A glimpse of Rome

As you may (or may not) have noticed, I’ve been a bit MIA, due to a three-week vacation, including a week in Rome. Our time in Italy began with a mediocre 4-euro cappuccino at a tourist-trap restaurant next to our hotel, and ended with us chugging wine next to the airport security scanners at 10 a.m. There was plenty of pizza, pasta and more in between.

Since a guide to one of the world’s culinary capitols is way beyond the scope of a post (and my knowledge), I’ll settle for my impressions of the city, a few things we enjoyed and a bunch of photos.

First off, in general, the trip confirmed what I already knew — food in Israel is excellent. I had high expectations, but I wasn’t blown away by the food in Italy — the stuff at home stands up to the competition. The coffee is just as good — perhaps because Israel learned from the experts, as the coffee here is Italian-style — and the gelato here also measures up for the same reason (some people disagree with me on this one, I know). The cheeses are undoubtedly better — unlike Italy, Israel isn’t exactly a powerhouse when it comes to aged cheeses — and if you eat pork, well, it’s also surely better in Italy, for obvious reasons. But Israeli markets have a wider variety of fruits and vegetables than what I saw in Rome, and they’re also way cheaper here — for instance, tomatoes are five times more expensive in Italy than they are during Israel’s peak season, which probably makes your pomodoro sauce pretty expensive.

As for the restaurants, I can’t say whether you’re just as likely to find a good meal stepping into a random Israeli restaurant as you would be in Italy — I haven’t tried nearly enough restaurants in Italy to say, and when I go to a restaurant in Israel, it’s far from random.

Our best meal was actually at a kosher dairy restaurant, Nonna Betta (Via del Portico d’Ottavia 17). While vegetarians won’t have trouble finding things to eat at your average restaurant, the selection felt somewhat limited and repetitive, and many of the local specialties (think carbonara) contain pork.

Nonna Betta, which recently won a mention in the New York Times, sits on a street lined with kosher restaurants, behind Rome’s largest synagogue and Jewish museum (Via Catalana — Largo 16 Ottobre, open for tours and services) in the former ghetto. I had stuffed zucchini flowers — fiori de zucca — which were filled with mozzarella and anchovies, and then battered and fried, along with an excellent artichoke-bechamel lasagna that was too large for me to finish. (There it is in the photo, along with Eitan, assuming the typical pose of many a food blogger’s spouse during the photographing of the meal.)

Our friendly Egyptian waiter convinced Eitan to order the carciofi alla giudia — “Jewish-style” artichoke. The artichokes are deep-fried, which admittedly doesn’t sound too good, but the inside was soft and the outer leaves were crispy like chips. In short, we enjoyed it.

We also had pleasant meals at a few other places we stumbled across, including Armando (Piazza Le Tiburtino 5) and several places selling pizza by the weight, including Magnum (Corso V. Emanuelle II 260) and Acqua Farina E … (Plaza Risorgamento 18) conveniently situated across from the Vatican.

Beyond that, about half our meals were actually from grocery stores — packaged salads, antipasti from the deli and large, fresh mozzarella balls. Fresh Italian mozzarella is soft and creamy, and should be enjoyed as much as possible.

For me, it wouldn’t be a trip abroad if it didn’t include a trip to a market or two, so we stopped by the famed Campo de Fiore market (above photo), which is picturesque and touristy, as well as the more businesslike morning market in Piazza de Testaccio.

Among the things you won’t see in Israel are lots of seasonal zucchini flowers (above, at Campo de Fiore), bags of freshly salt-cured capers (you’ll find caper plants growing out of the walls of the antiquities) and bunches of fresh chicory — it appears on all the menus, and the shoots are smaller and more delicate looking than the wild chicory sold in Israel over the winter months.

Colorful mokas for sale at Campo de Fiore:

Here’s the Testaccio market, which is under a roof:

I took this photo after the guy started closing up his stand for the day — the pile of pots and pans had been twice as high:

At the Testaccio market, we were pleased to find wine being sold from the barrel (they fill plastic bottles for you) as well as a huge selection of cheese shops (and butchers) mixed in with the vegetable stands. We stumbled upon a cafe next door, Li Elena, and had excellent 90-cent cappuccinos (apparently, that’s what it’s supposed to cost outside the touristy areas).

Nearby is the reputable Volpetti deli (Via Marmorata 47), with a large selection of cheeses, meats and prepared foods. We stopped to admire the animal-shaped cheeses (top photo).

We also paid repeated visits to various branches of Castroni (Via Nazionale 71, Via Ottaviano 55 and others), a gourmet food shop with a massive range of vinegars, olive oils and sauces, not to mention liquors, pasta, a dozen types of licorice and a cafe with seating. Aside from buying obscene amounts of licorice (for Eitan) and really expensive balsamic vinegar, we sat down for a nice cup of coffee, too.

Not that all we did was eat — we did tons of sightseeing and walking, to absorb the atmosphere. (In the photo: An ominous sky over San Pietro. Below: Me looking at art at the Vatican, while the art looks back at me.)

So to close, a few final notes:

  • An Australian couple at our hotel told us how they paid 11 euros for two cappuccinos across from the Vatican. Well, duh. You’ll have better luck at restaurants that cater to locals as opposed to those that cater to tourists, and that’s probably true anywhere in the developed world. The trick is to move away from tourist attractions — sometimes by only a block — and find places with a local clientele. As for our 4-euro cappuccino, it came from a place near the train station — a hot spot for hotels. The espresso was burnt and the milk was bubbly.
  • Watch your wallet. That’s what everyone says, from the tour books to the signs in the metro stations. We didn’t have any trouble, but we did see a kid running off with a wallet that clearly wasn’t his.
  • They say that Rome is hectic and full of bad drivers, but I guess it really depends on your point of reference. I found it to be quite calm.
  • Wandering around outside the Colosseum, we saw at least three brides shooting their wedding photos, and a camera crew filming a documentary starring a guy named Richard.
  • Eitan seemed to think you could take liquids onto the flight, since this isn’t the United States. You can’t. We saw a woman toss a full bottle of lemoncello at the security check. Fortunately, all we were carrying was two single-serving bottles of white wine. The security agent found it quite funny when we told him we’d drink them instead of throwing them out, maybe because it was 10 a.m. Anyway, things became a lot more fun from that point onward.
  • There’s penis-shaped pasta everywhere in this city. I guess that’s because people tourists buy it (I saw a few doing so). There they are, colored by squid ink:

A flower shop on a street:

More on Rome: David Lebovitz visits markets and explores the city.

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