Our worst meal in Italy was also one of the best, if only because by the time we finished eating it, our bellies were so sore from laughing, we hardly noticed how sore they were from the rocklike bundle of pasta settling heavier than a sinking wreck. It was the last night Josh and I had together in Rome after a week in Tuscany, and we wanted to find something special for dinner. We’d started the evening off with an aperitivo, then wandered Rome’s warm, golden streets in the direction of this little place we’d read about tucked away off the beaten path. We meandered, wriggling through the tourists clustered in front of the Trevi Fountain, past the shop windows full of bottles of limoncello and multi-colored pasta, past pin-up priest calendars and aprons of David’s torso, through any small alley that caught our fancy, spurred onwards by sprays of pink bougainvillea over doorways and enticing archways of crumbling stone.
At 9:30 p.m., stomachs growling, we arrived at the restaurant to find it shuttered. Far from everything else, but not to be dismayed, we set back off on weary foot to another option we’d starred. It, too, was closed. By now, it was 10 p.m., and we were grumpy and frustrated and slightly delirious. We began to trudge back towards our hotel, resigned to stopping at the next open restaurant without a plastic menu board of pictures out front, when we passed a bright, cozy window framing a packed house, a large wood-fired oven, and blistered crusts of hot pizza. We took a table.
The obvious rule that we did not follow – perhaps because of that hungry delirium – was to never order pasta at a pizza place. But we’d had pizza for lunch. We so desperately wanted a nice, last gluteny Italian plate before heading back home. Josh ordered a classic carbonara. I was feeling adventurous. I ordered the special.
My “special” was a plate of plain spaghetti tossed with octopus, lima beans, and almonds. Josh’s carbonara tasted like a packet of Kraft Mac & Cheese powder dumped on a pile of noodles. It was so egregious, such a fitting cap to a misadventurous evening that we started laughing – and didn’t stop until we finally lay our heads to rest for one final Roman sleep.
There was a lot of laughter that week, accompanied by a lot of good conversation, good exploration, good eating, and good drinking. You never know how well you’re going to travel with someone until you do, and Josh and I, it seems, have a similar approach. We walk excessively, a vague plan in our minds shaped by an openness to spontaneous forks from the plan, long afternoons sitting in piazzas letting cold Negronis sweat, and stretched-out meals of multiple shared plates and a carafe of table wine.
We’d come to Italy for a wedding in Siena but were making a holiday of it, bookending our weekend wedding with a week in Rome. We landed on a Tuesday morning – Josh flying in from New York and me from Berlin – and lost no time in living our best, white-pants-and-silk Italian lives.
Our Roman holiday began in Trastevere, a neighborhood tucked into a bend on the west bank of the Tiber. Dragging our suitcases behind us and sweating in the hot midday sun, the very first thing we did upon arriving was to eat lunch. We found a corner restaurant with wooden tables, open walls, and a long, mirrored bar stacked with dusty bottles of aperitifs, and sat ourselves in an alcove. We ordered antipasti to share, plus a healthy-sized bottle of sparkling water and Aperol spritzes the color of orange magic markers. It was a beautiful, simple hello from Rome: crispy artichokes, prosciutto-wrapped melon, and deep-fried zucchini blossoms, sunshine seeping from the pinkish stone buildings, the quick, brief roar of Vespas, and the buzz of Italian all around.
I hadn’t been to Rome since I was eighteen, and I was looking forward to discovering the city as an adult. At eighteen, Rome was the Coliseum, it was Palatino Hill and the Spanish Steps. It was waiting in line for a tour through the Vatican, it was endless gelato and pizza for every meal, and I’m pretty sure there was a pub crawl involved. At thirty, the Rome I was hoping to find had hidden corners and less sightseeing checklists, there’d be unnamed piazzas and places where real Romans lived and ate.
What I love so much about Italy, besides everything, is the pace of it. It feels sunken in sunshine, slower somehow; golden motes suffuse the light and make it honey-like, and you are the fly happily trapped inside that slow, sticky sap. Even in a city as chaotic and bustling and loud as Rome, I love how meals linger over hours, how wine with lunch doesn’t feel excessive, how when you are drinking an espresso at the bar at Roscioli’s, the only thing you are doing is standing at the bar at Roscioli’s drinking an espresso. You’re not checking your phone or reading a book, just standing and watching the baristas’ dance behind the counter, admiring the jewel-toned pastries, listening to the chatter, the endless coming and going of patrons.
For lunch one afternoon, we lazed beneath a tree canopy at a white-clothed table just around the corner from a bustling piazza whose name I no longer know. We strolled through piazza after piazza in Rome, past endless obelisks and fine marble fountains writhing with sea gods and frightening cherubs. Here, the pasta was perfectly al dente, mine with fried cubes of eggplant, burst tomatoes, and shredded parmesan. Josh’s carbonara a real carbonara, silky with egg and salty punches of ham. We split a carafe of red and sat there in the shade for hours, recharging our feet, seeing ourselves out of the restaurant and back onto the living streets with a sharp shot of espresso.
It was incredible to realize how much Rome we covered on foot in such a short amount of time. We walked extensively, excessively, stumbling into strange places – dilapidated parks overgrown with stone pine and scrub, sculptures crumbling in dry fountains, long stone staircases leading to ruins, dark tiled salumerias strung up with hefty legs of cured pork, knuckle poking from the thick smear of protective fat, the roar of traffic giving way to the relief of a back alley where climbing clusters of flowers formed bridges between buildings, and always we’d end up back at the river coursing languidly through the city.
Did I find the Rome I’d been hoping to find? Perhaps the smallest taste of it, just enough to want to go back and soon. To go back for the pizza sold by weight from the small Forno just over the bridge, for the quick, thick rain showers burned off by the sun’s heat on stone, for the dense lick of gelato slowly melting over my thumb, for the fist of salty pecorino and acerbic Montepulciano, for that basement natural wine bar, for the bowl of rich, fatty tripe, for the surprise of a crumbling Doric column and dome, for the marble staircases and lingering smell of leather everywhere. And for the daily gift of fifteen minutes at the Roscioli counter for an espresso and another chance to watch the baristas dance.
*Thanks to Josh/Counter Service for some of the pictures used in this post.