We travel to Rome in the dead days of the new year to see friends and to rinse our mouths with bitterness. We want to expel the cloying taste of English nationalism. On the journey over I read a brilliant new book about five women who spat out imperialism and nationalism in various ways a century ago. Poor luck that our bus terminates unexpectedly outside the vast white marble Vittoriano monument. It dominates Rome’s wrinkled face like an appalling boil, scum risen to the surface. A useless fire burns in a bronze bowl on its bone white steps, cooking nothing, warming no one. They cut out the side of Capitoline hill to build these steps that lead nowhere. At least we can walk away from it, looking back once only to frown. We keep moving, taking the shade of trees to avoid the sun ahead, positioned at eye-level.
Sandwiches and wine
The trees have taken back the Tiber towards Testaccio, saplings pushed through the banks, boughs helpfully fishing out plastic bags, saving a few birds and fish. When we arrive at Da Sandro a few streets in, a peculiar group are gathered around someone’s phone, cackling loudly. A little dog does laps at their feet. Inside, men in overcoats lean against the fridge or wall, drinking wine or eating sandwiches and talking to gently handsome Sandro behind the counter. He has a talent for making all who come in feel heard, me included. I ask about the specials in shabby Italian: artichokes and breaded cutlet are finished (of course they are by 2.30pm). Small white trays of cooked vegetables are displayed behind glass – slices of grilled aubergine, broken down boiled potato, slices of zucchini omelette, boiled and broken down (but not pureed) broccoli and more. Below the shelf of vegetables are cheese, salamis, cooked and cured meats. I order one sandwich with courgette omelette, mozzarella and cooked ham, and another with broccoli, provolone cheese and thin slices of prosciutto at his suggestion. He makes them, cuts them in two and warms them briefly in a small electric oven. I take two large glasses of white wine for €1 dispensed from a tap set into the varnished plywood wall. We share both sandwiches and say they are the best sandwiches we have had and think about eating them for our last meal.
On the first visit a year ago Da Sandro was full of gas workers in overalls eating beautiful plates of cured meats and bread with pitchers of wine. Today a group of telephone workers file in to drink wine and eat bread together, along with a few students from nearby colleges and two parents with a very young child. The ‘Fraschetta’ type establishment emerged in the medieval period so producers could sell their wine and salty food. More recently, affordable meals of meat and cheese can be had. Now they are in decline, though. Da Sandro is perhaps the only Fraschetta left in this neighbourhood, our friend tells us later. Fraschetta da Sandro has pale green Formica tables with tapered wooden legs, a beige tiled floor, and serves its wine in short glasses and food on plastic plates. Sandro, his display of food, affordable wine and the customers are all that’s needed to make this a lovely place. We have a second glass and feel quite drunk, then take our leave.
Coffee and biscuits
Our friend opens her door and we embrace. The centre of her wooden table is set with acid green glass cups and saucers and a small plate of ciambelline al vino, little handmade ring biscuits made with wine. One round of coffee, two rounds of coffee from a little stove top percolator.
Back at the table after a long nap; crisps, delicately sharp blue cheese from her favourite wine stall in Testaccio market, slices of cured sausage. An exquisite jar of preserved zucchini in oil made by her friend and collaborator Carla Tomasi. Toast grilled on the stove rubbed with garlic, salt and aromatic Sicilian olive oil and delicious natural sparkling wine. Italian and British politics and gossip and writing and books.
In the foyer a two-tier vegetable trolley is parked with dishes full of dark greens and artichokes alla Romana. In the dining room yellow walls, yellow tablecloths and thin hot crisp bread with oil and garlic while we think about what to eat. Our petit waiter recommends the salad special misticanza selvatica da campo to start. On the way into the restaurant we walked past a large bowl of wild looking leaves positioned like a kind of advertisement – perhaps it would be those? A salad arrives of tiny raw leaves and shoots with anchovy dressing and dusted with burgundy coloured Sumac. Aromatic, aniseed, bitter, tart, acid and above all green in flavour. Further reading tells me that ‘Misticanza’ is dialect for a mix of tiny wild shoots picked in the green fields outside the city often containing field chicory, dandelion, wild fennel, cockscomb; whatever is good and at hand. Each mouthful feels vanishingly special. Sumac on green salad with anchovy is a new thought for me, too, and I love it. Then deep fried carciofi alla giudia (artichokes cooked Jewish style) which are opened up like flowers, each petal dipped in hot oil until crisp tasting rich, nutty and a little bitter. Then soft pieces of salt cod with prunes, onion and a few pine nuts, sweet and salty and makes me think of Sicily. A plate with a few slices of roasted veal in a little of its gravy. Wilted brocoletti (or cime di rapa) from the vegetable trolley is fried in olive oil made hot with tiny dried birds eye chilli before serving, a flavour I remember from my last visit.
Bad sleep after distressing news about someone we love, and I have terrible period pain so we seek morning comfort in cream buns at Pasticceria Linari. I eventually remember how to order (pay at a separate till after looking up the correct words for the pastries on display, then jostle to get a space at the display counter and present the receipt to one of the busy workers, confirm which kind of coffee we have ordered, and wait for it all to appear).Most people eat and drink their coffee standing at the bar, but we sit down with the old ladies and the few little tables nearby. We each eat a sweet yeasted maritozzo (Roman milk bun) split and filled prolifically with not-too-sweet whipped cream and share a flat fried ring doughnut dusted with sugar (ciambella fritta) and two strong black coffees each.
At Testaccio market we buy everything bitter and salty: puntarelle; scarola (escarole) which looks like lettuce but isn’t a lettuce; artichokes and fresh anchovies. Our friend Rachel who lives in Testaccio tells with the vegetable man that I am growing puntarelle in England and establishes that, in his opinion, no ‘forcing’ is necessary for puntarelle, nor for purple treviso. Later I read up about it and discover that I should feed the soil for my bitter greens to achieve the thick white shoots with which one makes the famous puntarelle salad with anchovy dressing. The inner shoots haven’t quite been forming as I wish them to, though the bitter outer greenery is delicious too in any case, boiled then fried briefly with garlic, olive oil and a red wine little vinegar. We had them on Christmas day like this, to eat with porchetta and salsa verde. I think happily about the large heap of manure arriving next week. Rachel buys a little salt cod and pre-soaked chickpeas for her Roman fish-on-Friday lunch and then we all stop for saucy and crisp pizza rossa elevenses at Pasticceria Linari on the way to drop off shopping bags.
Sam and I walk along the Tiber towards the town centre to look at Caravaggio paintings in churches and the Pantheon. From the Ponte Garibaldi we see men sweeping up dust and sand deposited on the paved riverbank by the water. One is using a broom to sweep the dust into a line. Another man drives a very small machine with a digger scoop on the front. He moves along the line of dust with the scoop on the ground, collecting the line of dust and driving it towards a big pile next to the wall. The wide, pale river and the comparatively tiny man with the broom have a funny, tender dynamic like a child cleaning up after an aging adult.
Then we eat something surprising and excellent. There aren’t public toilets and it’s not time for our pizza lunch yet, so we venture into a McDonald’s. While I seek out the facilities, Sam looks for a regional novelty and finds stuffed olives!He presents me with a little box when I reappear and we open it to find five golden breaded balls, and bite in to find juicy, savoury green olives, stuffed with highly seasoned sausage. We are immediately obsessed.
Handmade lacework curtains
The sun shining through the roof of the pantheon
Timed, coin operated lights in churches, the small crowd of visitors rushing towards each turned on light.
Oranges black with pollution hanging from a tree in a residential area.
A bus driver driving away from a woman at the bus stop without letting her on.
Migrants selling little plastic bags of garlic at the market
A trippy image of a dove being sent down by god and a blossoming tree branch
sous les pavés, la plage written on a wall in pen Police and army uniforms with guns hanging around A sculpture of Joan of Arc next to the Basilica Santa Sabine
Very fine pizza for lunch at Forno Campo dé Fiori. Zucchini pizza bianco in particular, grated courgette presumably salted a little and with a little cheese caramelised on top is very good.We eat the pizza sitting on the wall of a fountain next to the bakery and watch while people pose next to the wares of two flower sellers. An elegant woman, white hair whipped into a chignon and walking with a stick, poses at her middle-aged daughter’s behest next to some irises. The daughter re-poses her mother several times. In another couple, a woman art directs her husband’s photographs of flowers taken with a huge camera.
A stop for sparkling wine at Les Vignerons where the shopkeeper is listening to a concept album with an Italian voice reading poetry over music. Cold Peroni at Bar San Calisto in Trastavere on the way home where two old women in large handmade berets and exaggerated eyeliner share one of the white crustless sandwiches you can buy everywhere and two glasses of tomato juice.
After a nap and still anxious about last night’s news, I walk the short distance to Rachel’s flat and sit with her preparing food in the late afternoon. I mash anchovies into butter and we eat them on toast. We drink bitter red Campari with ice in little glasses. I use her ingenious wire cutter to make thin strips with half of the puntarelle shoots and put them in iced water to crisp up, the other half, I slice two thirds of the way down with the cutter, leaving them like little octopuses with curly legs. Rachel removes the guts and spines from fresh anchovies bought at the market with her fingers, while we sit talking at the table. Following her instruction I break the bitter scarola leaves into little pieces to make a layer in an oven proof pan, then season with salt and oil, then a layer of the fresh anchovies, then another layer of the scarola and more oil and salt. Rachel cooks it on the hob, covered so it wilts right down, then in the oven uncovered to char the top a little.
I make the dressing for the puntarelle salad with anchovies, garlic, lemon, vinegar and oil and seasoning. We are joined by Vincenzo and Sam and Luca. Lentils bubble away as we all talk. Sam, Vincenzo and I have a wonderful little bowl of chickpea and salt cod soup Rachel saved from lunch. Dinner begins with soft artichokes that Rachel cooked simply earlier in the day and serves with lots of olive oil; then puntarelle salad; then baked scarola and anchovy which has become sweet and delicious; then lentils cooked with potato with more scarola topped with chilli and oil; then Italian marrons glacés and panettone sent over from Sicily. We talk and talk and invent a club for people who love bitter flavours and talking critically and joyfully and wildly about life and politics, bitter bitches.
A cream bun and a bombolino custard doughnut and filling a bag with pumpkin, cardoons, artichokes, a puntarelle slicer, tiny dried chillies and wild chicory seeds at the market. A little patty made from shredded leftover beef mixed with herbs and seasoning, coated with semolina and fried is a snack as we buy our vegetables. I order a coffee at the stall in the market and notice the man standing next to me dusting his tiny black coffee with powdered cinnamon.
Sweet gelato, bitter partings and away we go.