Extraordinary gelato artigianale, long, languid evenings on the Tiber and hanging with the cool kids in Ponte Milvio
Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning. These are the words of Italian painter and architect Giotto di Bondone, better known as simply Giotto.
Ah, Roma, amore mio. How did seven years slip by so quickly, since mio amore Carlo and I took our first and only trip together to his native Rome?
That initial trip – spread over a generous 10 radiant days (bar for a single showery day) in May 2008 – was unforgettable for so many reasons, but two stood out. First and foremost, this was our maiden holiday abroad.
Secondly, it was the first time we would be experiencing the grandeur and wonder that is the Eternal City together.
A trip in the late ‘90s – my first to Rome – I took with a girlfriend proved both heartbreaking and fun. Heartbreaking because, as I walked through this ancient city spilling over with magnificent, perfectly-preserved (many rebuilt, of course) historic monuments, stately mansions and listed buildings, I thought about my adopted hometown of Athens and imagined how many structures in the Greek capital were destroyed or ravaged by war over the centuries, occupiers and, in more recent decades, brute development.
That trip turned into a brilliant adventure which led us to Sardinia, albeit in the peak summer holiday month of August.
But the story today is Rome, and weaving through the cobblestoned streets of Italia’s capital on the arm of l’ amore della mia vita, now my husband, and hearing him communicate all day in his native tongue, is – for me – nothing short of mesmerising.
Experiencing the ‘new’ Alitalia
We made the easy hop (two hours and five minutes) from Athens to Rome on a very affordable – considering it was mid-July – one-way flight with Alitalia, which cost 210.30 euros for the two of us, including hold luggage. Alitalia’s airfare proved the most competitive of all major carriers. Like Greece’s similarly-privatised Olympic Air, Italy’s flagship carrier was the nation’s pride and joy but a growing payroll bill and other rising operational costs and lowered service standards, coupled with stiff global competition, resulted in massive debt.
Since Etihad Airways’ purchase of a 49 percent stake in Alitalia in August 2014, investment has been made in a serious yet subtle rebrand, impressive online presence, stylish new tail design featuring a more prominent ‘A’ and livery inspired by Italian sports cars and unveiled in June. New services are being rolled out gradually, while there’s a host of attractive fares to Italy and beyond on offer, including a growing number of flights to tempting destinations in the US, South America and Asia. I signed up for Alitalia’s revamped miles programme MilleMiglia before purchasing the flights and bagged myself 500 miles.
The airline is clearly working hard to, once again, make Italians proud of their carrier, so, after years of Carlo and his family choosing other companies, I decided we should take the first conciliatory step and experience the ‘new’ Alitalia. Cabin interiors have been clearly revamped, with our economy class seats featuring a smart herringbone design and lime green back pillows, while inflight service was very courteous. On long haul flights, business class passengers are treated to Poltrona Frau leather seating, a Frette night kit, Richard Ginori chinaware and Ferragamo goodies.
As the plane eased onto the runway of Rome’s main airport Fiumicino, I recalled our first visit to the city, where we stayed at the home of Andrea, a childhood friend of Carlo’s, and his young family.
Breakfast was a leisurely, drawn-out affair, starting with freshly-pressed espresso and a table filled with plates bearing fresh, creamy mozzarella di bufala (made with buffalo milk) paired with large, ripe, ribbed, gorgeously deep red tomatoes of the Cuore di Bue (ox heart) variety, one I had never seen in Greece – where we, too, are spoiled rotten when it comes to this magical, versatile fruit – scooped up with pieces of freshly-baked rosetta rolls.
It needs to be said that once you’ve tried mozzarella made with buffalo milk, all other mozzarella pales in comparison. But, of course, so does drinking espresso in Italy.
Breakfast in Rome reminds you that taking time out at the start of the day to be with the person, or people, you love, and enjoying the simple act of slowly savouring a simple meal over conversation makes all the difference to how the rest of the day pans out. Compare that to the disconnect of a rushed breakfast of tasteless bran flakes and milk while checking your office email on your smartphone, before rushing out to catch the bus to work.
Beating the heat
Fast forward to this year’s Roman holiday, which spanned three full days and five nights in late July. We slotted in an eight-day road trip through Italy, but that’s another story (coming soon).
As Rome was in the throes of a major heatwave, with the temperature a steady 40+ degrees and far hotter than normal, this trip was mostly about the evenings.
Home in Rome this time was the roomy antique-bedecked apartment of our beloved ‘Aunt’ Marile, who resides in a quiet, tree-filled suburb about 30 minutes’ drive from the heart of town. Blood or marriage ties may not exist but, as a longtime family friend of Carlo, she is most definitely family.
In her late 60s, she is the classic Italian coquette in every sense of the phrase, having attended countless parties and official ceremonies with her army commander father and gaggle of friends over the years. She wouldn’t dream of stepping out of the house unless she’s wearing something fabulous – and most times, a flowing kaftan in summer or skirt in brightly-hued prints in winter, her impossibly thick, wavy hair is perfectly coiffed, visage is carefully made up and nails are manicured.
Marile visits us twice a year in Athens, so we can celebrate Greek Orthodox, Catholic Easter and Christmas together, and each time she asks when we’re coming to see her in Rome.
So, after asking us this same question for seven years straight, she excitedly turned up an hour early to collect us from Fiumicino’s gleaming terminal 3. Much improved since our last visit, the airport is in the midst of a long-needed, major overhaul.
That evening, our friend Andrea, another friend also named Andrea and his wife Giovanna, came by and took us out for our first gelato of this trip at a little bar-gelateria dating back to 1966 called la Casa del Cremolato in the Trieste quarter, near Villa Ada where summer concerts are held, which was buzzing with groups of young friends, families, crying babies and dogs on their nightly walk.
The house special is named Cremolato, a semi-freddo with fresh peaches as its base which proved a perfect antidote to the heat.
Meanwhile, Carlo was craving pizza Romana, whose base is wafer-thin and crisp on the outside – wood-fire oven-baked until it’s “almost burnt” – and fluffy on the inside. “It’s not actually burnt. This is how pizza Romana should be, because it’s baked in a super-hot wood-fired oven and shouldn’t take more than a few minutes until it’s ready to come out and be served,” he says.
Rome’s characteristically-slim pizza is slightly thinner than the Naples-style slice, but actually baked at a slightly lower temperature.
So, the following evening Marile took us to one of her favourite pizzerias, a retro hangout in a nearby suburb frequented mostly by families and teens. While waiting for our order, we were treated to a hilarious 80s-style laser light and music show put on for a birthday celebration, which sent us reeling back to our childhood.
While Carlo noted that the pizza at this locals-only hangout is a little thicker than the Roman version, I thought it was pretty damn good, particularly his pizza bianca (ie, no tomato sauce base), which was topped with anchovies and zucchini flowers.
A dedicated home pizzaiolo, he regularly invites family and friends over to our place for pizza night, and is considerably harder to please when it comes to the perfect slice. He is constantly changing his pizza recipes, in search of the ideal texture and flavour. So, the entire time we were in Rome, he was keenly focused on tracking down the perfect Roman-style pizza.
Skipping the tourist lines
While we had ticked off the majority of the city’s key highlights on our previous trip, we dedicated one day to revisiting a few of them, despite the searing heat and humidity.
When you’re carrying 12-16kg of camera gear on your back, as Carlo did on this trip depending on the occasion, you can imagine how the heat ups the perspiration factor. We were told that Rome hasn’t been this hot in years.
From the Pantheon to Campidoglio, the Colosseum to Via del Corso, Piazza Navona to Piazza del Popolo, the city was teeming with tens of thousands visitors from all over the world. Like Athens, Rome is a city one should aim to visit outside the June-August high season when the temperatures are lower, crowds are fewer and accommodation rates are lower.
We spotted a newly-wed couple outside the Colosseum, oblivious to the dozens of tourists snapping photos of them with their smartphones as the bride and groom braved the heat for a very public photo session.
Further along, on the Michelangelo-designed Piazza del Campidoglio, another betrothed pair exchanged kisses below the bride’s veil, like no one else existed, as their two photographers and two video operators documented the moment.
Rome is nothing if not breathtakingly romantic.
Reached via a magnificent stairway, the piazza is home to the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Palazzo Nuovo and Palazzo Senatorio, with the latter playing host to the Mayor of Rome.
Next time, we’ll definitely head to Rome in Spring, Autumn or Winter, to make sure our long urban treks through this beautiful city are as comfortable as possible.
In 23 years of living in Rome, Carlo had never seen the city so busy. Certainly, the strong dollar has meant more Americans seized the opportunity to holiday in Europe this year and, of course, Italy is high on the list of desirable destinations for most travellers.
This time, we didn’t wait in line to enter the historic and cultural landmarks – with the exception of the Pantheon and a couple of beautifully peaceful churches – but simply admired their exteriors.
While Via dei Condotti and Via Frattina have retained their high-end boutique stores, it was a little disappointing to see how Via del Corso has changed dramatically over the years, turning into a lacklustre commercial thoroughfare like any other around the world.
Many of the small Italian fashion and accessory stores that Carlo used to frequent – particularly on a Saturday, when all of Rome seemed to head to Via del Corso and its many offshoots to shop, have been replaced by international brands, like H&M. Romans his age will remember highly sought-after Camperos boots with fondness.
At some point, we needed a gelato break and happened to be passing by guidebook favourite – and, therefore, tourist magnet – Giolitti, which was overflowing with travellers, so we kept moving.
Near the Pantheon, on Via dei Pastini, we discovered what turned out to be one of the best gelaterie we’ve ever visited.
Don Nino Gelateria & Pasticceria (check out their intro video) is a cool little slice of Sicilian sweetness in Rome, where il Maestro Gelatiere (master gelato maker) Francesco Mastroianni has crafted recipes for spectacular gelato artigianale (artisanal) in an array of interesting flavours, like his signature ricotta and pear, which immediately caught my eye as we walked in.
I took a seat, admiring the smart cream and pistachio-coloured interiors, and, before I knew it, Carlo had arrived at our table with two little cups of gelato and a Sicilian cannoli filled with ricotta cream – half-pistachio and half-plain, sprinkled with chocolate flecks. I should have known he wouldn’t be able to resist, but nor could I.
Baked to crisp perfection on site and filled on the spot, the cannoli was exactly as it should be, and among the very best we’ve tasted. Meanwhile, the ricotta and pear gelato turned out to be just as good as I had hoped – delicately-flavoured and not too sweet.
If Carlo could, he would have liked to try each and every one of the sweet delights on display – and particularly the curious oro verde di Sicilia (which made me think of Greece’s blue-hued evil eye charms), tiramisu’ al pistachio and crostatine alla frutta e crema pasticcera. Even the pronunciations of these divine creations are delectable.
Surely, he’d want to size up Don Nino’s crema pasticcera (Italian-style pastry cream) with the one he spends a good couple of hours making at home.
Skip the artificial gelati, many of which are made with a powder mix and easy to spot thanks to their bright colours which are achieved with artificial colouring, tall air-whipped waves and unseasonal fruit ingredients (peaches in winter?), and go for the real thing.
Don Nino has two other outposts in the historic centre, namely on Piazza di Spagna and Piazza Fontana di Trevi.
River-hopping from Trastevere to Ponte Milvio
In the early evening, we met up with Chiara, another childhood friend of Carlo, together with her daughter Maddalena. Chiara, who is a state-employed conservator entrusted with the restoration of monuments and artifacts, advised us she would pick us up from the tiny tree-filled patch of greenery known as Piazza di San Marco, right beside Piazza Venezia.
“But make sure you go visit the nearby Basilica di San Marco Evangelista al Campidoglio. It’s splendid,” she said. Built in 336 by Pope Mark, whose remains are located in an urn beneath the main altar, the church’s wooden ceiling features the emblem of Pope Paul II and is just one of Rome’s two original 15th-century wooden ceilings.
Before we knew it, Chiara had swooped by and picked us up, taking us up to Gianicolo, which doesn’t actually count among the Seven Hills of Rome, just in time for sunset.
As we drove by magnificent villas gracing high-walled properties on the winding road leading up to Gianicolo, I wondered about the fortunate individuals who have inherited them.
Up at Gianicolo, there were a few fellow travellers, but most of those enjoying the cooler air were cheerful Romans, grateful for this idyllic vantage point above the Vatican and Trastevere neighbourhood where you can take in views of this grand European capital.
Like lunchtime in Italy, when a full meal (and not a sandwich) is expected, these are moments not to be rushed, clearly. These are times to catch up with old friends (as we did) or family, or to simply be alone to quietly witness the sun cast its glowing orange rays over Rome’s glorious monuments. Early morning must be magical, too.
On the way back down, we made a brief stop at the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, an impressive fountain on Gianicolo Hill. It felt as if we had happened upon a village town square, as we watched youngsters dart back and forth, laughing and dipping their hands into the water, and chic seniors walking by arm in arm.
We then drove to and parked near the hip neighbourhood of Trastevere, right on the busy road next to the River Tiber, known as Lungotevere, meeting up with Chiara’s brother Giuseppe there. There, a poster at a stairway entrance down to the river announced Trasteverestate, a popular annual summer event that has been held along this strip of the river for the past five years.
Casual restaurants, wine bars featuring live music, cafes and markets where you can purchase clothing items, jewellery and other knick-knacks are set up temporarily along the section of the riverbank below Trastevere, offerings Romans and visitors the opportunity to stroll along the Tiber and take a seat right by the river to enjoy a glass of wine and a meal in the evening, as the city is illuminated above.
Strolling down the riverbank, we even saw people playing fussball, or calcio balilla as it’s known in Italy, and I remembered playing fierce matches in my childhood with older cousins lucky enough to have the game at home.
The meal we had may have been nothing to write home about, however, the atmosphere and warm company of cherished friends more than made up for it. Next time we’re in town for Trasteverestate, we’ll have a glass of wine on the river, and then head into a trattoria in Trastevere for dinner.
The next evening, the two Andreas and Giovanna took us to the spirited neighbourhood of Ponte Milvio, which appeared to be frequented exclusively by Romans, and particularly twenty- and thirty-something couples and groups of friends. Situated north of the city centre, the locality is named after a splendid ancient stone bridge built to extend historic Via Flaminia across the Tiber.
It was here on October 28, 312 AD, when one of the critical junctures in Roman history was decided: the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, between the armies of Roman emperor Maxentius and Constantine I. Maxentius’ loss and subsequent drowning in the river paved the way for Constantine I to become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.
Carlo lived in this very neighbourhood many moons ago and literally couldn’t recognise it. “There were a few restaurants and stores, but nothing like this!” he said.
In Rome, as in other Italian cities, you need to know where to go to find life after midnight. It’s clear that Ponte Milvio is the place in Rome (and has been for the past decade or so) for a coffee, late dinner (hard to come by in this town) or bar-hop.
Residing in Athens, we’re used to walking down to one of the numerous seaside cafes opposite our apartment on the southern coast, knowing they will be open till late.
At Ponte Milvio, cafes, restaurants and gelateries were humming with life as Romans of all ages engaged in passionate dialogues and people-watched. Youngsters stood on the sidewalk and snacked on a cup of fresh summer fruit cooled with a few ice cubes, bought at a street-side stand.
We headed up Via Flaminia, passing by and peering through closed gates at the imposing Villa Brasini. Actually comprising two villas – Villa Flaminia and Villa Augusta – it hosts exhibitions, fashion shows and private events, and, as the outdoor tables were full, we took a seat indoors at CocoLoco, one of the many smart, buzzing ristoranti there.
My dish of tender, barely-seared (just as I requested) salmon fillet was the stand-out dish that night, though everything we ordered was well above-par.
As the night progressed, casually-dressed tattooed young girls and guys streamed in and ordered cocktails before sharing a fine meal over animated conversation.
Of course, when one goes to Ponte Milvio, one needs to take a walk along the bridge. So, we stopped to pick up cups of grattachecca, which is hand-shaved ice infused with syrup and topped with fruit pieces, a typically Roman delight enjoyed on hot summer days and nights.
We gravitated towards Pallini, the busiest canteen, as I noticed it was festooned with black-and-white photos tracing the years of the proudly family-run business. Carlo wanted to relive the classic lemon flavour he enjoyed in his youth – the only flavour available then, but it had run out, so we picked papaya. “The lemon flavour has pieces of real lemon, whereas this is just syrup flavouring,” he said, looking at the vast array of syrup flavours on offer.
The bridge way of Ponte Milvio was milling with swooning, sun-kissed young couples, among them olive-skinned, long-legged beauties fluidly floating by in towering heels, holding hands and quietly whispering declarations of eternal amore.
As in Paris, couples have adorned the bridge with countless little padlocks – some of them heart shaped – proclaiming un amore senza fine (a love with no end), and dropping the lock key into the Tiber below.
Here, it seems, many of these trinket testimonies have been left in place, unlike the Parisian bridge Pont des Arts where, earlier this year, the local authorities removed the popular ‘love locks’ with bolt cutters when a bridge railing collapsed under the weight of the many thousands of locks.
One of the Andreas pointed out that the love lock tradition was inspired by Italian writer Federico Moccia’s 2006 novel Ho voglia di te (I Want You), whose two main characters attached a locket to a lamp-post on the Ponte Milvio. And I’m not surprised one bit.
Indeed, three years ago, Roman authorities started clipping off locks from what is known as the Lovers’ Bridge, concerned that the ancient structure was suffering damage. It seems they might have given up trying to undo all of this love-locking.
Our few days in Rome passed quickly, and on our final night in the city before we flew back to Greece, we got together with Marile, the Andreas and Giovanna, and headed to their regular neighbourhood pizza joint. We loved that it was actually the local soccer club’s pizzeria, with tall windows offering views of the field and team practice.
The pizzas – wood-fired, of course – didn’t take long to arrive. Showing me the base of his impossibly thin-crust pizza, which bore the tell-tale ‘burn’ marks of a genuine pizza Romana, Carlo finally had his fix. Over a simple pizza and a glass of wine, we shared some more laughs with our cherished Roman family and friends, looking forward to the next time we reunite in this great city and promising it won’t take another seven years. Arrivederci Roma. You have our hearts on lockdown. We’ll meet again soon.
For more on Rome, visit the city’s official tourism website www.turismoroma.it