When in Rome

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Europe may well be the most romanticised travel destination in the world. Earlier this year, we travelled there for the very first time, our journey spanning just under a month and taking us to the tourist hot-spots of Italy, France and the UK. We began in central Italy, starting in Rome, before working our way north to Paris. From there, it was an exciting train ride to London, finished off with a stopover in Singapore on the way home.

First stop: Roma. The old, cobblestone streets were every bit as rustic and beautiful as we’d imagined. Narrow alleyways are lined with Fiats parked next to each other like sardines, shadowed by cream facades decorated with shuttered screens and ageing balconies. 

Café Vitti
At 8am, upon stumbling tiredly out of Fiumicino airport into the crisp Winter air, our taxi dropped us off in the heart of the city on Via Del Corso, which is Rome’s main shopping strip. Most of the shops don’t open until around 10am, so we thought we’d start our day the Italian way – with an espresso and breakfast pastry. Many Italians have this standing at the café counter in the morning, rather than sitting down at a table, as it’s a much faster, cheaper way to have a caffeine fix without paying for the extra table service. 

The counter is filled with fresh cornetto (horn-like pastries not dissimilar to croissant, only slightly sweeter and more bread-like), cannolo, biscotti and plump, custard-filled doughnuts. Lining the counter tops are Christmas cakes, wrapped and ready for the festive season.

The streets are eerily quiet when we begin to make our way to the Spanish steps at 9am. This gives us the chance to take in the beauty of the buildings around us, and relish in the feeling of really being in Italy for the first time. It’s peaceful and calm.

Unlike in Australia, where there is a distinct separation between the footpath and road, here they simply co-exist as one wide paved area where cars share the space with pedestrians. We have to take care whenever we hear the faint rumble of a car approaching!

The next couple of hours were spent exploring the area around central Rome - window shopping in leather shops, wandering the narrow streets and pausing at the grand Pantheon and Trevi Fountain to take photos of the marvellous structures.

Winter is off-peak tourist season in Europe, which is good for us as this means the major tourist attractions weren’t as busy as usual.

By mid-morning we decide that it’s about time for a snack, and what better way to satisfy our bellies than with a scoop or two of gelato!

One of Rome’s most iconic gelatarias, Giolitti is a must-visit for any gelato devotee. Located in among the maze of streets between the Pantheon and spacious Piazza Colonna, it can be a little hard to find if you don’t know the area well. But when you do stumble upon it, the bold sign brandishing its facade is hard to miss.

Order at the small wooden stand at the entrance, then take your receipt to the long glass display cabinet and gaze in awe at the ice cream cone towers which adorn it.

If, like me, you struggle when it comes to deciding on flavours, you may have a little trouble here. There are just so many tempting varieties on offer, with Italian classics such as nocciola, torrone and cassata alongside sorbets and seasonal specials. All are served using a traditional gelato paddle. A two-flavour cup or cone will set you back only 2.50EU - at this price, it’s no wonder you’ll be eating gelato every day when in Rome.

The gelato is smooth and ultra luscious. The classic pistachio and hazelnut flavours are authentic and have a deep nuttiness about them, while the chocolate is rich and bittersweet. 

We’re staying at an Airbnb apartment on Piazza della Porta Ripetta, overlooking the Tiber River. Most days we travel everywhere on foot. Otherwise, it’s only a short walk to Via del Corso, where the many buses take us to parts of the city that are a little harder to get to. 

Bus tickets can be bought at any corner-store news stand, which looks resembles a pop-up stall selling magazines and newspapers along with other random knick-knacks. Tickets cost 1.50EU each, and once validated, can be used for any number of trips within a one and a half hour time period. However, we find that the Winter weather is perfect for walking - a very convenient way to warm up and burn off all that pizza and pasta at the same time!

Pizza at Il Leoncino, Campo Marzio
When you’re a tourist, it’s easy to favour convenience over authenticity when it comes to dining out. After hours of walking on foot visiting monuments and museums, the first restaurant that you pass by may not always be the ones where you’ll eat the most delicious meal. Often while these eateries are more accommodating towards tourists, they aren’t exactly where all the locals could be found, nor do they offer the best in terms of value.

It's a good sign when you stumble into an eatery that is full to the brim with locals - it’s how you know that the food there is authentic. Recommended to us by our Airbnb host, Al Leoncino is an unassuming, no-frills restaurant that serves traditional, minimalist pizza. It’s all about the food here, with not much in the way of fancy décor.

We’re pointed towards a table upon arrival to find that we’re one of the only non-European tourists in the restaurant. Our waiter is an elderly Italian man who doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in serving us and is rather annoyed by our lack of Italian proficiency. He mutters to himself as we point sheepishly at items on the menu and try to order tap water in Italian. But it's all part of the experience. We sigh with relief as he stomps away, and are left to smile at the fact that we’ve just ordered our first meal in Italy, the home of pizza.

Looking around us, it seems like at every other table everyone has ordered one pizza per person, which we realise might be the norm in Italy. Our befuddlement is swept aside when the pizzas arrive at our check-clothed table. Piping hot and topped with fresh traditional ingredients, this is what we came to Rome to eat.

Artichoke pizza
The pizza base is Roman-style - thin and slightly crisp in the middle, with a thick, robust crust you can easily hold in your hand without being too floppy. It’s smeared with a sweet, smooth homemade tomato sauce and blanketed by a delicious layer of bubbled, creamy mozzarella. The few minutes it spends in the hot wood-fired oven leaves random, rustic, blackened blisters on the crust. It’s all about the base rather than the toppings at Al Leoncino. Case in point is this artichoke pizza, decorated with soft, sweet artichoke halves. 

Funghi e salsicca pizza
This is rustically strewn with nibbles of tasty Italian sausage and thin slices of mushroom which melt into the mild mozzarella. A winning topping combination that is easily demolished.

Funghi e proscuitto pizza
Proscuitto is quite a popular pizza topping in Italy. Blushing pink ribbons are draped over the pizza after it comes out of the oven, and accompanying it are same soft, buttery mushrooms. The large pieces require a little tearing and dividing to ensure everyone gets a piece, but it's both delicate and delicious.

Margherita pizza
Everyone loves a good margherita pizza. This one is cheesy and comforting, and the absence of any additional toppings lets us appreciate the wonderful pizza base and sauce even more.

Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum

Perhaps the most famous Roman monument, the Colosseo is at the top of every tourist’s to-visit list. Located on in the centre of the city, it’s a short bus ride from Via del Corso down Via dei Fiori Imperiali. It's situated right next to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, so we visited each of them in the same morning.

We’d booked an underground and third ring tour of the majestic Colosseum, which took us behind the scenes to the ‘backstage’ area of the amphitheatre and gave us an insight into the history behind Italy's largest outdoor entertainment arena. Built over 2000 years ago, the grand construction held up to 70,000 spectators at capacity. 

Colosseum underground
The underground was where all the animals were housed for the shows, as well as where the gladiators prepared for battle. A secret passageway underneath led to the gladiator training centre next door. Shows in the Colosseum occurred almost daily in the summer time, many of which were used for political propaganda.

Up to 4,000 slaves worked underground, where they co-ordinated the shows and handled the animals.

An ingenious lift-pulley system was devised to transport the animals from their cages below ground level up to the stage, where they entered the arena through trap doors hidden in the floor. This was a mean engineering feat in ancient Rome.

Palatine Hill
After our morning tour, we followed the path (and string of tourists) down to Palatine Hill, the Palace of the old Italian Emperor. It’s noticeably quieter than the area around the Colosseum as the grounds are spread out over a much larger area. The walk around the lush greenery and old concrete and brick ruins is a reminder of just how ancient these ruins are.

Finishing with a wander through the Roman Forum, we are famished by lunch time, so catch the bus back north to Via Del Corso in search of some food. 

Bottega Rocchi
Our tired legs ached by the time we stumbled upon Bottega Rocchi, just off the main street near Piazza di San Macuto and en route to the Pantheon. It is a takeaway eatery and casual lunch spot, with relatively cheaper prices compared to other nearby restaurants.

After ordering from the blackboard menu at the counter, sit at the high stools on the communal tables and enjoy a glass of beer or wine. Don’t be mistaken by the plastic serving bowls; the food here is authentic and most of the menu is homemade, including the bread and some of the pasta.

It's not unusual to have a basket of bread placed on your table after ordering a meal. At some places it will be complimentary, and others will charge for it - be aware that often, waiters will place a basket on your table and add it to the bill without asking. Here, we order it for an extra couple of euros.

Tonnarelli cacio e pepe (7EU)
Cacio e pepe is a traditional roman pasta dish which literally translates to cheese and pepper. It’s a simple but delicious combination that reminds me of stretchy cheese pasta I used to have when I was younger. Tonnarelli, also known as spaghetti alla chitarra, is a thick egg pasta made using a guitar-like tool (a chitarra) which produces a square-like cross-section. The thickness of the pasta gives a noticeable bite to every strand and lathers up the slick, cheesy sauce beautifully. It's best eaten hot so that the cheese is still slightly gooey. The combination of cheeses is just perfect and the pecorino is not too overpowering.

Tonnarelli Pomodoro e basilica (6.50EU)
You can appreciate that same homemade pasta with a classic tomato and basil sauce. It’s a simple dish that is cooked to perfection.  

Ravioli spinachi e ricotta (8.50EU)
Pillows of filled ravioli are coated in the same smooth tomato sauce with flicks of fresh basil. There aren’t a lot to a serving, but it’s a menu special that is worth a try if you’re in the mood for something a little more simple.

Rigatoni all’amatriciana (6.50EU)
The bacon flavour in the pasta is amazing. The seemingly simple tomato sauce coats every crevice of the fat, soft rigatoni, and the pecorino adds a perfect touch of saltiness to the smoky bacon. So good you’ll want to lick up every last smear of it.

Insalata (7EU)
Compared to other salads we had while in Italy, this was one of the best. Rather than served as a mix of limp salad leaves, this is a generous tumble of rocket, radicchio, carrot, cherry tomatoes and corn. It's topped with a thick, glossy deep brown dressing.

The serving sizes at Bottega Rocchi aren’t very large, but you don’t need a lot when you can eat all day in Italy. It’s just the right size to leave you satisfied, but with enough room left for gelato or cannoli for dessert!  

Carb loading
So with all that pizza and pasta, what did we end up eating for breakfast? Every morning, we’d make a trip first thing to buy freshly baked bread from the bakery, which we’d eat with delicious prosciutto and cheese from the supermarket before heading out for the day.

Galleria Borghese
Located in the stunning Villa Borghese, the Galleria Borghese is home to rooms and rooms of gorgeous Baroque art which adorns almost every wall and ceiling.

To visit, you must buy tickets for a pre-specified 2 hour time slot, during which you can admire the exquisite sculptures and artworks on all three levels.

After our visit, we strolled through the tranquil, lush Borghese gardens. 

A wide, white gravel path runs down from the front of the Borghese through the Villa Borghese which takes you to the other side; from there we took a bus back to Via del Corso and walked to Piazza Navona.

Piazza Navona is perhaps Rome’s most famous square. The outskirts are lined with restaurants vouching for diners, and both buskers and tourists contribute to the lively atmosphere.

The space itself is huge and there is a somewhat grand feeling about it. As with most squares in Rome, the maze of streets surrounding the Piazza is home to many small shops and restaurants waiting to be explored.

La Gelateria Frigidarium
Some will say that this place has one of the best gelato in Rome. It’s a hole in the wall gelateria that may take a little while to find, but is well worth the effort of tracking down.

There's no holding back here.

We sample the bacio, hazlenut, stracciatella, mint, cappuccino and pistachio flavours, all of which live up to our expectations and are absolutely devine.

Eating in action

 Vatican City

Of course, a visit to Rome would not be complete without a trip to the Vatican.

The Vatican Museum itself is so large that it could easily take a whole day to go through, so we minimised the stress by booking a 2 hour tour of the Museum and neighbouring Sistine Chapel.

Inside is an expansive collection of painting, sculptures, maps and tapestries, surrounded by a maze of gardens and courtyards.

St Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica is an easy walk from the Vatican, on the west side of the Tiber. It’s majestic presence is quite something to behold.

La Matricianella 

We visited La Matricianella one night for dinner, making a booking (in English, thankfully!) on a weeknight. Luckily we did, as it got quite busy as the night wore on.

Tagliolini al tartufo (15EU)
When we saw this on the menu, we knew we had to give it a try. There is something just so irresistible and luxurious about fresh truffles, are in peak season around winter time. When the pasta arrives, the pungent fragrance fills our nostrils and has our mouths watering. The fresh, springy tagliolini is doused in a luscious cream sauce flecked delicately with black truffle, with even more shaved thinly on top. It's decadent and absolutely delicious.

Fettucine pomodoro (10EU)

Abbacchio al forno (17EU)
A generous serve of rustic roast lamb is served with a nice sauce and lots of hearty potato. It's seasoned with rosemary and is soft and juicy, although a little on the salty side. 

Carciofi alla romana (5.5EU)
This is a Roman specialty, made by braising artichokes with white wine, parsley, mint and garlic until soft. The result is a grand-looking vegetable dish that makes for a perfect addition to any meal. 

Cotolette di accacchio fritte (15EU)
Crumbed lamb cutlets are served bare with a wedge of lemon, tenderised until thin with a thick, crunchy golden crust. The fried zucchini flowers also on the plate are a light and surprisingly moreish addition.

At night, the city of Rome comes alive. Many shops stay open until 10pm and stay busy until closing time. The main streets bulge with swarms of people, and the nightlife is a lot different to what we're used to. We love being able to go out shopping after dinner. 

This bemusing vehicle drives past us one night and we stop and stare after it for a while. Is it a form of motor bike, or a one person mini smart car? Who knows. Only in Italy.

Please don't judge; we are still in Rome. We just couldn’t resist popping into this Magnum pop-up store when we passed by it on the way back to our apartment one night. 

Like the Sydney pop-up, you can choose your preferred chocolate coating and a mix of toppings to create your very own custom magnum ice cream. As if we hadn’t had enough gelato already.

We came across this unusual broccoli hybrid at the local supermarket one day. The label says it's Roman Broccoli, and I couldn't resist having a little giggle at the peculiar shape of the vegetable. Have you ever seen this variety of broccoli before?

In just four nights, we'd immersed ourselves in the culture and history of Rome and walked until our feet were sore. We'd packed to much into such little time, but this was only the start of our European holiday. Next stop: Firenze.

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