Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Desperately Seeking Slippers

The secret of shopping in Rome is in guessing the type of shop which sells the object you are looking for. Pharmacies don’t sell shampoo, pyjamas are sold in bed linen shops, phone top-ups from the lottery ticket counter, saucepans are sold with dishwashers and fridges. Had I known that mens slippers were only sold in childrens shoe shops, my father might have got a new pair for his last birthday. After finally tracking down the desired item, the search is on for the courage to enter one of the hundreds of small, family-run shops in Rome, where the potential to browse without obligation is negligible as merchandise is neatly packed away out of sight in a wall of drawers behind the counter and guarded like the pentagon, by a parent-progeny sales team.

Years ago, I fearlessly, naively, entered such a shop in Via Nazionale, looking to purchase a robust umbrella. Before my eyes could adjust to the light, I was seized by a pocket-sized man in a padded gilet and delivered into the hands of his not-to-be-messed-with, middle-aged, unwed daughter who led me to a colourful line of brollies all sealed in plastic and tantalizingly out of my reach. She then proceeded to unwrap them, displaying each one in her hands like a bottle of fine wine. while painstakingly explaining and then demonstrating the self-explanatory use of an umbrella, (If an Englishwoman isn’t already qualified in this field, I don’t know who is). After having beige described to me and being presented with Scottish Tartan like it were a rare specimen of truffle, recently uprooted from Umbrian soil, I recoiled from her “Jack Russell” sales technique. As I stood, eyes fixed on the impermeable fabric mountain of unfolded brollies now shrewn across the old wooden counter, I was scolded for my inability to articulate "which exact fantasia I desired?" Now I know “fantasia” means pattern. Back then I just froze to the spot, contemplating my fate.

I endured a worrying number of brolly demos that afternoon including a Singing in the Rain inspired performance given by a supple young man,while his mother stood like a bouncer, guarding the entrance to their theatre, I mean luggage shop. These days this New Roman is better equipt to enter an establishment where the daughter patrols the entrance, zipped up to the throat in a quilted jacket, hands in pockets,Always be closingsales mantra running through her head. Apparently Gastro-gnome buys all his underpants from a bossy little, heavily-quilted Signora  next to the Vatican. 

Eventually, after being granted special permission from the Pope to touch the product, open it and model it from every angle before a full-length mirror ,(the only way to know if an umbrella really suits you I am assured), I finally went for a wind- resistant, compact, quick release, duck-egg-blue umbrella in the most obvious of places: A specialist wedding dress boutique in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele.

A note for visitors: Oxford Street:Via del Corso, Bond Street:Via Condotti and Via Babuino, Long Acre: Cola di Rienzo. Bluewater: nothing as good but Roma Est is ok, nice ice cream and a big Apple Store. Selfridges: Coin in Cola di Rienzo or San Giovanni, or Rinascente in Piazza Fiume.  Rome has been taken over by Zara, otherwise clotheswise other recognisable chains: Accessorize, Mango, H and M, Diesel,Timberland,Nike. No Gap or Jigsaw yet! Flower emergency? Flowers shops are open 24 hours a day. 

TO POSTS VIA FEED. Ice cream's on me in Rome!

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Buon Scribbling on your Neighbour's House

As a child, while other parents were warning their children not to go out of the garden, my father, a former sailor on the H.M.S. Dainty, was warning me never to venture further south than the Rock of Gibraltar. Beyond this point, I would surely encounter civilizations unfamiliar with social manners and rife with scoundrelly men. Obviously his ship had never docked anywhere near Rome otherwise he may have reduced my boundaries a little.  Living in Rome, sometimes I struggle to accept the Roman unwillingness to use "please" and "thank you" when dealing with people they don't know.  They clearly consider me demented when I thank them for my change in shops, or for clearing my plates in a restaurant.  If I'm to cut it as a Roman in this city my automatic English manners will need to become a little more discreet.

There was a time, when I'd punctuate the supermarket cashier's blunt and charmless request for money with a firm "please" and an edifying grin but yesterday, as I buzzed a woman into my building, held the door open as she leisurely swayed in without acknowledging my existence, I quelled the desire to shout "I'm not the bloody portiere (doorman)" as I so often have in the past. Instead I chuckled, remembering an incident in England when a friend of mine, Sir Royston, delivered the "portiere remark" on leaving a Starbucks in well-heeled Royal Tunbridge Wells. A woman entering with a push chair, failed to audibly thank him for holding the door open. She did however overhear our shopping plans so after collecting her double-decaf skinny soya latte, she marched into the Marks and Spencer food hall, tracked us down like a dog and proceeded to shout at him for even daring to suggest she had no manners.

So Romans aren't big on their "Ps" and "Qs", who cares? They do have an endearing way of wishing people they know, the sincerest enjoyment and pleasure in everything they do as after all, pleasure is generally the goal in Rome.  Simply say "Buon" which means "Enjoy-Happy-Good" when added to something which is about to happen, ie: "Buon Appetito!", "Buon looking for a parking space!", "Buon lunch with your hot cousin!", "Buona visita! (Have a great time at the doctors!)", "Buon proseguimento (Enjoy the rest of what you are doing now!)" and my personal favourite "Buon lavoro! (Enjoy your work!)" delivered with irony as a job here is harder to find than a Roman wearing flip-flops in December and many of those who have one bitterly resent doing it.

My father’s warning came to mind this Monday lunchtime as I sat outside a tiny trattoria in Trastevere, taking in this year’s first rays of sun.  As I demolished a plate of "Cacio e Pepe", I was wondering about the origin of a giant masterpiece of graffiti on a wall opposite my table, possibly left by a scoundrelly man, an apology that read:” Ti Prego, Perdonami, Ti amo! (I beg you, forgive me, I love you!)”  Just as Romeo called up to Juliet on her balcony, the Roman man seeks the attention of his loved one as she appears on her apartment balcony, four floors up.  A declaration of love or an apology is delivered either on the pavement below,  or for maximum effect, right along her neighbour’s wall. I can’t imagine the strength of an apology which could warrant scrawling  “Sorry mate” across the pristine magnolia rendering of an Englishman’s castle, somewhere between the leaded bay window and the polished brass numberplate. Maybe a “sorry I smashed your number plate while parking”?  In Rome a written apology of this nature would bring about an epidemic of writer’s cramp. 

Another of my restaurant recommendations: "Da Enzo" in Trastevere is a tiny, very busy trattoria serving typical Roman food. It’s cheap and the chef doesn’t care about your diet so you will get more than the statutory 100g of pasta on offer in most Roman restaurants, great if you just want a first course and no second. Tables are tightly packed so be prepared to make friends with the residents of Trastevere, the oldest residential area in Rome. TripAdvisor reviews are fair. Don't go there to have a leisurely meal at peak times.  Romans believe hungry people standing in a queue need feeding as soon as possible so if you are done eating, be off with you! 
Closed Sundays. Book if you want to sit outside. Fine for daft vegetarians such as myself. Tram 8 or Bus 280 and walk for 5 mins. 

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TO POSTS VIA FEED. Ice cream's on me in Rome!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Beware the Ides of Wholemeal Carbonara

There’s no greater way to strike terror into a Roman’s heart than by declaring your intention to rustle him up a little something in the kitchen, without using a recipe. No menu in a restaurant means homemade delights but no recipe in the kitchen means red alert. As part of my transition from precise, reliable Briton to abstract Roman, I’m now embracing their ideology that anything official is in fact a suggestion; opening times, speed limits, road markings, invoices, terms of use, consumer rights, but apparently a recipe is holier than a scripture, carved into Dolomite marble. It is timeless, exempt from evolution and must be followed to the letter.  To a Roman, no recipe means it doesn’t exist and it never will.

 For one such as myself, whose cooking style is more suited to cauldron than saucepan, the idea of zero creativity in the kitchen is inconceivable but when I glimpsed the panic in my Roman victim’s eyes (nickname “Gastro-gnome”) as I announced my intention to experiment with Carbonara, I decided to search on-line for a  hasty compromise. Here I found Luigi, traditional Roman chef at Ristorante Giancarlone ,  a small restaurant not far from my apartment. I watched a video of him effortlessly conjuring up the mythical dish while warning kitchen clowns like myself, not to stray from the Carbonara recipe.(Watch How To Make a Real Carbonara with Luigi with English subtitles) His nettled tone communicates that he’s said it a thousand times and he's saying it again for the slow student at the back of the class.  The quantity of pasta is precise, the maturity of cheese is non-negotiable and don’t even think about separating the eggs! 

I watched and studied Luigi's performance, thinking his boss Giancarlone (Big John Charles)  would probably take a contract out on England’s most successful TV chef (Delia Smith) if he saw her recipe. I considered cycling round to see him for more tips, but in the end I rationalized: how difficult could it really be?  My final result had a certain fascination of its own: a type of scrambled egg and chopped bacon spaghetti dish which Gastro-gnome will forever refer to as my “Nuclear Carbonara” I have to admit, James Taylor and Jackson Browne would have scheduled another No Nukes rally in Battery Park had they seen it. A postmortem revealed Luigi hadn’t been precise enough about the type of spaghetti required. I had used wholemeal which had arrogantly disassociated itself from the sauce. The sauce had then taken on an unsavoury life of its own, having been snubbed by the pasta. Gastro-gnome chastised me. Really! Anyone would have thought I’d tried to smuggle in some cream!

The next of my restaurant recommendations knows how to make a great Roman carbonara. Maccheroni, near the Pantheon makes delicious Roman fare with side dishes which are more imaginative than most. I’m always bored by Roman mixed salads but here they are a little more creative and big enough to share. Maccheroni is versatile, sophisticated and relaxed. Go early and have an aperitivo in the beautiful Piazza delle Coppelle  in which it’s situated. If you want to avoid making “Nuclear Carbonara”, ask for a seat with a view of the kitchen. It’s  a feature of the restaurant . You can watch a great culinary performance while you eat. Just don't forget to silently applaud or wave a breadstick at the end.

Maccheroni. Open every day. Recommend reserving a table. Great for daft vegetarians like myself. Price: mid-range. 10 mins walk from Via del Corso. No metro. 

TO POSTS VIA FEED. Ice cream's on me in Rome!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Friends, Romans,countrymen lend me your Moncler

I’ve long since considered Romans to be the sensationally over-accessorized Barbie Dolls in the toy box where the English would be Steiff teddy bears, perennially redecorating Dolls Houses. The average Roman owns an exhaustive range of designer accessories, enough to make the ground floor of an Harvey Nichols department store feel inadequate. Winter sunglasses, summer sunglasses, swimming goggles, skiing sunglasses and goggles, sometimes I wonder if their passion for seasonal sports exists only to facilitate  their obsession with modelling the latest quality accessories, prime example: The Roman skier.

Every February, as soon as they have digested their last "Frappe"(Roman "Pancake Day" food),  Romans strap their skis onto their little silvery cars and hurtle up the motorway to invade the Alps and the Dolomites, in much the same way their mighty ancestors invaded Northern Europe centuries ago. Faultlessly accessorized and exorbitantly decked out in Moncler  (unoffical suppliers of the Roman ski uniform) they are ready to face their greatest enemy since Boadicea: snowboarders.  They regard them with as much contempt as Jaguar drivers felt for gold Ford Capri drivers in the 70s.  Roman skiers, as far as they are concerned, own the mountains and snowboarders are cheapening their territory, way more than Ryanair could ever cheapen air travel and that takes some doing.

As an aspiring New Roman, I realise I’ll never be fully respected until I can ski and accessorize properly (should I be wearing slippers and sunglasses typing this?)  so last weekend I set off for Roccaraso, in Abruzzo. It’s a relaxing ski resort which has been unexpectedly conquered by wealthy Neapolitans. By car, it takes less than three hours from Rome, subtract 30 mins if a Roman is driving you there, or an hour if his ancestors are Neapolitan. Within twenty minutes of my arrival in the resort, two local brothers (think Newhart) kitted me out, under the supervison of their wise old aunt who invented a price and introduced me to another brother who promised to teach me all I needed to know. True to his word, three days later I could perform a respectable snow-plough, although I'm confused about why the position internationally referred to as "slice of pizza" is called "fish fin" in Italy, equally "french fries" is called "unite your skis"  And I thought Italians were into their food.

 Back in the Eternal city, I feel more Roman than Caesar himself until the Romans catch sight of my burnt face. Once again, I’m exposed as an imposter and lectured about the difference between Piz Buin lotion for the beach and for the mountains, goggles for skiing and sunglasses for Winter walks in Trastevere. Come on Romans! Are you telling me  Marc Antony was wearing his funeral-oration sunglasses for his “Lend me your ears” speech, because  his fling-with-an-Egyptian-queen goggles wouldn't have been appropriate? Of course he was.

A note for visitors to Rome who fancy going skiing: My hotel recommendation is the Hotel Suisse in Roccaraso. Perfect for a “settimana bianca” (white week.skiing holiday), it’ s a friendly, cosy family hotel which keeps its Christmas lights and outside Christmas trees in place well into March. The food is average, but the overall value is good and the staff can’t do enough for you, even denying themselves a good snigger when you look like a partially deflated hot-air balloon in your ski suit. Tripadvisor has only one review because this place is a secret. The review is in Italian but trust me, a good time was had by all.
TO POSTS VIA FEED. Ice cream's on me in Rome!