Rome Sweet Rome

When his wife was invited to study in Rome rent-free, Stephen Heuser took a six-month sabbatical and tagged along. 'La vita' doesn't get much more 'dolce' than that.

By Stephen Heuser, Tuesday, Oct 18, 2005, 3:14 PM

The Janiculum Hill is home to one of the city's best views--and also to the American Academy in Rome, where our lucky writer was living (Lorenzo Pesce)

What you'll find in this story: Rome restaurants, Rome culture, Rome attractions, Rome neighborhoods, Rome churches, Rome museums

When I was 22, I did Rome in three efficient days. With a backpack and a guidebook I covered St. Peter's, the Colosseum, the Pantheon. I ate a pressed sandwich. I sat on the Spanish Steps. A group of Italians drove me in their tiny Fiat to a genuine out-of-town restaurant.

I liked the city well enough, but I didn't get why it seduced people. I prefer to peek under the skin of places, figure them out a little, and in Rome that seemed impossible. The city was a labyrinth of churches, ruins, and steep-walled palazzi barred by iron gates. To be honest, I was happy to tick Rome off the list for good.

And then came the telephone call. My wife, Jennifer, a student of classical art, had won something called the Rome Prize. She was being offered a free year to live in Rome, and if I took time off from my job I could stay with her through the summer. We'd live atop the Janiculum Hill, in a room with 15-foot ceilings, overlooking a fountain. Dinner would be served promptly at 8 p.m. Could we come?

How could we not? The Boston Globe gave me a leave of absence. We found a cat-sitter and a car-sitter. And we packed and repacked, weighing our crammed luggage until it fit precisely under the airline's weight limit, 74 pounds per bag.

We arrived in January to find the streets raked by 40-degree winds. The Rome of my memory had been rolled into storage. Café awnings were furled; outdoor tables were stacked and chained. Some restaurants were shuttered completely until March.

The city's crumbling grandeur was familiar enough, but the details of daily life felt endlessly strange. The streets buzzed with two-person microcars, smaller than anything I'd ever seen driven by adults. Policemen carried machine guns and sported intricately sculpted beards. Store owners were fastidious about handing out receipts, even for a cup of coffee, but they were creative in making change, often in my favor. Everyone wore thick quilted coats, and men all had the same moleskin pants in ocher yellow--but mysteriously, no stores appeared to sell them.

We were living at the American Academy in Rome, a venerable institution seemingly designed to hold its occupants in splendid isolation from urban life. So although we had moved to Italy, we had almost none of the ordinary bureaucratic headaches expats have to endure.

The academy was full of professors and artists, some of whom had been coming to Rome for years. They knew a version of the city that wasn't in guidebooks, and they knew who to call--a former colleague, a government functionary--for permission to see it. When they went out, I could almost always tag along. One early winter morning, we rode the number 75 bus over the river to the Colosseum stop. (Can you ever really grasp a city where the Colosseum is a bus stop?) We walked past the Arch of Constantine, past the Forum entrance, and stopped on the Palatine Hill.

A grad student had landed a permit to visit a rarely seen building called the House of the Griffins. Even with permission, Rome doesn't yield its secrets easily: We shuttled back and forth between two gatehouses for 45 minutes before we found our contact, a custodian who spoke no English. He led us through a fence and stopped at a stone arch that opened onto a blank wall. There was no house, just a steep metal stairway running straight down into the ground.

We climbed three stories down, plunging from a cold day into colder, damp earth, from an Italian park in 2005 into the living room of a man who wore a toga and sacrificed to Jupiter. The House of the Griffins is the long-buried mansion of a wealthy Roman who lived in the years before Julius Caesar. We played our flashlights over walls painted in faux marble--apparently the Romans have always loved faux marble--and floors in op art mosaics.

Rome has more buried epochs than most cities have epochs. Every square inch of the city is like a pressed sandwich of history. Beneath the churches are older churches, and beneath those are temples, or the remnants of huts. It wasn't just me who couldn't get a handle on Rome. Nobody could.

As more and more doors opened, and I read a bit of Italian history, I started to figure it out: Prehistoric settlements lay under the Republic, the Republic lay under the Empire, and the monuments of the Empire were leveled and pillaged by a nearly endless succession of popes. The popes put their crests on buildings as if they were signatures. Six mounds and a star was the work of Alexander VII; three bees was Urban VIII.

Another door wasn't opening as easily, however: the language. Before I had come to Italy, I had studied Italian grammar and even started listening to CDs. With devastatingly accurate intonation, I could ask, "Is Chiara there?" And, "Is Amanda there?" But on the street I would produce one grammatically shining sentence--"Excuse me, where is the church with the preserved heart of St. Charles?"--and get back a rapid-fire mouthful that sounded like nothing I had ever heard.

So Jennifer and I enrolled in Italian classes. Every day we trekked nearly an hour to the Piazza di Spagna to spend the afternoon under the crisp tutelage of Costanza, our infinitely patient teacher, wrestling with the past imperfect or the bizarre Italian double-pronoun. ("Did you give him the cheese?" Costanza would ask. "Yes," we'd reply. "Him-it I already gave.") It was one small step for our Italian skills, and a giant leap for our grasp of the city. Pretty soon we could get from the Pantheon to the Trevi Fountain three different ways; we knew how to find Parliament, the only heated mall, the best gelato.

But I still had to think out my sentences before I said them. I'd greet waiters with a crisp "buona sera" and they'd hand me the English menu. One morning I stood in a café with my friend Carl, an American who gesticulates and fires off ciao bellas like he was born in Italy. He had a brilliant piece of advice: "You can't say 'um.' The minute you do, you're toast." He sipped his macchiato. "Italians just stretch out their words and make an 'ehhh' sound until they think of something else. Or if you really need to buy some time, say 'dunque.' " My dictionary said dunque meant "thus," but Italians use it as a kind of drumroll.

So I started dragging out my syllables, peppering conversations with "dunque-aaay," "cioè-ehhhh," "però-ohhh...." I tossed in a few choice Italian gestures. Part of speaking the language right was acting it, according to Carl, and eventually I felt like I hit a kind of rhythm when I went to restaurants and asked for a table. But I still got the English menu.

We emerged from the Catacombs of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter, a giant maze of tombs beneath a remote eastern neighborhood, into a bright February day when my cell phone rang. It was a reporter in Rome who worked with the Globe.

My leave of absence had a string attached: If anything happened to Pope John Paul II, my Roman holiday would be put on abrupt hold. For a month and a half the news out of the Vatican barely stopped. My life orbited the surreal Vatican pressroom where every day the pope's dour spokesman would emerge to deliver the news in Italian. His Holiness invariably remained "tranquillo," despite the painful-sounding things being done to him.

On April 1, we were told that the pope was "conscious, lucid, and serene"; during the night of April 2, he died. I was at home when I heard the news, and I immediately ran all the way to the Vatican. It was like speeding through two worlds in 20 minutes--the Rome I knew, where students still went to bars and families crowded into little trattorias--and a Rome that had suddenly erupted from history, with thousands of Catholics and tourists flocking to St. Peter's, looking up at the pope's empty window, saying Ave Marias by candlelight, packing a square that had been built 350 years ago for just this purpose.

Journalists stepped off planes and wrote about how the Eternal City was being overwhelmed, but nothing could have been further from the truth: Rome had transformed from a place where buying a stamp can be impossible to one that casually kept 500,000 pilgrims housed and hydrated. Tens of thousands of volunteers emerged from nearby towns in matching yellow vests to help maintain order. The Knights of Malta, founded 1,000 years ago to treat sick crusaders, set up a modern, red medical tent right in St. Peter's Square. Every day the city delivered freight pallets loaded with bottled water to hand out to the crowds. This being Italy, the water was sparkling.

Once Pope Benedict XVI said his inaugural mass, once the pilgrims went home and the story died down, I found that Jennifer and I were living differently. We stopped carrying a map. I could arrive at an unfamiliar bus stop and figure out, in 15 seconds, whether to hop on the bus or not. We knew if a cabdriver was taking us the long way.

The weather had broken; walks at night were suddenly beautiful. My parents visited, and then Jennifer's parents visited, and we both slipped easily into tour-guide mode. Showing people around made me realize I had internalized a whole set of rules: Italians never wear shorts, never eat dinner before 8 p.m., never drink cappuccino after noon, never pay attention to don't walk signs. They call ahead for a table, but not too far ahead. I learned to describe Jennifer, who has brown hair, as bionda, or blonde, because of her light complexion.

Perhaps most gratifying was that after weeks of wheeling and dealing with Vatican officials, recalcitrant nuns, and three different kinds of police, my Italian actually worked. My phone calls got more fluid, and the last time we booked a table at our favorite neighborhood trattoria, the "reserved" card on the table next to us said stranieri--"foreigners." On our table this time, the card said stefano.

As the heat mounted, the city began to feel a little enervating, so we escaped for a five-day trip to the north of Italy. By the time we returned, the city had transformed itself again: Stages were being built in public squares for summer concerts. Streets were clogged with tourists, seemingly all moving in groups, seemingly all behind the same bottle-blonde lady holding aloft a folded umbrella. You could no longer just drop in for a quick scoop of gelato--you had to wait, but I didn't even know how to line up anymore. Instead of shoving right into the side of the line, a Roman tactic I had finally embraced, people seemed to form the orderly queues of their native countries.

It was the Rome I remembered from my visit all those years ago, a crush of three-day visitors ticking Rome off their lists. But it wasn't the place where I'd been living. So, for my last weekend in Italy, we did as the Romans do. We went to the beach.

Every local has his favorites

During his six months in Rome, Heuser found himself returning to a few spots, not all of which appear in the guidebooks. Here's his partial, and highly subjective, list of museums, churches, and restaurants worth adding to any itinerary.

Ancient art gallery

Palazzo Massimo While busloads of tourists wait hours to get into the Vatican Museums across town, you can stroll right into this magnificent collection of ancient Roman sculptures, paintings, and mosaics. The top floor alone is worth the $9 admission, with several vividly frescoed rooms re-created from Roman villas. Your ticket also admits you to three other museums of historical Rome: the Palazzo Altemps, with more sculptures; the Crypta Balbi, an anatomy of the medieval city; and the Terme di Diocle-ziano. Largo di Villa Peretti 1, 011-39/06-3996-7700.

Great collection

Galleria Borghese Located in Villa Borghese park, the Galleria Borghese is a manageable jewel commissioned by the nephew of Pope Paul V expressly to hold his lush art collection--classical marbles, Renaissance paintings, and some of Bernini's greatest sculptures. The walls and ceilings, decorated to reflect the theme of the works displayed, constitute a museum in and of themselves. Piazzale Museo Borghese 5, 011-39/06-328-101, $10.50 (reservations required).

Major church

Santa Maria Maggiore This cavernous basilica is a thousand years older than St. Peter's and was built after the Empire collapsed, when Rome was crumbling into a backwater. Its grand accumulation of art and artifacts embodies the wealth and eclecticism of the Church--sparkling medieval mosaics, Rome's tallest bell tower, a purported fragment of Jesus's crib, and two garish Renaissance side chapels larger than some churches. Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore.

Medieval basilica

Santi Cosma e Damiano Of the thousands of people who go to the Forum every day, few pop out the side gate and visit this charming medieval church. One end was grafted onto the Temple of Romulus; the other is covered with sixth-century mosaics in a strikingly modern blue-green palette. A quirk in the building's history means the floor is much higher now than when it was built, putting visitors right up near the saints, the evangelists, and the flock of lambs. Via dei Fori Imperiali 1.

Architecture showpiece

San Carlino Architecture aficionados tend to skip the big-name churches, preferring buildings by Francesco Borromini. The baroque craftsman imbued his tiny structures with imaginative geometries that give mind-bending life to their plain stucco interiors. The most popular is probably Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, between Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, but I especially loved San Carlino alle Quattro Fontane, where the elliptical dome rises in a mystifying tangle of octagons and warped crosses. Via Nazionale at Via delle Quattro Fontane.

Trompe l'oeil

Convento di Trinità dei Monti Inside this French convent--you enter just to the left of the Trinità dei Monti church, near the Spanish Steps--is a long anamorphic painting in the cloister. It's a landscape that, as you move around, morphs into a portrait of a cloaked saint. Tours are given only twice a week. Ask if an English-speaking guide is available; otherwise the tour will be in French or Italian. Piazza della Trinità dei Monti, 011-39/06-679-4179, $6.25 (reservations required).

Cheap tour

The number 116 bus The 116 isn't the quickest way across town--walking is probably faster--but riding the tiny bus is like a ¬1 tour of the city. It starts in the parking garage next to the Vatican and wriggles its way through an hour's worth of Rome's great public spaces and boulevards--the Via Giulia, Piazza Farnese, Campo dei Fiori, the Via Veneto--before finally turning around in a bucolic cul-de-sac in front of the Galleria Borghese. Hop off and walk through the surrounding park, or just stay onboard and do the whole thing in reverse.

Secret lunch

Sora Margherita There's no sign outside this small temple of traditional Roman cuisine, and technically you need to be a member to eat there, but if you know how to find it they'll let you join on the spot. (Membership is free.) The menu changes every day, but as with much Roman cooking, simple is good--we liked fried artichokes, meat agnolotti in red sauce, and the house wine. If you get to Piazza delle Cinque Scole, in the Jewish Ghetto, and can't find it, look for a doorway draped with long, red, lei-like strands. Piazza delle Cinque Scole 30, 011-39/06-687-4216, agnolotti $9.

Pick-me-up

Granitas at Tazza d'Oro The most famous cup of coffee is at nearby Sant'Eustachio, but for my money--about half as much per espresso--the most consistently rich and perfect cup is at Tazza d'Oro, near the Pantheon. On a summer's day, the cult item is the granita di caffè, a slushy hit of intense, frozen coffee topped with stiff whipped cream ($2.50). Via degli Orfani 84, 011-39/06-678-9792.

Roman pizza

Da Ivo Arguments rage about the best traditional Roman pizza, a flat-crusted pie baked quickly in a searing wood oven. But if you follow the Romans, they're heading to Ivo--a cheap, busy, and fun joint, full of soccer memorabilia, in Trastevere. Call ahead and they'll often have a table ready; favorite pizzas are the apple-Gorgonzola and the sausage-and-mushroom with red sauce ($8.50 each). Afterward, stroll up the street to Santa Maria, one of the prettiest piazzas in the city. Via di San Francesco a Ripa 158, 011-39/06-581-7082.

Trattoria

Antica Roma Veal saltimbocca, fried appetizers, pasta all'amatriciana: Trattoria menus are remarkably similar, so the goal is to find a place that does the classics well and gives you an authentic Roman experience to boot. There's no cutesy ambience to Antica Roma, in a quiet neighborhood (Monteverde Vecchio) beyond Trastevere, but the crowd is local, the staff is mainly family, and the salmon pennette studded with fish roe ($11) is ridiculously good. Via Alberto Mario 17, 011-39/06-581-6809.

Dinner out

Antico Arco A "fancy" dinner tends to mean a trattoria with a great location and double the normal price for spaghetti with clams. Antico Arco, on the Janiculum Hill, just west of the city center, is in a whole different category--a youngish, upscale restaurant with dishes such as puff pastry filled with tomato and mozzarella ($13), and a carbonara like you've never imagined ($18). The impressive wine list is fairly priced. After dinner, walk past the Fontana Paola and look at Rome twinkling beneath you. Piazzale Aurelio 7, 011-39/06-581-5274.

Gelato

San Crispino There's average gelato, excellent gelato, and then this stuff. Portions are small and priced with a swagger (starting around $2.50 for a small cup), but San Crispino, near Trevi Fountain, is worth seeking out. The grapefruit one is so concentrated you can almost taste the pith. Via della Panetteria 42, 011-39/06-679-3924.