Destination: Italy: Rome
Read Indagare’s Lizzie McGirr’s Just Back From… Rome and Florence
Roman Update 2010
There’s an assumption that while metropolises like London, Hong Kong and New York are always moving, growing, changing, Italy’s cities are timeless; their charm eternal. And while Italy certainly moves to its own beat—and is far less concerned with trend and buzz than other world cities—its stunning capital finds itself in midst of an exciting make-over at the moment. During my visit last week, I discovered recently opened hotels, restaurants and shops, explored up-and-coming neighborhoods whose energy was tangible, and, of course, revisited old favorites (some of which had been marred by the omnipresent tourist hordes, other that are surviving their pride—and standards—intact).
“I think there’s an ever-growing gap between tourists and travelers; between those who follow umbrella-toting tour guides and those who come to seek and experience the real Rome,” says Alberto Moncada, the charming owner of Rome Luxury Suites, a trio of the city’s best new boutique properties. Intimate, contemporary and perfectly located, Moncado’s all-suite hotels epitomize a new generation of Roman accommodations; they were created for stylish travelers who want to feel like locals. The entrance of Babuino 181, for instance, is barely marked: a sleek set of sliding glass doors lead from the shopping bustle of Via Babuino into a slender, quiet mansion whose spacious suites feel like well-designed, fashionable and utterly comfortable cocoons. If Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck were to return for a romantic holiday, they would surely check in here (in fact, Via Margutta of Roman Holiday fame sits one street over, and another Moncada property is located here).
Getting away from the crowds is becoming increasingly difficult in Rome, especially during peak season like the early Fall, but another newly opened place makes (relative) alone-time with the coliseum possible. Aroma restaurant occupies the roof terrace of Palazzo Manfredi (located across the street from ancient Rome’s most important monument), and the views from this lofty perch are simply stunning. I had a memorable lunch here, staring out across the ancient brick structure, its smooth curves familiar yet spectacular from this vantage point. Even more romantic must be dinner, when the sun sets behind the monument (and now, thanks to new opening hours until 11 p.m., you can even try stopping by post-dessert to see the coliseum afterwards).
The daytime lines in front of the Colisseum and the Vatican are as breathtaking as ever, and it pays to visit these with a guide who can skip to the front, and, more importantly, give a historic overview of what you’re looking at (Indagare has a wonderful network of local guides; contact us for an introduction). Another trick is to hit the well-known sights early in the morning, When I visited the Fontana di Trevi the other day at 8 a.m., the piazza was silent, and I was practically alone except for the three workers whose job it is to gather the coins tossed into the famous fountain the day before and collect the loot into white plastic bags (admittedly, witnessing this ritual was not unlike seeing a magician’s trick revealed). The Pantheon, too, which opens at 8:30 a.m., was deserted when I arrived shortly thereafter, and I was able to sit and contemplate the stupendous architecture of the ancient building in peace, before venturing on to Caffè Sant Eustachio, which, happily, still makes the city’s best cappuccino (it comes semi-sweet and with a thick frothy cover).
Of course, there are also neighborhoods that don’t require bleary-eyed morning excursions: up-and-coming Testaccio and parts of Trastevere remain totally unexplored, and both have incredibly treasures to be found. Trastevere’s Villa Farnesina, for instance, has beautiful frescoes by Raphael, and none of the crowds that shuffle through a Doria Pamphilij gallery, for instance. Trastevere’s main thoroughfares are lined with restaurants whose menus are translated into three languages, but a couple of side streets deeper, you come across local places where you best have a few choice phrases in Italian handy (in front of one restaurant, a sign read: “We hate war and tourist menu”).
Testaccio, meanwhile, was described to me as the equivalent of New York’s Meatpacking district (it has an old slaughterhouse and burgeoning nightlife), and while the comparison is still premature, the neighborhood does have an undeniably cool vibe that will hopefully continue to gather momentum. Real foodies may know the rioni slightly, as longtime favorites Checchino Dal 1887 and Da Felice are found here, but now Testaccio is also drawing nighttime revelers (the action centers around such bar as Ketumbar and Remo), as well as art aficionados who visit MACRO Futura, an outpost of Rome’s contemporary art museum. Rumor has it that Bulgari has purchased real estate here for a hotel project; Alberto Moncada, too, says that he considers Testaccio Rome’s most interesting neighborhood to watch.
The best part of visiting Rome, however, is the sense that for every place lost to the clutches of mass tourism, the city divulges a new treasure. Years ago, the gelato at San Crispino was a revelation to me; this time around, the man behind the counter spoke automatic English with everyone (my Italian is not perfect, but I can certainly order a cup of gelato with near-fluency), and the ice cream itself tasted overly sweet. Across the river, in Trastevere, however, a complete hole in the wall gelateria, which I discovered on my last day and completely by chance, served the smoothest, most flavorful _ cioccolata_ and nocciolo that I have ever tasted—and at a ridiculously affordable €1.50 a cup to boot.
This gelateria, Fior di Luna, was also down the street from my best-loved restaurant find on this trip. It’s a totally unassuming place, with a small dining room, tables shoved closely together and a kitchen separated only by a glass window so you can watch the chef prepare your food to order. The crowd was entirely local (new arrivals all greeted with a wave of kisses and embraces), the menu focused and seasonal, and the flavorful pasta what you imagine when you dream of Italy. At the end of the meal, I pocked my head into the kitchen to thank the chef for this fantastic meal, mouthing “Grazie,” but instead of the perfunctory nod I expected, he made his way through steaming pots and bubbling pans, removed his chef’s hat and kissed my hand, thanking me for having come by. My only wish is that this special place will continue to draw locals and travelers who, as Moncada said, are in Rome to seek, scout and hunt for the real thing. I, for one, cannot wait to return.
Read Indagare’s Rome Cheat Sheet
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