When I first saw it, I had to take a step back, as if a ghost had gut punched me. Did I see what I thought I saw? It was April 30 and I had just moved into my new apartment. It’s a dream home for a retiree. Bigger. Brighter. Big balcony. It’s the same price as my previous flat and I am away from my evil ex-landlady.
But I heard stories, haunting stories, about my Monteverde, the Rome neighborhood on the hill. It’s the neighborhood Benito Mussolini made famous. The 1930s was ancient history. Wasn’t it? Yet there I stood in the elevator, looking slack-jawed at the inside of the door as it reached the bottom floor. There I saw it. Someone had knife carved it in the old wood.
I’m living among Nazis? I’d lived in Rome more than four years and had yet to meet a racist. I haven’t heard a racist comment. This is from the local welcome wagon? In America you get an apple pie. In Monteverde I get a swastika? I’m not even Jewish and I was insulted.
Well, next week will mark seven months in my apartment and, thankfully, I haven’t seen mobs jackbooting their way down my street. No one is carrying Nazi flags or shouting anti-Semitic slogans. This isn’t Charlottesville. It’s Rome. My neighborhood is as friendly as every other Rome neighborhood I’ve lived in and visited.
Yet Monteverde is still the neighborhood that fascism built.
Moving from Testaccio, Rome’s old working-class neighborhood that served as the city’s goods port, to Monteverde didn’t take long. I moved less than a mile and a half, just across the Tiber River and up the hill. But the differences are as big as the hill my No. 8 tram chugs up every day. Monteverde is the biggest neighborhood in Rome. The people are a mix of upper middle-class old-money Romans and middle to lower middle-class working stiffs.
Monteverde encompasses the city’s biggest landscaped park, lovely 455-acre Doria Pamphilj with its jogging paths and lakes and pigeons seducing lovers for bread crumbs. Every time I hear English when I walk by the outdoor cafes and coffee shops near the American University of Rome I think of my days touring campuses as a college football writer back in the U.S.
Monteverde is one of the few neighborhoods in Rome where you need public transportation to get around. Yet from my apartment, so much is so close. I have three cafes on my nearest corners. A wonderful local pizzeria, C’era Una Volta (There Was a Time), is also around the corner next to the Egyptian florist who sells me flowers for my Marina. I have two big supermarkets, non existent in Testaccio, within 100 meters. My dry cleaners is across the street. An excellent Lebanese restaurant and one of Rome’s few ethnic eateries, Meze Bistrot, is up the street one block. My local beer bar, Stappo, is on the next street over. My gym is 400 meters away.
I could live the rest of my life very happily and never travel more than the length of a high school track.
“Two people who don’t know each other, they meet in Monteverde and are soon friends,” said Davide Desideri, my barista at Romagnani Caffe across the street where I have become dangerously addicted to their chocolate cornettos and cappuccino. “It’s like a small town, Monteverde.”
By Rome standards, it’s a modern town. Back when Rome was the most powerful civilization that man may ever know, Monteverde was a barren hill made up of scrub brush and bushes. Even Trastevere down the hill at least served as slave quarters.
However, this area had two marvelous green spaces on the hill. Julius Caesar and Cleopatra used to flirt in what is now Villa Sciarra. Just to the west in the other bigger park, the powerful Pamphili family bought a villa in 1630 back when the Rome below was a malaria-infested wasteland. When Cardinal Giambattista Pamphili became Pope Innocent X in 1644 the villa was rebuilt into the lavish palace it is today.
While hundreds of lovers, walkers and dreamers frequented what is now Villa Doria Pamphilj, the rest of Monteverde was a swamp. Then came 1922. Mussolini took power. In a destructive attempt to return Rome to its ancient glory, he started a campaign to steamroll old dilapidated neighborhoods like Borgo Pio near the Vatican, Flaminia near Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Bologna near the train station. In 1938 he built a seven-story public housing tower in Monteverde to house 300 families, including many displaced from the leveled neighborhoods. Il Duce even came by for the dedication.
It remains today. Still called Casa Popolare, it’s on my 20-minute walk from my apartment to Doria Pamphilj and looks as if it hasn’t changed much in 80 years. Neither has the paint. It’s typical fascist architecture: tall, broad, with big strong columns. The courtyard is run down and scruffy. It’s still home to working-class Romans. The only difference is now they’ve turned into low-end condos.
Up the street about 200 yards is the apartment of one Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of the great cinematic minds of the 20th century. He put the “X” in eccentric. He had as much a penchant for young men as he did for exploring the soft underbelly of Rome’s otherwise glossy landscape. The lower middle-class kids playing in the projects around Casa Popolare fascinated him and he lived up the street with his cousin from 1955-59. It was during this time he wrote for Federico Fellini’s famous film “Le Notti di Cabiria (The Nights of Cabiria)” and wrote his second novel, “Una Vita Violenta (A Violent Life)” which was embraced by Rome’s thriving communist community.
The other day I waited outside the locked front door until a pretty tenant walked in. As I snuck in behind her, she looked at me without suspicion. She’s probably used to fans wanting to look. Inside the spacious, clean lobby is a plaque dedicated to Pasolini who was murdered under extraordinarily controversial circumstances in the beach neighborhood of Ostia in 1975. Some say he was murdered for his communist leanings. Some say it was a Mafia revenge killing. The 2014 movie “Pasolini” starring Rome-resident William Dafoe showed him getting beaten to death by two homophobic thugs.
Pasolini’s Monteverde is divided between Monteverde Vecchio (Old) and Monteverde Nuovo (New). Pasolini’s old apartment is in Monteverde Vecchio, which Mussolini and his friends helped build in the 1930s. While he built public housing and dragged Jews from the ghetto to their deaths, Mussolini’s fascist friends were moving to Rome and building big villas by the park. Not that they were rich, but some shipped palm trees from Africa to adorn their grounds. Wander around the stodgy residential areas near Doria Pamphilj and you’ll see some homes that wouldn’t look out of place in the Hollywood Hills.
My building is not one of them.
I live in Monteverde Nuovo, built in the last half of the 20th century. I live on the top floor of a relatively modern five-story building with great views of, well, other five-story buildings. But my street, Via di Monte Verde (City planners get an F for two different spellings of the place name), is lined with big trees leading to busy Piazzale Dunant, a giant square lined with high-end clothes shops where well-dressed men stand in their doorways, my tiny one-table enoteca called Sensi di Vini and my artisan gelateria, Il Gusto. Piazzale Dunant runs into Via Donna Olimpia, which serves as the dividing line between Monteverde Vecchio and Nuovo. It’s named for Pope Innocent X’s powerful, notably bitchy sister-in-law who rampaged through Rome on a horse-drawn carriage, leaving beggars and thieves in her wake.
The main drag of Monteverde Vecchio is Via Carini, noted for cozy enotecas and restaurants, all with, ironically, modern twists. Take Litro (Liter), an appropriately named wine bar just off Carini. It has 28 pages of available wines all in a book of — get this — bondage stories. Emblazoned with a naked nurse tied up and gagged, the grotesquely illustrated book is entitled “The Bondage Clinic and the Fetishistic Gang,” perfect when looking for the proper wine pairing with lesbian S&M.
Litro is where Marina and I met three of my fellow Monteverde friends. Fabio Salmoni, 40, and Carlo Passamonti, 45, are also fellow romanisti. We are huge fans of AS Roma, the local soccer club that we watch on Stappo’s big screen every week.
Salmoni is Jewish. Born and raised in Monteverde, he hung out in Doria Pamphilj where his mom would take him to play with his friends and, later, “Where I’d kiss the girls.” He recalls his childhood in the ‘80s and ‘90s when Monteverde had two schools: Medici Vascello and Morgani.
“Medici Vascello,” Salmoni said, “was fascist.”
Rome had a strong communist-fascist presence in the ‘80s, something Salmoni experienced first hand in Monteverde.
“Nazi fascism was born here,” he said. “When I was a student, Monteverde was conservative, right wing. I went to the Medici of Vascello school as Jewish and a lot of times we saw on the wall and on our desks Nazi symbols.”
He never heard anything to his face. In his day, Salmoni was a pretty good kickboxer. But Monteverde’s image has softened in the 21st century. Passamonti, a native of Sardinia, moved to Monteverde three years ago with his American wife, Tanaz.
Like myself, he sees Monteverde as a big neighborhood but also a very small town.
“I love L.A. for lots of reasons for what L.A. is famous,” he said. “But here in Rome, in Monteverde you can enjoy the distance between your place and your local pub. In 10 minutes you can be with your friends and come back home. I feel you can’t in L.A. where you live your life in your little area but the distance is crazy. From the city center in L.A. to another place is two or three hours driving in that crazy traffic.
“Now in this moment of my life — I’m 45 — from Stappo I’m back home in five minutes.”
Stappo (Italian for “uncork”) is my Monteverde nerve center. I show up an hour before gametime in the back TV room with the beer kegs serving as tables. Over some excellent Italian craft beer and Stappo’s signature American-quality cheeseburgers, I’d get the rundown on the lives of all the young professionals and their girlfriends and wives. It’s our Cheers, made even more neighborly by the owner, another Monteverde native.
Owner Carlo Pascucci has lived here all of his 40 years. He was born in the ‘70s when Monteverde had a reputation as the home of misfits, back when drugs were prevalent and so were the stories emanating out of the psych ward in San Camillo Hospital, the massive medical fortress two blocks from me.
That has changed. I smell marijuana smoke drifting from some bars and there’s the preeminent two homeless sleeping under the covering of Upim department store on the piazzale. But Monteverde, despite its size, has become as personal as tiny Testaccio to me.
“There are places where people don’t live on the streets,” Pascucci said. “In Monteverde you can live on the streets because it’s full of shops. There’s a big, big park which is beloved from the people living here. This is a big impression in the neighborhood. It’s a free space for everybody and where everybody can feel at home.”
Besides Stappo, my other regular pilgrimage is to Mercato Gianicolense. Every Rome neighborhood has an open-air public market. It’s what separates Rome from the rest of the Western world. It’s where you buy the freshest produce, meats, breads and cheeses with no preservatives and at affordable prices. It’s where you can buy homemade pasta for pennies. You want to know why Romans look so healthy? Look in the public markets.
Gianicolense is the most Roman of them all. My Mercato Testaccio moved from Piazza Testaccio, where it stood for 100 years, to a sparkling white shelter in 2013. My old market in Prati, near the Vatican, upgraded into what looks like a downtown parking garage. But Gianicolense has preserved the same gritty image it had when it first opened in the early ‘60s. Its narrow paths between stalls are dark. The preferred language is Romanaccio, the dialect within the Roman dialect devoted exclusively to profanity. Locals bring giant plastic jugs to fill up with table wine poured from giant tanks on a wall. By the fruit stands alone you could film a dozen Mafia scenes.
It’s also one of the few places in Rome where you can buy affordable fish. In the middle of a line of fish stands, is Massimo “Max” Barba. He’s been selling fish here since 1983, but unlike 90 percent of the labor force here, he can count to three in English. In fact, he’s fluent, thanks to five years living in Australia and a year in Los Angeles where he worked as a classical dancer.
He lives 200 meters down the hill from his stand and frets about Monteverde’s expensive housing. I pay 1,000 euros for 600 square feet, much less than I charge in rent for my similar sized condo in Denver.
“That’s not cheap,” he said. “The apartments here are really not cheap at all. They’re really expensive. It’s why the young people don’t buy anything here, including my son.”
He and his wife bought his son a place in l’EUR, Mussolini’s ill-fated fascist neighborhood where the construction stopped when Il Duce found himself hanging by his toes in ‘45. But Barba is right. Monteverde is “chic” but not young and chic. The amount of elderly hanging on to the arms of their children, themselves in their 50s and 60s, makes me feel Ospedale San Camillo’s waiting room extends to the streets of Monteverde.
Barba is typical of many Italians, highly critical of a long string of governments that have left Italy with the worst recession since World War II. The local government remains ripe with corruption. Unemployment for youth in Italy is 31 percent.
He’s not a fascist but even I will admit Mussolini did some good. He led the way to get San Camillo built in 1934, he renovated many neighborhoods, cleared a swath in front of St. Peters and built Via della Conciliazione, the long, wide boulevard providing a beautiful view of St. Peter’s. That doesn’t include turning southern Lazio, Rome’s region, from fetid swamp into prime beach towns. And, yes, he did get the trains to run on time.
However, befriending Adolf Hitler doesn’t look good on his resume.
“There’s a saying old people here say: We used to be better when we used to be worse,” Barba said.
Still, it’s pretty good now. I love Monteverde. After four years in Testaccio, having a new neighborhood is like having a new lover. It’s a whole new body to explore. My girlfriend and I recently cruised Via Carini, home to one of our favorite restaurants, Osteria Tuttoqua (Everythinghere), a romantic spot with covered outdoor seating and gourmet dishes such as orecchiette con gamberi, zafferano, fiori di zucca e bottarga di tonno (ear-shaped pasta with shrimp, saffron, zucchini flowers and dried tuna roe).
We started at Al Grammelot, a tiny enoteca with 12 tables and an eclectic antipasti serving of fusaja (Roman beans), porchetta (sizzling roast pork), caciotta (cheese from Tuscany), salami, green olives and bread. Featuring 1,500 bottles of wine, it became a wine bar 13 years ago after Teodore Capone transformed it from a fruit, vegetable and wine shop run by his father, Alfonso. Yes, Al Capone. No, not THAT Al Capone.
I asked Teodore about business in Monteverde.
“They said people come here for sleeping not for living,” he said. “But after 13 years we’re still here.”
We walked down one block to a cozy, brightly lit affordable seafood restaurant called Cefalu’. Named for the charming port town on Sicily’s northern coast, Cefalu’ features big old photos of Sicilian fishermen and tables brightly decorated with octopus, squid and other sea creatures. My orecchiette in scampi sauce was rich and fresh and Marina’s big pile of grilled seafood tasted as if we were outside on a Sicilian beach instead of an urban street in Rome.
We returned to Carini and had a nightcap at Nanana, a “con-fusion bistrot” with an Asian-slanted menu and a quiet bar next to a sunken dining room. The bartender had spent years in London and was a rare find, a Roman fluent in English. We talked about London’s rent, his native Puglia’s beaches. We also talked about Monteverde’s tranquility. We could hear wine glasses clinking in the dining room, the soft music playing in the bar.
Monteverde Vecchio didn’t seem so old. It’s still new to me. The swastika may remain on my elevator door for a while. But I’ll be here longer.