How do you distill the most important bits of a three-week trip, without lazily listing the highlights and making your audience feel like they’re forced to watch an endless stream of blurry slide-projector photos? I’ve been back home for nearly three weeks and have quickly slipped back into the daily routine, making the memories feel like they’ve piled up into one, big messy tangle, as opposed to a clean, chronological narrative. There are blips of recollections that contain everything from the scent of citrus fruit and diesel, to the sound of swallows and broken plates.
Where do you even start?
Without quite knowing how to come at this, I decided to rely on my travel journal – that flimsy, grey blotter that I dutifully towed alongside me every day, to jot down notes on park benches, in noisy tratorrie, and on bumpy buses. For better or worse, the journal seemed like a good way to introduce these places to you. There’s a lot more information, images and ideas from the trip still percolating in my brain, but it’ll take a bit more time to coax them into the proper channels (recipes! oh god, all the recipes!). So in the meantime, I’ve selected a few journal entries (tweaked for the sake of coherence), along with some photos to help flesh things out. There will be a post on Rome, then Palermo (and surrounding areas), then one on the writing workshop with Rachel Roddy and Luisa Weiss at Case Vecchie (Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School) in Sicily.
I hope that these glimpses and echoes of stories will nip your wanderlust square on the bum and encourage you to explore more – be it geographical, cultural, gustatory, or in any way you see fit.
Baci, Julia x
Italy Part 1 // Rome // 4.5 days
Friday, June 10th, 9:45pm
Tratorria Da Bucatino
Yelling. So much yelling. The Romans are having dinner and it’s as though each thought, each string of words is as important – if not more so – as the last. Their hands and shoulders move in gestural waves – broad movements in competition with their own voices for airspace. The spectacle is punctuated by peals of laughter, a roll of the eyes, or a fist coming down hard on the table to further prove a point. It’s like a playful exercise of sensory one upmanship, where the men – with presumably a fair amount of vino and/or grappa circulating through their veins – are definitely winning.
Da Bucatino is the kind of place that instantly draws you in, largely thanks to its one-part Godfather, one-part Twin Peaks mystique. There are several dining rooms, each connected by small doorways which the waiter guides me through until we reach a table in the centre of the room. It has a “riservato” sign on it, which he hastily removes and shoves into his pocket. He catches my eye and winks, Non l’ho visto, l’hai visto ? (“I didn’t see it, did you?”). I shake my head, “no”, wishing I had the words to compliment his impromptu magic trick.
After a quick glance at the menu (which is in both English and Italian, with a wine list bearing only two dubious-looking, albeit succint, descriptors: “red” or “white”), I can’t tell if this place is a total racket or one of Testaccio’s best kept secrets. After a little while, it becomes clear that it’s somewhere comfortably in the middle – not ultra-gimmicky, not sublime, but a lovely in-between. The neighbourhood tratorria, the kind of place you come to with your family or your friends on a Thursday night, to eat platefuls of gnocchi, veal coda, and stewed fagioli, all while getting nicely looped on a carafe of wine called “red”.
I order the pici alla gricia, hand-rolled pasta the size and shape of thick shoelaces, slicked in a savoury sauce of pan-fried pancetta, fresh baby artichokes and a dusting of sharp pecorino. The pici get twirled happily into clusters on my fork, until there isn’t a single slippery noodle left in the bowl. It’s the kind of simply-prepared, unfussy pasta dish that hits all the right buttons, especially for the weary traveller who’s had nothing to eat all day, save an in-flight, cellophane-wrapped slice of banana bread, an oily square of potato pizza and an apricot.
To avoid the dearth of vegetables that’s beginning to slink into my tourist diet, I also order a 6 Euro plate of stewed chicory with the pici, which the waiter is quick to clarify will only come after the pasta, “Dopo il primo piatto, okaaye?”, as per Italian dining customs. I try to act with blasé assurance, “Sì, sì…perfetto“, but secretly wish he’d bring it all to the table at one time so that I won’t be stuck eating a mound of chicory meant for 2-4 people, all on its own (and all on my own). When it comes – a large, conical pile of tangled greens, swimming in garlicky stewing juices – the undertaking seems larger than expected. I dig in, like an obedient child, forkful after forkful, until the mound slowly diminishes, using the bread from the bread basket to mop up as much of the leftover juices as I can. It’s really tasty; just far too much for one person.
Right around the time I start to feel like John Candy in the steak scene from The Great Outdoors, a new batch of patrons rolls in through the front doors. It’s 10:45pm. The waiter asks if I want a dolce; I clutch my chest, “No, grazie, non posso” and ask for the cheque instead.
After heading out – or perhaps more accurately, rolling out of Da Bucatino, I make my way down the block to Piazza Testaccio a block for a gulp of fresh air. The piazza is nearly empty, except for a family of four with two gangly kids out for a late-night stroll. I notice they have cones of gelato in their hands. My midriff – the one that, just moments ago, felt like it was bursting at the seams, the one that said, “No, grazie, non posso” when offered dessert by Mr. Magic-Trick waiter – is suddenly keen for a frozen slurry of milk, cream and sugar. Not too far away is a gelateria, glowing in a halo of neon lights.
As I make my way over, I start to wonder how many times I’ll be able to use the excuse “when in Rome” before I fall flat on the floor.
Saturday, June 11th
Caffè Barberini, Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio, former Mattatoio al Testaccio
Breakfast starts with a cornetto and macchiato at Barberini, on Via Marmorata. In Italy, a lot of cornetti (the Italian interpretation of a croissant) are made with vegetable shortening, but Barberini is apparently one of the only places in the city that makes theirs with real butter. No mucking around.
This hot tip came from Natalie, when I mentioned I was heading out for breakfast near the apartment in Testaccio. She also said they made good coffee – which they do. Like most Italian coffee bars, the baristi are exclusively men, decked out in white button-up shirts (some also wear grey vests and bow-ties), expertly navigating the line between flirtation and professionalism with their female clients. Regulars breeze in at different intervals, greeting the barista with a quick salve! as they lean up against the bar. Seconds later, the barista slides their espresso toward them. They don’t even need to order; he knows them that well. They chit chat for a couple of minutes, the client knocks back the final sip of their espresso (there are about three total) and they wish eachother a buongiorno! goodbye.
I’ve been to Italy before; I’ve seen this dozens of times. But it’s a ritual that never fails to impress me with its simplicity – the two minutes spent chatting with your local barista while you sip your coffee, before heading off to work or running errands. To the Italians, there’s nothing precious about this routine – to them it’s just that – routine. And that, I suppose, is what makes it all that more alluring to the outsider.
Around lunchtime, Rachel takes me round the Testaccio market (Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio). Nuovo, because it opened in 2012, migrating from its original location in Piazza Testaccio, where it stood since the 1920s. The new building has the same squeaky-clean brightness that causes a lot of modern architecture stick out in older, urban settings, making it feel strangely anachronistic. Rachel tells me that the new market was initally met with a good dose of skepticism, mainly because of the squeaky-cleanness of the new structure and the additional walking distance from the more central square where it used to reside. I can empathise with Romans who are resistant to change when it comes to their markets; when I think of my own outdoor market back home – Marché Jean-Talon – I realise how apprehensive I am when changes are made to the stalls and producers (where the heck did my Madame Laitue go? Why have they replaced the produce stalls with bougie artisanal products?). I feel like the rug has been pulled from under me on those days. Some Romans probably do too. Because when something so important to your daily life gets shifted around like that, it can throw you for a loop (especially for all us octogenarians at heart).
As we move along the pathways of the market that connect each stall, Rachel points out her favourite produce man (one of the few remaining farmers at the market that sells the produce he actually grows himself), her fish monger (he might be the most vocal vendor there), and her bakery, Da Artenio, which makes these lovely little pizzette – small, oval-shaped pizzas no bigger than the size of an out-stretched hand, with simple toppings like tomato sauce, or sliced potato, or red onion. In provision of lunch later in the day, I order a half loaf of bread and a bag of ciambelline al vino e finnochio, circular biscuits made with wine and fennel seeds and a coating of sparkly sugar crystals. They’re meant for dessert, but I like to dunk these in wine or beer (like the Moretti that’s quietly chilling in the fridge back at the apartment).
After visiting the market, we stop for a quick espresso at a nearby tabbacchi. Rachel tells me it’s one of the last remaining tabacchi that also has an espresso bar. I wish I had a better photo to show you – one with a view from the inside, through the beaded curtains that dress the front door. Like the woman who runs it, this spot is an utter gem – time-worn, modest and lovely.
Adjacent to the Testaccio market is a series of buildings that used to house the neighbourhood’s slaughterhouse. After it shut down in the 1970s, the spaces have been restored and reappropriated by different institutes and collectives dedicated to art, culture, and education, the largest ones being the Macro Testaccio, University of Roma Tre, and Città dell’Altra Economia, the latter featuring a small bio-agricultural market on Sundays that sells fresh produce, cheese and small-batch food products. (It pained me to leave the market without one of those jaw-dropping wheels of cheese in hand, but I had to remind myself – four days. You’re only here for FOUR days.)
From Città dell’Altra Economia, you can see Monte Testaccio (or Monte dei Cocci), a hill made almost entirely of fragments of discarded earthenware (amphorae) used by the ancient Romans to transport olive oil. It’s quite a fantastic sight – a carefully engineered, ancient garbage dump of sorts. If you look closely (squint, maybe), you can make out the pieces of broken pottery covering the hill:
When we leave the old slaughterhouse district, it’s mid-afternoon and I realise I haven’t had any lunch. Rachel and I part ways and I head back to the apartment with my market spoils to cobble together something that will sustain me for the rest of the afternoon. In a couple of hours, I’ll be heading out again, this time for a long walk along the Tiber to Latteria Trastevere, to meet Natalie for pre-dinner drinks and salumi (i.e. aperitivo hour).
I can think of worse ways to spend a day.
Vatican City, Rome
Sunday, June 12th
I have to buy Nonna a rosary at Vatican City today. That was my mission when I left the apartment this morning.
I head out, smeared in sunscreen SPF 110; my skin is still a shade between “snow-capped” and “Canadian-ivory”, which doesn’t exactly help me blend in with the locals. I take it a step further by fashioning my trusty cotton scarf into a makeshift headscarf, to protect my scalp from the hot sun, which by 10 am is already beating down something fierce. (Anytime I try to channel Ava Gardner in Night of the Iguana, I end up looking more like Edie Beale in Grey Gardens. It’s inevitable.). Since I don’t have enough hair to achieve a regal-looking Nefertiti situation, I end up looking vaguely infirm. That, or bat-shit crazy, if you consider the oversized sunglasses that swallow half my face and the canvas bag I’ve decided to cart along – you know, the one that has the outline of a naked woman lounging solo on a shag rug, smoking a bong. Oh and did I mention I went bra-free too?
Way to make an impression there, tourista.
It’s safe to say that sartorial choices such as these will not make you go unnoticed in Vatican City. One positive offshoot is that it tends to ward off the souvenir hustlers, possibly because they don’t quite know what to make of you. If you’re travelling alone, and don’t mind staying alone, I highly recommend it.
(Sidenote: before my Catholic-raised mother has a heart-attack reading this, I should mention that when I was actually in Saint-Peter’s Square (I didn’t go inside the Basilica or the museums), I had the good sense to turn the canvas bag inside out and toss on a long-sleeved shirt.)
Among the vendor stalls outside Peter’s Square, all of them strewn with various forms of religious paraphernalia, I was able to find a couple of things that Nonna might like, namely a plastified card emblazoned with a smiling Pope Francis and a silvery medallion, and a rosary – a simple one made of white beads, with its own nifty pewter case.
I like to imagine grandma keeping these tokens by her bedside, making her feel safe.
About a twenty-minute walk from Vatican City is Bonci Pizzarium – a pizza-by-the-slice counter discreetly located on a sidestreet across Cipro metro. Knowledge of their proximity wasn’t a fluke, or dumb luck; I’d planned these two excusions back-to-back after hearing from a handful of reliable sources (including two Roman-dwelling food pros I’d met – Katie Parla and Natalie Aldern Kennedy) that Pizzarium has some of the best pizza-by-the-slice (al taglio) in town.
I enter and take a ticket; with every rotation of the crowd, I get closer to the vitrine. Once it’s my turn, I’m face-to-face with large sheets of pizza splayed out with every topping imaginable. There is no menu; what you see is what you get. It’s buy-by-eye – roasted red pepper with pine nuts, tomato and anchovy, mortadella and marinated eggplant, zucchini, ricotta and almonds…
I finally settle on four kinds before they call out my number: potato and rosemary; headcheese (coppa), shaved celery and orange zest; chicory, ricotta, and nutmeg; and mushroom with caciocavallo. I collect my bounty and head to a standing banquette outside. The first few bites trigger contented grunts; the slice with the coppa garnered a couple of under-the-breath swear words. An American tourist standing next to me nudges his wife, “OMIGOD OMIGOD, have you tried this one?! This one might be the best”, only to repeat the same statement with each subsequent piece (they all win “best”).
His enthusiasm is warranted. It’s the kind of food that sparks deep-belly felicity; the kind of food that makes you happy to be alive.
Viva Bonci Pizzarium.
Rome // Conclusion
Four and a half days in this city hardly seems enough. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. Some things I’ll miss and hope to re-visit again: the public fountains that double as drinking fountains, the banter between neighbours that echoes off the walls of interior courtyards, the screeching swallows, the clinkity-clank of noisy tratorrie, the smell of pizza bianca wafting from stone ovens, the homicidal scooter-drivers, the way the ancient bits of the city meld with the modern, laundry hanging from windows, 1 euro macchiati, aperitivi in the piazza, and, of course, having some of the most beautiful, fresh (and wildly inexpensive) food products right at my fingertips, every single day.
Ah, Roma – spero che ci rivediamo subito.