My first day in Rome, I wandered from my apartment near the Colosseum to explore another ancient site: the Roman Forum. It continues to amaze me that you can walk down a street and pass through a portal onto the very stones where Caesar paraded in triumph. Where so much of what we think of as Rome — happened!! Granted, it takes imagination to see beyond so much rubble. Rocks, marble and crumbling pillars. But, my God — it is exciting.
Before we get too far into my adventures inRoma, there was the drama before I even left the Fiumicino airport. Alitalia lost my luggage. Not just my luggage. There we stood, a plane full of travellers, exhausted, sleepless and cranky, three-deep at the carousel, waiting for our baggage. Most folks grabbed their bags, tossed them on their carts and headed out. That is, except for some 50 hapless souls — including myself and my pregnant travelling companion — all who stood there watching as the carousel stopped.
After several minutes of silent confusion, we tromped en masse to the desk servizio where the harried clerks could not tell us much because (they said) their computers were down. About thirty minutes later, we learned our luggage was still in New York. I could just imagine some stoned Alitalia airplane worker on the tarmac going: “Dude. Isn’t that luggage supposed to be on that flight to Rome?”
Beyond this, the story becomes the universal travel nightmare. Un incubo. Once again, I am handed an experience in Italy that forces me to learn a sub-group of vocabulary.
Forgive me. The only thing worse than hearing your luggage has been lost is to have to suffer through someone else’s story of their lost luggage. Suffice it to say, it didn’t take me long to figure out what to wear my second day in Rome.
That afternoon, le mie valigie arrived.
I have learned more about Monti, the neighborhood where I am staying. In the days of the Imperial Fora, it was called Suburra, home to the workers who kept the ancient forums running. It is hardly blue collar now. It feels a little like Manhattan’s Soho. But, it is distinctly Roman with few turisti. You learn so much about a country’s people when you live in their homes, and not hotels. I have always been a fan of scouting out supermarkets, hardware stores, fruit stands. Now, I have discovered a quirk heretofore unknown to me. Apparently, Italians are obsessed with feet. I’m not talking about those extant piedi from the colossal statues of ancient Rome.
I know I promised no more about the lost luggage, but this is how I learned about this quirk. While I was waiting for my bags, I took off my shoes and made myself comfortable on my hostess’ couch. Her elderly aunt walked in and told me my valigie sono arrivate, and were downstairs by her apartment. I jumped up, barefoot, and started to walk down the stairs to pick them up. “Signora,” she exclaimed in what I initially took as concern (and learn later was actually horror) — pointing at my feet, “i piedi! i piedi!” “Oh no,” I assured her, “that’s okay, its not cold, I don’t mind.” I retrieved my bags from the floor below, rolling them into my room. She continued to stand there glowering. Thinking I had not shown enough gratitude, I humbly uttered grazie, grazie, molto grazie. Still the stare. Finally she chided me for sitting on the sofa in my barefeet. “Sporca“. Dirty. From the stairs.
When I recounted this tale to a friend who lives in Rome, she explained that the Italians stereotypically are obsessed with feet. Clean feet. Clean socks. Must wear slippers. Never, o dio, never wear your socks a second day. While we’re at it: don’t even think about lying on your bed in your dirty street clothes. Interessante.
When in Rome …
THE PASTA OF MY DREAMS
Why is this non-descript group standing on an all too-descript Italian strada? To the very left is the door to a restaurant called Sora Margherita. That there is a crowd waiting outside…is the story.To tell the story of Sora Margherita is to tell the story of my love affair with Rome itself. This restaurant has no sign, no plaque, no indication whatsoever that it is even a restaurant. Past the plastic beads that hang in the portal resides one of the best lunchrooms in Rome.
I ate my first meal there seven years ago during my first trip to Rome. I had read about it in some obscure little travel brochure. It was not easy to find. Once I did find it, I timidly walked in where I was brusquely, yet warmly (if that’s possible), greeted by the host, and seated at a paper-draped table with three strangers. The restaurant holds about 50 people, if that many, at some dozen or so tables. To eat there, you must have a membership card. I suspect this has something to do with taxes and the restaurant’s presentation as a “private club” — perhaps. Non lo so. I don’t know. It is not difficult to become a member, for even before the host hands you the handwritten menu — he gives you an “application” for the card.
On my first visit that afternoon, it was clear they were a Roman lunch crowd. Talking, drinking and eating with gusto. All the while, steaming plates of pasta were pouring out of the tiny little kitchen. In particular, one dish caught my eye — piled with long strands of fat handmade tonnarelli covered with mounds of cheese. Ah, I can still see and smell that dish. I was too shy to ask what it was — they speak virtually no English at Sora Margherita. So, to order it, I mumbled something about Parmigiano. What I got was some inscrutable substance, covered with tomato sauce and melted Parmesan cheese. I was so stunned that it wasn’t the pasta dish I’d seen, I was afraid to ask what it was. I thought maybe it was some kind of organ meat in tomato sauce, covered with a little crust of cheese. Even with that, I enjoyed it. I suspect now that it was Eggplant Parmigiano.
The dish I wanted — which still beckons me to Sora Margherita and Rome itself is called cacio e pepe. Cheese and pepper. The cheese is, in fact, not Parmesan at all, but Pecorino Romano. Finely grated. It is simple, but exquisite. Cheese and pan-roasted cracked pepper over pasta.Basta. No more. No oil. No sauce. Just some pasta water to keep it moist.
Every time I come to Rome, I go to Sora Margherita. For reasons I never understood, the restaurant was closed the entire time I lived in Rome those three months in 2001. It probably had something to do with that private membership concept. Non lo so. I look forward to that restaurant, it never disappoints and I don’t even need to reapply for membership — I still have my original card.
Then, it happened. In the winter of 2005, while reading an issue of Budget Travel, I saw on the cover an article about Rome. I tore through that issue, looking forward to reading about my adopted citta. The article was written by some Boston scribe living with his wife who was studying at the American Academy on the Janiculum Hill. The theme of his piece was, as I recall, “live like a Roman”. And there it was. In black and white. For every budget traveller to see. Sora Margherita. The name. The piazza. The beads. Where to find it. How to act. What to do to get that private membership card. Maybe even something about the cacio e pepe. Maybe not. I don’t know. I was so distressed, I could not read anymore. Upset that he had outed my favorite — known to very few but Romans — restaurant. It was simply more than I could bear. And thus, the folks in the picture. There is even someone from the restaurant now who stands outside, speaking English, and taking names.
This visit, for the first time ever, my friend and I had to wait for over a half an hour for our cacio e pepe. However, I despair not. Fame has not gone to the heads of the cooks in that tiny kitchen at Sora Margherita. That dish of steaming pasta was and is still as good as it ever was.