prefers to start the day off with a more American take on the morning meal. While Americans indulge in a more bountiful selection of eggs, pancakes, cereals, baked goods, juices, teas, and coffees, the Romans prefer a morning diet of caffe al vetro and un corrnetto porta la via (to go). The typical breakfast scene in the city consists of bars (the American equivelant being a cafe, think Starbucks but smaller) filled with Romans waiting at the counter for their coffee, finishing it in a gulp or two and heading back out to the streets. Coffee, or caffe, here is very different in both form and function from that of American coffee. Unlike our coffee, Italian coffee almost always comes in a small, almost shot glass sized ceramic mug contaning no more than two or three sips. Their size is compensated by the intensity of the drink. Each Italian coffee is esentially a shot of pure expresso, often taken without milk or

sugar. Needless to say it is very powerful, powerful enough apparently that when paired with a single crossaint (cornetto), it's enough to fuel the begninning of most Roman's days.
    Should you miss your American coffee, you can always order un caffe Americano, however you would not go unnoticed as you walk the streets or through the piazzas with a tall to-go mug of coffee. Unlike the streets of any city in America, you will never see someone walking to work or down a sidewalk with a mug of anything at all; it's just not how things are done here.
      Every now and then I choose to indulge my inner patriot and venture over to a small cafe that claims to serve 'Colazione Americano' (American breakfast). Though I will give them credit for their effort, no one here cooks eggs bacon, or even toast quite like the Americans do. The result is something that only ever assumes a similar image to that of a real American breakfast; close, but never quite right. For now, I'm giving their breakfast a chance, however, I'm not giving up my search for a place that gets my Colazione Americano correct.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

First Impressions

To get it out of the way early, the architectural atmosphere of Rome is beyond belief. To an American with a very American sense of time's scale (Reaching back to the 18th century), Rome shatters my sense of what old really is. Rome proper and its surrounding neighborhoods are constructed through and through of the most remarkable collection of Renaissance palazzos (the American equivalent lying somewhere between the city blocks of 19th century Manhattan and the row houses along the narrow streets of 18th century Beacon Hill); their size is incredible and their age is awing. These large collages of 200 to 500 year old buildings flow one          

The view from our living room window (left), and other various scenes around the streets of Rome

 into the next along the narrow back streets, meandering along with unpredictable cadence. On the broad avenues that cut through and link these dens of aimless medieval streets, grand palazzos line the busy streets, creating a symmetry and order containing the miscellany of winding streets that hide behind them reaching from the southern bend in the river to the northern. For an American it is hard to initially conceptualize the scale of time that is experienced even in the most insignificant streets and alleys of this city. Being a part of a culture with a historic identity that spans between a fairly

Piazza di Santa Maria (left) and night scenes around Rome

modern period in world history, most Americans have limited regular interaction with architecture that pre-dates the 19th century; as a culture we come into very little contact with highly developed and sophisticated architecture in our country dating any earlier than the 1700's. This may be why it came as such a shock to suddenly fall into a city where a building built in 1700 or 1800 is considered new.
       As we first rolled our suitcases down one of the hundreds of narrow cobbled streets to our apartment in Trastevere, a medieval neighborhood on south bank of the Tiber river, we got our first glimpse of the Roman aesthetic. Let it suffice that I've yet to find a street in this city that I find plain.