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

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