Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Unlocking Rome’s Secrets
Rome has long been characterized as a city that has secrets. Its mystical Roman past, mysterious confraternities, and “secret” archives are researched in academia as well as exploited in popular novels and movies. Yet, most of that seems either over hyped or simply falsified. Nonetheless, we have discovered Rome is full of secrets, and not just for treasure hunters or conspiracy theorists. In fact, unveiling its mysteries and unlocking codes, is exactly what one must do to get a glimpse of true Roman life and especially its food scene.
In a town stuffed with souvenirs and tourist traps, the outsider and insider food vocabulary has become distinct. Tourists are guided by signs, lights, and colored menus in order to lead them to much needed sustenance. If, you are not content to eat less than admirable attempts at spaghetti carbonara or just want to pay less, one must figure out the secret food places the city is hiding in its windy streets.
The Roman food scene is all about being in the know. Nothing is marked and often when a restaurant is not open, there is a large, gray garage door that is pulled over the exterior. A place with beautiful food can appear one day and you will have trouble finding it the next. Also the eateries do not equate their exterior with what might be on the interior, so don’t judge a book by its cover is a fast rule. The list below are our favorites, or at least the ones that we have found and patronize, each with their quirks that made them gems once discovered:
Café shop around the corner where we get 90cent cappuccinos, donuts or croissants like 4 days a week. Great wait staff, who have accepted us as the only English customers. How did we find it? My colleagues at work. Does it have a name? maybe, but not sure. It does have large cactuses in its window and someone owns an Irish Setter that is always outside. So if you are in Rome…try to find it.
Bar in Trastevere: where we go every Thursday and participate in an amazing Roman tradition, apertif. What does this mean? For the price of a drink (beer, wine, cocktail) and 2 extra euros, you get an all-you-can eat appetizer buffet. Think unlimited tapas like seafood salad, roasted veggies, cheese, cured meat, pasta, garlic bread, yummy! The place also has an awesome inside that is retro and our waitress has a buzz cut which makes it edgy although the bartender has a cute baby, so they are a good crowd. Anyway how did we find it? A friend. What to look for in order to find it? The buzz cut waitress. Name? again probably not.
Bakery with good smells three streets down, great for cookies. What does it look like? A factory. No door, only plastic flaps. No displays, no name and you would think it was just a supplier. But, it is in fact a bakery with fresh little cookies in every flavor. So if you are on the Trastevere side of the Tiber, follow your nose.
What might be most difficult about breaking the food code in Rome is that it does not match the American consumer ideal of how a restaurant attracts its customers. Good restaurants often look good in America. They exploit their goodness with stickers and Zagat ratings. The restaurants are not shy, often brightly lit to expose their fashionably designed interiors. Although these bastions of fine dining are not tourist traps and have genuine quality within their walls, restaurants promote themselves nonetheless and a bystander is rarely left wandering if the establishment is a restaurant or even if it is open. But it is different here. The good places don’t want the tourist crowd and need to keep the mystery to maintain their local/cool reputation. We, as outsiders and sometimes tourists, are not supposed to be privy to these places and I consider us very lucky to have found a few that accept us barbars.*
*Greek, then Latin, slang word for outsiders, or non-Romans, and barbarian is a derivative.
at 11:28 AM