Monday, 26 November 2012

Rome

I went to Rome! I'm so surprised this happened. We'd talked about going to Rome but time and money (mainly money) and other commitments had meant that it never seemed like it was going to happen. I can't really remember booking it. I was in one of my moods. One of those moods where I do something impulsive that involves spending lots of money and later regret it. I don't regret this though! Dave is a classics geek which is handy since that's what his degree is in. In fact, the main purpose of the trip was for him to go and see the Arch of Constantine and have some thoughts about it. He made me pretend to be a Roman peasant seeing the Arch for the first time to bounce ideas off me. Kinky. I went along for the ride. I like going to see things which I've seen in pictures and read about before. The Ugly Sisters said that's me grappling for cultural currency (ch-ching!) but I think they were joking so I won't get too defensive about that comment. I also like food. And apparently Italy's quite good for food. Of course, Rome is a popular tourist destination so I made a point to look up some places which were cheap but good. The Guardian had lots of articles on it and on a day when I was supposed to be writing my coursework, I trawled through the suggestions and drew them on a map. So I could see what landmarks they were near, of course. Of the twenty different places on my little lame map, we visited three. We did try to visit five but one was far too full and one had just finished its lunch service. I must say, I was underwhelmed by the three that we did visit. The first we visited on the first night. Since we arrived quite late, we decided to do an evening stroll through Rome to give me some opportunity to keep reiterating 'Look! We're in Rome!' and also to see some of the sights by night time. My companion got so excited by the baths of Dioclesian. It was cute. We then walked across the river (after getting very lost and disagreeing in a very gender-stereotyped way about whether to ask for directions) into Trastevere and finally found Freni e Frizioni. It had a relaxed and slightly chic atmosphere, the decor was sparse and industrial. Most people were Italian and sipped their drinks casually sitting on the wall outside while enjoying aperitivo on little paper plates. We were tired after a day of travelling and wanted to have a little sit down so we decided to head somewhere else. Over the river we went in search of Il Ditirambo on the Piazza della Cancelleria. Again, we got very lost and confused and almost stopped at a bar modelled on a library for a drink except then my stomach grumbled and I requested that we move on to find the food. Eventually, against all odds, we found it. Or at least, maybe we found it. The waiter said 'Ditirambo?' to us, implying that the restaurant that we saw was that self same restaurant. However, it had a different name. And indeed, looking at the photos and menu on the website now, I don't think it was the same restaurant. WE WERE SCAMMED. Oh well, the place we went to was cheap and decent. But only that. I had the tortellini with ham and cream while Dave had the first of many pizzas.
Dave was keen to stress that the pizza was really nothing special. He found it bland. As did I in the one mouthful I had of it. The tortellini was an improvement as the prosciutto was of a high standard and the creamy gloopy and thick. The filling was moist and almost powdery. Still, uninspiring. The second day we hit the forum. Dave spent about an hour photographing the arch and then we spent another two hours wandering the forums and the Palatine and the Senate House and that big basilica that's all ruined and of course, the Colosseum. My companion stressed how the Colosseum was really a horrific building as it made death a sport and really empathised with all those gladiators. I thought that was cute. We'd worked up quite the appetite despite the expensive salami panino we'd shared for breakfast. Li Rioni was just down the road from the Colosseum so off we trotted to there. It looked open and there were a few stragglers in there but the friendly, relaxed Italian patron told us he was closed. He recommended a place called Na Machia down the road. Apparently that means sea battle in Greek and is a reference to how the Romans would flood the Colosseum and enact sea battles for people to watch. Dave <3 Greek. I was again uninspired by the menu but we opted for cheesy mushroom luganica sausage pizza with some courgette fritti and liver bruschetta on the side.
The liver bruschetta was a little too irony and thick for me, it kind of clung to my nose in a not very pleasant way. The courgette fritti had an overly thick batter around it and had the inside spoilt by too much anchovy which detracted from the fresh courgette which is what I really wanted. The pizza was the best bit of the meal and the sausage retained its moist texture through oven cooking. The mushrooms were bursting with flavour. Again, it all had a slightly off aroma that clung and made the thing less than pleasant. Still, it refuelled us for an afternoon of church viewing as we walked through the park like area very close to the Colosseum to the Santa Maria Degli Angelli since we'd heard there was a Galileo exhibition there but it was really just some large placards talking about how he connected science with God. Again, the ornateness of our surroundings made up for that disappointment. After a short nap to drain the lactic acid from our museum legs, we ambled down by the Trevi fountain and by the Pantheon. An awkward chat with a guy who wanted to take our photograph later, we escaped to Armando Al Pantheon, the only place around there which made a big deal of its name. An unassuming exterior revealed a homely restaurant full of slightly older Italians. Everyone had more than one course and sipped their bottles of wine. We were not classy enough for this place. Still, they treated us just as nicely as their other patrons. We opted for the spaghetti al' oglio which my companion mistakenly thought had meat in it and I went for the spaghetti all' ammatriciana.
                                                
Thick and slightly clinging to the al dente pasta, I realised that the tortellini from the previous night had definitely been overcooked. And also that I had overcooked every dish of pasta I've ever made. It was a treat. The spaghetti with olive oil let the natural flavours sing more. It all felt very healthy so we didn't (overly) mind the 30 euros we paid for that with still water. I was starting to feel a little bit underwhelmed by the whole experience though. I could recognise that I'd eaten one of the technically best bowls of pasta I'll ever eat but a little bit of me had that niggling thought that I quite enjoy the English take where we throw what the Italians would term too many ingredients into the pan. Still, I had the atmosphere of Rome and wine to distract me so I didn't give this much thought.

The next morning held more distraction after we went on a wonderful walk, retracing our steps from the previous evening and then going up the Via del Corso to the Spanish steps, eventually ending up at the Piazza del Popoli. At this point, I really wanted to explore the Villa Borghese and its art gallery but it was already one and we had a pressing engagement at the Vatican. We had a meeting arranged with the Pope, you see. That's just not true but we wanted to fully explore the Vatican Museum. On the walk to Vatican City lay La Campana tucked away in a little alley off the Via del Ripetta. It looked a little pricy but I persuaded my companion that it would be a good idea by offering to pay. He should have stood his ground, this place will not receive a great review from me. The menu was simple (as all Italian menus are) but also made us realise that we forgive this simplicity more on a pizza. When applied to cuts of meat, the descriptions of one technique applied to a dish sounded much less appealing. I opted for the meatballs with peas and he went for the veal with ham, sage and mushrooms.
                                      
Don't misunderstand me, the meatballs were soft and perfectly textured and probably some of the best I'd ever tasted. The tomato sauce was mellow and rich and thoroughly enjoyable to mop up with the bread. It was just all a little boring. That tomato was the same tomato I'd tasted in the spaghetti the night before and I would come to learn that it was very similar to the boar bolognese that I tried the next night. The veal was more interesting, instead of tasting of that homogenous Italian tomato and cheese combo, it was sharp and acidic and heady. Still, a little too salty for me. Although interesting, I still preferred the dish I've just slated as boring. I'm probably just disgruntled because it seems like we're paying patrician prices for peasant dishes. We were back to the usual meat and cheese by evening though; I inadvertently caused us to walk around the Vatican Museum twice and our poor feet were aching like nothing on Earth. This is what caused us to choose Il Chianti, a vineria opposite the souvenir shops we'd just frequented. I ordered the boar bolognese with the misogynistic waiter and Dave opted for yet another cheese and bacon pizza.
                                             
I found that pizza too cheesy and the bacon not quite crisp enough. The boar bolognese lacked the mellowness in the sauce I'd grown accustomed to expecting but had a meatier kick. I liked the low hum of clove and bay with the meat though. Still, as I remarked over dinner, I was thoroughly bored by Italian food. I enjoy Italian food. I'd been thinking about all the pasta that I'd be eating all of last week. But I just didn't find any food anywhere near as good as what I'd been expecting. Yes, the charm of Italian food is that they can make three ingredients taste pretty great. And the free olive oil and rosemary pizza that we got at the last place was good enough to make me consider evangelising about the Italian approach. But they still don't need to be so stubborn about it! Imagine what they could do with even more ingredients. I think what I'm trying to say is that I actually appreciate our bastardised English take on Italian food rather than Italian food itself. That, or I need more money and time to explore it. The best food memory I have of this trip are of a cafe which does pizza by slice next to the Trevi fountain. I thought it'd be a tourist trap but the 2 euro slice filled with juicy tomato, rocket and prosciutto proved me wrong.
Most of the toppings in that cafe were a lot busier than those we'd seen in the other pizzerias and I think that's why I enjoyed them so much. I'll be trying to find more gems like that next time I'm in Italy.

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