By Jane ad Michael Stern
Originally Published 2003 Gourmet Magazine
BEING LOVERS of cowboy boots, we thought we knew a thing or two about pointy toes. Then we went to Rome. When we saw the shoes worn by fashionable Italian men and women, we suddenly felt like we were walking around in clunking shoe boxes. One of our most vivid images from a week of exploring the city is the sight of Roman feet clad in needlenose whangdoodles that protrude a cobblestone’s length beyond their big toes. With our large American dogs feeling as bulbous as elephant feet, we found ourselves paying close attention to the way Romans walk. In acrophilic stiletto heels gliding over ancient wavy footpaths or in high-tech sneakers skipping down the Spanish Steps, these people know how to aim a gait.
But observing pedestrians was not our assignment in Rome. We came to eat in the trattorias and alleyway dives that operate below the radar of critics who seek important kitchens. Our goal was to investigate Roman roadfood, or, in this case, street food. Given the mission and the city’s reputation as hell on wheels for drivers, we decided to do something unusual for us: spend a week on foot. We walked everywhere.
It was walking, or standing, or elbowed up at a counter that we found the things we liked best. While we did have memorable long lunches sitting in casual cafés, wine bars, and tearooms, and staked out at least one sit-down pizzeria we wanted to take home with us, what stirred our souls in Rome was everything that people eat while on their feet.
In the early morning, when they’re in a hurry, they can go amazingly fast, cutting past saunterers with the brio of a taxi driver in rush hour. Our theory is that their energy comes from drinking lots and lots of coffee. Starting at dawn, espressos, macchiati, and cappuccinos are brewed at coffee bars where customers stand and knock them back like come-to-town cowboys on Saturday night. We became regulars at Scapi Bar, an unremarkable little snack shop on the Via della Croce, where we ordered drinks at the door on our way in each morning. As we walked the 25 feet back to the coffee counter, the barista set saucers and spoons in position, and at the precise moment we bellied up, cups of foam-topped espresso hit the saucers. By day three we didn’t even have to order when we walked in. “Doppio!” was called back as we reached in our pockets for the change to pay.
For second rounds of coffee we crossed the street to Pasticceria D’Angelo, where mobs of morning people stand holding a cup in one hand and tearing at the sweet cornetto in the other. The breakfasters’ speed is awesome; it’s a 90-second meal.
THE BEST CUP WE TASTED was at Sant’ Eustachio il caffe, a shrine to caffeine near the Pantheon. Patrons stand at a zinc counter over coffee that is robust but vaporously creamy, made by a barista in a green uniform with gold epaulets. The man brews at a machine behind a partition so that you can hear him stirring but cannot see what he is doing. The recipe for his gran caffe, with its delicious foam that you spoon from the bottom of a near empty cup, is one of Rome’s great secrets.
Wrought-iron rostrums are positioned on the cobblestones in front of Forno Campo de’ Fiori. They look vaguely like places to park bicycles but have handy waist-high platforms on top where patrons from the bakery gather around and eat what they bought. Pizza bianca is ecstasy for crust lovers, a flatbread poised on the chewy side of crunch with a sheen of oil and a few grains of coarse salt across the top; and then there is pizza rossa, with a thin tomato veil. Inside, the whole oval pies are brought to the order counter directly from the ovens. When you get to the head of the line—there is always a line—you indicate about how much you want. A man with a knife holds up a section of pie with his blade against it, showing where he’ll cut. You tell him “more” or “less,” he moves the knife accordingly, then chops off your portion. That gets hacked in half and folded over like a sandwich. Using a well-practiced flip of his hands, the server encloses your warm stash in an envelope of white paper twisted at both ends. If there’s a purer pizza-eating experience on earth, we’ve yet to find it.
In the Jewish quarter, a bakery called Antico Forno del Ghetto sends an irresistible baking-bread smell out into the street and sells similarly simple pizza by weight. One lunchtime close to 2 P.M. (Romans eat about two hours later than we do), we were so crowded into the little shop that we polished off a pound of pizza bianca before we could push our way out the door into the Piazza Costaguti. For those who like toppings, Zi Fenizia, around the corner, arrays its pies with bouquets of fresh grape tomatoes, artichoke leaves, zucchini shreds, onion slices, anchovies, endives, broccoli florets … but no cheese.
In the same neighborhood is a bakery called Pasticceria II Boccione, which we came to know as the Burnt Place over a week’s worth of chronic revisits. Everything these bakers make is overcooked—and we mean that in the nicest possible way. Honey almond cookies are too hard to chew, making them great for long dunks in coffee from Bar Toto, just down the street. Cream-rich ricotta cheesecake, veined with chocolate or wild cherry essence, has a scorched top that crunches like the crust of crème brulee. And while it’s stretching a point to call the cheesecake stand-up food, they do sell it by the slice, and there we stood, day after day, on the Via del Portico d’Ottavia, licking it off its wax-paper wrapper.
Some serious licking was done at Al Settimo Gelo (a confectionary play on words that means “Seventh Heaven”), a gelateria north of the Vatican. “Gelatista” Mirella Fiumano’s devotion to perfection is humbling. She shows us the stovetop espresso maker that gives her coffee gelato such a booming taste with mere parentheses of cream and sugar. Likewise, her chocolate makes everything but cocoa go away; the sesame honey is halvah gone to heaven; and the cardamom is edible perfume. Other dazzling flavors include carrot, mango, quince, Concord grape, pear, banana, cioccolato al peperoncino (chocolate with hot pepper), and one intoxicant made from dessert-wine grapes. The store is tiny; Fiumano works in back behind a glass partition with drawings of fresh fruits and a sign that says “Laboratorio Produzione Propria.” Up front, a kindly older lady uses small plastic spoons to give tastes. In a row of plastic chairs facing the counter, workmen, mothers, and children all sit spooning up gelato. Strangely, although Fiumano offers cones, we see few people walk out of Al Settimo Gelo still eating; this stuff is so good it stops even Romans in their tracks.
After dark, walking tends to slow, and late in the evenings we watched lovers stroll arm-in-arm at the sensuous tempo of a whispered torch song. Even at this dreamy pace, they maneuvered easily along ludicrously narrow sidewalks and down boulevards among scooters and teeny-weeny Smart cars. We saw these ambulatory talents put to good use in a restaurant affectionately known as The Morgue. “L ‘Obitorio” (officially Pizzeria “Ai Marmi”) is in fact a pizzeria, nick-named for its extremely close together, slablike marble tables. Ai Marmi’s cracker-thin pizza napoletana cooks in less than ten minutes, and people tend to eat it just as fast. Then they socialize, table to table. What mesmerizes us—as students of Roman choreography—is the way they effortlessly slide among the interstices between tables. We, who are, ahem, more generously proportioned than the young Romans who make this their after-midnight hangout, found ourselves stuck between the marble slabs, nearly seated on other people’s tables and vowing a regime of power-walking to prepare for our next visit.
Scapi Bar (permanently closed)
Via della Croce 80
Roma RM, Italy
Sant’ Eustachio il caffe
Forno Campo de’ Fiori
Antico Forno del Ghetto
Zi Fenizia (permanently closed)
Via Santa Maria del Pianto 65
Roma RM, Italy
Pasticceria II Boccione
Al Settimo Gelo
Pizzeria “Ai Marmi”