Arriving In Trastevere

The guide books all agreed that it is unwise to visit Roma in August. Not only is the heat oppressive, but many of the best restaurants and attractions are closed for the month as Romans escape to the countryside for their annual holiday. Our plane landed mid-morning on Saturday, August second, a day that promised both heat and humidity.

Our cab circled Trastevere for a half hour, seeming to end up in the same dead end alley way, retreating to a small piazza two or three times before the cab driver, after asking three different people, found himself pointed in the right direction to find the tiny opening to Vicolo Moroni. The cars parked on either side of the lane had their side rear view mirrors either pulled back against the side of the car or in some degree of being torn off. I saw a truck backing into this lane later in the week. A man on either side pulled rear view mirrors out of the way and guided the driver with barely millimeters to spare on either side. Our driver unloaded our luggage, heavy with the anticipation of a month's tour, and left, presumably to circle for another half hour searching for the way back out of this labyrinth.

After showers and a change of clothes, we emerged into this foreign place in search of a bakery and adventure. We found the bakery a few blocks away, along the Via del Moro. The bread was heavy and thick-crusted and had the consistency of an old boot sole, but we bought a Ciabatta anyway. We munched as we sauntered along the alleyways. It is a rare sight in Rome and indeed in all of Italy to see an Italian eating while walking. Our explanation of this phenomenon is that Italians revere their food too much to pay it so little attention. A munching walker is a sure sign of a non-Italian.

We found a small grocery just off the Via San Francesco a Ripa and ogled the cheese. Nancy was particularly taken with the fresh Ricotta, which was displayed in the window in little plastic draining baskets. We made note of the location so we could return on our way back to our apartment. We stopped in a little green grocery just off the Piazza di San Cosimato and ogled the zucchini blossoms and the fresh tomatoes. We annoyed the proprietor but promised to return to buy later, after we got the lay of the land. This street opened up into the piazza which on this Saturday morning was about half full of tents. It looked like a country circus or a hastily constructed revival meeting, but it was a farmer's market. We swooned.

This was our first encounter with a wonderful Italian tradition, the farmer's market. This one, we were to learn, was a minor example. Still, we were transfixed by the freshness and the variety of the soft white and violet eggplants, the peaches and plums, and the tomatoes; the tomatoes. We bought some tiny blackberries, some tomatoes, some peaches, and some wonderful grapes, but only after visiting every stand twice and learning the lineage and recent history of each fruit and every vegetable.

It was noon and the market was folding up its tents. Many stores and, as near as I could tell, all farmer's markets close at noon. The early afternoon is siesta time, a time to retreat from the high heat of the day and eat and talk and perhaps nap until three or four o'clock. No farmer's market is open after noon. The morning's the time to buy produce, the afternoon is when you prepare it.

We wandered laden out of the market plaza and began walking through a series of narrow lanes near the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, a hot and foreboding place, with the heat of the day reflecting off the golden mosaic front of the ancient church, in spite of the fountain.

My eye was drawn into an alleyway shaded by an overhanging vine, and we entered. Down this lane was an arch and, on one side some tables were set, shaded by large umbrellas and a scruffy privet hedge. I noticed that the hedge's planter was full of bottle caps and cigarette butts and that no one was seated at the tables. It was, Nancy said, only just twelve, and the noon meal wouldn't start until more nearly one o'clock. We peeked into the door of the restaurant across the alleyway and saw that the staff was seated around a large table, finishing their lunch. A small man in a starched white coat got up from the table and came out to greet us.

We exchanged buon giornos. He then engaged in some Italian patter with Nancy, asking her to be sure and come back for lunch. He shook our hands and extracted another promise as we excused ourselves and headed back to the apartment to stash the morning's purchases and to take yet another cold shower before lunch. On our wayback, we encountered our first watermelon stand. If the guide books were wrong about anything, they were wrong about the livability of Rome in August. I forgive the gourmet restaurants their holidays and I can compensate for the daily heat and humidity with a half-dozen or more cold showers, but do not ask me to live in Roma in August without watermelon. Slices are artistically arrayed in these stands, and your slice is handed to you with the intent that you will eat it while standing there, and that you will extract the seeds with a one of the knifes thoughtfully provided. We, being newly arrived, walked away with ours, spitting seeds as is our tradition (an unconsciously sure sign of our not being Italian). We were made human and whole by the cool, sweet crispness. We sauntered along the Tevere, shaded by the enormous plane trees.

An hour later, freshly showered and wearing our third shirts of the day, we found our way back to the restaurant in the shady side street. Mario, we learned, was the waiter's name, and the Arco de San Calisto was the restaurant. Mario asked if we wanted water with big bubbles or little bubbles, and we ordered our first of many big-bubbled bottles of acqua frizzante. A mezzoliter of drinkable vino rosso (red wine) was served in an Arco de San Calisto pitcher, and decent bread and tiny grassini appeared with a bow and a "Prego". Mario leveled our cobble-wobbly table with a few of the bottle caps from the privet hedge. So that's what they were there for! Mario guided us through the menu as a skilled horseman guides his team. We quietly surrendered our free will and let Mario suggest and nudge and lead us to our best choices. (Later in the week, we overhead an American at an adjacent table order olive oil for dipping bread, and Mario flatly refused to deliver it. "Bread," he told them, "is not for dipping into oil.") Nancy ordered grilled vegetables, asking Mario to select those best for her. I chose the pasta fagioli to echoes of "Molto Bene" and "Prego" from Mario, as if I had chosen for myself and I had chosen right.

The food was as wonderful as the atmosphere. A caged bird, perched on a windowsill down the alleyway near the Arch, sang sweetly. The ivy rustled occasionally by wandering breezes and the afternoon heat melted away into a fuzz of sweet conversation, semi sweet wine, and warm service. My pasta course was a linguini with shrimp and squash blossoms, hers the house special. She was jealous. My pasta fagioli had been perfection, with small, fresh pasta rectangles properly balanced with beans in a light, delicate broth. Nancy's grilled vegetables were not as beautiful. Now, with the first course, my pasta showed better than hers. We traded tastes and stories, punctuated by ruckus of the occasional passing scooter and the murmer of potential patrons making the wrong choice and passing this quiet corner by.

Nancy's veal was heavenly, as was my pesce, grilled whole then boned and reassembled with great theatrical style at our table by Mario. Nancy order baby biscotti, and Mario brought a platter full, explaining that these were usually only ordered for children. We crunched playfully. After two sweet hours, we emerged from this dream to accept heavy crystal glasses of liquor. Grappa for me, Sambuca for Nancy. We paid the bill after an appropriately lengthy wait, and floated toward the Church in piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, then back to the apartment, where, after showering off the latest accumulations of sweat and grit, we retired for that nap we'd longed for the night before as we flew eastward across the Atlantic. We decided as we cozied in to the sounds of the neighborhood waking up, that August in Roma would be wonderful. And it was.

We ate lunch at the Arco de San Calisto almost every day of the week we spent in Roma. On our last day in Italy, we hopped the bullet train down from Firenze to lunch one last time at this most wonderful place. The heat had left and it felt strange eating the pasta fagioli without periodically wiping sweat from our foreheads. Mario was overjoyed to see us, and we drank grappa together, promising to return for Christmas in Roma.

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