Saturday, September 21, 2013

Rome: What Makes a City Truly Great?

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.

Though I've lived in over half a dozen cities including Mumbai and New York, I have always been baffled by this question. What makes a city truly great? Is it the fact that it facilitates a melting pot of cultures and people? Is it the luxury of convenience it lends? An efficient network of transportation perhaps? Or maybe the bounty of quality food and entertainment has something to do with it?

I finally found some answers in Rome, the first destination on my three month itinerary across Italy, France and Spain.


The magnificient Colosseum

Fontana di Trevi


St. Peter's Basilica and St. Peter's Square

Inside Italy

Spaghetti 'Sea' Carbonara at Acquolina Hosteria

A friend in New York connected me with one of Rome's most exciting restaurants and hooked me up with accommodation in a local apartment.

My first encounter with the 'eternal city' was exciting in many ways. I spent the initial few days ticking off all the obvious stuff from my To-See-in-Rome list including the Colosseum, Vatican City, Villa Borghese, Piazza di Spagna and Trevi Fountain. The sheer beauty and the sense of being engulfed by history completely blew me away.

However, what I hadn't anticipated was experiencing a culture shock. Not knowing a word of Italian made conversation difficult for the initial few days. The same 'ciao' means hello and goodbye?! This feeling of lingual disorientation was new to me, although moving to Mumbai two years ago with hardly any fluency in Hindi was quite similar.

But I digress.

My intent in Rome was to experience an Italian kitchen firsthand. As luck would have it, I got the opportunity to work in multiple ones. These weren't all cakewalks or amazing experiences but I definitely took home a pointer or two from each.

The first was a bookstore that serves health conscious fare buffet-style for lunch and doubles up as a wine bar for apertivo in the evening. It was an experimental one too. On one particular night, I cooked a complete Indian spread that was served to the delight of paying clientele.

Then there was the busy caffe that serves about 800 customers every day, where salumi platters, octopus, beef tartare and baccala confit fly off the pass every few seconds.

Thirdly and most disappointedly, I spent a day working in an uber-touristy restaurant near the Pantheon (how could I expect any better?). The kitchen could easily have been one of the grungy ones Anthony Bourdain famously advertised in Kitchen Confidential--cigarette-smoking, dirty line cooks refrying pre-fried zucchini blossoms,  cooking the heck out of beautiful fillets of fish and mouthing abuse at burlesque waiters clad in white jackets and bow ties. Rome is infested with such restaurants--a repercussion of centuries of tourism-- and I had done everything in my power to stay away from eating in one of these. Witnessing what happens in the back however was special, in a very I-will-never-run-my-restaurant-this-way sort of way of course.

Thankfully, I spent most of my time in the best kitchen out of the lot. A chic restaurant that serves innovative, modern Italian food. It is here where I observed a reinterpretation of Italian cuisine unlike any other;  paper thin slices of sepia paired with soy; pastas and risottos cooked from scratch for every order; raviolis with cacao e pepe sauce encapsulated; and fresh sole crusted in oregano and panko--in short, a far cry and a splendid one at that from the touristy restaurant that had left a bad taste in my mouth.

I dined at many a restaurant during my two weeks in Rome, and I ate it all. Tripe, oxtail, porchetta, pastas, salami, pizzas, gelato, you name it. I hung out with the Romans too--with the hysterical cooks from the modern Italian restaurant and the friendly manager from the bookstore. I experienced the local markets and walked the length and breadth of Rome day in and day out taking in the sights, sounds and smells.

Most significantly however, I lived in a Roman apartment and spent quality time with my host and her friends from Turin and Puglia. We discussed the significance of local cuisines, joked about clinging on to secret grandma's recipes, and of course, scoffed at the weather.

I became one of them.


Some cities have efficient public transportation. Others have a rich history with streets and buildings that tell a story as you walk past them. A few have large, inviting public spaces especially parks and gardens. And most have excellent choices for food that cater to varied tastes and price points.

A great city however is one in which all these factors and more merge together in perfect balance to create a magical energy that draws you closer. It makes you want to return in a heartbeat. It could take just a few days or maybe even months but in due time it makes even outsiders feel at home.

As I had found out in the summer of 2010 in New York, while karaokeing in Mumbai in 2012 and just a few days ago in Rome, it does happen eventually. It is the point where you transition from a lost tourist to a true local. When you realize that there are as many like you around as there are those that claim the city their own.


My Quick City Guide to Rome

Tasting menu at Acquolina Hosteria, one star Michelin modern-Italian seafood restaurant
Porchetta at Er Buchetto
Pizza at Alice Pizza and Pizzarium
Gelato at Federa and Frigidarium
Trippa alla Romana at L'Arcangelo
Assorted Chocolates at La Bottega del Cioccolato
Apertivo and wine at Ai Tre Scalini
Traditional Italian at Enoteca Corsi
Coda alla Vaccinara at Checcino dal 1887

Plethora of Italian foods at Eataly
Gourmet Italian products at Castroni
Ethnic foods at Nuovo Mercato Esquolino
Great wines at Checchino dal 1887

Stroll through Villa Borghese
Ogle at mesmerizing art at Galleria Borghese
Imagine gladiators fight at the Colosseum
Walk the streets as much as you can
Cross any of the numerous bridges at dusk

1 comment:

  1. Oh my, Italy is top of my list of places to visit and eat as many different types of pizza but looking at your list I''ll have to include so much more.