Rome With A Food and Art Focus

Our roving retirement Roman Holiday continued for a second week, with yet more galleries, food porn, and a steamy Night At The Opera. We described all of the major sites in The Amazing Sites, Sounds, and Monuments of Rome so now it was time for different art and lesser-known history. I’m also sure you want to hear and see what we ate in Rome, yum.

Probably the most popular museum in Rome, the Borghese Gallery is located in the Villa Borghese Gardens and contains a substantial collection of Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, and Bernini works. The collection was begun by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew to Pope Paul V. At that time, elevation to the Papacy effectively made one emperor of a large area of what is today Italy, through which the family could amass great wealth.

A lesser-known but no less impressive gallery is the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, which includes items bequeathed to Cardinal Camillo Pamphilj from Pope Innocent X, Camillo’s uncle. A trend is emerging.

The collection and the family-held palazzo were first opened to the public by Princess Orietta Pamphilj, who was 3/4 English by birth. After her passing in 2000, the palazzo was taken over by her two adopted English children. The audio guide, narrated by her son Jonathon, is somewhat personal in nature and easy to understand, being in impeccable English.

Palazzo Valentini and Trajan’s Column

We made another stop on the Roman palazzo tour at the Palazzo Valentini. First built by Cardinal Michele Bonelli, nephew of Pope Pius V, definitely a trend. The palazzo is now an administrative building. However, modern renovations uncovered a small bath complex and Roman homes under the 16th-century palazzo.

An hour-long tour multimedia tour display mosaics and the layout of the complex. Included is a movie covering the story of Emperor Trajan’s conquest in the Dacian War, as depicted on a 620-foot carving called Trajan’s Column in the piazza adjacent to the Palazzo Valentini. Think of it as Trajan’s version of the Bayeux Tapestry, only written in stone. The massive, 115-foot tall structure has a 185-step spiral staircase to ascend to a viewing platform on top. The whole piece is truly as impressive as the story of Trajan’s conquests that it tells.

The Museum of Cooking

At the base of Palatine Hill, facing the Circus Maximus, we stumbled on an interesting find in an unremarkable building: The Museo della Cucina. It traces the history of cooking through the ages, with accompanying artifacts and cookbooks. I took my time going over the small collection. Significant chefs of the ages are profiled. I first thought the omission of Julia Child was odd, but then I realized, from their perspective, that her contribution was mainly to collect and present the works of these other chefs to Americans. Hardly worth a mention, I guess. Admission is free.

Opening Night At The Opera

I like to catch performances in venerable opera houses whenever I can. So, when I learned we could attend the opening night of the Opera Roma season for the production of Ernani, I jumped at the chance. It didn’t hurt that the theater was 5 minutes walk from our hotel.

While we enjoyed seeing the venue, the opera itself was not that great. In fact, my father, a longtime opera enthusiast, had never heard of Ernani, meaning that it wasn’t considered one of the great works today. This despite the fact it was immensely popular in the 19th century and was the first opera ever recorded completely in 1904. Moreover, I heard another attendee indicate the female lead, playing the femme fatale role of Elvira, didn’t have any chemistry with the man playing Ernani. Diana and I thought the same.

Two other factors didn’t favor our experience. First, it was a hot and steamy June night in Rome and the theater has no AC. Given this, I’m surprised the opera guild chooses to run their season over the summer. Second, our box seats were far to one side, so we had to crane our necks to see even half of the stage. At one of the intermissions, we moved to the back of the theater to get a more comfortable view. That said, I’m undaunted and have already purchased seats for another opera in another renowned venue.

Understanding the Food in Rome

Cacio E Pepe

Diana found her new favorite pasta in Rome, Tonnarelli Cacio E Pepe, a simple dish of square spaghetti noodles with pecorino romano (aged goat cheese particular to Rome), black pepper, and just the right amount of pasta water to bind it all. The short ingredient list emphasizes the quality of the ingredients as well as the preparation. Done poorly, it’s not much. Done well, Diana was in heaven.

We tried it all over town. Despite trying it at some celebrated restaurants, the best one we found was a place we just stumbled upon, Lorel in the World. Worth a try if you are in town.

Pizza, It’s What’s For Dinner

On our recent cruise, our Sicilian cruise director told a story about how pizza was only available for dinner when he was growing up, certainly not for lunch. Why, you ask? Because the pizza ovens were not hot enough to properly cook a pizza until later in the day. One of our food tour guides reiterated the same sentiment. Today, you can see “Pizza A Pranzo” (pizza for lunch) signs all over town, but the guide said this was primarily for undiscerning tourists.

As happens everywhere it seems, Roman pizza has its own unique style: it’s wafer-thin and still crispy. Imagine a crispy NY-style pizza to get an idea. I liked it, but Diana felt there wasn’t enough there, there.

Proper Gelato

One of the food tours told us the secrets to finding a proper gelato. First, if the gelati is piled up above the serving pan, no bene. That means the vendor has aerated the mixture, so you are essentially paying them for air. So, you always want to look for covered containers or gelati that are flat on top. The second is that pistachios are not bright green, so if the gelati is bright green the ingredients are being doctored.

You are now free to taste around the country.

Understanding Italian Food Courses

Another notable aspect of Italian dining is the courses on the menu. Antipasti (typically dishes of meat, fish, cheese, bread, or some combination), Pizzas, Primi (pasta), Secondi (meats and fish), Contorni (sides), Insalata (salads), and Dolci (dessert).

Primis are typically big enough for a meal, hungry folk may add antipasti or secondi. Secondi are often served a la carte, so you must order a separate contorno if you want a veggie or starch. Salads are often served after the primi and secondi, before the dolci. If you are not careful, it is easy to order way too much food.

Restaurants in Rome

Roscioli and Rimessa Roscioli

Rimessa Roscioli is a sister restaurant to Roscioli, a celebrated salumeria and restaurant. Rimessa offers a wine pairing meal and is an easier table to get, so we went there first.

We were served a long series of small-ish dishes paired with eight tastes of wine. Although we enjoyed the experience, I felt more wine was needed for the amount of food provided. I was also looking for more Italian wine education than I received. And it was rather loud, making it difficult to hear the hostess.

We did manage to get into the original Roscioli for a mid-afternoon meal. It was a cool place to be. We savored the dishes at the bar. Book a month ahead if you want a decent table.

CiPasso Restaurant

We enjoyed our first visit to CiPasso so much, that we went back on our final night in town. With one exception (the bucatini alla amatriciana), we enjoyed everything we had there and there was a nice ambiance. The smoked swordfish bruschetta was particularly good.

Food Tours in Rome

The Hidden Food Tour took us around the ancient “Campo Marzio” near Piazza Navona where the Roman traditions are still alive. We enjoyed some interesting items, though not too much to get filled up. First, we learned how to find proper gelato and were taken to a good place for tiramisu. We also learned about the abundant, cool, potable water available from the 2500 Nasoni Fountains around Rome. Given how steamy Rome can be in the summer, they were a welcome oasis during our stay.

The Trastevere Food tour took us to one of the more bohemian and popular neighborhoods. We tasted deep-fried artichokes, a seasonal favorite, and other local foods. We also got a tour of the Jewish Ghetto.

Final Thoughts On The Eternal City

Although Rome may be eternal, it is ever-changing. A good example is The Spanish Steps. In an effort to combat it becoming overrun by tourists, local authorities have imposed a 400€ fine for sitting on them. As a degreed philosopher, it begs the question: If one cannot sit on The Spanish Steps, do they matter? Maybe not.

Still, we very much enjoyed our time in Rome. While a fortnight is probably too long for most people to manage, it allowed us to see things at a more leisurely pace. We would be happy to come again and see how it evolves, should it fit our plans.

Which city is eternal to you?

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  1. You’re right about Julia Child. She’s a big deal in the USA, having turned on millions of Americans to European cooking. But elsewhere she is mostly unknown. My wife used to work for a nonprofit that Julia Child and Robert Mondavi founded. She has a lot of fond memories of Julia.

    The prohibition on sitting on the Spanish steps is crazy. That’s been a tradition forever. Hopefully the police only enforce it when the steps are actually blocked.

    Some photos and time lapse videos from our recent trip to Italy: Check out the time lapse of sundown at St. Peters at the end.

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