December 23, 2018: Our late afternoon taxi ride from Ciampino Airport has not left us much time to invent anything special for this evening except to head for a good dinner. Now, as every buongustaio knows, when in Rome, the place to go for a romantic cena is, of course, Trastevere. So from our hotel in Montecitorio, I urge on my dear wife, Anna, and loyal childhood friend, Wilfred, on to Piazza Capranica, then ahead straight to Piazza Navona. After skirting some dismal Christmas market stalls, we continue across Corso Vittorio Emanuele into Campo de Fiori, Piazza Farnese and down Via Gulia. At the end of this street we find ourselves facing Ponte Sisto, one of Rome’s few surviving pedestrian stone bridges, and cross over into Trastevere. It has only been a 30-minute walk but, sadly, Rome’s centro storico is still paved with basalt cobbles, with five centuries of neglect behind them, which turn what should be a brisk walk into a near nightmare.
As if the cobble stones were not enough, we now find that our Osteria, booked from Malta barely a week ago, with compliments from the owner, has closed for the holidays. But Trastevere literally abounds in osterie. Luckily my friend Xandru had tipped me about a popular eating place called Il Tonnarello, which happens to be only a few corners away.
The place was heaving with locals when we arrived, which is always the first true sign of a good osteria. My abundant Abbacchio al forno con patate (oven-roasted baby lamb with potatoes) turns out to be the best lamb I have ever eaten in my life. The meat, falling off the bone, has that delicate musky taste so typical of milk-fed lamb, unlike the overwhelming pungency of the tough New Zealand mutton usually served in Malta. My wife’s saltimbocca is nothing to write home about, tasting more of pork than veal, while Wilfred’s Pollo con peperoni is a true classic right out of Trasteverine gastronomy.
December 24: Today my hunt for Rome’s forgotten jewels begins with us doing the same 30-minute walk. This time, however, I intend to avoid going into Piazza Navona for the simple reason that my real goal is a tiny, non-descript alley in Largo Febo just behind the famous square. From this cramped Vicolo della Pace we suddenly find ourselves thrust into a tiny square with one of the most sublime-looking baroque scenographies of the entire city, Santa Maria della Pace. This tiny trapezoidal square, complete with its highly original convex church façade and concave wings was designed by Pietro da Cortona in 1656-1657.
We are left speechless by the sheer ingenuity of these high baroque architects who came over to Papal Rome to conjure up these enchanting urban spaces literally right out of nothing.
The next forgotten Roman jewel on my wish list lies in what used to be the suburban riverbank area of the city at the time of the mid-Renaissance, nowadays, as then, around the northern reaches of Trastevere. So once again we arrive at Ponte Sisto and cross over into Via della Lungara. It only takes us another 10 minutes along this street to reach my next destination: Villa Farnesina.
The pleasure of seeing nudity thus exposed does not seem to have ruffled anyone’s feathers even in Papal Rome
This largely forgotten villa was built by the wealthy Sienese banker Agostino Chigi at the end of the 1400s from proceeds of various monopolies assigned to him by the Papal court of the time as a reward for his generous money-lending to the Papal budget. It was Chigi’s way of ostentating his newly acquired privileged position among Rome’s elite. He employed the best architect he could lay his hands on, fellow Sienese Baldassere Peruzzi, to build his villa and also engaged the rising star of the time, a certain Raffaello Santi from Urbino, to fresco the interiors.
Compared to the magnificently imposing frescoes in the Vatican Raffaello would later execute for Pope Julius II (Stanze di Raffaello), these at the Farnesina show a young Raffaello perfecting his pictorial skills with a certain youthful playfulness. In the loggia of Amore e Psiche, he separates the window lunettes from the central barrel vault with garlands and festoons of laurel studded with flowers and fruit and litters the intervening spaces with amorini and winged gods flying wildly with joyous abandon.
Nonetheless, though the central theme, taken straight out of Apuleius, is a marriage banquet given to the two lovers by the gods of Olympus, everyone is unashamedly half- naked, which goes on to remind us that the pleasure of seeing nudity thus exposed does not seem to have ruffled anyone’s feathers even in Papal Rome.
December 25: We are starting off the day with a café corretto at Rosati’s, Rome’s classiest coffee shop at the iconic Piazza del Popolo. In the1950s Rosati’s used to be the haunt of Italy’s intelligentsia and would see the likes of Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante and Pier Paolo Pasolini to mention a few of the heavyweights, whereas Café Canova directly opposite was the favourite watering-hole of the great Federico Fellini himself.
Since the weather is glorious, we are relishing these first hours of our Giorno di Natale like those writers of the 1950s who met here to discuss upcoming screenplays and sets for Italy’s budding post-war cinema industry, or simply to muse on their latest literary works.
Since I made it a point to have a table booked for Christmas lunch at Al Pompiere, an elegant restaurant just off the old Ghetto, the morning stroll through the Corso feels thankfully smooth compared to the city’s bumpy side streets. Wilfred seems doubly relieved, for Al Pompiere has always been one of his favourites, and today’s pranzo, he assures us, will be an experience.
And so it turns out. To start with, the restaurant is a series of three sumptuously painted halls with tall windows on the adjacent square and immediately gives me the impression of being the haunt of Rome’s bella gente. Upon our arrival it already seems packed.
The most endearing thing about Roman osterie and restaurants, including the classier ones, is their unflinching pride in presenting the classic dishes of the cucina romanesca. This cusine is invariably based on the poorer cuts of beef and lamb such as cervello (brain), trippa (tripe), lingua (tongue), coda (tail) and pajata (intestine).
Nobler cuts such as fillet and rib-eye, are practically absent. Offal is the magic ingredient. So when my wife spots Animelle di abbacchio con carciofi, we all immediately agree. After some classic Roman primi (bucatini all’amatriciana and carciofi alla giudia), we order three abundant portions of these delicate, mouth-watering lamb sweetbreads pan-fried with arthichokes. They taste sublime. For wine we go for a good, old Morellino di Scansano, which is a guarantee and always cuts a bella figura on any table.
December 26: Our last day in Rome starts off with three hot chocolates (doused with generous amounts of Cognac from our hip flasks!) in front of the most beautiful of ancient Roman buildings, the Pantheon. Soon after that we are off for a quick peek at two major Roman attractions that we have seen over and over these last years, but which never seem to tire us. Firstly, the three magnificent Caravaggios in San Luigi dei Francesi just up the street from the Rotunda.
Piazza Navona this morning looks particularly ravishing under a perfect blue sky. After munching through a bag of roasted chestnuts, we make our way back to Montecitorio, knowing that Rome will soon lure us back with its magical siren call of its cucina romanesca, ancient monuments and forgotten baroque architecture.
As I always say, Roma – una vita non basta. One life is simply not enough!
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