By Don and Linda Freedman

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Winter 2003

Rome | Lucca | Florence | Rome

A 10:44 train from Florence brought us back to Rome at 13:33 and while I waited at the #360 bus stop with our luggage, Linda ran around the corner for roast pork panini from Er Buchetto to keep us going.

While settling into our room at the Delle Muse again, we turned on the TV and learned of the shuttle Columbia disaster. We had planned to spend a relaxing day just walking the streets of the neighborhood but the horror of it weighed on our minds as we tried to enjoy the beautiful weather.

We had an early dinner at the hotel of pasta and salad with a nice bottle of Ruffino Chianti. Then we sampled the three new cakes on the menu for dessert. We had trouble picking a favorite among the lemon, almond and ricotta, which were all delicious.

It took us about half an hour to walk to the viale delle Belle Arti to Piazzale di Villa Giulia and the National Etruscan Museum, housed in the villa of Pope Julius III. Both the villa and grounds are quite lovely. The museum is accessible and beautifully organized with comprehensive explanations adjacent to all the displays. The museum houses a vast, rich collection of pre-Roman archeological artifacts, most notably those of the Etruscans, which were found during excavations in the territories of central Italy. There are grave findings, statues, reconstructions of tombs, lots of pottery, ceramics and jewelry. One outstanding find is that of an Etruscan terra cotta sculpture of a husband and wife reclined on a sarcophagus lid.

We would be having a get-together of Ziners at the end of the week and our old friend Joanna from Athens, arrived in town today. It was too many years since we had seen her and it was a happy reunion. Joanna suggested the ristorante L'Orso '80, via dell Orso 33 for dinner The location is very central, just north of Piazza Navona, in an area of small, narrow streets that are home to many woodworking and various craft shops.

Entering, we were greeted by a long and bountiful antipasto bar - very appetizing and obviously a house feature. There are three dining rooms all cheerfully designed and comfortable. The house promptly offers fried zucchini and rice balls along with a naan-like focaccio. We decided to start with assorted antipasti. Oh my, the table was totally covered by white bowls filled with wonderful goodies and they just kept coming. If you wanted more of a particular item, you just had to ask. Sweet melon, prosciutto, fennel, mushrooms, fried and marinated eggplant, mozzarella, meatballs, beans, marinated peppers and zucchini, steamed artichoke and the list goes on. The house white wine was quite nice. The girls were finished but I was determined to have another of their specialties, lamb on a spit, which was freshly cooked and beautifully seasoned. Lots of good food at reasonable prices - a keeper.
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Today we would start at the Domus Aurea, via delle Domus Aurea, across from the Colosseo. Advance booking is necessary. We took the #360 bus to Piazza Ungheria where we got the #3 street car in the direction of Trastevere, disembarking at the Colosseo stop.

In 64 AD most of the center of Rome was destroyed by a fire which started in the area of Circus Maximus and reached the top of the Esquiline Hill. Because of Nero's bad reputation, the story grew that he was responsible for the fire. The destruction caused by the fire certainly made it easier for him to construct the most extensive domus ever built, called Aurea for the magnificence of its decoration and the opulence of its buildings. It was designed as a country villa right in the center of Rome and was admired not only for its precious materials but for its pastures, woods and lakes, the largest of which filled the site now occupied by the Colosseum. The palace and grounds covered a vast area extending from the Palatine Hill to the Oppian at the foot of the Celian. The atrium consisted of a triple portico 1500 meters long, which contained the Colossus, a 35 meters high statue of Nero. Precious metals and stones were everywhere. The ceiling of the banquet halls had sliding ivory panels so that flowers and perfumes could be sprayed onto the diners. The Oppian Hill section is known best. It was built on platforms overlooking the valley in which the Colosseum would be built and was divided into three main blocks. The two lateral ones had their rooms around an arcaded garden. The center block was separated by a pentagonic garden and built around an octagonal hall, supported by octagonal pillars with a circular light well in the center. This was probably the main banquet hall, which was on ball bearings turning according to the sun for the best light. After Nero died in 68 AD subsequent emperors returned large parts of the Domus Aurea to the city.

On top of Nero's palace rose public monuments like the Colosseum and its buildings, the public baths built by Titus and the state mint. The last sector to be dismantled was the Oppian Hill area, used for the construction of the baths of Trajan.

The scale, architecture, brick and stone work, faded frescoes and residual colors, make it conducive to closing your eyes and visualizing what must have been. It set the stage for our journey as we proceeded down via dei Fori Imperiali to the Capitoline to work our way back through the Roman Forum to the Colosseum and a few treasures beyond.

The Capitoline is the most famous of the seven hills of Rome and where the most significant events in the history of the city took place. Standing at the foot of the two gigantic staircases, one sees a stark contrast in design. The stairway to the left leads to the church of Santa Maria, its plain facade from the Middle ages while the stairway to the right leads to Piazza del Campidoglio, with the intricate Renaissance design by Michelangelo. One is drawn upwards on the latter masterpiece, past the two lions at the foot toward the huge statues of Castor and Pollux with their horses at the head. The famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius waits at the center of the piazza. Legend has it that the statue was brought here in 1538 by Pope Paul III contrary to Michelangelo’s plan and survived only because it was thought to represent the Emperor Constantine.
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The piazza consists of a trapezoidal space with three palaces; to the right is the Palazzo dei Conservatori, to the left the Palazzo Nuovo, both of which are now museums, and the Palazzo Senatorio, which is now the town hall. All three are brilliant works by the master Michelangelo.

Down the street to the right as we walked up the stairway, we noticed a building that had two levels of arcaded stone remains on the bottom and two levels of building above. These are the remains of the first theatre in Rome and in the building above are apartments.

Around the corner from the piazza heading toward the Roman Forum is a green area that once was the slave market. At the foot of the hill are caves dug out of the tufa that were used as jails.

In ancient times the forum was the favorite meeting place of the inhabitants of the city and those from the surrounding hills. Due to its central location, it became a busy marketplace and soon shops, temples and basilicas arose transforming the area into the heart of the city. Not only was business transacted here but, more importantly, it became the place where the public life of the citizens revolved. It was here that the assemblies of the people and of the senate, elections of magistrates, important religious ceremonies and the administration of justice took place.

Coming down from Capitoline Hill we entered the forum at the west end encountering the magnificent Triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus, dating to 203, celebrating victories of the Parthians, Arabs and Assyrians. Nearby is the Curia or senate house, which was originally built as an assembly hall but converted into a church in the 7th century. The marble floor has been restored and the marble podia, on which the wooden benches of the senators were placed, are visible.

Adjacent is the remains of the Basilica Aemilia. In ancient Rome the term basilica denoted a large, rectangular building whose interior two or four rows of columns delimited a central nave and side aisles, which plan was later adopted for Christian basilicas. Originally it was secular in purpose and where business transactions and legal matters were administered. The Temple of Antonius and Faustina with its imposing columns, was erected in 141 A.D. in honor of the wife of Antonius Pius, and on his death, of the Emperor himself. Husband and wife are commemorated in the surviving inscription on the architrave. In the 11th century, the temple was converted into the Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda.

At the east end is the Arch of Titus, with its brilliant sculptures, which was erected to commemorate the victories of Vespasian and his son, Titus, over the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem.

These are just a few highlights. All of the remaining pillars, arches, stacks of tufa and brick walls designate significant structures, which coalesced into a city formed from the primitive villages that had grown up on the sides of the surrounding hills.
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Near the Colosseum is the beautifully-preserved, stunning, triple-arcaded Triumphal Arch of Constantine, constructed by the people and the senate in 312 to celebrate Constantine's victory over Maxentius in the battle of the Milvian Bridge. Its decorations incorporate medallions and reliefs taken from earlier imperial monuments.

The Colosseum, which in its day was known as the Flavian Amphitheater, was built in the middle of the broad valley between the Palatine, Caelian and Esquiline Hills, where Nero had sited the lake in the Domus Aurea.

It was started by Vespasian in 72 and completed by his son, Titus, in the year 80. Titus set aside 100 days of festivity to celebrate its inauguration. Fifty thousand spectators (capacity was 70,000) gathered to watch games that were cruel, but aroused enormous enthusiasm. The shows included contests between gladiators, hunting wild animals and mock sea fights by flooding the arena with water. Archaeologists have figured out how the water was let in but to this day do not know how they drained it. There is a nearby dig in progress and it is thought that the mystery will finally be solved. What we see today is a tiny fraction of what this incredible edifice was at its inauguration. Nature has taken a huge toll (erosion and various earthquakes) and man has contributed to its decay by looting its stones, marbles and other precious decorations.

The Romans proved their technical skills and incredible inventiveness. For example, a method was devised to protect spectators from rain and heat by a system of awnings overhead (velarium) the supporting fixtures are still visible in the upper walls. The swift entry and exit of spectators was ensured by the placing of eighty entrances around the ground floor arcades, each numbered to indicate the staircases leading to various sectors of the tiered seating, each sector reserved for a particular category or class. The technique of inserting square, bronze clamps between the blocks of travertine was the most advanced earthquake-proof system developed by the Romans.
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Luckily we found a table at the window of Gran Cafe Rossi Martini at Piazza del Colosseo 3 (Tel: 06-70-04-431) and were able to enjoy the view and our delicious lasagna lunch simultaneously - the Colosseum, an architectural wonder of the ancient world and the universal symbol of Rome, and an absolutely perfect rendition of this quintessential Italian casserole composed of tender, wide noodles, fresh herbed tomato sauce and just the right amount of cheese.

There was a special chocolate ice cream menu offering a variety of awesome delights and Linda picked a beauty - a huge bowl of chocolate ice cream with hot chocolate sauce and fresh whipped cream, sprinkled with chocolate-covered puffed rice, for health purposes, no doubt. ;-) She didn't once look at the Colosseum and in fact didn't offer me a spoonful! This is a neat spot to enjoy a break or settle-in after touring for a relaxing dinner. The inviting bar is great for a beverage and snacks while standing and there's a complete Italian menu available in the dining rooms; a tea room and wine-tasting is available. If you are fortunate enough to secure one of the outdoor tables, you'll practically be able to touch the Colosseum across the road.

Refreshed and satisfied, we headed north to the Piazza S. Pietro in Vincoli to the basilica of the same name (St. Peter in Chains), where St. Peter was sheltered when sentenced to death. In 1492 it became a titled church and when a porch was added, the excavation unearthed Nero's Golden House. The columns taken from other Roman buildings are gorgeous, as are the famous frescoes by Domenichino, Guercino and Raffaelo da Montelupo. A 7th century ceramic of St. Sebastian is stunning. The heart-stopper for us was Michelangelo's "Moses". It is a powerful and dynamic work. There is so much energy in the sculpture that you can't help wondering what Michelangelo thought might have been on Moses' mind. The artist never divulged what if anything he was communicating. It has been interpreted by others that the sternness of expression and tense muscles indicate that Moses was searching for solutions.

Just east of the Colosseum between via Labicana and via di San Giovanni in Laterno is the Basilica of San Clemente on its namesake piazza. Erected about 385 and restored in the 9th century and again in 1719, it is formed by two churches, one above the other. We started in the lower church, which is enormous. New walls and arches were built to support the one above. There are remains of frescoes in the interior and on the porch. Continuing underground and across the street through thick stone walls is where the second mint was located. A river flows underneath this area. The new church is rich in art objects. The oldest sculpture of the "Good Shepherd" was recovered from below and is on display. The mosaic behind the alter and the ceiling are noteworthy. The marble floor in a unique red, green and white pattern depicts hope, faith and charity. It is worth noting that there is a pattern within the design of the floor tiles, to guide the Monks' chant on their way to their seats. Irish Dominican Monks operate the church. This is not one of the most famous of Rome's churches but we recommend that it be on your list of must-sees.
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Once again Giorgio came through with an excellent restaurant suggestion. Ristorante Spirito diVino in Trastevere on via dei Genovesi 31 (Tel: 06-5896689). We were a little early for the 19:30 opening so we stopped for a drink nearby at a small neighborhood bar and gelateria at via dei Genovesi, 39. The owner, Luciano Pastra, and his helper were cleaning up and getting ready to close but happily welcomed us. We mention it because we have rarely seen such a clean and meticulously-maintained establishment. During the entire time that we sat enjoying our water and Tilly espresso, the two men scrubbed and cleaned everything in sight and enjoyed doing so! Stop in, if you're in the neighborhood; the owner is a very amicable fellow and Tilly coffee is our favorite anywhere, but even better in this sparkling place.

Spirito di Vino is a family affair with mom the chef while dad and son deftly handle the front. They started the business in 1998, succeeding in creating the desired environment and a dining experience where one feels at home while enjoying market-fresh ingredients cooked with care and imagination. The entrance hall and bar area is beautifully and comfortably furnished and does indeed make one feel as if entering a home. The archways and terra cotta Alcantara walls create a most romantic feeling as one walks up the few stairs to the dining room. The well-arranged tables provide welcome space and privacy.

On the way up the stairs, we saw a glass-covered well that seemed to go down several stories. After dinner, we heard the history of this place. We were invited to descend to the rooms below the restaurant and we learned that this had been a mikvah, a place where Orthodox Jewish women take ritual baths. Originally constructed in 980, the building became the first synagogue in Rome in 1073. This area was the original Jewish quarter. When this basement was discovered in 1859, two important statues were found. One was the model for the statue of David in Florence and the other, a statue of a horse larger than the one in Capitoline Square. There is also a wine cellar housing a rich collection of bottles for which Spirito di Vino is well-known. The walls in the basement are magnificently preserved; the brickwork is truly awesome.

Now, about the food. In keeping with the market-fresh philosophy, the menu has a short list of compelling antipasti, primi and secondi. While we perused the menu choices, the house offered a delicious sparkling wine. The appetizers seemed amazing so we ordered an assortment, leaving the primi or secondi decision for afterwards. A thin crepe filled with goat cheese and zucchini came first, followed by roasted eggplant stuffed with capers, olives, orange, goat cheese and walnuts, then a smooth chicken liver pate and finally tripe, a first for us, in an incredibly wonderful sauce of wild fennel, tomato, fresh mint, black pepper, pecorino and all sorts of veggies. This should have been sufficient but we could not resist linguine al ragu di mare and tagliolini a cacio e pepe. We were delighted we capitulated as both were excellent. With it all, we enjoyed a splendid Chianti Leonardo 2001, which was rich in both color and flavor.

After the visit to the cellar (hey, we worked up an appetite walking down and up the stairs!), we enjoyed an unreal crème brulee; it is worth a visit just to have their version of this classic. The pear cake with yogurt and a chopped almond and chocolate torte, both with a luscious chocolate sauce, were special. Wonderful hosts, food, entertainment and a bit of history all at reasonable prices is a pretty darn good combination.
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A day trip to Naples was on our agenda once again. We had many new recommendations and articles and planned to do a pizza tour, sniffing and sampling. Once again Giorgio had a big idea. He claimed to have found Napoli pizza at its best - right here in Rome! He suggested that we save Napoli for a longer visit another time. After an energizing long walk, we came back to the hotel refreshed and took the #3 tram from Piazza Ungheria to the Colosseo stop. Just across the way is via San Giovanni in Laterano and at #34/38 is Pizza Forum. We passed through a good size entryway and we were enveloped in the aroma of fresh baked dough. To our immediate left was the wide open pizza kitchen with two pizza makers rolling and decorating; the two brick ovens on the back wall awaited their creations. We were warmly greeted by the owner who proudly explained that the gorgeous dough we saw being cut and rolled had been prepared ten hours earlier. They did it twice in 24 hours so it's always fresh and has ample time to rise properly. It's prepared in the evening for the morning and in the morning for the evening. Just like the owners, the mozzarella comes fresh from Naples.

The dining room is quite modern with raised platform seating in the middle with tables all around and booths along the walls. There is an antipasti bar and lots of vegetable and salad offerings on the menu. Of course Giorgio was right, there is no need to go to Naples just for pizza when you are staying in Rome. We had the two classics Margherita (mozzarella, tomato sauce and basil) and Caprese (mozzarella, fresh tomato and basil). The dough was a dream and the toppings, incomparable. I could go into greater detail but better yet, try it and see for yourself. The staff was delightful - from the owner's wife to the waiters and waitresses all of whom were concerned with everyone's comfort and satisfaction. This was the season for castagnole, the special fried balls of dough popular at Carnival time. At Pizza Forum they are sprinkled with sugar and drizzled with berry sauce. We did a job on a large plateful. A crisp, cool limoncello was the perfect ending. Well almost, add a delicious espresso as the final touch.

The next street over is via dei SS. Quattro Coronati. This long, narrow street brought us to Basilica Santi Quattro Coronati. We had come to see the atmospheric cloister, the smallest in Rome, dating from the early 1200's. It is characterized as being extremely sober, with modest decoration and with a certain unique charm. Unfortunately the cloister was under renovation and all we got to see was scaffolding and plastic sheeting. The large courtyard and the frescoes on the porch walls and those remaining inside are quite attractive, as well the 16th century wooden ceiling. The explanation given as to why the alter seemed quite large for the size of the church is that the church was downsized in the 12th century when part of the side aisle was incorporated into the cloister adjacent to the church.

Our friends would start arriving the next day and we'd spend special time renewing friendships we hold dear. But this meant that it would soon be time for us to head home again. The day was clear and sunny, eleven degrees Celsius. We walked and walked enjoying every moment knowing that we would soon be back to minus temps. Store windows shouted the universally understood message: 50-70% off signs everywhere. If you like bargains and Italian fashion, this is the time of year to head to Italy.
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We seem to have discovered a nest of great eateries in the area near the Colosseum. We stuck our heads in the door at Antica Trattoria Pasqualino, via SS. Quattro 66 (Tel: 06-700-4576) and it was so inviting that we made a reservation on the spot. What we saw was a cozy room, happy diners, a gorgeous display of roasted foods and a partially open kitchen area with aromas emanating that sealed the deal. When we returned we found it as we left it and that there are comfortable upstairs dining rooms, where we chose to sit. The attention and help is exactly what we love to find in a friendly, neighborhood trattoria. I must tell you up front that the quantity of food you are about to read that we consumed is directly related to the fact that each course was so wonderful we could not resist the following, the following, and the following.....! The prices were well within reason so, heck, what are we in Italy for anyway?

We started with insalate di mare, lightly oiled calamari, shrimp and octopus with red pepper, arugula, olives and celery and bresaola with arugula and fresh parmiggiano drizzled with olive oil. While resting we took the opportunity to study the historic photos that adorned the walls. Our starters were outstanding so we moved on to order the primi. I was on a seafood roll and had spaghetti alla Capri, a substantial portion of clams, muscles and octopus with a luscious, natural seafood and tomato sauce. This is always my very favorite pasta concoction, which I have eaten in many, many places and this was as good as it gets. Linda had the supreme pappardelle pasqualino. The wide noodles were mixed with sausage and porcini mushrooms in a tomato, cream and special white wine sauce laced with shredded parmiggiano and truffles. At this point we were quite full but.... We had seen and smelled the roast lamb on the way in and had found braised coniglio on the menu. Our decision was to rest a bit with our "Chiopris" Tocai Friulano and try to recover for secondi before dolci. In every sense, the lamb and rabbit were outstanding! Both were tender, lean and cooked to perfect doneness and taste. It was necessary to cool off and relax with chilled melon and assorted ice cream.

Our friendship with Pierrette goes back more than twenty years when we met on a flight from Amsterdam to Paris. Last fall we saw her in Dresden, where she is presently living and working. This was her first trip to Rome so we offered to take her over the territory we had covered until now. It was fun playing tour guide and a challenge to cram as much as we could into a single full day tour, once over lightly by necessity!

Lunch time found us in the Jewish ghetto area and we decided to revisit our old favorite, Margherita, a tiny ten table trattorie run by two ladies who prepare a limited number of daily specials. It was still there, but run somewhat differently. Apparently the place is now part of the Roman Cultural Association, to which you must belong in order to eat here without paying a fee. The men who greeted us explained that if we completed a form with our names and addresses, the fees would be waived. We are still not sure if we got the entire story correctly but how important is that really? The proof is in the pudding.

The carciofi were always wonderful so we started with one each of Judiah (fried) and Romana (boiled). Fettuccini with ragu and parmiggiano was delightful and baccala baked in tomato sauce with pine nuts, capers and raisins was different and delicious. I'm happy to report that Margherita is still a prime find!
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We covered a lot of territory this day and happily found our way to Il Buco, via S. Ignazio 8 (Tel: 06-678-3298) to meet Joanna and her friend Anella and another dear friend of ours, Covadonga, who had come in from Bilbao. We were the United Nations: Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Greece. It was wonderful to relax with all my women - enjoying their lively company while sipping the house red. The ristorante has a nice Tuscan flavor, from design to menu to staff and is very good value. We enjoyed mixed salads and pastas, pappardelle with hare sauce and gnocchi with pumpkin sauce. Via S. Ignazio is just east of the Pantheon. We walked south to Corso v. Emanuele II, hopped on bus #64 to the train station and took the good old #360 back to our hotel. Tomorrow we would be together again, joined by others coming in especially for our TheTravelzine get-together lunch.

Today was our last day and the party was supposed to be over but, in fact, it was just beginning. In honor of our visit and for all the great friends that we have made through TheTravelzine group (of which he is a member), Giorgio offered to plan and host the most incredible luncheon party! All of the group from the night before was joined by old friends Marco from Milano, Paolo from Trieste, Flavio from Rome and Pierrana and Giorgio (our new friends from Pisa). And Giorgio kept his promise to me; we accepted this marvelous gift on condition that he would be a guest at his own party. He never moved from the seat next to Linda. He has become such a dear friend to us and to all Ziners who stay at his hotel. If you're a member of our discussion group (a Ziner) be sure to introduce yourself to Giorgio.

These get-togethers take place all around the world and it is heartwarming to know that this Internet venue has brought so many people together not only to learn about and plan travel but to experience the joy of new friendships. The luncheon that Giorgio had arranged consisted of all of our favorite things and some surprises. His generosity and desire to please are second to none. An hour before the party their was a secret delivery of the most incredible fresh ricotta cheese, which he knows Linda adores. Incomparable in texture, positively ethereal, she swoons with every mouthful, as in, I'll have what she's having, if you know what I mean. ;-) Pierrette who swore she was too full to put another bite of anything in her mouth, capitulated and agreed that she would have missed something magical had she not tasted this incredible cheese. Needless to say after some of everything and then some, with plenty of wine from beginning to end, we were all feeling rather stuffed when we finally left the table hours later.

In the lobby we found Claudio, Giorgio's right hand man and a Ziner once removed, waiting to show us his professional, homemade travel videos. We all watched with rapt attention. Claudio's productions are amazing; so well-organized and beautifully narrated, it was just like being there, the perfect way to relax while digesting.

It was a delightful afternoon but the day was not yet over. Pierrette's friend Maria, with whom she had been staying, invited us for an aperitif before going out to dinner. After a nice visit, we headed over to Settimio All'Arrancio, via dell'Arrancio 50 (Tel: 06-6876119). This is an excellent restaurant that we usually find our way to when we are in Rome. The specialty is fish and seafood, but most everyone was still quite filled from lunch and opted for vegetables or pasta. Flavio and I, of course, could not be here and not have some seafood. Flavio had fried calamari and shrimp and I, assorted fried seafood, which consisted of what Flavio had plus small whole fried fish, just as good as ever. Linda and I had to leave ahead of the others to get back to the hotel to pack. We'll miss them. Arrivederci good friends. Arrivederci Roma.
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