I Promise to Take You to Roma!

Why Roma?

I married a man who keeps his promises, no matter what the cost.  It’s one of the many qualities I adore about him.  From the little everyday promises, like doing the dishes after dinner, to the even larger promises, most of which he will never take credit for. What does this have to do with our trip to Roma?  Everything.

Years ago Paul and his mother went to Paris.  At the time, his nephew John had just graduated from the 8th grade.  As a graduation present, John was invited to tag along, all expenses paid.  Quite a present, I must say!  But, would a fourteen year old boy appreciate a trip to Europe?  They had their doubts, but in the end, the money was well spent. John savored every minute of Paris.  He tried new foods, learned French words, and met new people.  It was an experience some adults won’t have in an entire lifetime.

John has a sister, our niece Amanda.  Amanda is three years younger than John. Amanda was only eleven when John flew off to Paris, but she was old enough, smart enough, and envious enough to put in her request early.  And so, from what I hear, it went a little something like this: “Uncle Paul, where are you going to take me when I graduate from 8th grade?”.  Sometime later she decided it had to be Rome and so, that became the plan.  Until, Uncle Paul did something no one in the family quite expected.

He got married the summer Amanda graduated from 8th grade and instead of getting a trip to Rome, she settled for a new aunt instead.  Aunt Mi.  The trip to Rome would have to be put off until the following summer.

Amanda practicing her Italian phrases...

So, Paul’s promise now became our promise and around April or so I started planning our trip to Rome. This was the most difficult and expensive trip we’ve ever planned. Prices on flights changed daily and frustration set in quite a few times.  We even considered going to Paris or London instead, but Paul promised Rome and so, trying to stay true to his word, we remained as focused as possible on getting her to where she wanted to go.  Then there were the hotel challenges.  Not only were we taking Amanda, but our mothers were also joining us. Triple hotel rooms are hard to come by in Europe and since we needed one double and one triple in every city, we played a waiting game with hotel confirmations.  We finally booked the trip in June: three nights in Rome, three nights in Florence, and two nights in Venice.  So, on July 18th, Aunt Mi and Uncle Po celebrated their first wedding anniversary while also fulfilling their promise to take their niece to Rome.  It worked out in her favor too. How many girls can say they celebrated their 16th birthday in Italy?

My Roman Research

To be honest, I struggled with the idea of going to Rome.  Keep in mind, Paul and my mother-in-law had already been there years earlier.  They weren’t exactly thrilled about going back and they didn’t have many good things to say about the “city of ruins”.  I, on the other hand, had only experienced Italy once during my marvelous honeymoon to Sorrento.  I was spoiled in a sense by experiencing Italy for the first time in a resort-like setting where water crashed against huge cliffs, cruise ships lit up the night sky, and the hotel staff reserved a deck chair by the pool for me-everyday.  I didn’t really experience Italy, I just put my feet up and ate a lot.  Paul was worried I would hate Rome and after a while I was worried I might hate Rome too.  But then I reminded myself that first, this trip wasn’t about me, and second, perhaps this was just what I needed, a chance to see Italy from a different perspective.  It turned out to be quite a rewarding learning experience for all of us.

Due to my built up anxiety about Rome, I did some extensive research before we left.  I skipped the guide books and the tourist websites and went for exactly what I wanted to know.  What is it like to live in Rome?  So I scoured the internet for blogs written by Americans who live in Rome.  I wanted to know where they ate, what they ate, what they did while living there, and most importantly, what they avoided.  And I found what I needed to find, thanks to the many American bloggers living and loving everything Roma.  I developed a list, both in my head and on paper, even a backup on my Ipad, of what to do, what not to do, where to go, where not to go, and, most importantly, what to eat and where to eat it.

“I’m guessing being a flight attendant wouldn’t be a great career choice for you”-Amanda Lewis.

If only our photographer could be in the photos too!

On the airplane...

I must admit, Amanda was a real trooper on the airplanes.  I’m sure the last place she wanted to sit was next to me, the fearful flyer.  But of course, on both 8 hour flights across the pond, Amanda won the lucky seat next to me.  She got accustomed to putting her hand on my leg and saying, “It’s okay” and “It’s still okay”.  Yes, the 16-year-old had to console the 30-year-old.   Sad I know.   She even suggested that I stick with teaching and never consider a career as a flight attendant.  Solid career advice.

Our first flight left out of Newark to Amsterdam. It is a widely known fact that before we even get to the airport, my nerves are shot and my fear sets in. Luckily, this time I had somewhat of a distraction while waiting to board our plane. Alec Baldwin!  I was the first to spot him when he walked right past the restaurant we were sitting in.  I said, “Is that Alec Baldwin?!” and someone else on the other side of the restaurant said, “Look Alec Baldwin!”.  We had a good laugh, hoping he wouldn’t be our pilot since, you know, he’s played one on tv.  This distracted my thoughts for a little while and, after leaving the restaurant, Amanda and I amused ourselves by searching every nook of our terminal for another sight of him.  We never did see him again and we don’t think he was on our flight, but it was a good way to get my mind off the anticipation of taking off in the hover craft.

Our second flight was from Amsterdam to Rome.  By the time we reached Rome we were thoroughly exhausted and I was extremely relieved to see that my feet were safely on the ground.  We had arranged for a car service to pick us up from the airport and take us to our hotel, the Grand Hotel Palatino.  For the first time, Mom and Amanda got to experience Italian driving, where green lights mean go, yellow lights mean speed up, and red lights are merely suggestions.  Mom even questioned why I was so worried about the airplane, it was the car ride I should have been concerned with.

Welcome to Roma!  Let’s Eat!

Our hotel was clean with a pleasantly modern decor.  We weren’t exactly greeted with a warm welcome, but I expected this.  Rome depends heavily on tourists, but I’m not sure they love the invasion.  Our hotel was conveniently situated a block from the heavily visited Colosseum and Roman Forum.

After checking in we headed out to walk around and find something to eat.  It was time for me to try some Roman cuisine.  We went to a little cafe around the corner from our hotel where we met a French waiter who met, fell in love, and was living happily ever after with a Roman girl.  His name was Gus, short for Augustus, and we enjoyed talking to him about Italy and, our first love, France.  This is the cafe where we all got a taste of the heaven that is called fried zucchini flowers.  At home, zucchini is famously known as a cucumber like vegetable that can be cooked in a variety of ways.  But in Italy, zucchini is also widely known for the flowers that grow along with it.  The flowers are a bright yellowish orange and are stuffed with mozzarella cheese and fried golden brown.  It makes for a flavorful and addicting appetizer.  They were so good we had some as appetizers and I ordered more for dessert.

I am absolutely obsessed with food.  I plan our trips according to where and what we are going to eat.  One of the places on my list for this trip was a restaurant Anthony Bourdain refers to as “Restaurant X” on his episode spotlighting Rome.  At “Restaurant X”, Mr. Bourdain feasts on a famously simple yet amazing delicious Roman dish called cacio e pepe.  The restaurant’s name is really Roma Sparita and its located in the truly Roman neighborhood of Trastevere.  It’s referred to as “Restaurant X” on the television show in order to protect its Roman authenticity, and not be invaded by tourists.  Basically, this is THE place to get the best cacio e pepe in Rome (from what we’ve heard).  So, we made it our duty to find Roma Sparita and, ironically, we found it without even looking for it.  So what is cacio e pepe and why is it so good?  Basically its spaghetti with black pepper and pecorino romano cheese, mixed together with a little reserved water from the pasta.  The result is a creamy, rich, and extremely delicious sauce that clings to every strand of the spaghetti, all elegantly bundled together in a cute little bowl made of cheese.  Yes, you read that correctly.  A cheese bowl!

I wish I had photos of the food we ate in Rome, but that would mean we’d have to rudely whip out the camera in each restaurant.  Eating is a total social experience for us and we value our time with food.  That may sound silly, but it’s true.  Our personal philosophy is that it’s not polite to take photos of your food when people around you are trying to enjoy their meals and their company.  So, because we can’t show you photos of what we ate, you can imagine it, Google it, or just go to Rome and eat it!

Our absolute favorite restaurant in Rome was Da Enzo.  Through my research, I found that Da Enzo is considered by many Romans to be one of the last truly authentic Roman restaurants left in Rome.  It was here that the five of us definitely didn’t look like we belonged.  In fact, I heard the waiter walk away from our table and state that we were “Americanos”.  Whenever I hear this, I cringe.  So my Italian needs some work, but at least I try right? Paul and I have learned that if you try to speak the language, you earn more respect from the locals, even if you have no idea what they are saying to you and sometimes what you are saying yourself.  Luckily, the waiters at this restaurant turned out to be very patient with our Italian, despite our obvious “Americano” status, and recommended we try the specialty of the day.  Spaghetti with ragu sauce.  I can’t express in words how incredibly awesome this dish was.  Ragu sauce is basically meat sauce, flavored with vegetables, sweetened with carrots.  I believe this ragu sauce was made from ox tail, another common Roman ingredient.

While in Rome we also ate spaghetti alla carbonara (pancetta with spaghetti and egg)as well as spaghetti amatriciana, pasta in a fresh tomato sauce.  Both of these dishes are regional cuisine of Rome and are truly fabulous if you get them in the right places.

When in Italy, keep in mind to eat regionally.  The best pizza will be near Naples, the best carbonara will be in Rome, the best seafood will be near the sea.  Just like you wouldn’t go to Kansas for the best lobster, don’t go to Rome and expect the best Tuscan soup.  Rome is not Tuscany.  Italians cook with the ingredients that are indigenous to the area they live in.  It’s economic, it’s smart, and it’s the best way to incorporate the freshest ingredients into their cooking.

If I didn’t mention this in the Rome blog, Amanda might never forgive me.  Breakfast in Europe is the absolute best.  I’m not a lover of breakfast in America, but I will never miss a hotel breakfast in Europe.  And, yes, I must admit, a lot of hotel breakfasts in Europe are Americanized to suit those who just can’t go a day without their scrambled eggs and bacon.  But I just absolutely love the fact that ham and cheese are always, and I mean, always found in large abundance.  And, it is perfectly acceptable to eat a ham and cheese sandwich on a roll for breakfast.  In my opinion, this is fabulous and outdoes French toast any day.  So, on this trip, Amanda and I found it our duty to always start our day with ham and cheese piled high on a little roll.  We became so addicted to this simple yet overly satisfying meal that we began critiquing each hotel by the quality of the roll.  As a result, the Grand Hotel Palatino wins “Best Breakfast Roll!”  Congratulations and many thanks for such a delicious beginning to all of my days in Rome.

Gladiators and Tour Operators…

Let’s be honest.  The Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, and the Vatican are all magnificent.  The architecture, the detail, the size…it makes you wonder just how in the world anyone could build structures so grand yet so intricate.  Unfortunately, all of this beauty and splendor is frequented by those who see these places as easy opportunities to take advantage of others.

Let’s start with the gladiators.  They roam the grounds outside the Colosseum, donning plastic muscles and waving their swords, offering to pose for photos with tourists.  Once the photo is taken with the tourist’s camera, they then demand a fee.  If you don’t want to pay, they challenge you to a battle.  Don’t let those plastic muscles fool you.  These guys are relentless.  It’s best to just ignore them if you can.  I was successful with this until one of them questioned if I was from Times Square.  Times Square?!  I mean, how does one determine visually if another grew up between the ESPN Zone and Ripley’s Believe It or Not?  I must have looked utterly confused because then he insisted I wasn’t from New York at all.  “People from New York aren’t like you!” he yelled after me as I walked away.  Now, I don’t work in the business field, but I’d say this is bad for gladiator business.

Then there are the tour operators who shove pamphlets in your face and ask if you speak English.  This happens both on your way into a site and on your way out.  I mean, who wouldn’t be interested in a “get to the head of the line” tour on the way out?!

My best advice is this: walk confidently and be aware.  It’s worth it to see all of this:

No matter where you walk in Rome, you can turn a corner and see Roman ruins and immense buildings.  This building being one of the coolest I’ve ever seen!

When You’re Not Battling Gladiators or Slurping Spaghetti

We did a lot of walking in Rome.  So much that one night my mother and my mother in law had to sit on the steps of this enormous building and trade shoes.  You see, although we advised my mother-in-law against wearing high heels, she wore them anyway, for the sake of fashion.  This resulted in the great post-dinner shoe trade-off. Mom gave Rene her flip-flops and Rene gave Mom the heels.

By the time we returned to the hotel that night, Rene’s feet were so badly blistered that she wound up going shoe shopping in my mother’s suitcase for the rest of the trip. Luckily, my mom packed enough shoes for everyone.  Even I borrowed a pair one night.

My mother and mother-in-law are quite a duo when they travel together.  Their first night in Rome they discovered the Italian version of Funniest Home Videos.  If you thought stupid pet videos were funny in English, they are even funnier in a different language.  For the rest of the trip (yes in all three cities), our mothers amused themselves with this television show.  Many nights they could be heard down the hallway in the hotel laughing hysterically all because a cat did a somersault off a bed or something.  It’s truly a blessing that they get along so well.

What Is Traveling All About?

Paul says that, with my love of food, you’d never know we saw any sites in Rome.  He’s right.  I’m more of a food blogger than a tourism blogger.  While I think the sites are amazing and educational, I hate how crowded they can get!  I totally prefer sitting at a little cafe, watching the people go by, engaging in conversation with locals, and just, relaxing.  I learn the most just this way.

A few nights before this trip, my mother-in-law and I got into a heated debate about what’s most important to a traveler.  I say, “it’s all about the food” and she says, “it’s all about the sites”.  I say, “you need food to survive” and she says, “not if you’re in a museum”.  I say, “food brings conversation” and she says, “so does the Trevi Fountain”.  This debate went on and on for days and before we left we decided to settle on a healthy balance of food and sites.

Then, we got to Rome.  What’s the first thing we did?  We ate, and then we ate some more and, as a result, we learned. We learned about Italian culture, cuisine, and caught a small glimpse of what it’s like to be Roman.  Amanda learned how to ask for the check (el conto por favore) and I learned how to confidently walk into a Roman restaurant and ask for a table for 5 (cinque).  All without even stepping foot into a museum.

Some of our favorite memories are a result of where and what we ate.  And what did my mother-in-law have to say after all this?   “You’re right Michelle. Maybe it is all about the food”.

How Does Roma Rate?

Out of the three cities we visited, Rome came in second place overall.  Sorry, Roma, Firenze (Florence) ranks #1 as my favorite Italian city.  While I did love your history, your food, and these ridiculously cute fountains,

Firenze takes the cake!  You can read all about why I LOVED Firenze more in the next post.  Stay tuned!

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