Rome Travel Guide

Rome Architecture, History, Art, Museums, Galleries, Fashion, Music, Photos, Walking and Hiking Itineraries, Neighborhoods, News and Social Commentary, Politics, Things to Do in Rome and Environs. Over 900 posts

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Remodeling, the Roman Way

When a Rome apartment is "ristruturatto" (restructured, remodeled), the teardown is a major event, mostly because of the materials used. Romans know nothing of drywall. Everything is plaster, cement, and marble, floor to ceiling. This means that when walls are torn down or moved, there are sledgehammers at work and noise reverberates throughout the building. If the remodeling coincides with your month-long rental, you're better off being gone all day. And where does the refuse go?
Not into dumpsters, which aren't used for construction materials, at least not for apartment-sized jobs. Instead, the rubble is placed into small, heavy-duty plastic bags, tied at the top, each weighing about 75 pounds (a guess). The bags--often dozens of them--are placed outside the apartment building and collected (we assume) by the contractor. In the photo above, taken outside our apartment in the San Paolo neighborhood, the bags have been arranged at curbside, and four of the bags have been placed in the street, presumably to reserve a parking place for someone, maybe a construction company vehicle. So, now you know.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Tartufo (Truffle) War

We can’t resist the very famous chocolate ice cream dessert, the tartufo - or truffle -  at Tre Scalini on Piazza Navona, no. 28. Although a bit pricey, they’re also big enough to share.   The restaurant itself gets widely divergent reviews; some people love it; some think it's a tourist trap.  Our view - just get the take-out tartufo and stop while you're ahead.

Tre Scalini is in a building that housed an inn as far back as 1815, and the Ciampini family created the tartufo (see photo right) in the 1940s.

We found a mild war going on the last time we were there, however. A maitre d’, or owner, or manager, of THE Tre Scalini virtually accosted us as we were going in to get our fix (he's the one with the shock of white hair in the photo at right).  He wanted to point out to us that HIS was the TRUE tartufo – not the imposters literally across the narrow pedestrian street, with an equally imposing location on Piazza Navona. And, sure enough, the “imposters” had a sign saying they were selling “Tre scalini tartufo” – but of course their café is not THE Tre Scalini.  They've cleverly named their cafe' "Ai Tre Tartufi" (below left), slapped on an 1896 date, and it's at 25 (not 28) Piazza Navona.  Here's the website for the TRUE Tre Scalini, tel.

So market capitalism, caveat emptor and all that. But we recommend the original, of course.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Underground Parking: Rome's latest Panacea

Rome is in the midst of an underground parking boom. In many neighborhoods--all outside the center, where antiquities are less likely to be encountered during the dig--underground parking lots either have been built, are being built, or are in the planning stage. The authorities have generally chosen two kinds of places to build the underground facilities: properties with no buildings on them (usually small parks), and wide, multi-lane parkways with trees in the middle, where traffic can run in reduced fashion during construction. One parkway project is underway near the Park of the Aqueducts, off the Lucio Sestio subway stop on via Lucio Sestio. Another, in the neighborhood of San Paolo, is underconstruction along viale Leonardo da Vinci. Lots under parks or vacant lots have been built in Flaminio at Piazza Melozzo da Fiori, and in Tor Pignattara.

The reason for all this activity is obvious: there are too many cars in Rome, even in outlying zones, and parking is obscenely difficult. If you're out late in the evening in your car, you are guaranteed a 10-minute search for a (probably illegal) posto (parking place). Although scooters often park on the sidewalk, that is not the custom in every neighborhood or on every street, and the city's ongoing efforts to delineate legal scooter parking places using white lines have in some places had the effect of limiting choice. So why not ease the parking problem by building lots underground?

We're not civil engineers or urban planners, but we've seen some of the existing facilities and observed enough of the ongoing protests against those planned or under construction, to understand why the underground lots might not be a good idea. The Flaminio lot was completed several years ago and finished with a public piazza above it. But the lot isn't operating, perhaps because of safety concerns, and the ramp leading to it is covered with graffiti (and not the artistic kind). Moreover, the piazza was poorly designed--mostly stone slabs, with a few benches--and is today lightly used, especially given the area's population density. We saw the surface portions of two lots in Tor Pignattara, and neither makes us optimistic. One was covered by a small, elevated park with two-foot weeds (photo at right)--asking for trouble. The other was still an ugly field, awaiting landscaping.

We're most familiar with the viale Leonardo da Vinci project, which we passed several times a day, and with the protests against it that began while we were living nearby.
There in San Paolo, elements of the community have organized to stop the project, distributing flyers (at left), holding community meetings, putting up signs, and contacting local and national leaders and other organizations that might have an interest in keeping the underground lot out of the neigborhood. Interestingly, one of the signs (see top of this post) blames not only the current Rome mayor, Gianni Alemanno, but the former mayor, Walter Veltroni (who authored the Foreword to Rome the Second Time): Veltroni & Alemanno/'sto parcheggio/fa solo DANNO! (this parking lot does only damage).

The protesters have several concerns. One is for the safety of children who attend school at the "Principe di Piemonte" facility, located across the viale from the area's apartment buildings; they argue that the new traffic configuration, by eliminating the parkway strip at the center, will result in an unsafe crossing. Another, emphasized in one of the flyers, is that the project will destabilize nearby buildings (the area is unusual geologically).

A third concern, which dominates the hand-printed signs on fences along the viale, is environmental, centered on the destruction of the mature trees that line the sides of the viale and its center strip. One says "Alberi condannati/a morte/dal parcheggio" (trees condemned to death by the parking lot). Another (right) says, "vi do/ossigeno/ma mi/abbattono/x un posto/auto!" (I give you oxygen, but you take me down, [in exchange for?] a parking space!"

Finally, the protesters make the surprising but telling point that the lot won't really help make parking easier: only 80 new, expensive ("a caro prezzo"), underground spaces, less than the number of cars that could park on the viale.
One of the signs (left) picks up on the class aspect of the project, calling the parking lot a place for the "pochi privilegiati" (the privileged few).

We sense that the protests are too little, too late, especially when it comes stopping projects already under construction; that won't happen. But we share the concerns of the opponents of underground parking and wish them success. As long as we don't have a car.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Watermelon Stand

Not long ago we took the Malaguti and headed for the Trionfale neighborhood, northwest of the Vatican, to have a look at the area's public housing, which dates to the 1920s and 1930s. That report to come. While walking back on via Giordano Bruno, one of those too-big streets with enormous sidewalks, we came upon a stand selling watermelon and fresh fruit, and Dianne decided to have some (Bill doesn't have to decide, because he eats some of whatever Dianne orders).

We got a cup of the watermelon and fruit and parked ourselves in a couple of plastic chairs (the ones in the photo above) not far from the curb. Within 5 minutes the place was packed with Moms waiting for the school bus to drop off their kids. Then the bus pulled up right behind us and each kid emerged from it to be greeted by the appropriate Mom and then rewarded with watermelon and fruit.
Then a couple of huge bouncer-size guys got their cups of watermelon and fruit and found plastic chairs and sat together chatting and eating their delicious and nutritious watermelon and fruit. It was quite a scene, colorful in every way and, thanks to Dianne, we were there.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Yoko Ono Comes to Rome and Sees the Future

As loyal readers know, we love vernissages, where the Romans turn out at art galleries for a bit of wine, snacks, and people-watching in addition to examining the art.  One of this year's better vernissages, that covers all those bases, is Yoko Ono's installation in the Trastevere section of Rome. 

Ono recently got turned on by the Futurists at the Tate Modern's (London) vast exhibit.  Some of the Futurist Manifesto "hit my eyes," she says, and "my eyes rapidly became filled with tears and I could not read on."  The slogans of the Futurists spoke to her:  "sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness... Courage, audacity, and resolve will be essential elements of our poetry"  - "Exactly!" she adds. 

Ono's exhibit in Rome features a wall-size photo of the major Futurist figures (see above) plus some objects, including her red hat, John's glasses, and a fish wrapped in Le Figaro, the French paper that published the Manifesto (written by Marinetti) in 1909, making the movement an international sensation.  The gallery space she chose was the small one where Futurist artists like Boccioni, Carra' and Severini (with Marinetti and Russolo in the large photo) exhibited their work in the first part of the last century.  She spread camphour on the floor - you know, the smell of moth balls.  We'll let you figure out what that meant.  I was overcome by the smell and took my wine outside - to engage in the intense people watching (photo) ala Romans - leaning against someone's car, propping the wine glass on a car roof  - a perfect summer evening. 

The installation is open until October 30, at Studio Stefania Miscetti, via Delle Mantellate 14, in Trastevere.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Eating Ethnic: Rome's Kebab

We have been coming to Rome regularly for 17 years, and not until our last visit did we eat a Kebab. I had been longing to try the Roman version of this Mediterranean/Middle Eastern fast food, and one night, when the trattorias were closing and it seemed to late for the standard plate of pasta, I succeeded in muscling Dianne into Asterix 2, on via Ostiense. (You shouldn't have difficult finding a Kebab shop in Rome, but if you do, there's a website that lists them all--and even rates the Top 10:

The Kebab resembles the Greek "gyro," the latter so-named because the meat gyrates/turns on a spit as it is cooked.  But the dozens of Kebab shops in Rome are owned not by Greeks but by Egyptians, Turks, and Kurds, and the sliced meat for which the gyro is known--lamb--has been replaced in Rome by veal or, in most cases, a combination of veal and turkey. Kebab Valenziani (via Augusto Valenziani, 14), an Egyptian shop [see photo],
serves three meats from separate spiedi: beef, veal, and chicken. Most shops offer two kinds of bread: an Arab bread often made on site, and the familiar Italian Ciabatta. Condiments vary, and include hot sauce, sesame sauce, yogurt, lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchini, olives, onions, green peppers, carciofi and, perhaps in a concession to the Greek tradition, feta cheese.

We ordered ours with "everything" and were aghast at the size of the thing. One serves two, and seated on stools in the cramped shop, we passed the Kebab back and forth about 10 times, along with a Diet Coke. Fresh, great range of flavors, healthy ingredients.
A starving writer could live on one of these a day. Although some will prefer to "portare via" (take out, literally carry away) their Kebabs, we recommend dining in, enjoying the colorful interiors that many of the shops present. The photo is of Asterix 2 (we think).  You'll see it looks nothing like Eataly, which opened in Rome this summer.  Nor does it have the art to go with food that we savor in EUR at Caffe' Palombini, but it has it's own ambiance, one could say.

Sadly, the Kebab is understood as an "ethnic" food and has begun to suffer from the anti-immigrant sentiment currently infecting Italian politics. Berlusconi's center-right national government has been supporting local efforts to ban ethic foods. One such effort is underway in Lucca--the site of 4 Kebab outlets--where the city fathers voted to ban any new ethic food shops, and another has been launched in Milan, with support from the conservative (and anti-immigrant) Northern League.  These are no doubt the same folks who find Europe's largest mosque - in Rome - disturbing.

Minister of Agriculture Luca Zaia, asked if he had ever eaten a Kebab, replied, "No--and I defy anyone to prove the contrary. I prefer the dishes of my native Veneto."

Our advice, Luca, is try one.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Centocelle: Rome's New Rochelle

We doubt that any of our readers have been to Centocelle, the mid-20th century suburb
located about 7 km to the east of Rome's Centro, between via Casilina on the south and via Prenestina on the north. Nor had we until recently, perhaps because the name (literally, one hundred cells) led us to imagine a degraded, high-crime community characterized by enormous, sterile apartment buildings. We went anyway, attracted by a photo exhibit (now closed) on Centocelle, brought to our attention by a friend (thanks, Jennifer!). The exhibit was mounted in a 1935 church, in Piazza San F. da Cantalice, just off via Casilina. The center of community life, if not in the center of the community, the church ushers one into town from the south (see photos of the exterior of the church soon after construction, and the interior, then undecorated). What we found was more like New Rochelle than the South Bronx.

Although aerial photos in the exhibit show the site sparsely populated in 1934
(the church is in red, Rome to the right, via Casilina at top), and densely populated by 1977, our walk revealed several examples of buildings constructed in the 1920s, some marked with the Roman numerals of the Fascist system, and others built in the early 1930s, including the school below right, with its Anno EF XI (Fascist Era Year 11) dating, above the arches.

The town's inviting, tree-lined main street (via del Castani), running northward off the front of the church, is filled with shops of all kinds, including, on the left (heading north) and in the first block, a high-end gift shop ensconced in small structure whose facade still features the faded mosaics fashioned when the place was built around 1930.

Further down, the circular piazza (Piazza dei Mirti) that only recently was doubtless the center and hub of Centocelle's community and commercial life is suffering from the construction of Metro Line C, whose opening will surely be delayed longer than any of us can imagine. Perhaps in anticipation of the line, a trendy apartment building was recently completed nearby (below right). The area is currently served by streetcar.
A block west, mixed-gender youth soccer teams were having a spirited game on a small, fenced-in pitch.

Our visit featured intermittent rain. Waiting for it to subside (we were on the scooter), we spent a pleasant half hour over glasses of wine
(available only in small bottles) in Bar Gelateria, across from the church, where a dozen locals, many sitting in the covered area outside, had also taken refuge. That's Dianne's back in the photo.

Celebrities don't flock to Centocelle any more than tourists do, but Pope Giovanni Paolo was there, probably in the 1990s; the photo exhibit revealed the community's rich religious life. And Centocelle's airport, a busy place in the 1930s,
saw Charles Lindbergh passing through and witnessed an historic--and fateful--encounter between Hitler and Mussolini on May 4, 1938. Neither, we're sure, ever got to New Rochelle.



Monday, August 9, 2010

Caged in Rome

A Man's Home is his Castle, and if Romans had their way, every home would be surrounded by a moat. Romans live mostly in apartments. The doors to the units usually have multiple locks with massive keys that turn a raft of thick bolts into chambers on the second door and into the floor and ceiling. Sometimes one of the locks is fake, apparently to fool would-be intruders into thinking the place impenetrable. Outside, first floor windows are invariably guarded by dense roll-down shutters and formidable wrought-iron bars with locks.

Still, we were surprised by the lengths to which one resident of the Aventine (see above) had gone to protect his balcony from invasion. Bill

Thursday, August 5, 2010

5 More things to do within 200 meters of Stazione Termini

6. Albergo Mediterraneo. Exiting the train station, bear left and enter via Cavour, at a right angle to the station. One block down, on the right at via G. Amendola is the hotel, Albergo Mediterraneo, built in the 1930s. Stolid on the outside (though not without interest; the travertine marble is standard-issue for many buildings of the period, and even the revolving door, with its worn brass fittings, is suggestive), exquisite on the inside. Your goal here is to nose around the lobby and adjoining rooms while looking more or less as if you belong. On our visit, the desk clerks seemed not to care about our presence, but we would recommend some attire besides shorts and tennis shoes. Among the items of interest: several ornate, inlaid wood wall sculptures and, in the sitting room to the left, a wall-size map of—you guessed it—the Mediterranean. All vintage. The roof boasts a modest but pleasant bar/restaurant, open to the public (take the elevator opposite the main desk).

7. Rambo World. From the hotel entrance, cross via Cavour and continue ahead on via G. Amendola. A couple blocks on the right, at #91/93, is Paolo Belletatti: Articoli Civili e Militari (civilian and military items), which at first struck us as the kind of right-wing place that Bruce Willis fell into in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 classic, Pulp Fiction, with a torture chamber in the basement for anyone who doesn’t want to return to Vietnam with a bowie knife between his teeth.
To be sure, there are plenty of T-shirts with distasteful slogans (most in Italian) and metal castings of the Fascist fasci for the desktop of your favorite corporate bully. But the atmosphere is low key, there are lots of “civilian” items that would make funky gifts for that special someone (including teddy bears in military dress), and the owner—Paolo, we presume—is a peach, to the point of running a block to return our glasses case, which we (Bill) had left on the counter. Not open about 1-4, Saturday afternoons nor all day Sunday.

8. Casa dell’Architettura. Continuing down via G. Amendola, 3 blocks from via Cavour (and between via C. Cattaneo and via Ratazzi), is a lovely space of urban respite—a small park, lodged in Piazza Manfredo Fanti, with benches, the ruins of a Roman house, works of art and, incredibly, grass that gets watered and cut—and within the grounds, the 19th-century gem that houses the Casa dell’Architettura (House of Architecture), a bookstore that specializes in architecture, and a café whose tables spill out into the gardens.
As we wrote in Rome the Second Time, the Casa “inhabits an unusual 19th-century building restored to its late baroque beauty, the Aquario Romano (built to house an aquarium and fish hatchery).” It’s worth going inside and having a look (no charge); there are often exhibits.

9. Wholesale Shopping, Ethnic Style. Exit the gate at Casa dell’Architettura and turn right (yes, we’re just a trifle beyond our promised maximum of 200 yards from the front of the train station), continuing down what is now called via Filippo Turati. In the next few blocks and on adjoining streets, you’ll pass dozens of small shops selling clothes, shoes, and jewelry.
Most of the employees and owners are Chinese, though some of the stores—it depends on the street—are tended by those of mid-Eastern or south Asian descent. In the early afternoon, family, clerks, and children gather around the small display tables that center many of the stores and share lunch.

As we’ve noticed before, the shops seem to have merchandise but few customers; our theory is that they’re basically wholesale outlets, serving the area’s itinerant merchants and other establishments. Although the clerks often speak little English (and perhaps not much Italian, either), the stores are open to walk-in retail trade; we bought some inexpensive bracelets in one. As we recall, the only words that were spoken to us were the total price, in dollars. Our Italian friends claim that profits from these small businesses is essentially beside the point; big, unsavory Chinese money has selected the area for takeover—apartments, commercial establishments, everything--and the function of many of the businesses is to launder money involved in that process.

Whatever the truth of those claims, the volume of merchandise is substantial. We recommend a visit to the area’s “mall,” a square block of shops (surrounding a comfortable courtyard with benches and, when we visited, a photo exhibit). It’s located a couple of blocks down from the Casa dell’Architettura (above), just past via Mamiani.

10. Church of Santa Bibiana. This gem of a church is as far as you’ll ever want to go on via Giolitti – the street that runs along the south side of the station. It sits improbably next to the station’s outer buildings (look for the adjoining tall round tower, covered in travertine with spiral staircase – a fine example of modernism), and is now dangerous to approach across intra-city train tracks and the entrance to the underground passageway that leads to the other side of the major tracks.
The extant church of 1624-26 (the first one on the site dates to the 5th century) is by Bernini, his first major commission. He already was in fine form, as shown in his portico, façade and sculpture of the saint. Dianne will elaborate on this church in a separate post on some hidden churches of Rome. You may want to pray to the saint if you make it safely to her church and also hit the unusual opening hours: 7:30 - 10 a.m. and 4:30-7:30 p.m. You can’t enter as a gawker during masses (weekdays 8 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. and Sundays 8:30, 10, 11:30 in the morning and 6:30 p.m.).

Bill, with Dianne as church lady on #10

Monday, August 2, 2010

Rome's Walls

We're living in San Paolo, a neighborhood that didn't exist until the 1920s. Even so, the wall-building systems used in the area demonstrate remarkable skill and complexity. Here's one example. The wall at right was once stuccoed, but with the stucco in decay, one can see what's inside: layers of rocks and irregular-sized chunks of tufo, separated by horizontal ribbons of brick, all held together with cement. Such walls are common not only in San Paolo, but throughout the city. Bill