Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Rome If You Want To

St. Peter's in 11 Pictures
Rome, the "Eternal City."  After spending 5 days there you should see my eternal waste line. AY-O!  But a trip to Rome not only fills you with the world's best cuisine; it fills you with a sense of enchantment and awe for this capital of an ancient empire.

Rome is one of our absolute favorite cities in Europe.  This trip was a unique treat for us for two reasons.  First, we timed our visit just before the start of the Papal Conclave, so Vatican City was a hot bed of media frenzy, I LOVED IT.  Second, since it was our third trip, we already did all the tourist stuff: Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, Colosseum, etc.  This allowed us time to just sit, EAT and enjoy the "beauty and splendor of Rome."

The People of St. Peter's

The energy in St. Peter's Square was electric on Saturday morning.  Pilgrims and journalists from around the globe were watching two men prepare the chimney that would alert the world's 1.2 billion Catholics that their new Pontiff has been selected.

It was exciting for Vicki and I as Catholics to be at the Vatican in the days leading to the Conclave.  There was a sense among the people gathered that this was a special time, a time for renewal in the Catholic Church.  See the picture below to see the loneliest reporter in the world covering this sense of renwal in the Catholic Church. Speaking of media coverage, did you happen to catch our 15 minutes of fame on 6ABC's Action News on Sunday night?  There's a whole blog post about it.

One man news crew

Having a very light itinerary this time in Rome, gave us the chance to just meander around the city.  I'd have to say about 80% of our meandering took place in St. Peter's.  At least once a day we found ourselves in the square watching the crowds or tailgating with paninis and prosecco by the obelisk.  There's nothing like a PreConclave Tailgate.  

This trip was also the first time we had the opportunity to attend Saturday evening Mass in the Basillica. After waiting in a lengthy line outside, then saying the "magic word" to the Basillica Bouncer Vicki and I were granted access to Mass. No, I'm serious, that happened.

There was a barrier in place with a guard to limit access to the main altar for just Mass goers.  So Vicki and I made our way through the hoards of onlookers behind the barrier and asked the guard in my best broken English: "Ok for Mass?"  After a very uncomfortable look up and down. He says, in better broken English than mine: "What is the magic word?"  To which I reply: "Please?"  We got in.  Mass was beautiful, and all in Italian.  Caught the Our Father and a few Amens, but we did sing along with the Youth Choir all the way from Dallas, Texas.

Okay, going to vent here. Now, we've been know to snap some pics during Masses, but mainly it's at weddings, and other sacraments.  Alright maybe taking a picture during Mass in St. Peter's is just something you need to do with your iPad.  Go ahead, even though I still think taking pics with iPads looks so goofy (can you spot the two in my collage above?)

Now onto the even crazier part of the Mass.  I'm in the communion line and the young lady in front of me, who of course is taking pictures and videos with her iPhone (much more subtle) turns to me.  She says "Do you speak English?"  I whisper a confused "Yes?" Now keep in mind that she's on double deck to receive the Host.  She then says: "I very excite can you take my picture?"  I shoot her a look of disgusting annoyance and say "NO."  She asks: "Oh, not allowed?" Now I'm very irritated, and again respond with even more annoyance: "NO!" Now she is next to receive and I watch her stand at the altar, she seemed confused, the priest distributes the Host and she takes it in her hand. At this point I see the priest is concerned too; it appeared that she was about to place the Host into her pocket or purse or something.  Well, she had no time to complete the maneuver because one of the men in gray suits apprehended her and demanded the Host.  She then briskly ran her way up the aisle.  I should have taken a picture.

Okay, we didn't spend ALL our time in St. Peter's.  We took some time to explore some other sites and to enjoy some Italian bites as well.  Here's a rundown of our Rome itinerary with some brief commentary and pictures.  Enjoy.  Thanks for reading!


March 6: One Night Stay at the Hotel Eden
View from rooftop restaurant
Absolutely luxurious.  This property, located near the Spanish Steps,  is part of the Starwood chain, our favorite line of hotels. We were fortunate to be able to book on cash & points through the Starwood Preferred Guest Program to get a reasonable rate. The place was amazing.  It was one of those hotels where part of the check in process includes the desk agent walking you all the way up to your room, I like those little touches.  Also, the hotel has an amazing rooftop bar and restaurant where you can catch some spectacular views of Rome.

A beautiful "View of Rome"

March 7-March 10: 3 Night Stay at B&B  "A View of Rome."
It's not just a clever name; this B&B has an incredible view of St Peter's Dome.  A View of Rome is one of three properties run by a group.  So we had a rotating staff assisting us through our stay.  To be honest, it's location is the best thing going.  Don't take this review the wrong way, it's a very clean and comfortable B&B with friendly and accommodating staff who provide great Rome restaurant/itinerary suggestions.  They also serve up a delicious breakfast (the second "B" is always the most important part, ask for the ham & cheese omelet every day of your stay).

Our main beef was some inaccurate information we received from one of the hosts.  We had a food tour scheduled in Testaccio at 10:30AM.  So we asked how long it would take to get there from the B&B.  We were told 20 minutes via the 23 Bus.  Well, 30 minutes went by and we were still waiting for that 23 Bus.  We gave up waiting and started walking toward the taxi rank when we saw the bus finally coming down the street.  So we quickly turned around and jumped onto a PACKED bus.  Got to know people's armpits pretty well.  Not the best way to start our morning. 25 minutes later we were at our destination.  So moral of the story, if you plan on departing anywhere in Rome by bus, give yourself PLENTY of time.  I know I can't hold our B&B host entirely to blame for a late bus, but he should have warned us of the irregularity running times of the buses.


March 7: Villa Borghese/Galleria Borghese
"A Friend's" illegal picture.  Checkout the big foot on the right
I'm not a huge art guy but I will say, I was really impressed by this place.  It was "do able."  What do I mean by that?  Well, it's not as overwhelming as say the Louve, but it has really fascintating works of art.  My favorite was Bernini's Apollo e Davne Sorry no pictures allowed in gallery; this leads me to some other "PROTIPS."

PROTIPs:  1.) Tickets are timed stamped in 2 hour intervals beginning at 09:00 and last entry is 17:00.  BUY ONLINE ahead of time to avoid your preferred time slot selling out.  2.) No bags (even purses) allowed in the gallery. We found out the hard way after waiting in the long line we had to go all the way back to bag check.  3.) Save euro and just buy one audio guide and share it.  I saw a couple doing this, GENIUS!

March 8: The Pantheon
Despite this being our third trip to Rome we somehow kept missing  this place on prior visits.  We've eaten by it (BIG MISTAKE, you're paying for the view, not the food.) and we've walked by it dozens of times but never went inside.  It's free and it's beautiful.

PROTIP: If you visit during the daytime, make sure you walk by at night too, it's one of my favorite places in Rome in the evening.

March 9: Picnic at Piazza del Popolo 
We received a suggestion from our B&B to visit Piazza del Popolo at sunset.  But first they suggested stopping at a local supermarket "Billa" (B on Map) to pick up some wine and cheese.  We didn't exactly make it for sunset, but we were able to get some stunning night views of the city looking towards St. Peter's.

Piazza del Popolo at Night

March 10: Terme Di Caracalla
One of the largest and "best" preserved ancient Roman Bath complexes near the Circus Maximus.  Eh, if it's your first time to Rome, definitely no, if it's your second time to Rome, definitely no, if it's your third time to Rome, no again.  Here, you can experience Terme Di Caracalla with DannyZ Films.

PROTIP: If you go, save money by only buying one audio guide and share it with your group.

March 9: Eating Italy Food Tours in Rome
Our actual reactions, not staged at all.
Simply amazing tour.  Yes, there is a glowing review by me available on TripAdvisor.  Seriously if you are visiting Rome book with these guys.  Random fact, learned that the owner of the company is actually from Philadelphia, PA. Vicki and I did the "Taste of Testaccio" tour.  From their website: "This guided 4-hour Rome Walking Food Tour offers you an opportunity to experience Rome like a local in an actual neighborhood where people live, eat and shop. We take you to seven authentic places to savor 12 fabulous food tastings and taste the best foods in Rome. Along the way you'll be dazzled with entertaining stories and insights into Rome’s culture, history, while exploring the city's most fascinating offbeat landmarks. Join us and discover the Real Rome!"

Our amazing Syrian-Australian-Italian speaking guide Luna.
The tour turned out to be well over 4 hours. It was the perfect time to eat, digest, learn a little culture and eat some more; all while listening to guide's Australian accent.  I would have paid for another hour just to hear her say "BAAHZIL" a few more times.  The tour also takes great care to cater to dietary or allergy concerns.  I got a pistachio free cannoli! So no concerns fellow peanut allergy sufferers, you're in good hands.

Here was our itinerary, borrowed it from their website:

  • Taste why Volpetti has been Rome's top gourmet food store for 40 years
  • Savor 3 of Rome's most famous pasta dishes with wine at Flavio al Velavevodetto
  • Taste suppli' (fried risotto ball) from the NY Times acclaimed 00100 Pizza
  • Sample the # 3 Ranked slice of pizza in all of Rome from Volpetti Piu
  • Make bruschetta & try real buffalo mozzarella at the famous Testaccio Market
  • Become a gelato-eating expert by learning how to spot the fake stuff from the real thing
  • Cannoli at Dess'Art from famous Sicilian pastry chef, Constanza Fortuna
  • Tiramisu in chocolate cups from Barberini, the neighborhood's best pastry shop
  • Visit Rome's only Pyramid, John Keats mysterious tomb, the birthplace of Rome's mob gang and much much more...
PROTIP: 1.) Wear comfortable shoes & loose fitting pants :) 2.) Bring a bottle of water with you too. 3.) Even if you don't take the tour, we'd recommend trying to visit a few places on this itinerary.

Some quick scenes from our tour:

Tips for Dining in Rome
(*Disclaimer: These recommendations our based on the opinion of this blogger. I am not a professional restaurant reviewer or even Italian but I like to eat*)

Vicki and I both suggest when you visit Rome do your homework and scope out a few places to eat ahead of time from friends. You could also try TripAdvisor, but be warned there are 5000+ restaurants listed for Rome, by the time you read through all the reviews your trip may have come and gone.  Getting a personal recommendation is the best way to dine in Rome.

It can be very overwhelming and a bit intimidating if you think you'll just choose a place by just wondering around.  This is especially true of the more populated tourist areas around the Vatican and the Pantheon.  A good rule of thumb we learned for dining in Rome: Bad Service = Good Food.  Don't be lured by the over eager Menu Men out front of the restaurants with white linen table clothes and fancy oragami napkins.  They just want to fill their restaurant, once you're in they don't care about you or the food they serve.   Don't get me wrong, we've had some good luck finding a great place by just wondering by, L'Insalata Ricca for example.  But when you visit Rome, a few core places in mind to avoid a disappointing dining experience.

Oh, and last tip, order everything that has artichokes.

Here are some of the places we can highly recommend from our visit.  Click the restaurant name to be taken to the TripAdvisor Review.

L'Insalata Ricca (Piazza Risorgimento 4) #1,427 of 5,154 on Trip Advisor
First, I know, it's a chain and nothing good can come from chains right?  WRONG.  We found this place during our second visit to Rome, AMAZING pizza and incredible salads and inexpensive and delicious house wine. Service is mediocre so you know you can expect good things.

There are multiple locations of L'Insalata Ricca throughout Rome.  We've been to the  Piazza Risorgimento location twice now and have enjoyed each experience.

La Sagrestia (Via del seminario 89) #893 of 5,154 on TripAdvisor
We were fortunate to be dining with a priest who had been living in Rome for 10 years.  He suggested we go here on Friday night.  The place was packed except for one "Reserved" table for four.  Since we were with two VIPs (Very Important Priests) we were given that table.  Funny thing about this place, the service was outstanding from the start AND the food was tremendous.  So this place breaks the Rome dining rule, but this may have been a result of our dining companions or the fact that this place is off the beaten path.  
Vicki & I with our VIP (Very Important Priests) dining companions

Ristorante Tre Pupazzi (Borgo Pio, 183) #925 of 5,154 on TA
When in Rome...drink Limoncello
Borgo Pio is street located very close to the Vatican so as a result it, hosts a number of touristy restaurants.  Walk your way past all the Menu Men along the street and find Tre Pupazzi.  You know you've arrived because no one will be begging you to sit down, they don't need to.  We had one ouf our favorite dining experiences here.  We were able to catch up with our VIPs again and have a wonderful 3 hour lunch.  Yes, 3 hours.  True Italian style.  We were warned not to try the Daily Menu specials, our Priest friend said the items haven't changed in 10 years! Try their Fettuccine with mushrooms and peas in a cream sauce. 
Da Baffetto (Via Del Governo Vecchio, 114) #2,210 of 5,154 on TA
Before you question the validity of my recommendation based on the TA ranking, let me explain.  DaBaffetto or "mustache" in Italian, was recommended to us by two people, our host at the B&B and our Ryan Air Flight Attendant.  He not only recommended he took the time to draw a detailed map of its location in relation to Piazza Navona, pictured to the left.  I really should have been saving all the napkin maps we've collected through the years, this one's a classic.  

But be warned, do not expect good service, or much service at all. Frankly, it will probably be the WORST SERVICE you'll ever receive in a restaurant.  If you prepare yourself, it's actually a very comical experience.  The way our waiter shoved our pizzas in front of us made me actually laugh out loud.  Was it the best pizza in Rome as the guide books claim, it's debatable depending on your tastes and your toppings. The edges of our crust were a little burned but that seems to be the norm based on the reviews.  The thing that impressed Vicki and I the most was how crispy the pizza was throughout.  Normally we stay away from too many toppings because the pieces tend to get soggy.  So we did a test, we ordered one Margherita and one with artichokes, mushrooms, sausage and a fried egg.  The loaded pizza was amazing crispy throughout just like the Margherita, no soggy spots.  

Don't be scared off by the negative reviews, two locals suggested it to us.  Yes, you'll get bad service; yes, you'll probably have to wait in a line outside for awhile; and yes, there is a chance you may have to be seated with others (we got lucky and got a table for 2).  Just go for the experience and the crispy pizza.  

Da Vito e Dina (Via Degli Scipioni, 50) #418 of 5,154 on TA
We saved our best meal and recommendation for last and we didn't even realize it.  Da Vito e Dina was FABULOUS and worthy of it's high TA ranking.  Our B&B host was on a roll with his Rome suggestions so we tried another of his restaurant recommendations.  We went here for Lunch or "Pranzo" and did we bruschetta, pasta, veal, limoncello it was all amazing.  But the pasta dishes stole the show as you can see.

Rigatoni Gricia con Carciofo (left) & Spinaci Raviloi con Funghi

There you have it.  Highlights from our five day Rome adventure which mostly involved sitting and eating.  Hope you enjoyed this post and found the information provided helpful in planning your own trip to the Eternal City.  Ciao!


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