Rome Travel Guide

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Italian White Wines: Our Favorites

Preparing for cocktail hour in Buffalo.  Dianne prefers the
small, fluted Italian glass.
Not the least of the customs we’ve inherited is the “cocktail hour.” Not the sort of ongoing, all-day, workplace cocktail hour practiced in the 1950s ad biz, at least according to Mad Men. Rather, the end-of-day, conversational, finally-get-to-talk-to-your-wife, cocktail hour. Our parents’ version meant Bloody Marys on one side, Rob Roys on the other. For us it’s white wine, usually Italian.

Italian white wines are easier to understand—easier than their French counterparts, that is. That’s because the French insist on labeling wines only by region and place—Burgundy and Sancere, for example—so that the grapes used to make their wines are obscured (a Burgundy is a Pinot Noir, a Sancerre a [fine and relatively expensive] Sauvignon Blanc).

Although Italians care very much about where wines come from, most—but not all—Italian white wines are known by the grape each is made from, often followed by the place of origin. Hence Greco di Tufo is a wine made from the Greco (a name that refers to the origins of the grape in Greek antiquity) grape and is from the area around the town of Tufo, just east of Naples.

Working against tradition, we’ll begin in the Italian South and move northward toward the Alps.


Most of the grapes grown in Sicily are either Trebbiano or Catarratto, both “boring” according to David Gleave’s The Wines of Italy (1989)—excellent but out of print and hard to find--which we’ll quote from liberally. It’s well known that the best white grapes of Sicily are the Inzolia (also the name of the wine) and Grillo, a current favorite. Grillo is native to Sicily and prone to oxidation, so don’t let it sit. According to Gleave it’s got “hints of green,” “elegant floral bouquet,” and a “unique taste of exotic and citrus fruits.” Just what we were thinking. BTW, it’s also known as Riddu, though we’ve never seen that name on a label.


For a while last year, our local Rome grocery store had a large supply of Vermentino di Gallura. Over a few weeks we bought it all. Gallura is a zone or area of Sardinia, and the grape is Vermentino. But it’s not the Vermentino you’ll get up north in Liguria. A different grape with the same name. Not an elegant wine, but substantial and drinkable. We wouldn’t call it exotic. Goes good with pizza.


We’ve already introduced Greco di Tufo, which is from the town of Greco (NOT!!!!). It can be “dry and elegant” as one of our sources says, and we used to buy it frequently when invited to dinner by our Roman friends. Our current thinking is that it’s a dependable dry wine, but not so interesting. Most of Calabria’s white wines are built on a Greco base.

We prefer another Naples-area wine, Fiano. Most of it comes from around the town of Avellino, also near Naples, hence Fiano di Avellino. In a recent New York Times piece extolling the virtues of Fiano, Eric Asimov called it “vivacious” and noted its “smoky, nutlike, spicy quality,” perhaps a result of new techniques, including “lees-stirring,” which involves using detritus from the fermentation process. Fiano is an ancient vine, known to the Romans as Apianum, because it tempted the bees. Lots of good bottles for under $20 in the US, if you can find a store that carries it. The other white mainstay of the Campania region is Falanghina—not an especially distinguished or dry wine, but seconda noi absolutely Italian in taste.

Rome Environs

Make sure it's "Superiore"
Much (too much) of the wine served in Rome restaurants is Frascati.  Frascati’s one of our exceptions, because it’s not a grape but the name of a town in the Colli Albani (Alban Hills), about 25 kilometers from the city. Writing in 1989, Gleave described it as having “little or no character,” a conclusion based on the fact that most Frascati was made from the Trebbiano grape—easy to grow but not the stuff of which great wines are born. Today, there’s more Malvasia in Frascati, and that, and real focus on quality, means that some Frascati is very good. Look for Frascati Superiore.

West of Rome in the Abruzzi mountains the basic white wine is Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. That would suggest that it’s made from the Trebbiano grape, but that isn’t so. Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is made from the Bombino Bianco grape. A rose by any other name. Drink this wine if you’re in Abruzzo.


There was a time when Grechetto was widely planted in the land-locked province of Umbria, to the north of Rome. But the low-yielding grape proved frustrating, and most of it died out, save for a few villages—around Todi and Foligno—where growers apparently have more patience or deeper pockets. The grape is the same as the Greco. Gleave labels it “rich, nutty, appley.” Not so dry. It gets a “B” on our report card.

The Marches

The Marches’ white wine of note is Verdicchio. It’s easily spotted in the stores, with its amphora-shaped (and now not so hip) bottle. It’s sometimes called the Adriatic Muscadet, which means it’s a bit sweeter than some. Tasty but seldom elegant, Verdicchio is meant for lunch with a panino.

North from Rome, into Tuscany

Another exception to our rule is Orvieto, named after a lovely hilltop town. Another lunch wine, only occasionally suitable for the elevated space of the “cocktail hour,” but serviceable nonetheless. A “neutral wine,” according to most accounts, its relative mediocrity traceable to large amounts of Trebbiano (again). The best of it is mixed with a healthy portion of Grechetto. Please! Please! Please! avoid the best-known brand of Orvieto: Est! Est! Est!, which is 80% (that is, too much) Trebbiano. Trebbiano is also grown in quantity in the hills south of Bologna, where it makes a “neutral” wine, sometimes and dry and freshing but “seldom distinguished.”

Vernaccia di San Gimignano is an old favorite of ours, as dry, light and flinty a wine as you’ll find it Italy—something like the New Zealand sauvignon blancs, though with more flavor. What’s the grape? Where’s it made? The best-known producer is San Quirico. We drank a lot of this wine for years, and we still do. It’s surprising that the grape hasn’t migrated.

The North

We’ve skipped Emilia Romagna (Bologna, Parma, etc.—the Northern Appenines). As you can sense, we’re not Trebbiano admirers, and that seems to be the hegemonic white grape of the region. Further north and to the east, Pino Grigio dominates. It’s good enough, Hillary, and we’ve certainly had our share, but we’ve come to think of it as a simple, rather ordinary wine, the lowest-common denominator if you will, of fine wine and good taste. A “trainer” wine. So we’ll skip it.

The northeast is also known for Tocai, a native grape that can result is truly excellent wines. A recent dispute between Hungary and Italy over the right to label a wine simply “Tocai” had Hungary emerge the winner, so exactly what the Italian version is now called remains a mystery, to us. Still, if it’s on the menu, try it; it’s always good.

We used to say that about Gavi, too. Another exception to the naming rule, it’s made in the hills near the town of Gavi in the SE Piedmont, and it’s from the Cortese grape. It’s referred to as a “Gavi” and you’ll often see “Gavi di Gavi,” which to us makes no sense. Gleave describes it as “dry, neutral and acid,” “at best a decent fresh white wine” but very “fashionable.” We couldn’t have said it better. Always presentable but never exceptional. Probably overpriced.

We were once also fans of Muller-Thurgau, another SE Piedmont wine. Light and perfumed, it’s made from Riesling and Sylvaner grapes. Then we read that it was a rather pedestrian white and, not wanting to consider ourselves pedestrian, we stopped drinking it. Not a great wine, but pleasant enough.

Our current favorite is also from Piedmont, but it has a French name, from the grape: Arneis. Native to the region, Arneis is low-yielding and in other ways problematic, a characteristic reflected not only in its price, but in the name: in dialect, Arneis means “little difficult one.” Some of the best are from the Roero region, though the one we're drinking appears to be from Langhe.  According to Gleave, Arneis is light and dry, powerful yet delicate. We’ve never seen it in Rome, but then we haven’t looked; it’s that new to us. A great wine to take for dinner with friends; chances are they’ll never have heard of it—always good—and it’s a sublime wine.

P.S. See photos and info below on wine shops selling a good variety of Italian whites in Buffalo and Los Angeles (where else?).  And when in Rome, check out the "wine bar" section of Rome the Second Time, plus one or two of our wine bar posts.

City Wine Merchant, where many of the wines mentioned in this post can (and have been) purchased.  Corner of Main and Tupper, Buffalo, New York. .   Dave Cosentino, the proprietor at Vino Aroma, on Main Street in Williamsville, has first-hand knowledge of Italian whites, and the store carries an ample selection--as well as copies of Rome the Second Time.  Vino Aroma is 2 doors west of Trattoria Aroma.

In Los Angeles,
our source for Italian whites is Domaine LA, at 6801 Melrose (don't miss the ceiling; photo below).

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Filming the ancients at the home of Modernism.

The Roman Forum?  Cinecitta'?  A Hollywood sound stage?  Not exactly.  We stumbled on these scenes at EUR (Esposizione Universale di Roma/Universal Rome Exposition), the massive 1930s/1940s complex to the south of the city center, on both sides of via Cristoforo Colombo.  Mussolini's Fascist regime built the place--now a fashionable suburb--to celebrate the 1922 March on Rome and to represent Fascism's ties to the imperial monumentalism that was perhaps the most important quality of the architecture of ancient Rome.  Obviously the Fascists did it well--so well that movie companies seeking the look of ancient Rome come here to film.  In this case, they were shooting outside the Museo della Civilta' Romana.  . Bill

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Slave Climbs a Tree: A Story on the Origins of Common Law

Guest blogger Riley Graebner is a clerk at the U.S. Court of International Trade, located in New York City.  While a student at Georgetown University Law School, he studied Roman law. 

As one strolls through the streets of Rome, it is well to remember that the monuments that line the boulevards are the remains of a vibrant civilization that gave rise to cultural traits and institutions that remain with us today. Among these, none looms larger than the heritage of Roman law. In the story that follows—fictionalized, but grounded in Roman legal history—the case of an injured slave joins with precedent, custom and judicial activism to make what we know as common law.

The real Gaius, a celebrated Roman jurist,
and one of a half dozen major contributors to the
Roman law.  This bas relief is in the
U.S. House of Representatives
Imagine you are Gaius, a Roman citizen in 300 B.C., a carpenter and a plebian. Yours is not the dominant Rome of textbooks or HBO, but a Rome sharing power on the peninsula with other states, the Samnites among them, in the days before the Empire. This Rome is half way between shrugging off Etruscan rule and the rise of Julius Caesar—rapidly expanding but only a generation removed from a state the size of the present-day province of Lazio. Construction of the Appian Way has just begun. By 290 B.C., Rome appears to have control of much of the peninsula, but the permanency of that grip is open to debate.

Your business, Gaius, has done well enough for you to afford a slave. He’s a competent boy of 12 who helps you take care of the house and run errands. You send your slave to collect wood from a supplier outside the city limits. On his errand, the slave runs into Tulla, a fellow carpenter, competitor and citizen. Jealous of your success, Tulla orders your slave to fetch a piece of fruit from a branch high up in a tree, hoping to place him in peril. The slave loses his balance, falls out of the tree, and breaks his leg.

Roman Senators
The wheels of Roman justice begin to turn. You check the list of authorized causes of action, published each year by the praetor, the Roman juridical magistrate. You find what you are looking for: lex aquilia provides a remedy for anyone whose slave is “wrongfully” injured by another. You find another cause of action in the Twelve Tables, a quasi-constitutional document dating back two centuries. If your slave had only a bad bruise, the praetor would probably decline to hear your case; Roman justice moves only for serious offenses. But your slave will be out of commission for months and possibly permanently disabled. Under the Twelve Tables, an injury of this severity warrants attention.

But what does “wrongful” mean? Lex aquilia seems to require that Tulla made direct contact in harming your slave, but the contact in this case seems to be less than “direct.” Hiring a lawyer is not yet an acknowledged right, but you need one and, overcoming laws that appear to prohibit payment, you hire one and pay him.

A Roman Open-Air Courtroom

Case researched and prepared, you and your lawyer walk down to the Forum, where the praetor sits in his sulla curulis, surrounded by six lictors who wear purple-lined togas. A small crowd gathers to hear the day’s arguments. You call Tulla before the praetor. Tulla appears as requested, but the praetor promptly sends both of you off to negotiate for a minimum of two weeks. You try to work things out, but Tulla insists he never saw your slave and never commanded him to climb the tree.

When the praetor hears that no settlement has been reached, he announces the process for the settling the case: “Brutus will be the judge. If it appears that Tulla has wrongfully injured the slave of Gaius, the judge will order Tulla to compensate Gaius with the value of 30 days of the slave’s labor. If no evidence exists of wrongful injury, Tulla will be absolved.” With no police force to aid in collecting evidence, you investigate, talking to a farmer who observed the incident. Yes, he says, he heard Tulla order your slave up the tree. Yes, it was high and dangerous.

You and Tulla appear before the judge, Brutus. Your lawyers speak eloquently. Tulla claims he was nowhere near your slave. The farmer asserts otherwise. Brutus grants a verdict in your favor. A strict formula stipulates damages: 30 days’ worth of the slave’s labor, an amount fixed in Roman custom and practice. Under the honor system that dominates Roman life, Tulla feels compelled to pay you or he risks losing his place in Roman society.

The Forum, where the Twelve Tables were
Although many legal historians point to Rome as the birthplace of civil law—a system where statutes predominate rather than the edicts of judges—Roman legal procedure eventually created a body of case law which defined and shaped legal responsibilities. Romans called it ius honorarium, but we would probably see it as akin to common law. In our fictional scenario, featuring a slave injured by an act founded in jealousy, the expansion of codified rights by judicial fiat--the praetor’s process--has already begun.  Many of the Twelve Tables have been lost to history, but the Roman Forum and the judicial legacy that began there remain to this day.

Riley Graebner

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Red-haired Women of Rome

Women everywhere color their hair.  What's different in Rome--and maybe Italy generally--is that so many prefer red: often red highlights, but sometimes just plain red.  For years I've observed this phenomenon with a mix of curiosity and pleasure, and for years I've been trying to capture it in a photograph without incurring the wrath of a jealous husband or boyfriend, inviting a visit to the questura or--always of primary importance--making a fool of myself.  At a fair in Garbatella, I got away with this one.  Bill

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Colors of Rome

Rome has more than its share of pleasures, but it isn't an especially colorful city.  It's not Mexico City, or Quito, or Guatemala City, places where an Indian heritage has infused these cultures with bright and bold costumes and striking carvings of painted wood.  The Romans love their flowers, and the shops that sell them brighten many street corners.  But by and large, Rome is whites and grays and browns and even yellows, leavened here and there by the light, tasteful pastels of newer buildings or the dignified, Mediterranean Siena red that found favor with Mussolini's architects.  

Yet there are exceptions.  Some are high-tech intrusions, best observed at night, others aggregations of color.  Some are temporary--the product of holidays--and some intended to be permanent--as permanent, that is, as petty capitalism can be.  Some are offerings by fans of the Roma soccer team, others by the city's graffiti artists.  And some--a red car parked in front of a red door--are just coincidence.  They are only accents, to be sure, but delightful ones, we think.


The Red Bar at Parco della Musica

A wall painted by Roma fans, in Monti.  

A coffee bar, San Paolo

Serendipity. A kind of found art.

A bar in Monte Verde Nuovo, decorated for Easter

Graffiti, on a highway overpass south of the city

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

RST Top 40. #2: Park of the Aqueducts

Whenever anyone asks, what can we do in Rome if it’s really our first time, but we want to do one thing beyond the standard attractions. And, our answer usually is, if you have the time – say, half a day--go to Parco degli Acquedotti (“Park of the Aqueducts”).

From the first time we went there (taken by our friend Massimo and his children), we have been entranced. And we never tire of going back. It could be getting away from the crowds, it could be simply the stupendous size of these marvels of Roman engineering – still standing 2,000 years later, and many still in use. It could be just the pleasure of being in a large park with a bunch of, well, yes, fun-loving Italians.

Holes at top were where water flowed...sometimes
multiple ducts of water flowing on top of each other

And, to quote Goethe:  "I also saw the ruins of a great aqueduct. What a noble ambition it showed, to raise such a tremendous construction for the sake of supplying water to a people." 

So, yes, Parco degli Acquedotti comes in at #2 on our Rome the Second Time Top 40 list. It’s the first itinerary in our book, and easy to get to on Metro A.

Photographers, flora lovers, history buffs, loungers, eaters, drinkers… live it up.
"Woodrow Wilson sent a bouquet of poppies."  

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Dog in Rome

We found this guy--in a city of small apartments, atypically large--in a second-floor window in the San Giovanni neighborhood, mourning his exclusion from the city's street life while entertaining passers-by below.  If we remember correctly, the dog resides in a massive housing complex on Largo Pannonia (we hope that's correct) where Roma soccer star Francesco Totti grew up.  On the broad sidewalk in front of the complex, soccer remains a favorite activity.   Bill