Monday, June 13, 2011

Rome, Take Two

Our second day (and first full one) in Rome was spent hitting up the tourist sites under a blistering sun. While the historical sites were amazing, as I mentioned in the previous post, I am not going to go into detail about them: they’re in every guidebook.

I will, however, mention one famous, tourist-swamped place we visited, simply because, of course, it has to do with food: San Crispino Gelateria. Located in a narrow street near the Trevi Fountain, this place is supposed to have the best gelato in Rome. Indeed, both the pistachio and stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate chips) flavors were very good; the line wasn’t unbearably long when we went there, but even if it is, it’s worth the wait for a taste of their high-quality ice creams and sorbets (kept in carefully temperature-controlled cases). Don’t look for mix-ins and topping here, though (or even cones!) – San Crispino believes gelato this good should be savored as is, and I’m inclined to agree with them.

Both lunch and dinner that day were eaten in casual trattorias near Termini station -  for the sake of both convenience and our wallets - where we had vegetable antipasti platters (with big, fresh green olives that I have never seen before in the States) fettuccine with salmon and tomato sauce (an intriguing combination of flavors I intend to try and recreate at home), and thin crust pizza topped simply with tomato sauce, mozzarella and a few anchovies. At dinner our host was an elderly Italian man originally from New York, like me (he said his mother was from New Jersey). Initially mistaking us for Russians (go figure), he was delighted to learn of his and my similar origins, and sent Todd and I off with a shot each of limoncello, a lemon liqueur that (like most liqueurs) I normally don’t like, but which was surprisingly tasty this time.

After we had checked off the big things (except for the Vatican, which we rose early for on our last day in Rome), we slowed our pace and took in more of the city. We started our second full day off with breakfast on the Campo de Fiori, where there is a daily market. I was excited for this market, but I don’t know if Sunday mornings are slow or what, but there really wasn’t much there. I did get some shots of some interesting Italian products, however:

There were more varieties of dried tomatoes than I knew existed, plus lots of spice mixes to go on pasta and in sauces, some familiar, some less so (click to enlarge and you'll probably recognize some of the names).

And of course there was pasta, in a rainbow of colors and shapes. I was sorely tempted, but sadly limited by luggage space.

Breakfast was followed by a leisurely walk through the old Jewish ghetto, a formerly shabby, poverty-stricken neighborhood now becoming increasingly gentrified. Though Jews are no longer restricted to this area of the city as in former centuries, they still maintain a presence here, as evidenced by the restaurants advertising Kosher Roman cuisine:

That, in case you can't tell, is a menorah made out of bread (and some alligators too, for some reason).

Our morning walk along the Tiber was sunny and hot, but by the time we made it up to the Vatican the storm clouds were gathering. We managed to slip in a visit to the lovely Villa Borghese park (but not the supposedly excellent museum, as it only takes reservations) before the storm broke with torrential rain.

We braved the storm to visit one last site before dinner, and I am so glad we did.

The San Clemente Basilica, not far from the Coliseum, is a real gem of place: the 11th century church itself is quite pretty, but for a small fee you can go down into the real attraction, an archeological site that poignantly reveals how deep Rome’s complex history is, both figuratively and literally. Beneath the present-day church lies the remains of a 4th century basilica, which itself was converted from a Roman nobleman’s house. Below this is yet another level, the basement of the Roman house which in 2nd century was used as a mithraeum (I have linked to the Wikipedia page here, as this fascinating subject would take up too much space to dive into here. I encourage you to check it out though, it’s pretty cool stuff). The place is bare bones, just dark, dank stone rooms lit eerily by dim fluorescent lights, throughout which you can wander freely, stopping to stare in wonder at frescoes hundreds of years old, their colors still faintly gleaming from the walls. The sound of running water permeates the basement, and there is a room where you can see the spring waters bubbling by underneath, as they have for thousands of years. It is a wonder.

We topped off our day with dinner at an Indian restaurant (heresy I know, but we were hungry, options were slim in the neighborhood in which we found ourselves, and it was delicious. And we ordered ricotta naan, in a nod to our location.), and by the time we emerged from the restaurant the rain was over. And so, almost, was our time in Rome, a fact we honored with, naturally, more gelato.

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