Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Immaculate Beatle

To a Briton such as myself, the 8th December will always be foremost remembered as the day I heard the world had lost a Beatle.  Here in Rome today, I was distracted by a National holiday which kicks off with the Pope swinging past the Spanish Steps in his Popemobile and officially opening Christmas on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.  Back in England, most supermarkets and chain stores will have already been torturing their clients for at least a month with gaudy tinsel, Slade and billboards defying them to create anything less than a perfect Christmas.

In Rome today, the city began to twinkle with fairy lights and the churches proudly displayed their nativities, minus the hundreds of figures of baby Jesus still stored away, lovingly swaddling in bubblewrap until the eve of the 24th when they will be placed in the empty cribs. By lunchtime, I’d already seen a handful of these charming stable scenes and Catholic Gastro-gnome had gleefully confirmed the date of this year's carol service at the Protestant church near the Spanish Steps, not for a possible change of denomination but in anticipation of the homemade mince pie sale which dangles from the last note of Come All Ye Faithful. 

 
As this day draws to an end, stacks of Panettone and Pandoro will have been purchased and devoured around the capital today, another 3000 Euros will have been faithfully tossed into the Trevi Fountain pool and hundreds of candles will have been lit by pensive visitors to the capital’s 900 plus churches. How many were lit silently along with mine, in memory of Lennon on the 30th anniversary of his loss, one can only imagine...

Friday, November 5, 2010

Just don't breathe!

Temperatures plummeted last week and somewhere between devouring a cream filled croissant and downing my second cup of Fortnum’s smoky Earl Grey, I was forcing to carry out an emergency "cambio di stagione".  Traditionally it takes a whole weekend to store away the linen and unwrap the cashmere but masterfully I achieved it in under 15 minutes partly due to the absence of my mid-weight early Autumn outdoor collection which went up in smoke last September after the coat stand in my hall got jammed up against a 17th century Venetian wall light and carbonized its entire contents.  Another time saving was to leave unexamined and packed away the mounting reserve of trousers no longer able to find their away around my waist. It’s not just the annual arrival of  Pandoro and Panettone which will hinder any attempt to squeeze back into these clothes but recently, a Roman friend confirmed what I had always suspected: Roman air is in fact fattening.  The calorific output and daily exchange of gastronomic pleasure from a zillion pasticcerie, gelaterie, and trattorie dotted around the city releases something intangible into the atmosphere which facilitates the delightful Roman phenomenon of ” Passive Eating”.  It doesn’t matter where you sit, there are no compartments which can save you from the effects of passive eating in Rome. Your ears will hear flowery descriptions of food, your nose will pick up the aroma and even if you keep your mouth firmly closed, you will never be far from a chef prepping, a barista grounding or somebody’s grandma peeling.  If you really insist on losing weight in the Eternal city (why would you?), the only solution is to actually stop breathing.

Alternatively, go and breathe in the skinny, low-fat, semi-skimmed air at the biggest fruit and vegetable market in Rome: “ Il  Mercato Esquillino” in Piazza Vittorio.  Here, one could forget they were in Rome with the mountains of ethnic spices, nuts and vegetables from all over the world. In November the glow of autumnal orange throughout the market is due to Loti season. Known to Romans as cachi they are a delicious fruit grown locally , are too delicate to transport and look like a piece of a Pre Raphaelite still life.  Here the air is proported to be much less fattening and if you walk from Termini Station, you just might lose a kilo, if you can hold your breath for that long. 


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Importance of Being Bulgarized!

If Oscar Wilde had been Roman, he would most certainly have written “The Importance of Being Important.”  For many Romans, “Earnest” is about as unfamiliar a concept as buying shoes from a cash-and-carry.  "Important" on the other hand means extra special dispensation and social distinction above all others. In other words: Special. Who knows if this goal to be special could be an overreaction to having been bossed about for most of the last century by a succession of balding spinning midgets but it seems to go much deeper than the desire to wear a uniform and terrorise people with a whistle, although they do that pretty effectively here too.  Once I taught English to the president of a local company who after an obscene amount of lessons could only ever master two three-word collocations: “Wife big problem” and “Very important person.”   Instinctively he knew it was all the English he would ever need in Rome.

Importance in Rome relates to who you know: who can recommend you, operate on you and or just save you from wretched insignificance. Tell a Roman you have a fine or a ticket and his reflex response will be “do you have to pay it?”  I wouldn't propose an earnest British reply of “Yes of course”  as this will only provoke pity.  Even if in reality you are about as prestigious in Rome as a bottle of plonk from an English vineyard, the secret is: always fake it.  Faking importance can be achieved either subliminally by for instance:
Using a Mont Blanc fountain pen for everything, even when fidgeting around for something to sign for a delivery.
Wearing a shirt with your little red initials embroidered prominently somewhere. (men only please)
Training staff in the bar below your apartment to address you by your professional title at all times; “Espresso professoressa?” 
Waiting at a traffic light about a metre in front of everyone else, usually on a crossing where pedestrians can pay homage to you as they walk around the full circumference of your vehicle. (A friend who now lives in Paris used to pay homage with a briefcase full of Cambridge KET exam preparation text books hard against the bonnet)

Or more obviously by:
 BVlgari accessorizing "Bulgarizing" yourself to death, (the bejewelled eye glasses are an essential statement of "I matter"  even if you have 50-50 vision.)
 Buying a Smart car just for grocery shopping and dumping it practically in the trolley park by the entrance to the supermarket.
 Displaying your full name, engraved onto an A3 piece of brass as close as possible to the entrance of the building where you practice your very important profession. A key profession in which to be worshipped  is a legal “notaio”, a type of solicitor who specialises in property sales law: curious in a city where the housing market has been dead nearly as long as Caesar. 

Or on special occasions: birthdays, wedding anniversaries. Flowers and cards don’t say “You are special” half as eloquently as dumping one’s giant four-wheel drive half on a zebra,  and half across the full span of a path, demonstrating to passing mothers and nannies with pushchairs and people in wheelchairs alike just how “special” you really are.




Thursday, September 23, 2010

Eat Pray Did You Love the Film?


My great love of film has already predisposed me well to becoming a Roman as what I lack in my vegetarianism, I can claw back as a film buff.  For a Roman, going to the cinema is up there in his top 5 pursuits of pleasure during winter, so when a film opens which was actually filmed in the city, its release is greatly anticipated and then slammed if it doesn't represent Rome the way Romans see Rome.  Last Sunday, I finally got to see Eat Pray Love with Gastro-gnome by my side, painfully groaning at any hint of a stereotype. Mario Lanza singing Arrivederci Roma in The Seven Hills of Rome made him howl like wounded animal years ago. Eat Pray was considerably more enjoyable for both of us although less so for the Roman press. You be the judge. 
  
Filming took place in and around Piazza Navona which doesn’t stick strictly to the  locations in Elizabeth Gilbert's much loved, best selling memoir, but it is visually stunning on the screen. Elizabeth is played by Julia Roberts and the book was described as "a travel map for those lost in the middle of their lives" For those who would like a travel map of the locations visited in the film and book read on... 


Julia Roberts as Liz stays in an apartment in Via dei Portoghesi which had remained shrouded in tarpaulin and scaffolding ever since the film shoot until a few weeks ago.  Presumably the influx of funds from Hollywood has paid for its complete overhaul. The building is stunning but unfortunately has lost the crumbling, ivy clad beauty it had before. I shudder to think what Rome would look like if there were enough money to renovate the whole city in this way. Liz in the book stayed nearer to the Spanish Steps in the back streets where Audrey Hepburn wandered with Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday.  

Julia Roberts as Liz chats to Luca Spaghetti in a Barber's shop which can also be found in Via dei Portoghesi below the same apartment . It is a barber's shop in real life too but not as antiquated in style as it appeared in the film. 

Julia Roberts as Liz exchanges language with the handsome Italian in what appears to be a typical Roman trattoria with red and white tableclothes.  Strangely with a huge choice on hand, a bar was adapted for the shot. The bar in question was “Caffe delle Pace”, a wonderful place to sit outside for an aperitif around 7pm or inside to curl up in winter with a delicious slice of sachertorte chocolate cake.  H E A V E N !

Julia Roberts as Liz sending her final email to David may have also been filmed inside the same location.  I believe Liz in the book wrote the email in a much less attractive venue, namely the sleazy Easy Internet Cafe in Piazza Barberini. It has since closed and become a bank.



Julia Roberts as Liz shows off her Italian by reeling off everyone's food order on a leafy open terrace. The terrace belongs to the Santa Lucia Restaurant in front of the Hotel Raphael which is almost completely obscured by a wall of ivy. I can't recommend this restaurant as I've never tried it. The location is fabulous and romantic but possibly a little touristy.  I can however recommend the luxurious Hotel Raphael for its fantastic location and roof-top terrace, tucked away behind Piazza Navona. The service can be indifferent but it's in Rome; Romans don't do servile unless they have little else to offer.  I promise you that's not the case here.  


Julia Roberts as Liz eats an ice cream sitting in Piazza Navona. Where she bought it isn't shown in the film. I've seen the credit given to Gelateria San Crispino as the American press professes this chain to serve the best ice cream in Rome. I think it's over-priced and over-rated but the flavours with meringue in are a triumph so definitely try it out.  Liz in the book surely tried ice cream everywhere and at one point she clearly makes a reference to my favourite, secret gelateria where she was taken by a food critic to taste the best rice ice cream on the planet.


So enjoy the film, Elizabeth Gilbert is certainly pleased with it and I will go on explaining to Gastro-gnome why she chose to travel to India and Bali to Pray and Love when all three actions are a blissful priority right here in the Eternal City.  Beats me! If it had been called Eat, Pray,Work then she would definitely have been sent on her merry way...

Friday, September 17, 2010

Do Me a Favour!

“No good deed goes unpunished” I was reminded of this once again as I nearly came a cropper on my bike, whilst dropping off a bottle of Prosecco for a friend, as a favour, last week. As I pushed my cycle across a pedestrian crossing, barely a chalky trace of which remained visible on the tarmac, I encountered the most deadly of all hybrids: Roman white-van man. As he edged his way around a corner, his wheels finally crunched to a halt as my bike disappeared underneath them. Clearly my high-visibility cycling outfit, namely blond hair and a short skirt, generally more effective than top-to-tail dayglow, had failed me on this occasion. After the obligatory post-prang phase of shouting and pointing, a period of giggling led to my climbing up into the passenger seat of the big white van and being driven way across town, crumpled pile of metal spokes thrown into the back en-route to “Simone 88” my bike repair shop.  As we inched our way through the traffic along the Tiber what little remained of my British reservedness frustratingly refused me permission to quiz the driver with as many direct questions as he was firing at me.  As we swung round past Castel Sant’Angelo, I caught sight of a familiar street performer: “The Grim Reaper” I remembered him from the afternoon before, his costume bodged together with long strips of brown parcel tape, menacingly extracting offerings from jet-lagged tourists and lovers dangerously entwined on the wall above the Tiber. I recalled the sinister look he threw me and how he stared threateningly at the rear section of my bike as I paused to look at the castle, hands firmly on my handlebars, not fidgeting for change in my bag.  Maybe I would have been wise to have thrown him a coin..

A couple of hours later, after thanking Roman white-van man for his abundant humanness in transporting me and offering to pay for my sparkling new back wheel, I headed back across the city , the mid-afternoon sun’s army of rays marching straight for me. The secret of surviving a Roman sun attack is to take shelter along the Tiber, in the shade of the trees, with an ice-cold grattachecca (granita) purchased from one of the city’s characteristic kiosks dotted along Lungotevere. A glass full of ice shavings with fruit juice drizzled on top is a really pleasurable way to ward off dehydration, especially those which use real fruit potions rather than sweet syrups. In Puglia this summer, my favourite cooling-down drink was “The’ freddo con granita al limone”: a glass of chilled tea with a generous helping of lemon sorbet floating in it. Try it out: D i v i n e!

As I sat by the Tiber with my lemon grattachecca, I deliberated over my current choice of transport.  Maybe I could start fighting back on a Vespa, then I would really start to feel like a galloping knight not an easily dispensable pawn with a piddling bell. But could I really cope in the motorized league? Had I become "Roman" enough yet?  Michelangelo and Raphael had managed to survive on a bike but then again they didn’t have to negotiate Roman white-van man or maybe they just concentrated on their Papal commissions, avoided street performers and never did favours for their friends. 


Granita recommendations:
La Vie en Rose, Nice French Art Cafe, Via del Pellegrino 127 (280 bus along the Tiber, 10 mins walk from Castel San’Angelo, behind Piazza Farnese)
Grattachecche Kiosk: Ponte Cavour by the fountain. Real fruit potions. 
Alla Fonte D'Oro: Piazza GG Belli, Trastevere Ancient Grattachecche. Pieces of fruit in syrup. (Tram 8 , get off by the Tiber.)

Bike Sales and Bike Repair Shop: Simone 88, Porta Portese.  Tell Simone " La bionda straniera" sent you and then haggle for a discount (Tram 3 to Trastevere Station, get off by the Tiber)



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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Blond Ambition

The peaceful vibe in Rome has changed this week and the reason is “il rientro” It’s all Romans can talk about and it’s being blamed for everything from lack of parking to the end of "The Party along the Tiber". Tourists might be forgiven for believing Rome is currently involved in an Italian space program given that “il rientro” sounds like something could be heading, shuttle-shaped in our direction, risking burn-up on re-entrance of the earth’s atmosphere. Romans sound concerned and sincere as they mouth “Buon Rientro” into their mobile phones. In actual fact, Rome is bang in the trajectory of a series of speeding masses, last impact estimated around Sunday teatime tomorrow. These moving constellations are starry clusters of well-heeled Romans who decamped to their beach homes a few months ago.  By the end of this weekend, they will have reluctantly elbowed their way back into the centre of their universe (il rientro) blocking its main arteries and paralysing it once again before shooting back up to their 5th floor apartments, having achieved their common goal:to chill out and become blond. 

Romans love nothing more than to be complimented on how blond they have turned during the summer although the Roman perception of “blond” is at times quite hard to define. It generally covers anything they adore which appears more heavenly and ethereally pale when kissed by the Roman sun.  The combination of pizza and" birra bionda" (lager) is haled as spiritual.  Even the big-mouse infected Tiber is often affectionately dubbed the “il Biondo Tevere ” (The Blond Tiber).  As a new Roman, I totally get that compared to London’s muddy brown Thames the Tiber’s summer murky-green hues are genuinely as blond as Bo-Jo, London’s mayor. 

In Rome, any woman who doesn’t have raven hair and brown eyes should be prepared to answer to “Oow Bionda!” the generally accepted way in which the likes of bus drivers and policemen address women whose hair might once have been described as church-mouse back in their grey home towns.  The Roman man’s obsession with blond is well documented and goes way deeper than chasing Swedish girls around nightclubs in Testaccio. The truth is his secret ambition is to become blond too. Who knows if Michelangelo and Botticelli  ever rubbed lemon juice into their hair while painting golden-maned goddesses and angels but obviously this fixation has been going on for quite a while. Come September, “Chamomile and Honey shampoo” is usually harder to find than a brunette presenter on Italian TV as Roman men buy it all up in the hope that it will preserve their precious sun-bleached hair long after the side-effects of "il rientro" have been forgotten.  On the bright side, if I happen to run out myself, I can always dig into Gastro-gnome's secret stash. He is of course by his calculations not tall, dark and handsome but more blond than I am at the moment, but then so is the Tiber.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

So Where is the Good Cake?

Apparently there are 14,ooo lawyers currently practicing in Rome.  That’s 14,000 more than Starbucks cafes in the Eternal city and 13,998 more than public toilets available to tourists in the city centre.  Nothing untoward so far for a new Roman whose transformation is on schedule, in fact, alarm bells shouldn’t start ringing until you hear that not so long ago, I moved into an apartment near Italy’s Palace of Justice, only to discover there are 14,000 more lawyers than Roman artisan cake shops in my neighbourhood.  Talk about giant cake hole in the market!  The logical progression of events in Rome is generally harder to grasp than an inch of free handrail on a bus bombing around the Colosseum so I’ve long since stopped asking; "Why?"  Maybe it all stems from a possible truncation of Marie Antoinette’s message  ““Let them eat cake... but don't let their insatiable lawyers have any.”

Secretly, I’d  never given up hope that one marvelous pasticcere, genius cakemaker,  might be hiding somewhere, sculpting millefoglie and mimosa throughout the night.  Once I quizzed the greedy-deli where I buy my 100g of Caciotta, Crema di Siena, cost equivalent of 100g of Palio winning horse: no leads.  I even asked my espionage-fixated landlady who promptly suspected entrapment and feigned an unconvincing disinterest in chocolate profiterole. Then finally one day a breakthough;  an unexpected tip-off from the crazy pants by the Tiber who periodically lobs multipacks of tissues into my bike basket when I ‘m clearly not going to make the lights and then requests payment.  I generally haven’t responded to his chit-chat  since the time he invited me to “mettere le corna”, make "The Sign of the Horns" with him because Donatella my neighbour does, so by all accounts I might want to too. The horns in question would subsequently grow from my partner’s head after the proposed betrayal with said crazy pants.  So offer ruefully declined,  one rush hour, trapped at the lights by even more spectacular gridlocking than usual, crazy pants gave me a name and I insisted he raised his tissue prices. Before long I was following a trail of flour and almonds to the secret artisan cake maker of my dreams. 

Concealed behind stained glass, inside the courtyard of a residential building advertised as a hotel from the outside, I found "Palmieri", a hive of activity creating exquisite cakes and savoury pastries to order. Ordering in person has extra added benefits; if they have made too many mini pizzas you can buy them hot out of the oven and cycle home with them melting in your mouth.  The winning concept of Palmieri-to-order and of Romans in general is that nobody expects you to justify the enjoyment of pleasure with a special occasion. You may well have finished decorating your spare room, turned 95 or finished the Times crossword but as far as this city is concerned you are alive; Order a cake!  but just don’t tell your lawyer otherwise it might cost you! 

Pasticceria recommendations:
Palmieri Pasticceria:  Cakes and savouries  to order ensures maximum freshness and great value. Metro: Linea A Le Panto or Ottaviano
Giovanni Aldo Pasticceria.  What this man can’t do with sponge and raspberries isn’t worth knowing about. Metro: Linea A Furio Camillo or  Colli Albani 

Friday, August 6, 2010

Alice in Chain Restaurants


Frequent trips back to London serve to sharpen my perspective of the Eternal city less I become inclined to regard its haunting beauty and sanguine chaos as commonplace in every capital.  Before a summer trip back, my general disposition is of one who has just been called up for jury service and dragged off the set of an episode of Jeux sans Frontieres, c 1974.  As I change out of my bikini and begin the hunt for my driving licence, my mood lightens as I start to scribble a mental shopping list in my mind: Fortumn and Mason’s Smoky Earl Grey Tea, Frank Cooper’s Vintage Oxford Orange Marmalade, Marks and Spencer's egg and watercress sandwiches. Clearly I’m all about the food.

I sigh at the prospect of eating pseudo-Italian food in London where the spread of  fake Italian chain restaurants is endemic.  On the plane, I wonder how many new cases will have sprung up in my absence.  Once, a London economist told me that such chain restaurants had indeed improved the quality of the restaurant industry.  Maybe what he meant to say is they have bumped up profitability and encouraged an alarming proportion of the English middle class to try and order  “Broooshetta” (The correct pronunciation of “bruschetta” is “brusketta”).  In reality, these places have very little to do with the "magic of Italy" but as far as marketing works on the English, yesterday’s newspapers would still fly off the shelves today if clearly labelled “Authentic Italian”,  whatever that might mean.  One chain thinks it means offering Piaggio Vespa scooters for sale on the dessert menu, for around £2000 a pop and that's one of the more authentic ones.  In Rome the secret of "Authentic Italian" is seasonal, fresh, simple food.  Cappuccino is drunk until 11 a.m. not upsold to wash down a pizza at 11 p.m. Pesto is served with fresh trofie, not slapped across the pert breast of a bewildered chicken. And not even a first generation Roman could identify a garlic dough ball even if Roma’s star striker Francesco Totti possessed the artistry required to score a goal with one.

During my recent trip back to London, the air was buzzing with compliments for the latest “Authentic Italian" chain restaurant to open.  The latest strain of this epidemic is called “Fifteen” and chief mutant in the kitchen is known to all in Blighty as Jamie Oliver, a.k.a. “The Naked Chef” - why "naked" I don’t know but if the Romans saw his addition of double cream and thyme to his carbonara recipe they would surely strip him naked and dump him by the Tiber.  That said, his menus look creative and his policy of employing only young chefs and installing his passion for food into them is inspiring. For this reason alone I will make a point of visiting one next time I'm back; I'm curious to see the dimensions of the "GIANT green olives from Puglia" on offer.  Maybe I'll even slay a few with a chilled glass of prosecco in the coming days as I'm off to Salento in Puglia tomorrow. In the meantime, my advice to the Naked Chef:  Put your clothes back on and keep it simple!


Photo credit: Keeping the bill simple by Josie Ochej


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Friday, July 2, 2010

Surprise Surprise!

Who doesn’t love surprises? Well me, if the definition of a surprise is something you don’t see coming because who can predict outcomes which aren’t a result of the sane, reliable, logical methods employed and trusted all of one’s life?  The secret of becoming a new Roman is to visualise these alternative outcomes- little surprises as moments of magic which put a bemused smile on your face as opposed to a burning rage in your belly which can only be extinguished by downing a vat of prosecco.   

So here’s a number of things which no longer surprise me:
1) A nun dragging a bag of cement mix up a stairwell.
2) A spontaneous transport strike on a scorching hot Friday, only hours after defending champions Italy crash out of the world cup in the humiliating company of  Switzerland and Greece.  Plenty of wound licking on nearby sandy beach!
3) The last bus hurtling out of Piazza San Silvestro, a good five minutes ahead of its scheduled departure, driver intent on flattening anyone desperate enough to try and board it. 
4)Roman parents throwing themselves over their children in shops, buses and airports in a fit of panic.  It's not a gun being brandished but the remote control for the air conditioning and Romans are terrified of air-con.
5)Three-for-two specials in the local supermarket which a closer inspection of till receipt discloses the offer only applies to members of the supermarket. Note to Superali: Join supermarket not gym!

And things which still surprise me:
1) The ridiculous price of basic shampoo and hygiene products when compared to Rome’s shockingly low average wage. Is the government adding supertax to maximise profits on a prime Roman weakness: Vanity? Secret: never buy anything in a pharmacy. 
2) Bumping into two partially sober, kilted Scotsmen outside my apartment, fencing with Italian flags they have just purchased from white-van man parked by the Tiber.
3) Fireworks being propelled spectacularly out of a canon on top of Castel Sant’ Angelo to celebrate St Peter ‘s and St Paul’s Day, the two Roman saints. Spectacularly propelled the day before the actual saints day, so missed it once again. I heard it from my kitchen but thought they were just practicing.
4) The complete ban on buying alcohol from bars or supermarkets anywhere in Rome when an English football team, or more specifically Manchester United F.C. are playing at the Olympic stadium.  Of course this is in theory; denying Romans liquid pleasure while their city is crawling with bare-breasted Anglo-Saxons suffering from special-brew-induced sunstroke seems a little rash.
 5) The fact that Romans love Wall’s Viennetta.  How can this be possible when real Italian ice cream is never more than a cone’s throw away from anyone? I’d rather eat the box than milk and sugar sculpted by a multinational.

Sometimes the surprises are indeed magical and not a result of “Special Roman Logic” as I generally refer to it.  Last week as I cycled out of the dreamlike Borghese Gardens near my home, I reached the Tempietto di Minerva and found it floating in a flock of inflatable geese.  They were neither art, nor for sale. Nobody was asking for money, nor filming them. They were just there for the sake of beauty and surprise, the type of surprise I love!
Borghese Gardens: Metro A. Flaminio.



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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Was it the council or the Capulets who kidnapped the car and the vessel with the pestle...?

Lately, I’ve been taking stock of my ongoing transformation from precise Briton to abstract new Roman and asking myself some really harsh questions, such as: Will I ever manage to leave the cheese counter having purchased something I can actually stomach?  Will I ever be able to buy clothes in Rome, given that only extra-small is ever hung on show and my size is generally stored down in the basement to avoid frightening local children? 

A key factor slowing down the progress is my inability to stop assuming every new predicament I find myself in, will pan out the way it does in England. For better or for worse, it just doesn’t.  Take the other morning when Gastro-gnome and I dashed out of my flat, only to find a slightly larger car parked outside Dante Alighieri High School in the exact spot where Little Peugot had once stood.  A quick look around showed up nothing untoward; zebra-crossings loaded with parked cars, paths littered with scooters, pedestrians choosing to dodge flying vehicles in the road, rather than find themselves trapped on paths.  Clearly Little Peugot had been kidnapped and as yet no ransom note had materialised.  We reasoned optimistically, if we had to go down to Naples to find her, at least we could bring back some mozzerella di bufala.  Maybe the modern day Romeo and Juliet who recently proclaimed their love with a red spray can across the front wall of their High School had used Little Peugot to run away together, escaping their feuding families. 

Eventually, it transpired that she had been towed to a pound, picked on for seemingly much less reason than a dozen vehicles parked around her. A bank security guard had watched with bemusement as Little Peugot sat in shock like a baby blackbird on the back of the truck .  He confirmed she was probably being held against her will, 200 metres down the road behind the Olympic stadium I hastily totted up the probable price of her release, based on the last time my car was towed outside Wembley arena in London, 10 years ago.  Back then, I paid a price which could have comfortably included a full service as well.   In the end Little Peugot’s ransom was less than a quarter of my calculations.  It seems the retrieval price is minimal on a small car much as a  young delinquent would receive a reduced sentence for their crimes.  If you choose to collect the car a few days later, each day is charged at considerably less than a normal day’s parking in the same zone.   As a cheerful little Sardinian man seated on a white plastic chair wrote out a receipt for his ill-gotten gains, no explanation for the abduction was offered but recommendations for restaurants and hotels in Sardinia were thankfully forthcoming and gratefully received.  So car and owner where reunited.  Little Peugot’s rap sheet described her as “dirty” which mortified Gastro-gnome, who like all Romans shares a deep love with his mother and his car, or in many cases, her car as that’s what they are driving.  The spray-painted words on the High School wall, named after Italy’s greatest romantic poet Dante Alighieri, could easily have been written by any Roman motorist to his beloved chariot:  “Our love is like music which can never end”.  It's no coincidence that the new Alfa Romeo model is called Giulietta! That's love.

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

When Is a Bridge Not a Bridge?

When a Roman talks feverishly about a bridge, “Ponte”  there’s little chance he’s referring to anything spanning the Tiber.  He could be enthusing about status-symbol leather goods, trademark The Bridge but the likelihood is, the bridge in question relates to a one-day National holiday, which, if it were to fall on a Tuesday for example, could merge with the nearest weekend to form a four-day holiday: Ponte, a figurative construction with the power to magically spirit away working days in between. Lately, some work-shy Romans have been bemoaning the loss of two precious bridges, neither of which has collapsed, or been sold brick by brick to the Americans. Both have failed to materialize due to a calendric catastrophe, namely the last two National Holidays have fallen on a weekend. Che pizza! What a pain! But just as it seemed all was lost, Bingo! Today sees a National Holiday fall on a Wednesday which can only mean one thing: Superponte! June 2nd marks the anniversary of Italy becoming a Republic and what better way to celebrate than to bridge today with two equidistant weekends and take the whole week off.  If your boss happens to be a royalist or still refer to Piazza della Repubblica as Piazza Esedra, its pre-Republic name, you may have had to consider a one-way bridge, the secret being to check with Guido Guidi’s weather forecast first before deciding in which direction.

Taking an extended holiday to mark the day Italy sent its Royal Family packing is a curious concept to a Briton whose Royal Family continues to be one of her country’s star attractions.  Maybe the Queen would have to consider upping her game in the face of stiff competition like a Pope or the works of Michelangelo if she faced getting the heave-ho too.  This said, it seems that the Italian Royal Family may have secured a few more votes way back when if only reality TV or even TV had been invented.  Since being allowed back home after decades in exile, the man who would now be king, Emanuele Filiberto is a big hit with today’s public. This year, the viewing public voted him into second place at Sanremo, Italy’s equivalent of the Eurovision Song Contest.  They also sent him rocketing to victory in Italy’s version of Strictly Come Dancing.  Let’s just hope if it ever came to it, Prince Harry could pull something out of the bag on the X Factor, few would ever expect her Royal Highness to break into song.

As a new Roman I got into the spirit of the Ponte this week and took a few hours off on Monday.  After estimating a four-day wait to get into the Caravaggio exhibition at the Scuderie Museum, I gave up and went to try out brunch at Rome’s reportedly best vegetarian restaurant “Margutta Ristorarte” just across the road from Episcopo Lipinsky (fantastic bed and breakfast reviewed on this site). TripAdvisor says it’s expensive but worth it for evening meals but I’m recommending this restaurant for its great value, delicious brunch. Brunch in Rome basically means serve yourself from a large buffet for a set price. It seems to have precious little to do with breakfast and the Roman jaw usually drops when I explain the construction of the word.  The food is excellent and not having to police it for tail or tongue is a bonus if like myself, you are a veggie.  Hot dishes include melanzane alla parmigiana and vegetarian lasagne. The restaurant is bright and sunny and located below Federico Fellini’s old flat near Piazza del Popolo in a hidden, leafy street in the centre of Rome. Get there around 12.30 if you want to be one of the first to dive in and if you are visiting during this Superponte, relax, the next Ponte in Rome falls on a Tuesday. Hurray!
Margutta Ristorarte. Vegetarian. Metro: Flaminio or Spagna. Good disabled access. Open every day

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