I was in the prep phase of a 7 day juice fast and my daughters were still on their winter holidays and feeling a bit bored so we decided a quick trip to Piazza Vittorio in the Esquilino neighborhood was in order. Many moons ago The Beehive was in this neighborhood and my daughters spent their formative years dodging dog poo and syringes. Despite that – we have very fond memories of this area. I guess you could say it was where we “cut our teeth” in Rome.
One of the hearts of Piazza Vittorio was its former market – you can see it in the scene from the 1948 Vittorio De Sica film “The Bicycle Thief” where he looks first for his stolen bicycle – yup, the old Piazza Vittorio market. In 2001 it moved from its decades long location to a new indoor center and re-named Nuovo Mercato Esquilino. The area has changed a lot since then, but there are lots of gems hidden in the rough and so we decided to spend the afternoon walking around the old neighborhood again without much of a plan.
First stop was Forno Roscioli at via Buonarroti, 48. The cousin of the more famous Antico Forno Roscioli near Campo dei Fiori, we like this place much better for the incredibly kind and congenial staff who talk to strangers as if they have known them for years. The clerks there are beyond patient despite the hordes that mob their counters especially during the lunch rush.
We managed to get a table and the girls enjoyed their pizzas while I ate cooked vegetables the whole time cursing my restricted diet before my fast and coveting their crispy slices of piazza bianca and Roscioli’s supplì (arborio rice balls made with tomato sauce and a piece of mozzarella stuffed inside, breaded and then deep friend – delish!)
Next we walked through Piazza Vittorio on our way to Mercato Esquilino. This market is fantastic! Besides all the wonderful seasonal produce you’ll find here, this is also one of only a couple markets in town where you can find a wide assortment of non-Italian ingredients – vegetables and fruit such as sweet potatoes, avocados, plantains, yucca, cilantro and all kinds of spices, legumes and beans.
We did our shopping and the girls were good sports about going around and around the market. I always end up buying more than I really can carry, but they helped me with my bags and in turn I thought now was a good idea for a gelato break so we headed over to the Palazzo del Freddo Giovanni Fassi, a mouthful of a name for one of Rome’s oldest gelaterias (since 1880). It’s the only true ice cream parlor type shop left in Rome. While there is better gelato to be had in Rome, you don’t just come here for the gelato, but also for the experience. Unfortunately, they happened to be closed for the holidays so there were some unhappy campers in my group, but I tried to stay positive and we continued along.
We decided to go through Piazza Vittorio again and this time stopped at the little kids playground in the park that has games and some electrical rides. Giulia and Paloma who are 12 and 10 respectively were physically too big for the rides which are for the 6 and under crowd, but Viola was happy to be able to take their place and her mood switched.
As I mentioned, the original Beehive was in this neighborhood and now every time I am in the neighborhood, I must make a pilgrimage to Panella, one of my favorite coffee bars. Despite it being on the pricey side, it’s worth it to me to come here for an excellent cappuccino and freshly made, warm out of the oven pastries in the morning instead of the stale, cardboard tasting poor excuses for pastries that are found at most Italian bars. This place feels homey to me – despite not having lived in the neighborhood for many years – the older women who have been working for their years still remember me and our daughters are captured in time in their memories as little babies.
I am of the school of “never come over to a friend’s empty handed” when coming over for dinner and these exquisite sweet treats from pasticerria Regoli will have your friends inviting you again and again! Regoli was founded in 1916 and has a steady stream of loyal customers. Pick up some of these tortine alle fragoline for a tiny taste of creamy pastry heaven.
Unfortunately, Piazza Vittorio and the neighborhood of Esquilino get a bad rap from guidebooks and I’ve made it one of my missions to post things here from time to time that will hopefully show the area in a different light. Many expat residents and Rome experts like Gillian Longworth McGuire of the Rome for Expats guide share my appreciation of the area and look underneath its sometimes gritty surface. Piazza Vittorio has tried to clean up its act over the years and this sign in the park for me spoke volumes. It’s a great combo of providing information as well as provoking people to think beyond what they can immediately see and open their eyes to the fact that we are indeed sharing the space with others. These others may not be as visible, but in this often crazy, chaotic city, need the trees and the grass as much as we do no matter which neighborhood it’s in.
All three of our daughters were born in Rome starting with our oldest, Giulia, in 2000. Some things have come a long way – for example, smoking is no longer allowed in public spaces such as restaurants or coffee bars – a huge coup for those of us who thought our precious babies were going to be suffering from black lung disease before their first birthdays. The law went into effect in 2005 so the jury is still out with my older two, Giulia and Paloma, who spent many a smokey night in restaurants in their younger years.
Despite small victories, traveling with children around Rome can wear out the best of us – residents and visitors alike. There are many other bloggers who have posted great suggestions on things to do and practical issues with kids including Ciao Bambino and Maria Dolcini at L’Avventura Romana but here are a handful of suggestions to keep in mind based on my own experience in order to ease the pain and stress of visiting Rome with babies and little children.
1. Wear your baby!
If you have a baby, leave the stroller at home and start practicing how to use that wrap or carrier. Trying to get a stroller on and off of buses, carrying one up and down the metro stairs (no elevators) and just trying to cross streets with cars parked on cross-walks and up against each other so tightly that you can barely squeeze yourself through – you’ll encounter all of these and then some and you’ll be very happy that you aren’t dealing with a cumbersome stroller. Personally, I found Bjorn carriers very limiting and uncomfortable for myself and my kids and used the Didymos wrap which was very versatile and comfy, but it takes some practice. They are a slew of carrier styles out there now though and I’m sure you can find one to meet your needs.
If you have an older child and need that stroller to save your back and shoulders, make it an inexpensive umbrella style stroller so it’s not a huge financial loss if it gets lost or mangled on the airplane. These kind of strollers can also be easily folded up when traveling on public transit or by train. The excellent mother and baby shop created by expat New Yorker, Kiersten Miller, The Milk Bar currently has stroller rental in Milan and hopefully soon in Rome, but in the meantime, there are baby equipment rental companies in Rome like Travel Baby and Babyriders that will bring the equipment to your accommodation and then pick it up afterward.
2. Bring a changing mat with you everywhere
Diapers in Italian are called pannolini. If your child is still in diapers, please note that you will be more comfortable changing your child on a bench or on a ledge than you will in the public bathrooms. Bathrooms do not have diaper changing facilities and most of them are in dubious states of cleanliness. Bring wipes and hand sanitizer with you as well to clean your own hands after the change. Don’t worry about finding diapers here – there are plenty of different brands, and personally, I highly recommend a biodegradable brand such as Moltex or Naturaè which you can find at various organic shops throughout Rome. You can find other disposable diaper brands at pharmacies and supermarkets.
3. Learn the magic words “pasta bianca” for your picky eaters
Despite having children who were born and raised in Italy and who in theory should be able to eat truffles or eggplant with the best of them, I do have two picky eaters. Thankfully, any restaurant in Rome will be happy to make pasta bianca for your children and even in half portions (mezza porzione). This is just plain pasta that is mixed with either olive oil (olio) or butter (burro) and topped with generous heaps of parmigiano cheese – a kid-pleaser to be sure. If you have a child with gluten or wheat intolerance, many more restaurants have rice pasta now (pasta di riso) – just ask as it is not often on the menu. For something with a little more substance, you can also ask for pasta al pomodoro (with tomato sauce) and a pasta corta, short pasta, such as penne which makes it a lot easier for little hands and mouths.
4. Consider renting an apartment
Okay, this may sound like a conflict of interest since The Beehive is a small hotel and we do have many families stay with us. However, the great thing about renting an apartment as a family, especially if you have babies or young children and especially if your children are used to early dinner hours, is that many apartments have kitchens or kitchenettes where you can prepare meals. In addition, there is usually a common area space, living room or small sitting room, so your kids can have a nap and the whole family can take a break in the middle of the day without being cooped up in one room. Being able to prepare your own meals is also a money saver when traveling with families and especially if you have picky eaters. You should definitely eat out while you are in Rome and enjoy a great pizza and some excellent pasta, but being able to eat some meals in is a great option to have. If you use that time to also shop at some of the local food markets (not supermarkets), you’ll get a truly authentic and unique experience. Here’s a video featuring our daughters which shows how easy and fun it can be to do the food-shopping. Our other business cross-pollinate has many excellent and affordable private apartment rental options. Many of these properties have short minimum stays so you don’t have to commit to a weekly rental and there are no security deposits or cleaning fees.
5. Accept the fact that you won’t be able to do it all and take time to fit in some kid-friendly activities
Rome celebrates its 2,766th birthday on 21 April 2013. This city is dense with things to see and do and even in your best childless years, you would not have been able to take it all in – even less so now that you have little ones. Make sure to schedule in child-friendly entertainment – there are several parks in Rome (Villa Borghese, Villa Torlonia, Villa Celimontana, Villa Ada and Villa Doria Pamphili to name a few), a zoo, a little boating lake, a children’s museum and even a gladiator school. Our friends at Context Travel have excellent family walks that make learning about Rome interesting, informative and engaging for the entire family.
With children it’s all about “slow travel”, and the beauty of doing things with them is that you are forced to slow down and take time to enjoy the quiet moments. An ice cream in a piazza or in the park, kicking back and watching them play with local kids, exchanging a smile and a few words with shopkeepers or other parents. Take the opportunity to be able to connect with the people and culture in ways you would never have been able to do in your backpacking days. Children are great ice-breakers and connectors – enjoy!
Okay, perhaps it’s the heat, but I had a hard time coming up with a clever title for this post so instead, I’m just tellin’ it like it is. These aren’t particularly exciting or the “don’t order a cappuccino in the afternoon” types of advice you may read about for travel in Italy. While these tips may seem mundane, personally these are the kinds of things I like to know about when traveling somewhere new and so I’m passing on some of these tidbits to you.
1. Packs of tissue are your new best friend
A very popular brand here is Tempo, but really any brand of portable tissues will be very handy. Toilets are available for use throughout the city – by law every public coffee bar in Rome must allow use of their toilets. Because of this, you will find them in various states of uncleanliness and dysfunction and many of them do not provide toilet paper. Soap to wash your hands afterward seems to be considered a luxury item, paper towels are like finding the Holy Grail, and usually the only drying device is one of those plug-in electrical dryers that doesn’t have enough power to dry the hairs on the back of your hand. Also, if you see a sign on the bathroom door that says “guasto” or “fuori servizio” it’s probably not – bar owners often put those signs up to avoid public use of their toilets.
2. On/off switches
In your hotel bathroom or if you rent an apartment, please be wary of flipping these particular switches. You could very well be turning off the source of your electricity or hot water if you do this in a bathroom (cold showers anyone?). Light switches do not have these, but power sources to hot water heaters always do. “0” is off and “1” is on.
3. You can look, but don’t touch!
Even in 2012, many shopkeepers in Italy still don’t want customers to mess with their merchandise. I don’t know exactly what it is they’re afraid of – fingers sticky with gelato? I have no idea, but many absolutely do not want you to touch their stuff – you must ask the sales clerk to help you. If you don’t see any signs, feel free to touch away, but do try to avoid doing this to any items in a window display which is usually frowned upon. The most ridiculous use of this sign that I’ve seen was at a toy shop (no touching at a toy shop?!?!) along with the extremely grumpy owner who should have probably given up the business when her grandchildren got married.
4. Saying hello and goodbye
Along with not-touching, it’s a very nice gesture to say hello and goodbye when entering and exiting a shop. Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s good form to say thank you and goodbye when leaving. A simple “Buongiorno or Buonasera” when entering and “Grazie, arrivaderci” when leaving. With strangers, refrain from saying “Ciao”, but instead greet them with a “Buongiorno/Buonasera” or use “Salve” (sal-veh) instead – a more formal and polite way of saying “hi” to people you don’t know. “Salve” only works for hello so use “Arrivaderci” for goodbye. Rome friend Shelley Ruelle has a funny post about other useful words to know in Rome.
Recently, there was a huge blow-out from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s recent honeymoon trip to Rome and the fact that he did not tip while he was here. Another Rome friend and local food expert, Katie Parla, wrote a great blog post about this very topic and I wholeheartedly agree with what she wrote and don’t really have much else to add. Please refrain from the compulsion to tip by percentage and according to the total amount. A euro or two really is plenty to leave if you appreciated the service, and we never leave anything if we are being served by the owner of the establishment.
After just a few days in Italy, your wallet will be full of these:
By law, all places where there has been a financial transaction are obligated to give you a receipt. You, as the customer, are also obligated by law to collect that receipt – whether it be from a €1 bottle of water or €100 for that D&G white cotton t-shirt you just had to have. The Guardia di Finanza (Italy’s very own tax police) are infamously known to strike fear in the heart of many a business owner and sometimes perform random checks outside of establishments to make sure that both the receipt is given and that the receipt is taken. Hefty fines can be given to both parties if the transaction is not done properly. Why such a big fuss about these little pieces of paper? Well, that’s best summarized with these two words: tax evasion.
I hope this helps! Keep an eye out here for more tips in the future or post a comment if there’s anything in particular you want to know about. I’ll consult my Magic 8 Ball if I don’t know the answer.
The neighborhood of Esquilino, lies south of Termini train station and named for the Esquiline hill – one of the original 7 Roman hills. The Beehive’s first location was in this neighborhood and our Clover and Acacia guestrooms are in Esquilino. Officially, the current Beehive is in what’s known as Castro Pretorio – not as interesting and because I have such fond memories and loyalties to Esquilino, I call The Beehive’s neighborhood “Esquilino adjacent”.
Esquilino is a much maligned area, many guidebooks and journalists write it off considering it as only a place of budget hotels and convenient to the train station. For Roman residents, the last 15 years has seen a huge influx of immigrants from Asia and Africa which has indelibly changed the literal face of the neighborhood in both good and bad ways. Good in that it’s a joy to walk in that neighborhood and see non-Italian faces, clothes, hear different languages and smell non-Italian food smells. Bad in that many of the former mom and pop establishments sold out and were replaced by identical cheap trinket shops, chock-full of low quality imports all packaged in kilos and kilos of plastic.
There are many wonderful things about this neighborhood – things that are not very obvious to the casual observer, and my goal is to change that outlook by posting about the hidden gems located in this neighborhood. A recent post by my husband Steve kicked off that campaign.
On 20 April, Context Travel began its Tours in the Public Interestwith a visit to what’s known as the Auditorum of Maecenas. These tours will be held once per month with a Context docent who will lead these visits to little known, not-open-to-the-general-public, archaeological sites.
The Auditorium of Maecenas is located behind a wrought iron fence and locked gate on a very busy street in Rome, via Merluna near the basilica Santa Maria Maggiore. Years ago it was a neglected, downtrodden place surrounded by overgrown weeds, rubbish and the urine of street people masking any kind of treasure that was inside. Some care and with the rubbish and stench gone, now the auditorium is surrounded by a small and pretty manicured garden, but the gate is still locked. Context with its magic keys opened the door to a site that I had passed on a daily basis for years and so I was extremely curious to see what lay inside.
On this rainy, but warm day, docent Agnes Crawford, led our small group into the auditorium and as we decended the ramp into the semi-underground room – that’s when with Agnes’ knowledge, insight and guidance it became a walk back in time. Agnes’ detailed ruminations on the history of the area, the politics of the time, and theories on what exactly this site was exactly were interesting and evocative. Painted frescoes of garden scenes which were still visible and the idea that the auditorium was a bit of a cooling water garden for the elite wanting to escape the heat of Rome while looking out towards the Alban Hills had me imagining all kinds of halycon scenes of ancient Rome.
Guest post & photos by Sarah May Grunwald
I am a wine lover, wine snob and wine educator, but in my line of work, I often find the hardest thing to impart to my students and clients are the wine basics. I suppose I just take wine for granted, just as many Romans take the huge amount of culture in their city for granted. Wine is like air for me. I can’t live without it, and not only because I like to drink it. I am interested in the entire culture of wine. I have had this passion since the first time I visited a winery, Wirra Wirra, in 1997 in South Australia.
Moving to Italy was an entirely different experience in terms of the world of wine. Outside of Italy, wine is seen as some otherworldly drink, something for people with money, something to be coveted, there is a lot of money involved in the world of wine and a lot of that money is used for marketing. But why? After all, isn’t wine just fermented grape juice? Yes, it is a fermented beverage, but its connection to human culture, including religion, medicine and art spans millennia. It is more than an alcoholic drink; it is a culture in its own right.
Here in Italy, one can think of wine as its own food group. It is at every table and almost every meal. Wine brings people together rather than separating them. Italy is covered in vines and there is a huge variety of wines made. This is due to the fact that Italy is extremely diverse in terms of topography and natural feature and the fact that the grape vine is a plant that mutates very easily and adjusts to a variety of conditions. So firstly, you have a landscape that spans from the Alps to near Africa in the south; a landscape with extremely diverse terrain. Then, in the scope of that landscape, there is huge amount of variety in the types of grapes use.
In Italy, wine is not for the privileged only but for all. Even if some are not fine wines, almost every Italian knows someone who makes wine, including their own grandparents with their homemade wine. In the fall, entire families participate in the harvest on a small plot of land to make the family wine. These are simple and rustic wines, but it is a story that has firm roots in the Italian culture. Even today, Italian immigrants throughout the world will make this effort. If they no longer have a small plot of land, they will buy grapes and make wine at home. Wine is ubiquitous to Italian culture.
When I lead a wine tour, I start with the basics, what is wine and how is it made. Wine is made by yeasts converting the sugars present in the grape into alcohol. Alcohol is the byproduct of this biochemical process. Red wines are red because they are fermented with the skins; the skins give wine its color. White wines are lighter in color because they are not fermented with the skins, hence you can have a white wine made from a dark skinned grape. Rosè or pink wines are made by fermented with the skins for a short amount of time, giving them their pink hue.
Once we have these basics, we can talk about the sensory experience of wine, that of sight, smell and taste. There are five tasting basics: see, sniff, swirl, sip and savor. Color can tell us a lot about a wine. For example, how young or old it is or where it might be from. When we sniff wine, we are evaluating volatile aromas that should tell us a lot more about the wine, what type of grape(s) is/are used, for example. There are hundreds of aromas in wine, but they are NOT added. I have been asked countless times during this phase of a tasting if the winemaker added the aromas to the wine, such as adding essential oil. The answer is no. The aromas we perceive are naturally occurring chemical compounds that come from the grape varietal-this means the type of grape, such as Chardonnay or Sangiovese-they can also come from the yeast fermentation. These are called esters. Esters are what give fruit their aromas. Finally we have tertiary aromas and they come from aging. What you smell in the glass should give you an indication of what you will shortly taste. For example, if you smell a red wine and it has aromas of leather or coffee, most like the wine will have tannin, or if you are smelling grapefruit in a white wine, you can expect a fresh tasting wine.
When we taste the wine, we do not actually taste flavors. What we perceive as flavors are actually aromas. 80% of taste is smell. There are actually 4-some might argue – tasting sensations and they are sweet, salty, sour and the bitter. The fifth, Umami has been described a savory, tasty or meaty. It is a Japanese word meaning good taste. It is elusive, but a sensation that cannot be described in any other way. And strangely enough, it can be applied to wine. We will first notice if a wine is dry or not. Dryness in wines should not be confused with the astringency and dry feeling in your gums from a tannic wine. A dry wine is dry due to absence of sugar. Wines can be dry, off dry, slightly sweet and sweet. The sweetness or lack of it is a result of residual sugars. We then notice the backbone of the wine, its freshness or acidity. Without the acidity, wines will feel flabby. It is the acidity in wine that makes wine food friendly and stimulates the appetite. You feel freshness on the side of your tongue. Some wines can taste salty or saline to us and bitterness is what you taste on the back of your tongue. Now there are the flavors we perceive. Remember, you do not actually taste them. 80% of taste is smell. Some wines are overtly fruity; some have a very strong minerality on the palate. This is what we call the wines finish. Those are the flavors and sensations that linger on your palate after your swallow the wine. In general, the longer the finish- the length of time you perceive these aromas and flavors- the better the wine.
Wines should be complex and well balanced. A well balanced wine is a wine that has all of the elements in harmony. One does not overpower the other. Elements such as alcohol, acidity and tannin are evaluated when we taste wine. Tannin is often the most confusing element in the wine tasting for new tasters. Tannin refers to a tactile sensation in the palate which leaves a sense of dryness, especially in the gums. It is an astringent and sometimes bitter taste that is perceived in red wines and absent in white wines. This is not to be confused with the sensation of dryness in a wine. Dryness is the absence of sugar and you feel that on your tongue.
So with the fundamentals now covered you may be wondering why people are so obsessed with wine. People, like myself, make a career out of it and devote hours of their day to the study and tasting of this beverage. Why is this drink so coveted and adored? Many former normal people have thought the same thing until they had their “A-HA” moment. This is the moment that makes you see in tunnel vision, when you drink a glass of wine or have an experience with wine and food that leaves you breathless, makes your heart beat a little faster and makes you feel like you’ve fallen in love. This could be drinking a Lagrein on top of a mountain in the dolomites, smelling an aroma that brings you back to your childhood, sharing wine with a friend in a medieval town in Umbria while feasting on truffles. For many it is tactile and others it is cultural. If you feel intimidated because someone perceives balsamic aromas with hints of rosemary in the glass of wine, don’t fret. People actually train their nose to perceive. It takes most people a long time to develop a “vocabulary.” There are very few people in the world who are natural super tasters.
In my travelling experiences, the best way to get to know a culture is to eat and drink with people in the culture. If you are in Tuscany drink Tuscan wines like Chianti Classico, but to understand the complexity of the Italian world of wine you need to step out of the Pinot Grigio-Chianti comfort zone. There is more to Italian wine than Tuscany! Just in the region of Lazio-the region Rome is in-there are wonderful wines to be had at great prices that evoke warm summer days by the sea, tasting local delicacies in Rome. You can buy a lovely Frascati Superiore for about €6 to €10. I highly suggest tasting wines from Umbria, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige and Basilicata as well.
While you are in Rome, you can sample many wines from a variety of regions when you visit the local enoteca-wine bar. Many of them have wonderful list of wines by the glass that will allow you sample wines from all over Italy. Join a wine tasting, vineyard tour or join a market walk. Get to know the real Italy or real Rome by tasting it. Food and wine producers and experts are more than happy to share their knowledge with you, you just have to ask.