Week Six in France: Carbonara and carciofi alla giudia (Vacances de Toussaint, Part III)
My apologies in advance for the length of this post, but a week in the country of my ancestors (and such a gourmet one, at that) deserves its own manifesto.
28/10/2019: "Bellissimo, brava!" The Italian woman sitting next to me on my flight from Athens to Rome offered some uplifting words of encouragement after I told her her – well, mimed to her – that I was visiting the city by myself for the first time. Prima volta! Two buses, two flights and a five-hour layover later, I was finally checking in to my hostel, The RomeHello, and flirting with cute Luigi at the front desk. As I sipped my free "welcome beer" on the quaint, colorful terrace, I thought about how I never feel quite comfortable in hostels, no matter how neighborly and hip they may be. Sometimes I get discouraged and think about all of the experiences I could be having if I was more outgoing, more open to meeting and possibly going on adventures with strangers. Maybe I'll try and push myself out of my comfort zone a bit for the rest of the trip. I'll let you all know how that goes. After getting settled in my 10-person dorm (and avoiding eye contact with the dude who walked nonchalantly by in nothing but boxer briefs – this isn't the men's locker room at the gym, my guy!), I walked to the nearby Monti neighborhood for dinner at a friendly fast-casual pasta restaurant. On the stroll over, I caught many a glimpse into candlelit dinners in cozy restaurants, into luxe hotel lobbies, into buses as they sauntered by, packed shockingly full.
At the aptly named and highly rated Pasta Chef Monti, the spitting image of Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí in Midnight in Paris took my order, warning me that the carbonara was alla romana and, therefore, very "strong and intense." Again, I assured him I could handle it, but this time I honestly wasn't quite prepared for the sheer force of the al dente dish. The black pepper smacked me in the back of the throat, effectively clearing my sinuses – in a good way, of course – and I found myself digging for the little nuggets of smoky, salty guanciale in the silky sauce. I then took a quick detour to see the famed Trevi Fountain and am just now realizing that I forgot to throw in a coin. :( This oversight aside, it was more beautiful than I expected, even if the surrounding area basically assaulted my eyes, ears and sensibilities with its hordes of people, tourist trap restaurants and flashing trinkets for sale.
Today's realization: What I like about Rome so far is that I don't have to search far and wide for beautiful things. They're everywhere I look.
29/10/2019: After a forgettable but practical breakfast buffet at the hostel, I embarked on a day of flânerie. In French, flâner means to wander aimlessly, to stroll with no specific direction in mind. I will admit, I had a couple spots I wanted to see (the Borghese Gardens, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon...), but mainly I just wanted to walk. And walk I did. On my journey, the terrain oscillated between tourist-packed piazzas, wide boulevards with mopeds zipping by, and narrow, vine-draped alleyways. The sun was shining, and it couldn't have been a more perfect morning to explore and observe, camera in hand, getting more and more comfortable with putting it up to my eye to capture a scene of effortless street style. Eventually, lunchtime loomed. Off the Campo de' Fiori, I noticed a stall with people spilling out of the entryway. Obviously, I got in line. The spot was called Baccanale, and I ended up with pizza farcite – basically, a very tasty and toasty prosciutto and mozzarella panino that I ate as I avoided eye contact with the selfie-stick sellers in the Piazza Navona.
Later that day, for sunset, I wandered past the Colosseum, snacked on some suppli at Il Mercato Centrale and stopped inside the Basilica Papale de Santa Maria Maggiore for my daily dose of peace. Then, I made my way to the San Lorenzo neighborhood, which, according to all-knowing Bon Appétit, is Rome's best foodie neighborhood (it's even named after the patron saint of chefs, Saint Laurence!). There certainly wasn't an abundance of street lights, and graffiti covered most surfaces, but I liked its energy – every so often I'd have to walk in the street to avoid a crowd spilling out of a storefront. First, I dropped by the BA-recommended Il Sorì, a cozy natural wine bar where I was the only customer at 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. The friendly owner & co. chatted to me and poured me glasses of two delicious Italian orange wines, eventually leaving me with a smile and a recommendation for a nearby chocolate shop. Beaming with pride at my little conversation (some of it in French!), I walked a block or two to my next stop, Farinè la Pizza, which truly was serving some of the best pizza I've ever tasted. My simple margarita pie, with its flavorful 72-hour-leavened crust, was phenomenal – and at just 4 euros, so was the price. Finally, I picked out a couple chocolates at SAID, a chocolate factory-turned-café/shop/restaurant, for a sweet, unexpected end to a busy and fulfilling day.
30/10/2019: I know I'm basically a sloth 100% of the time, but I don't think I've felt this exhausted in a very long while. I've walked 22 miles over the past two days, and my feet are not happy with me, let alone my lower back. Of course, it was worth it. I've seen many different neighborhoods in Rome and eaten some amazing food (truth be told, though, I haven't been inside a single museum – just a few *free* churches). This morning, I grabbed a cappucino and a cornetto (an Italian pastry that made me miss France) for breakfast and walked all the way to Testaccio, a neighborhood that's a bit off the beaten path for most tourists. The main attraction for me was the Testaccio Market, a glorious tangle of authentic food, flower and clothing stalls inside an airy glass-ceilinged space that put the Campo de' Fiori to shame. To shame! I ended up at a popular pasta spot, where they handed me a bowl of melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi in a tomato and basil sauce, positively blanketed with a mountain of fluffy Parmesan.
After a lot more walking and some people-watching at the top of Janiculum Hill, I watched the sun set behind the Piazzale Garibaldi and headed off to the Jewish Ghetto for dinner. I had done some preliminary research but let my whims carry me to Ba'ghetto Milky, the kosher, dairy-focused sister restaurant to meat-eating Ba'ghetto down the street, even though I had read some reviews complaining about "overpriced, stale bread" and expensive tap water. I'm so glad I didn't let those reviews sway me. The service was kind and quick, and the bread, though they did charge me for it without asking, was delicious. And best of all, my carciofi alla giudia (fried artichokes, a typical Roman dish) that I'd been looking forward to all week exceeded my expectations – the leaves were crunchy, the heart tender, the whole mess wonderfully salty and sweet… And for my entrée, the flavorful zucchini flower and saffron risotto was the cherry on top of a delightful meal in a buzzing neighborhood. Thank you, Rome! I'm going to sleep now.
31/10/2019: One absolutely fire cappucino at the train station later, I began my journey to Parma. It's not the hottest tourist destination in Italy, but I wanted to go because 1) Parma ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano, 2) being in northern Italy, it's on the way back to France and 3) apparently, my one of my great-grandparents was from the area. I wasn't expecting to find a friendly fellow Scarazzini on the street or anything, but I was excited to explore the small town, a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy. The weather wasn't great when I arrived. It was cold and cloudy, and my hands almost froze after an hour or two of walking around with my camera. Parma is known as a university town, as shown by the MANY young couples I saw straight up sucking each other's faces in public. With its pastel-colored, string light-bedecked historic city center and slightly dull outskirts, it reminded me a bit of Mulhouse, honestly. That's not a bad thing, just an observation! That afternoon, I walked through the somewhat gloomy Parco Ducale, wandered into cute alleyways and snapped photos of the majestic stone Pallazzo della Pilotta.
But the main thing I did when I arrived was eat. For lunch, I battled the crowds at Pepèn Parma, a small spot beloved for its sandwiches. Not quite feeling like eating raw horse meat today, I got the carciofa panino, which featured a crunchy, buttery crust, a briny artichoke and ricotta filling and more melted cheese oozing out the sides. Later, once it hit 6 p.m., I decided to try the fabled Italian aperitivo for myself. On the busy Strada Farini, a strip of bars offer a whole buffet of snacks, from spicy eggplant bruschetta to cured meats, that come free with your drink. Considering that I was on a strict budget, this was ideal. At some places, you can get a glass of wine and unlimited snacks for just 2 euros! The enoteca I'd looked up beforehand, however, was unfortunately taken over by a far-right rally for the evening. Yikes. I hadn't yet seen such an organized, casual and outright exhibition of the anti-immigrant, racist, populist sentiments plaguing Italy (and France, and all of Europe), so the group cheering behind me as I drank a glass of outstanding local Lambrusco at a nearby restaurant was very disillusioning. Eventually, despite the fact that I couldn't even understand what they were saying, I couldn't take it anymore, so I got up and bought myself some gelato. Oh, also, it was Halloween and surprisingly, there were kids everywhere in costume, running amok and streaming into pasticcerias and gelaterias for treats. It was quite an overstimulating scene, albeit kind of sweet, minus the political bullshit. But the gelato, a cone filled with molten milk chocolate, a scoop of amarena with crunchy chocolate-hazelnut bites and a scoop of tart, hot pink melograno, was simply perfect.
01/11/2019: One decent hotel breakfast buffet later, I took one last quick walk around Parma with my camera – maybe because it was la Toussaint (All Saint's Day), the town was transformed. Classical music was playing in the streets, and people were everywhere. Luckily, I got to witness a few minutes of Mass at the beautiful cathedral before I had to check out and head to the train station. Once there, I bought a Coke and some chips to last me for the long day of travel (nine hours, four different trains!), as well as a slice of pizza – which was very good for traveler's fare. It was what New York pizza wishes it could be. I finished off my little meal with a cup of crema caffé, a silky smooth, sweet, espresso soft serve-type situation. Now, it's train time (Parma to Milan, Milan to Lugano, Lugano to Basel, and Basel to Mulhouse).
I think, while it was a nice little overnighter, if I come back to Parma, I'd like to do a food tour or a cooking class and visit the rest of the Food Valley to truly make the most of the experience. So, until next time, Italy. Grazie mille. Time to switch from "Buongiorno" back to "Bonjour."