So far, most of these blog entries have been recounting full calendar days. Today will be different – due to the amount of photos I want to share, I’ll just describe the last of Rome, before heading to Florence in the mid-afternoon. The next blog entry will tell of the remainder of this day, after I arrive in Firenze. You shouldn’t get confused, it’s not that complicated.
I decided to stick around for the food tour, I’m not going to let a near miss ruin my plans, specifically the Taste of Testaccio tour by Eating Italy Food Tours. I left my luggage in the office bathroom. The major risk was leaving my camera and other gadgets behind, only bringing my cameraphone and wallet with me. This meant that I wouldn’t be able to take as many photos (cameraphone is slower than DSLR), and the photos won’t be as sharp (as some of the other ones I have shared). I made my way to the Piramide Metro station and got to the meeting place about 50 minutes early, so I took a walk around the neighborhood to kill some time. I returned twice during the walk to see if anyone was waiting, and no one was there, so the final return was 15 minutes early and now most of the group was at the meeting cafe. I know you’re keeping track, so this tour had 11 people: 4 Australian couples, 1 Russian couple, and me, plus Katie, our awesome British guide. We would be spending the next 4 hours together tasting the local flavors of Testaccio.
Quick history lesson: the town of Testaccio got its name from Monte Testaccio, which is a man-made mountain (really more of a hill) of broken clay fragments. Back in those days, if you broke a clay pot, there wasn’t much else you could do but throw it away. At least with broken glass, they could recycle it by melting it again, which is why you don’t see many ancient glass fragments in museums, but loads of clay fragments. I can’t imagine how long it would take to build a mountain of just broken clay pots with their much smaller population. Obviously, today we have such a high population that it doesn’t take very long to make a mountain of mixed trash.
The first stop was at Pasticceria Barberini, a well-known bakery where we sampled tiramisu in a molded chocolate cup.
After dessert for breakfast we are brought to Volpetti Più, an award-winning pizzeria and restaurant.
Volpetti deli is one of the finest food shops I have seen anywhere in the world. We were given samples of prosciutto, ricotta or Parmesan cheese, and three balsamic vinegars. I would have bought something, but as I had more traveling to do, it would have been too difficult to carry with me, not to mention I might not have even been able to get it through customs. Today I confirmed that I don’t care for balsamic vinegar. I knew I haven’t liked it in the past, but if I can’t appreciate the real Italian product, I guess it isn’t for me. It’s the same with crab cakes, I have tried them many, many times, made in different ways from different people and restaurants, and I never care for them. I keep trying them in the hopes that I will find one I like, but it hasn’t happened so far.
After three food stops, it was time for a break, so we go to The Old Cemetery for Non-Catholic Foreigners (sometimes called the Protestant or Englishmen’s Cemetery). The Pyramid of Cestius and its section of the Aurelian Wall, being a burial chamber, makes up part of one side of this cemetery, which may or may not have been intentional when the cemetery was built.
Some of the more well known markers in this cemetery are for John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Keats’ headstone only says “Young English Poet”, and Katie’s biography lesson informs us that Keats did not want his name on his grave, but Joseph Severn was a bit of a name-dropper and wanted to be buried next to his famous friend-in-an-anonymous-grave, essentially stating “Look who’s buried next to me!” The Angel of Grief is a famous sculpture by William Wetmore Story and is the grave for him and his wife.
Time for food again, so we head for Testaccio Market, a covered market that invites street vendors to gather in one area, making it easier for customers to shop and offers other benefits for vendors, like an open design that allows vendors to come and go easily, and electricity (necessary for baking). In Testaccio (and probably everywhere), it is important to be a “regular” at wherever you like to shop. You’ll likely get more personal attention and perhaps a better quality product. Katie has a few here at the market, and we get to meet them as they show us their wares, even allowing us to sample their product. We get some fresh, homemade bruschetta, caprese salad, and even cannoli.
It is now time for lunch. Flavio al Velavevodetto is built under Monte Testaccio, where the climate-controlled environment is a natural place to store wine, and by extension, build a restaurant. They give us three pasta dishes, fresh bread, wine, and sparkling mineral and still water. They even put in windows so you can see the wall of broken clay.
We take another walk to earn our next snack, as Katie explains that football is the real religion in Italy. Rome has a major rivalry between the local clubs AS Roma and SS Lazio. I wasn’t paying that much attention. I ask if Italian restauranteurs try to make ethnic foods like Chinese or French or if they leave that to immigrants. Katie tells me that Italians do prefer to leave it alone, and it means that one of the first things she does when she flies back to England is get an Indian curry.
Our second to last stop is at 00100 Pizza, for their award-winning “supplì.” Supplì are fried rice balls (usually risotto) where the insides might also include a sauce, Mozzarella cheese, or meat. On this day, our treat had beef and cheese inside. While we eat, Katie tells us a bit of the history of the Mafia and some of the more notorious characters. If you were wondering what the name means, 00100 is their Roman postcode, not binary for “4” (in decimal).
As meals tend to end with dessert, the tour’s final stop is at Giolitti gelato shop. We are told some secrets to finding and enjoying real gelato: It shouldn’t be mounded up in its container – gelato is meant to be dense; cheaper product will incorporate more air to bulk it up, which allows it to be piled higher without it flowing down and out everywhere. You are allowed to have more than one flavor – if the shop doesn’t allow it, they are not true gelaterias and are just trying to cut costs. You can have cream (“gelato con panna” = “gelato with cream”) on top, often home-made and similar to whipped cream, but denser. They shouldn’t offer lots of flavors, as it is better to perfect no more than a dozen flavors than to offer every flavor and suffer in quality. This is just what were were told, no doubt food enjoyment is incredibly subjective.
Some of group goes back to Volpetti to shop, some wait for a taxi, I walk with one of the Aussie couples, I think this pair was from Melbourne, back to the Metro. My stuff is still in the B&B bathroom. I somehow got a bad cut on my hand maneuvering through the crowds on the Metro and streets, so I lose about 10 minutes cleaning and dressing the wound. Good thing I am prepared with makeshift medical supplies, like Vaseline (sterile and useful for protecting a wound from outside germs), bandages, and electrical tape (to hold it in place). It is early afternoon on a Saturday, so the streets in touristy areas are very crowded. Slow walkers often find a way to get in front, and stay in front, of me. I sprint where I can to the Metro with luggage and through Roma Termini to find the train station, then get on my train and find my seat, which I accomplished with 6 minutes to spare. I’m on the Trenitalia high speed train, which is more expensive than the regional train, but the trip is only 90 minutes, instead of the 4 hour cheaper train. This allows me an extra 2.5 hours to walk around Florence and find dinner, and might mean more peace of mind, as 5:30pm is a safer time to walk through an unfamiliar city carrying luggage than 8pm.