Foodie: Did you know that this is the best preserved structure from antiquity? Well it is! And you see up there above the columns of the porch? Well that used to be covered in bronze but the Pope stole it so that Bernini could melt it down and make that garish baldacchino in St. Peter’s that marks Pete’s tomb! And you see how it says M Agrippa up there? Well you might think that Agrippa, your buddy Augustus’s right-hand man, had this built. That’s sort of the case: you see Agrippa did fund a temple to the gods (aka Pantheon) on this very site but it burned down. Hadrian had this Pantheon built but in a bold propaganda move, he kept Agrippa’s name up there–it sort of connected Hadrian to the Imperial heroes of the Augustan golden age. And did I mention concrete yet? Isn’t it interesting that the recipe for concrete, which was invented by the Romans, was eventually lost? It wasn’t rediscovered until the Renaissance! But this dome couldn’t have been built without concrete. And over there, that’s Raphael’s tomb.
Beast: Who else is buried here.
Foodie: Oh I don’t know. Who cares though.
Beast: Is this the original floor?
Beast: I think I’m going to get the audio guide.
Foodie: Excuse me?
Beast: The audio guide. What’s wrong?
Foodie: Oh, I just thought I told you everything about the Pantheon. Why would you want the audio guide?
Beast: Oh what you told me is great! I just want to find out a little more is all. Is that okay?
Foodie: Sure. I guess so. I’m going to wait outside though.
(Foodie exits Pantheon, and then enters again, trying to find the Beast in the crowd)
Foodie: May I have your pack of cigarettes? Don’t forget the lighter.
Beast: Sure, here you go. Are you sure you’re okay?
Foodie: Whatever. I’ll be sitting on the fountain steps.
And that’s where I went to smoke and cry. I don’t know what happened. I guess it was just a culmination of things: I was in charge of getting us everywhere; of speaking; of ordering; of planning; of researching; and of showing the Beast how to use a bidet–I think it just hit me, right there in the middle of the Pantheon. I felt my efforts were going unnoticed. I felt like a baby.
Beast (ten minutes later): Hi there. You’re not crying are you?
Foodie: YES I AM!
Beast: What’s wrong?
Foodie: What are you an idiot or something?
Beast: Is it because I got the audio guide?
Foodie: It’s just that I’m trying so hard to tell you everything and make sure you have the best first time in Italy ever and you go and get a stupid audio guide. How do you think that made me feel?
Beast: Not very good.
Foodie (long pause): Did it tell you anything good?
Beast: No! It was stupid! I hated it. Everything you told me was so interesting. I’m never getting another audio guide.
Foodie: You mean that? You know sometimes I just need to hear OUT LOUD that I’m doing an okay job here, or “thank you so much for planning this whole amazing trip and all I have to do is have fun and just say thanks occasionally, or give you compliments.”
Beast: You’re doing an incredible job, and I’m pretty sure I’ve been saying this everyday.
Foodie: Well I haven’t heard it. (Pause) Are you hungry?
Of course he was, and obviously I had a destination planned for lunch: Cul de Sac, which is steps away from the Pantheon, just outside Piazza Navona. It’s a great place for cry babies to have a pit stop for cheese, meat and wine. We ordered a mixed platter, a caprese salad, and two glasses of Verdicchio, a minerally white wine from the region of Le Marche.
Beast: This is just what I wanted.
Foodie: Me too! We’re so much alike! (Pause) Hey, can you not tell anybody about my melt down at the Pantheon.
Beast: You didn’t really have a melt down. You just went crazy for a bit.
Foodie: Maybe I just needed to have a little cry.
I think that’s the case because the rest of our day was incredible. We went to look at the Caravaggio paintings in San Luigi dei Francesci, and peered down into the archaeological remains at Largo Argentino, the spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated.
And we visited the new Richard Meyer-designed museum that houses the Ara Pacis–an “altar of peace,” built by Augustus 2000 years ago. (I’ve been to Rome several times but this was the first chance I’ve had to see this incredible structure.)
And then we walked along the river Tiber and saw Hadrian’s tomb by moon-light and street-lights.
And finally, we found the restaurant I was most anxious to visit in Rome, Taverna Trilussa in the Trastevere neighbourhood. And boy, were we ready to sit down!
Foodie: My feet feel like jelly.
Beast: I’m starving. You order.
I found a bottle of “Le Volte,” a red wine made by famed Super Tuscan producer Ornellaia, for only 30 euros. We’d start with the fritti misti, a platter of fried vegetables and mozzarella in carozza (essentially, deep-fried mozzarella sandwiches). I’d have a plate of their award-winning ravioli mimosa and the Beast would have the rigatoni carbonara. And finally, we’d share a simple tagliata di manzo (thinly sliced steak) with arugola and parmigiano.
Beast: Did you see the photos of famous people on the wall behind you?
Foodie: Like who?
Beast: There’s Mel Gibson. And that’s Tiger Woods, and there’s Roger Federer.
Even better than Braveheart was the platter of deep-fried delights. It was so bad and good all mixed up together. But the pasta…oh my, the pasta! I’ve only had pasta carbonara-a very typical Roman dish of eggs, guanciale, black pepper and pecorino cheese invented around WW II–a couple of times, and I’ve always liked it, but this one at Taverna Trilussa will stay with me forever. The ravioli wasn’t too shabby either. Actually, both pastas overwhelmed us so much that we forgot to take photos. And we very nearly forgot to take photos of our steak salad and roasted potatoes too.
Our hotel was just a short walk over the Ponte Sisto bridge and past the Campo dei Fiori. We slept like babies that night. Good thing too because the next day was as action-packed as the first, minus the melt-down. We visited the Capitoline museum to start…
…followed by the Colosseum:
Beast: You know what they should do outside this place?
Foodie: What’s that?
Beast: Grow a big field of wheat and play that music form Gladiator and then visitors can run their hands through the wheat like Russell Crowe did in the movie.
Foodie: That’s an incredible idea.
And then we did something I would have never expected: we got audio guides for the Colosseum! And you know what? It was so much fun. I mean, I totally could have told the Beast everything about this Flavian Amphitheatre that he needed to know, like how it was started by Emperor Vespasian in 70 AD, and how it was built right overtop of Nero’s Golden Palace to erase the very thought of that crazy guy, and that it sat 50,000 spectators and about how they’d flood it and how they had trap floors and neat stuff like that, but I didn’t want to sound like a know-it-all. And besides, the lady who speaks on the guide has a nice British accent.
After that, we walked through the Roman Forum, one of my favourite things to do of all time. This is a place that oozes history and it gives me goose bumps just thinking about being on the hallowed ground where Etruscan civilization once flourished; where Caesar’s body was burned; where Cicero’s head hung; and where literally all roads across the Empire once met. I think the Beast liked it too.
But he was itching to see some more Michelangelo sculptures after our visit to the Medici Chapel in Florence, so I dragged him up a hill to the church of San Pietro in Vicoli to see Pope Julius II’s tomb. That’s where Michelangelo’s Moses is.
And because we didn’t get into the Borghese museum (it was all booked up) to see all of the incredible early works by Bernini, I wanted to make sure that the Beast saw at least one work by him. So off we went to the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria where the artist’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa perches in the Cornaro Chapel.
After that, thank God, it was dinner time. We decided on a restaurant called Maccheroni, just north of the Pantheon on a little side street. We’d been instructed to order the spaghetti carbonara and the rigatoni all’amatriciana–another very typical Roman pasta. We also decided on a nice bottle of Morellino di Scansano, a bresaola antipasto, and grilled sausage and vegetables to share as a secondo.
The antipasto was great, but our pastas were extraordinary.
Actually, the carbonara pasta was extraordinary (it was a very close second to Taverna Trilussa); the amatriciana pasta was only very good. (Terroni restaurant makes a far superior version if you ask me.)
The grilled pork sausage was a nice reprise from all the beef we’d been consuming. Maybe the best part of the meal was all the people-watching we got to do: There were real-life Romans all around us, and more waiting to get a table. And the severs, who juggled their waiter responsibilities with text-messaging, kept going for smoke breaks, not to mention the cooks. The best siting though was a chubby little accordian player who kept playing “My Way.” His tight little plaid pants broke my heart.
The next day was all about the Vatican. We started at St. Peter’s where there was a very scary looking line. But it moved fast and we were inside in ten minutes flat.
Foodie: Look look look! There’s the round piece of porphyry I was telling you about! Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800AD on that piece of marble! And see those marking on the floor all along the nave? Those mark the lengths of all the cathedrals in the word. It’s a subtle way of saying that St. Peter’s is the biggest. Did I tell you that technically this isn’t a cathedral? Because a cathedral has a bishop so this is called a basilica because it’s the pope’s seat, not a bishop’s seat. Rome’s cathedral is actually the Lateran.
Beast: Did we go there?
Foodie: No, but remember how I told you that they stole the giant ancient bronze doors from the Senate house in the Roman Forum to use as the Lateran’s front door? And lookie!!!! There’s the bronze baldacchino that Bernini built! Isn’t it garish?
Beast: And they got the bronze from the Pantheon right?
Foodie: Sweetie I’m so proud of you!
Beast: Thanks. Now where is she?
Foodie: Oh her. She’s over there just on the other side of that crowd of Japanese people, behind thick glass.
The Beast took his time to get to the front of the crowd to catch a glimpse of Michelangelo’s Pieta. I can’t blame him–it’s an incredibly moving and beautiful work. The Beast also took his time examining every other sculpture in St. Peter’s. It was cute at first I guess. But we had a reservation at the Vatican museum to make!
After a quick lunch that isn’t worth speaking of, we started the pilgrimage through the 40+ rooms that eventually lead you to the Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately, we weren’t alone.
Beast: They should really make it so that the tour groups have to come at a set time. This is fucking insane.
Foodie: Yes it is. Don’t you feel like cattle being herded?
Beast: And nobody’s even really looking at anything.
Although the crowds do make it difficult to “have a moment” in front of some of western civilization’s most glorious accomplishments, the Beast still tried. He even got yelled at by about 30 Germans for standing too long in front of the Laocoon.
But the Beast lightened our mutual pissy mood by making some really good jokes that went a little like this: The Sistine chapel’s ceiling looks so different than it does in all the pictures! (He repeated this joke in every room we entered) What’s in that cabinet? Who painted that? Will we see the Pope? What will we call him? Are we at room sixteen yet? I want to see this sixteenth chapel. Why are the penises so tiny?
We did manage to score a seat on the benches in the Sistine Chapel once we got there, so the Beast could take his time and crank his neck to look up at those glorious frescoes. I must say, even though I’m getting pretty crotchetty in my old age, this place still gets to you no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
After the Vatican, it was back to Florence for the night. And then the next morning, we’d head off to Piemonte–the foothills of the Alps; the land of truffles, of hazelnuts, of Nutella, of lakes, of nebbiolo, barbara and dolcetto grapes; and of wild boars! VIVA THE CINGHIALE!
Taverna Trilussa: **** (F) **** (B)
Cul de Sac: **1/2 (F) ** (B)
Maccheroni: **1/2 (F) *** (B)