"When you go by Settimio it will look closed. They keep the doors shut, and often locked. They’ll let you in, maybe, if they like the look of you."
And closed it looked that wet and cold evening in Rome, a week or so before Christmas – we'd walked from the hotel near the Piazza del Popolo, through the Christmas market in the Piazza Navona, thronged with merrymakers – all seemingly clad alike in lustrous black padded coats – on over greasy cobbles, avoiding umbrellas and restaurant touts, weaving in out of parked cars and scooters – when we arrived at the trattoria recommended by Elizabeth Minchilli.
Determined as we were (when in Rome, etc) to avoid the tourist traps, we set out to have an authentic Roman experience. I know the word authentic is fraught with deceptions, but, notwithstanding, authentic was what we set out to find – and authentic is quite likely what we got.
The door was opened for us by a smiling woman who, surely knowing we were neither regulars nor, judging by our accents, Italians, called for the owner who thrust his head out of the door and let us in – I guess he liked the look of us – explaining as he did so that there was but one set menu. We settled in our chairs in a golden glow of Roman authenticity, marveling to each other that when we spoke Italian he appeared to understand us! So, was the food anything to write home about? Of course, especially if one were writing to nonna assuring her that her tesoro was eating well. Each course, simple both in nature and in presentation, was downright tasty, and much appreciated by two stranieri americani who, by the time they got up to leave, felt they'd had a genuine Roman experience – even to the politely expressed puzzlement from the owner when I asked for cheese after we'd finished our coffee. When it arrived it was not the hideously expensive, preciously presented gobbets dabbed about in quince paste or balsamic treacle of what is known as a "artisanal cheese plate" hereabouts – just a large wedge of excellent cheese on a plain white plate.
In Rome for a week–long, immersion Italian course (no English spoken, with each of us at different levels) after a trying half-year, we played at being locals – each morning setting out in overcoats with umbrellas, bags and books in hand, skirting the Piazza del Popolo; walking alongside the Ara Pacis in its Richard Meier-designed travertine envelope matching the stone of the nearby Fascist-era buildings bracketing the Mausoleum of Augustus; diverging from the Apple-Map-recommended route to walk across Piazza Navona where, one evening, we listened to Baroque music in Borromini's Sant'Agnese in Agone; stopping each morning to look at Bernini's Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi and then wending our way through the narrow streets – one teeming with young priests rushing towards us like a murder of crows; on towards Piazza dell'Orologio and past what became our favorite lunch place after school (Casa Bottega, a bar where we were given a discount because we were "cute" and where, later in the day, the best Manhattans were served) and up the five flights of stairs to class.
The visual connection between Mussolini's early Modernism, the massive stripped remnants of ancient Rome, and Meier's Ara Pacis, is obvious. Eighty-plus years has softened the glaring newness of Fascist architecture in Rome, and perhaps its associations with Mussolini have also been softened – for who cares any longer? A few more years will erode the suspicion that the Museo Ara Pacis, as it now looks, is nothing but a chunk of the Getty Center translocated to Rome. Associations, positive and negative, all erode.
Finishing at two, as we did each afternoon, gave us time for a late pranzo, some exploring, a nap, homework, or an exhibition – one such a wonderful show, at the Scuderie del Quirinale, of Vermeer and his Golden Age contemporaries.
Vermeer's "The Allegory of the Catholic Faith" – unexpectedly Baroque – made me think that Rome with its multiplicity of saints and their miracles, for a pagan such as myself, is nothing more than an allegory for the survival of the old gods and goddesses. Not my favorite of Vermeer's, this painting of a simpering rich gal who, hand on heart, heel firmly pressed on a terrestrial globe, gazes upwards like a silent-movie strumpet masquerading as a Baroque virgin. There is another interpretation, obviously, but one not necessarily less prejudiced.
Verdi's Simon Boccanegra opened the new season at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, with Riccardo di Muti on the podium and with wonderful sets – variations on a theme of Genoese walls and arch – by the husband and wife team Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo. One of the most moving operas I've ever seen. In fact, I almost shed a tear at the finale... almost.
Three years ago on Christmas Eve the head waiter in the hotel restaurant befriended us – he and his wife had lived in England for a few years – and on each visit we catch up with life, love, happiness, and Italian politics. I'd forgotten that I'd happened to mention that two weeks earlier had been our anniversary – forgotten, that is, until he brought a congratulatory wedge of tiramisu to end our final breakfast at the hotel. We've never had tiramisu for breakfast before, and let me tell you, it sure ain't a bad way to begin the day!
I am back to blogging after what I can only call a convalescence: long, slow and introspective. Being mauled by a black dog took the wind out of my sails for quite a while. I appreciate those of you who were kind enough to notice, and bear with, the hiatus.