Rome: at home in Italy’s Capital
Last fall we made our fourth trip together to Rome. It’s nice to come back to a city that we know so well, yet we always find something new to discover. We always feel at home in Italy’s Capital.
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The first time we visited Rome was in March of 2006, for a long weekend. Lucky for us we found a great little bed and breakfast, Domus Mazzini, that we have stayed in every time since. Mark stayed there for two weeks on his own in 2014 at the end of his sabbatical.
Domus Mazzini is in the Prati district, a quiet, upscale neighborhood, within walking distance of a metro station and many busses that can get you to central Rome in less than 15 minutes. We love the area with its beautiful buildings, plenty of shops and restaurants, and spacious, tree-lined streets surrounding the Piazza Mazzini. When we first started staying here, the proprietor, Ciro, and his family had just one place, now they have several small hotels in the residential areas surrounding the Vatican. Maybe someday we will try one of the other ones, but every time we come back to Domus Mazzini it feels like home.
Now that we have been to Rome so many times, we don’t need to go back to all the tourist sites. We’ve toured the Coliseum and the Vatican twice, been to the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps multiple times, and inside the Pantheon. We just enjoy walking around the city, drinking wine and eating delicious food.
Exploring Roman Food
Since we haven’t always had the best luck with Roman restaurants, this time we decided to learn more about Roman food with a food walking tour at the beginning of our trip that we found on Viator. We met our guide near the Campo de’Fiori, a popular food and flower market and she walked us through the square, introducing us to all the seasonal produce.
We visited a popular local meat and cheese shop to sample their cured meats, tried fried artichokes and rice balls in the Jewish quarter, sampled Roman pizza bianca (no tomato sauce), had a pasta lunch in Trastevere, one of the most popular districts with a thriving nightlife, and finally finished up with a delicious scoop of gelato. It was a wonderful introduction to the city and the local food scene and we learned what we should be eating when we visit, instead of ordering standard Italian fare.
There are a few places we always try to go back to in Rome every time – one is the Villa Borghese Gardens, a 200-acre public park in the center of the city. You can approach the park via the Spanish Steps or the Piazza del Popolo. We usually walk about 25 minutes from Piazza Mazzini to Piazza del Popolo and go in through that gate.
The gardens were developed by the Borghese family starting in the 1600s and were eventually turned over to the city in 1903. We could spend hours wandering around the park, admiring the beautiful fountains, sculptures and monuments. There are plenty of tourists in the park, riding rented Segways or bicycles, but there are also lots of regular Romans, stopping in for lunch or a picnic on a beautiful day.
This time, we visited the Galleria Borghese for the first time which has an amazing collection of classical antiquities, frescoes, paintings and sculptures. Cardinal Scipione Borghese began collecting a lot of these works between 1576 and 1633 and was the sculptor Bernini’s first sponsor, so the gallery has breathtaking sculptures all around. When we visited we were lucky to be able to walk right in, since you usually have to book ahead. We saw a great exhibit of Picasso sculptures interwoven with classical antiquities throughout the museum.
We always like to go to the two thousand-year-old Pantheon, and marvel at its incredible concrete dome. Formerly a Roman temple, it’s now a church and one of Rome’s most popular tourist sites. We have been there many times but were still disappointed this visit when it was closed in preparation for a festival.
Ostia Antica – a short train ride back in time
This time we took a day trip from Rome to Ostia Antica, a well-preserved ancient city that is easy to reach via Rome’s urban railway, the Ferrovie Urbane. Ostia was once Rome’s main seaport with almost 100,000 residents and was improved by Julius Caesar and the emperor Tiberius during part of the Roman empire. It eventually declined after commercial activity slowed down and the town’s residents fled after a malaria outbreak in the fourth century AD.
We spent a few hours wandering around the ruins with our guidebook, admiring the mosaics, the theater and the various different temples. We were lucky to have mild weather and to make it to the small cafe in time for lunch – as there are not a lot of stores or restaurants nearby and open in late October.
Cooking and Eating around Rome
Since we had a few days of heavy rain and thunderstorms during our visit, we booked the Fabiolous Cooking Day via Viator and spent a wonderful day learning to make fresh pasta and other delicious dishes. Chef Victoria met our small group of six and took us to the markets to shop for fresh ingredients, then led us to a private villa in town with a gorgeous state of the art kitchen and beautifully decorated dining room.
We had never made fresh pasta before and were surprised to find out how easy (and fun!) it was to roll out and build it together. We got to try puntarelle for the first time that we learned about on our food tour, a local variant of chicory that was in season and made a crunchy slightly bitter but delicious salad.
Victoria also showed us how to make an outstanding chicken cacciatore, building flavor with the whole chicken and fresh vegetables and herbs. By the end of lunch our group was so happy and enthusiastic we didn’t want it to end, and we walked all the way across town together to get our free pasta rolling boards from Chef Fabio’s That’s Amore restaurant near the Trevi Fountain.
We also made a trip to the Mercato Trionfale, a huge local market with an amazing variety of fresh and packaged goods. We wandered around the aisles for a couple of hours just enjoying looking at all the different displays – meat, fish, pasta, bread, cheese, pastries – just about everything you could want or need in Rome. We bought fresh-carved porchetta from one of the vendors who made it into sandwiches for us so we could enjoy a casual lunch.
After we learned about what we should be eating in Rome, we really enjoyed our meals. Two of our favorites were walking distance from our bed and breakfast. Cacio e Pepe, a casual, reasonably priced local place named for the famous Roman pasta dish of noodles with pepper, was a great place for a quick lunch. For less than 20 Euros we had two pasta dishes, sparkling water, bread and wine. You know a place is great when you see a lot of locals – and this place was bustling with local business people, construction workers and friends happily chatting in Italian.
Another great find was Madeline, a French-Italian bistro with beautiful decor, a fascinating wine list and really friendly staff. We loved Madeline so much we ate there twice, each time finishing with their freshly baked pistachio-covered madeleines for dessert.
Even with the lousy weather, we had a relaxing week wandering around Rome and look forward to coming back again soon.