My list of the most romantic dates in Rome: A city where every day is Valentine’s Day

Marina and I on Terrazza Barromini above Piazza Navona. Marina and I on Terrazza Barromini above Piazza Navona.

Happy Valentine’s Day from the most romantic city in the world. Maybe you’ve had a fantasy about celebrating Valentine’s Day in Rome but don’t feel sorry if you miss it today. The beauty of Rome is every day can be Valentine’s Day if you want it. It’s not just because this city is sprinkled with back-lit monuments, tree-lined palaces, narrow pedestrian alleys winding through Centro Storico and enough outdoor cafes and trattorias to feed half the population.

Valentine’s Day is a Roman holiday.

It’s named for a 3rd century saint named Valentinus who went crossways with the Roman Empire when he performed weddings for soldiers forbidden to marry. The Senate also wasn’t crazy about him aiding Christians getting ready to be burned at the stake and fed to starving lions. While imprisoned, his healing powers extended to a blind judge’s daughter who regained her sight. Just before he was clubbed and beheaded for not renouncing his faith, Valentinus, who became known as St. Valentine, wrote her a letter and signed it “Your Valentine.” He was 42. The date was Feb. 14, 269. His name resurfaced in the High Middle Ages when Feb. 14 became known as the day of courtly love.

Ol’ Valentinus had no idea he would launch a thousand years of opportunistic, larcenous, price-gouging restaurants. Screw you, Valentinus.

But fear not. There is no better way to experience Valentine’s Day than in a romantic city without Valentine’s Day prices. Come to Rome — on any day but today. I’ve lived here as a bachelor for more than four years and have had an Italian girlfriend for nearly three. I’ve learned a bit about romance in Rome.

And I’m here to help. So below is a list of some of my favorite romantic dates in the city.They won’t break your bank. Some take a little planning. Others take a little effort. But they all will leave you with a pitter patter in your heart and your lover in your hand.

If they don’t, well, just stay home and take her to Waffle House.

Piazza Navona from Terrazza Borromini. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Piazza Navona from Terrazza Borromini. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The views in Rome are spectacular. One look and you’ll realize why you came here or, in my case, why you retired here. It could be from a park, a hotel balcony, a walking path on a hill.

One of the best views is from the rooftop Terrazza Borromini. It sits atop the Palazzo Pamphilj just behind Chiesa di Sant’Agnese in Agone, Francesco Borromini’s Baroque-style church that anchors one side of Piazza Navona. Marina and I went for cocktails and strolled around the roof with views of St. Peter’s, Il Vittoriano, the justice building, the dome of Sant’Agnese and, of course, spectacular Piazza Navona. Then we walked down one flight to the restaurant where we dined right above Bernini’s famed Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.

On a warm summer night, we stared at the fountain’s turquoise water and dined on grilled octopus with a nice Pinot Grigio. Then we descended to the ground floor and went around the corner to the piazza and Tre Scalini for its famous tartufo: a frozen ball of rich, dark chocolate with a cherry inside and topped with a big pile of whipped cream. To digest, we strolled around the piazza looking at the local artists’ works and lost ourselves in Centro Storico’s back alleys.

Costs (all estimates for two people, phone numbers don’t include 39 country code). Drinks, Terrazza Borromini (Via di Santa Maria dell’Anima 30, 06-686-1425,, 25 euros, dinner 50. Dessert, Tre Scalini (Piazza Navona 28, 06-688-01996,, 12. Total: 87 euros.

Villa Borghese is a 200-acre park on the north end of Rome.

Villa Borghese is a 200-acre park on the north end of Rome.


A picnic is more of an American custom but Italians are starting to get into them. With such great fresh, cheap food in public markets, how can they not?

Rome also has very underrated parks. Doria Pamphilj south of the Vatican and Villa Ada in north Rome aren’t known by many tourists. I take Villa Borghese near famed Via Veneto for one reason: the Borghese Museum, my favorite museum in Rome.

First, go to any public market. They’re scattered all over the city. You know those farmers markets in the States where the “organic” tomatoes cost as much as a country ham? Those are the norm in Rome’s markets. Stroll through and grab some prosciutti here, some cheese there, some grapes here, some bread there. Add some sliced salami and a bag of olives, whatever is your taste, and maybe a few sticks of chocolate biscotti. Be sure to stop off at the wine booth for a cold, crisp bottle of Frascati, from just south of Rome and excellent for picnics.

Take whatever bus goes up Veneto and find some space under a tree in Villa Borghese. It won’t be hard. It’s 200 acres. Lay out a blanket and enjoy dining on food Romans eat every day at home.

Second, time your picnic with the reservation you’ll need in advance for the Borghese Museum. They let in only a few at a time and you’ll appreciate the straddled entries. Housed in the gorgeous 18th century palace owned by the Borghese family, a long string of noblemen dating back to the 13th century, it is Rome’s most manageable collection of Renaissance and Baroque art. You’ll see Bernini, Botticelli, Raphael and Caravaggio over two floors just big enough to see comfortably in the two-hour allotted time limit.

Third, wander down Via Veneto and see the tony cafes where Rome’s glitterati and paparazzi hung out during the glory days of the 1950s. (Avoid trendy Harry’s Bar unless you think a shrimp cocktail is worth 30 euros.)

Costs. Picnic food 25 euros. Museum, Borghese Museum (Piazzale Scipione Borghese 5, 06-841-3979,, 29.50 euros: 55 total.

Bernini designed St. Peter's Square in the 17th century.

Bernini designed St. Peter’s Square in the 17th century.


The world’s smallest country (yes, it’s an independent state) changes at night. I lived in the Prati neighborhood around the Vatican for 16 months and when the tourists leave after touring the church, the ‘hood becomes very local with lots of local hangouts.

I liked starting an evening at Del Frate, one of the most romantic enotecas (wine bars) in Rome. It’s dark, small, quiet and the wine-by-the-glass list is written on a blackboard. The helpful staff will pick out a wine to your taste and then leave you alone.

Walk down Via Scipioni three blocks to La Pratolina, which I ranked in my top five of the best pizzerias in Rome. It’s not intimate. No Rome pizzeria is. But it’s one of the few in the city that make pizzas in the pinsa style of Ancient Rome. It comes from the Latin word “pinsere,” which means “to crush.” The ancient Romans ate a crushed flat bun or pie, the precursor to the pizza. The crust, uniquely oblong, is a little thicker but the wood-fire oven still provides those luscious little spots of burnt crust.

La Pratolina has the best sausage pizza in town and save room to share a pratolina, its signature dessert: a big messy glob of chocolate, cream, sugar and thin pieces of pie crust.

After dinner, walk seven blocks back where you came from to the Vatican. Walk into St. Peter’s Square and gaze at St. Peter’s, the center of Christendom all back lit in all its glory and ringed by the statues of 140 saints and anchored by Bernini’s fountains. The crowds are gone. The priests are home. It’s just you two and one of the prettiest man-made structures on earth.

You never knew religion could be such a turn on.

Costs: Wine Del Frati (Via degli Scipioni 118/122, 06-323-6437, 5-7 euros per glass, dinner La Pratolina (Via degli Scipioni 248, 06-3600-4409, 40 euros: 60 total.

AcquaMadre's tepidarium is where you start your thermal bath.

AcquaMadre’s tepidarium is where you start your thermal bath.


About 2,000 years ago, the citizenry of Ancient Rome bathed in public baths. Most homes were too small to have their own. One remains. Well, acquaMadre Hammam started 12 years ago but it’s designed after the thermal baths of Ancient Rome.

On a quiet back alley of the Jewish Ghetto, acquaMadre is a very sensual way to start the evening together. It’s dimly lit with only red and white candles, perfect for couples. The only sounds you hear are the quiet splashing of water and your own moans as a young woman gives you a back scrub. You then go into a steam room set at 113 degrees and 100 percent humidity and sweat out seemingly half your body fluids in five minutes.

You then step into a cool shower and pour yourself into the “cool” pool set at 82 degrees. There is no Jacuzzi but the cooler water opens up the pores better. You then take another shower with various gels provided and flop down on a comfy rattan chair where you’re served black tea with sugar.

Feeling cleaner than you’ve ever felt, try to walk five minutes past Torre Argentina to Pascucci, an all-natural juice bar where you can cool down with a coconut shake and think how good the Ancient Romans had it.

Costs: Spa, acquaMadre Hammam (Via di S. Ambrogio 17, 06-686-4272,, 60 euros. Juice, Pascucci (Via di Torre Argentina 20,, 7 euros: 135 total.

The Forum from behind Il Vittoriano.

The Forum from behind Il Vittoriano.


Also known simply as Vittorio Emanuele, this is the gargantuan white monument in Piazza Venezia that looks like a giant wedding cake, which is just one of its nicknames. It’s also called Mussolini’s Typewriter as Il Duce’s balcony where he addressed his mob of fellow fascists overlooks the piazza.

Today, Il Vittoriano often houses very interesting art exhibits, usually concentrating on one master, in its Complesso del Vittoriano museum on the left side of the monument. I saw the Edward Hopper exhibit and it was fabulous. Like the Borghese Museum, it’s just big enough to give you your fill without making you numb from overload. Past exhibits have included Botero and Antonio Ligabue.

Currently showing is Monet until June 3 and Giovanni Boldini, the 19th century Italian painter, will be there from March 4-July 16.

Afterward, continue to the back of Il Vittoriano and stroll along the quiet, dark walkways. Soon you’ll come to one of the most spectacular sights of the city: the Roman Forum all lit up in soft yellow light. Linger a while and imagine the center of the most powerful civilization in history below your feet 2,000 years ago.

If you haven’t kissed your date yet in your relationship, pal, this is the time to do it.

Costs. Museum, Complesso del Vittoriano (Via di San Pietro in Carcere, 06-678-0664,,14 euros. Total: 28 euros.

Madre opened two years ago. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Madre opened two years ago. Photo by Marina Pascucci


In a city that’s going broke, fast, this neighborhood in the shadow of the Colosseum is thriving. It’s hip. It’s fun. It’s vibrant. All kinds of cool bars, restaurants and enotecas are sprinkled around the narrow cobblestone streets — and that includes more than the Ice Club, the lounge on Via della Madonna dei Monti where they serve you cocktails in a 23-degree room.

Two years ago, they opened Madre. It’s attached to the Roma Hotel Luxus off Via Nazionale and is one of the most romantic bars I’ve visited. I took Marina there Saturday night and we sat at a small table under a roof covered in hanging vines. Potted plants ringed the entire place.

It’s also a restaurant but we grabbed a drink there before the place filled up by 7:30 p.m. They specialize in designer cocktails, the kind that includes a lot of liquors, a lot of juices, a lot of sugar and couldn’t get a kitten tipsy. But my Tiki Tango came in a cool, tall glass right out of the Caribbean and the atmosphere was worth prices so larcenous Marina declined to order.

We then made a short 10-minute walk down the quiet street of Via del Boschetto for true Roman cuisine in an old-fashioned, cozy Roman trattoria. La Taverna dei Monti is lined with oil paintings of old Rome and features a small nook with only a few tables.

It serves all the standard Roman dishes: amatriciana, carbonara, cacio e pepe. My lasagna, rare on Rome menus, was outstanding but not nearly as good as Marina’s veal saltimbocca.

For dessert, we skipped its legendary tiramisu to walk to Grezzo, a designer chocolate shop featuring all-natural, gluten-free, raw chocolates. My chocolate-covered coconut made me swoon. “This isn’t chocolate,” I told the young clerk. “This is sexual.”

Costs. Drinks, Madre (Largo Angelicum 1A, 06-678-9046, 28 euros. Dinner, La Taverna dei Monti (Via del Boschetto 41, 06-481-7724,, 30. Dessert, Grezzo (Via Urbana 130, 06-483-443,, 6.00. Total: 64 euros.

Appia Antica was built in 312 BC.

Appia Antica was built in 312 BC.


All dates don’t have to be at night. Rome is gorgeous during the day, mostly all year round. If you’re an active couple, rent bikes and ride down historic Appian Way (Via Appia Antica). It’s arguably the most famous road in Europe. Built in 312 BC, it transported the Roman army to the Adriatic Sea at Brindisi.

You’ll ride along the smooth stones that were revolutionary in their construction at the time. Cruise along the tree-lined road and pass ruins of villas once owned by Roman noblemen. It’s flat, quiet and beautiful. If you want to blow the mood, just tell your date that in 71 BC along this road hanged the bodies of 6,000 slaves who were crucified for joining Spartacus’ rebel army (See: Failed Labor Revolts) in 73 BC.

You can pack a picnic lunch in a daypack or eat at Ristorante L’Archeologica, started in 1890. It’s a bit high end for a post-cycling meal but the nice outdoor seating area is casual. Lots of seafood choices starting at 14 euros.

Costs. Bike rental, Appia Antica Regional Park Information Point (Via Appia Antica 58-60, 06-512-6314,, 3 euros per hour first three hours, 10 euros all day. Dinner: Ristorante L’Archeologia (Via Appia Antica 139, 06-788-0494,, mains starting at 14 euros. Total: 60 euros.

That’s all for now. I hope this helps but remember, romance is found in the heart, not on the Internet. You can find your own romantic date in Rome just by showing up. I’d give you more ideas, but it’s Valentine’s Day.

I’ve got a date.

La Molisana pasta bash puts Italy’s favorite food in Rome train station

La Molisana opened a shop in Termini train station and will close Nov. 12. Photo by Marina Pascucci

La Molisana opened a shop in Termini train station and will close Nov. 12. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I remember going to grand openings in America. They were all based on bribes. They invite you into a shopping mall and give you a few items of free merchandise, most of it worthless (I think I used the martini glass sleeve as a door jam). You go to a restaurant and get delicious tastings and return the following week to find the same tastings cost the equivalent of a night’s hotel stay. I liked the openings of sports stadiums. But if your team still stinks, you wonder why they bothered.

Here in Italy, openings are different. They’re based more on the subtle than the sale. I go to openings of art galleries, enotecas, photo exhibits. But only in Italy can you experience what I did last week, an event that speaks to the heart of what is important to the Italian soul.

A pasta opening.

True. La Molisana is a 105-year-old pasta company in Molise, the small, nature-loving region on the Adriatic Sea 150 miles east of Rome. Last week La Molisana opened a shop in, of all places, Rome’s Termini train station. In the middle of the main floor with people running around to tracks in the country’s largest train station is a little shop packed with pasta of every conceivable shape.

It’s an ingenious marketing strategy and they hired Marina Pascucci, my girlfriend and uber photographer, to take photos of the opening. I tagged along to … well, eat. Sending me to a pasta opening is like giving a pothead a bus ticket through Colorado. Pasta has dominated my diet since moving here nearly four years ago.

La Molisana began in 1912 and has moved up to fifth in Italy's pasta market. Photo by Marina Pascucci

La Molisana began in 1912 and has moved up to fifth in Italy’s pasta market. Photo by Marina Pascucci

To understand the importance of La Molisana’s presence in Termini, you must understand the importance of pasta in Italy. Last year, this nation of 60 million people consumed 908,100 tons of pasta, by far the highest per capita in the world, according to Mintel, a global marketing research firm. Each Italian consumes 15.2 kilograms a year. That includes a 2 percent drop since 2011 as some Italians are joining the worldwide trend toward carb-free diets.

Their loss.

I eat pasta six days a week. Sometimes I eat it twice a day. I never tire of it. How can you when Italian recipe books are the size of Sicily’s criminal code? If a mathematician tried calculating the number of combinations you can make with the 350 different types of pasta, his mind would snap. Rome has many of those varieties on display in the National Museum of Pasta (currently closed for renovation) on the north side of town.



Each region has its own famous pasta shape. There’s the ear-shaped orecchiette in Puglie, the twisty trofie in Liguria and Emilia-Romagna has the strozzapreti which looks like a short, thin pasta that looks like part of a garroting wire and inspired the name (“strozzapreti” means “strangle priests”). Puglie has casarecce, similar to strozzapreti but shorter with a bigger fold in the middle.

La Molisana has a lovely display, although it’s temporary and closes Nov. 12. It’s a small square space, lined with boxed pasta and the opening had attractive representatives greeting people as they entered. Chefs in white smocks prepared finger food at one end while another poured Prosecco in little plastic champagne glasses.

La Molisana's temporary display is designed to get in closer touch with its customers. Photo by Marina Pascucci

La Molisana’s temporary display is designed to get in closer touch with its customers. Photo by Marina Pascucci

It’s not easy carving a niche in the Italian pasta world. Barilla, which is probably what you have in your cupboard now, is the world’s leading pasta company with 40 percent of the Italian market. It’s followed by De Cecco, Divella and Garofalo. La Molisana is No. 5 — with a bullet. Since 2011 when the Ferro family acquired Molisana, it has jumped from 0.3 percent of the national market share to 4.6.

La Molisana isn’t some little company that crawled from the shadows of the Apennine mountains. It reports annual revenues of $125 million, and 34 percent is exported to 80 countries. Its markets in Australia and New Zealand have exploded.

It has been around a while. It goes back four generations in Molise and boasts what the other companies can’t.


Few people have visited. It’s one of three of 20 Italian regions I’ve never seen. But I’ve heard stories that make it sound like all of Italy’s geographical wonders are shoehorned into an area smaller than Delaware. Snowcapped Apennine mountains. Enchanting forests. Sandy beaches. Charming fishing villages. It all adds up to the perfect environment for making pasta.

“We live in an unpolluted place,” said Francesca Di Nucci, La Molisana’s marketing assistant. “Molise is a natural paradise with almost no industrial assets, no industries. With a pure water, pure mountain air. Our pasta factory is one of the most high pasta factories in the south of Italy.”

Di Nucci explained that La Molisana gets its durum wheat all the way in Arizona, where it’s one of the best in the world, and uses all the raw, natural materials around Molise. They’ve been milling pasta the same way for four generations so they have the recipe down well.

Owner Giuseppe Ferro and marketing director Rossella Ferro. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Owner Giuseppe Ferro and marketing director Rossella Ferro. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“It means we are millers before being pasta makers,” she said.

The antipasti La Molisana dished out at its opening were quite good, particularly these little tube pasta filled with cream and crispy bits of pig’s cheek. In an attempt to spread Italy’s good taste around the world — and to prove I’m secure in my manhood — below is the recipe:

PACCHERI CON FONDUTA DI PECORINO E GUANCIALE (Wide tube pasta with fonduta pecorino cheese and pig’s cheek)

12-15 La Molisana paccheri pasta
150 grams pecorino romano cheese
30 grams cream
100 grams guanciale (pig’s cheek)

Melt pecorino in a saucepan and stir in cream until it’s about 20 percent of the formula. Melt it all and add some water if it’s too thick. Fry guanciale until crispy. Remove it to a paper towel and let it soak up the grease. Cut away all the fat. While making sauce, boil paccheri 11 minutes until al dente (a little less than done). When ready, drain and lay individual pasta tubes individually on a tray. Fill the pasta holes with cream and top them with bacon bits.

Paccheri con fonduta di pecorino e guanciale. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Paccheri con fonduta di pecorino e guanciale. Photo by Marina Pascucci

In Sicily: In search of the world’s best cannoli

The cannoli at Avenue Cafe Di Pollina Pietro must be held to be believed.

The cannoli at Avenue Cafe Di Pollina Pietro must be held to be believed.

CROCCI, Italy — It was Columbus Day Monday, that day when Americans argue over whether Italy’s finest explorer, Christopher Columbus, discovered America or was it the indigenous people who were already there. Controversy aside, setting sail across the Atlantic in the 15th century took some major palle and set up some pretty fair exploration from Italians. Fueled by their quest for knowledge, if not matching their courage, I set out on my own exploration Saturday night. It was a quest that would inspire mankind and feed a hunger in me. Call it …

… in search of the best cannoli in Sicily.

It’s a worthy journey. Anyone who has tasted that sweet ricotta cheese filling oozing out of a hard crust like cream from a bonbon knows it’s one of the world’s greatest desserts. Every Sicilian around the world who has put up a shingle on a restaurant, from Palermo to Portland, serves cannoli. You’re never the same after one. Then again, neither is your stomach.

Here in Sicily, where my lovely Marina and I came for a long weekend, cannoli is one of the four major food groups. On the island of Favignana, just four miles off Sicily’s west coast, every bar, cafe, trattoria, restaurant and practically bike shop carries cannoli. I had one after every meal. We had one for between-meal snacks. By the time we hopped the hydrofoil back to Trapani on the mainland, I was about ready to liquify one over a match and inject it in my vein.

On the mainland I mainlined. We met our good trapanese friend, Giuseppe, for dinner at Cantina Siciliana. As the name implies, it’s as traditionally Sicilian as mandolin music at a Palermo wedding. It’s in a back alley away from the bustling port and glitzy main drag of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Dolls that look like witches hang from the ceiling in a nod to the neighborhood’s past life as a theater district. The prices are also Sicilian. I had scrumptious busiate, the traditional Sicilian twisty pasta that looks like a thin, yellowish barber pole. Served with tuna roe, tomatoes and almonds from Sicily’s Baroque Triangle town of Noto, it was only 12 euro. It was one of the best meals I’ve had in Sicily, my favorite food region in Italy.

From left: Giuseppe, me, Marina and Patrizia at Cantina Siciliana.

From left: Giuseppe, me, Marina and Patrizia at Cantina Siciliana.

Giuseppe is a graphic designer, like Marina, and he brought his colleague, Patrizia, who is also a graphic designer. They had plenty to talk about. But then, as in every conversation in Italy, the subject soon came to food. We were finishing our last glass of Grillo, a terrific white wine from Barone on Sicily’s east coast, and Giuseppe and I started talking about one of Sicily’s favorite subjects.


“You want to try the best cannoli in Sicily?” he asked me. He may as well have asked a junkie, “Do you want the best high of your life?”

It was 11 p.m. And we were goin’ on a road trip. We walked out onto the quiet, dark alley and squeezed into Patrizia’s Fiat 500.

“It’s in the countryside not far from here,” Giuseppe said. “But no one from downtown goes there. Not people like me. Only people from the town.”

The village of Crocci lies about six miles east of Trapani on SP52, a highway that goes through farmland and olive groves.

“Is this mafia country?” I asked, playing the role of a dumb American tourist.

“Not far from it,” Giuseppe said. In fact, Crocci is only 60 miles from the famed town of Corleone.

Oktoberfest in Crocci

Oktoberfest in Crocci

Crocci has a population of 461. It seems all 461 people are in Avenue Cafe di Pollina Pietro, a drab name for what could be the best cannoli in Italy and, thus, the world. They weren’t there for the cannoli. However, looking at the size of the locals, they’ve already had their fill. They had packed the bar for Crocci’s Oktoberfest. Italians, particularly in the south, aren’t big beer drinkers. That’s why I saw a direct correlation between the huge liter-size beer mugs being served and the noise erupting from the adjacent room.

Giuseppe walked me to the cafe counter where inside a glass case I saw cannoli so large they looked straight out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum. These were at least 10 inches long, twice the size of cannoli I’ve seen anywhere else in Italy. They were 2 euros each.

He ordered two for the four of us. He could’ve ordered two for the entire cafe.

An advisory to all Americans: The term “cannoli” is plural. One is called a “cannolo.” It’s similar to panini. One is a “panino,” which always baffled the clerks at Panera whenever I ordered one in the U.S. “Cannolo” actually comes from the Sicilian word “cannolu” which means “little tube.”

A cannoli at Avenue Cafe Di Pollina Pietro next to a normal-sized cannoli.

A cannoli at Avenue Cafe Di Pollina Pietro next to a normal-sized cannoli.

The cannolo tradition in Sicily has somewhat of a controversial, steamy past. It dates back to the 9th century when the Arabs controlled Sicily and cannoli were served at the harem of Caltanissetta in the Sicilian hinterland. Apparently, cannoli improved fertility which explains why so many Sicilians have Arab blood today. While the story probably has more sex appeal than truth, it is true that the Arabs brought sugar cane to Sicily in the ninth century.

The more tame legend is that nuns in the convent near Caltanissetta made cannoli to celebrate Carnival.

What is definitely true is what makes cannoli maybe Italy’s favorite dessert. It is a round tube of fried pastry dough filled with rich, creamy ricotta cheese spiked with sugar. Sometimes it’ll be laced with chocolate chips or lined with chocolate or pistachio. But those are found on the mainland. Here in Sicily, I once asked for a cannolo with chocolate and the man laughed and shook his head. I felt like an Italian in the U.S. asking for a hotdog with Nutella. In Sicily, you find only tradition.

What separates Sicilian cannoli with those found elsewhere is the tube. It’s crisp. It’s crunchy. You almost need a steak knife to cut it. Some cannoli tubes in the U.S. are as soggy as a rain-soaked sock. And most cannoli in Sicily are “preparati al momento” (prepared at the moment), meaning they’re always fresh.

Giuseppe put one of the cannoli in my hand and it doubled the width of it. This cannolo isn’t a dessert. It’s a weapon. Giuseppe gingerly cut the two cannoli in halves and Marina, always watching her diet, looked at the slab in front of her and nearly fled the room. I dug in. The thick confection of ricotta cheese had the consistency of gelato and was nearly as sweet. It was almost too much. I had to break off pieces of the tube to give my mouth some context. But I didn’t waste a drop. It fed my growing addiction. I nearly inhaled it like a milkshake through a giant, fila-dough straw.

As the patrons filled themselves with beer, none of their stomachs could’ve been as jammed as mine as I waddled into the night. It was midnight and a hotel room back in Sicilian civilization awaited. As I laid on the bed and groaned, something made me wonder.

What dessert did Columbus bring on his ships?

Mussolini — yes, Mussolini — to thank for Lazio’s beautiful beaches

About 80 years ago this area was a swamp. Today this stretch of sand, part of Riviera di Ulisse, is one of the best beaches in Italy.

About 80 years ago this area was a swamp. Today this stretch of sand, part of Riviera di Ulisse, is one of the best beaches in Italy.

GAETA, Italy — The golden sand stretched for miles on both sides of me. Nary a pebble pricked the bottom of my feet as I poured myself into the Tyrrhenian Sea. I waded out to my chest where I could see my feet through the translucent blue water and for dozens of meters around me. Was I just south of Rome or in French Polynesia?

I looked back to the sand and the Riviera di Ulisse doesn’t have as many palm trees as Tahiti. It has a long row of pink geranium trees mixed with a small forest bearing the famous Gaeta olives. A small sea wall separates the beach from some tasteful, casual beach restaurants and bars where my Marina and I retired as a break from laying all day on cushioned lounge chairs under an umbrella.

Marina and me on the Riviera di Ulisse.

Marina and me on the Riviera di Ulisse.

Thank you, Benito Mussolini.

Rick Reilly, the best sportswriter of my generation, once advised never to write a sentence that has been written before. I’m pretty sure no one has ever written thank you to Mussolini, at least not in the last 70 years or so. Yes, he is a big reason Marina and I don’t have to board a plane or boat to relax on some of the best beaches in Europe. Our beach is 85 miles south of Rome on the Riviera di Ulisse, named for Ulysses who plied this waters during his adventures in “The Odyssey.” It’s an underrated part of the Lazio region that is sprinkled with cute towns and beaches that get more gorgeous with every kilometer you drive. Foreigners don’t come here much. Italians do. They know the convenience and pleasure of this area known as Agro Pontino, particularly now during Rome’s driest summer in the last 60 years. Where else in Europe can you get a tan and swim in a crystal-blue sea then eat a seafood feast for two with a bottle of local white wine for under 70 euros? Italians also appreciate this area for another reason.

They know in the 1930s this whole area was a swamp.

Southern Lazio was a mosquito-infested, malaria-riddled, miserable, soggy, randomly populated dump not worthy of life other than insects and Nazis. It had been like that since Ancient Rome when Caesar Augustus, whom some say was Rome’s greatest emperor, built a canal to drain the marsh and develop agriculture. But when the canals weren’t maintained during the Roman Empire’s roller coaster ride between rule and ruin, the swamps returned.

Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a united Italy, started draining the swamp in the late 19th century but didn’t finish the job. In 1928, the population in this entire region was all of 1,637 people, most of whom lived in shanties across the boggy fields. The Red Cross investigated and reported that 80 percent of the people who spent one night in the marsh developed malaria.

Imagine how cheap that beach-front property could’ve been.

A propaganda poster showing Mussolini helping rebuild Agro Pontino.

A propaganda poster showing Mussolini helping rebuild Agro Pontino.

Then came Mussolini. Named prime minister in 1922, he directed Alessandro Messea, the director-general of the department of health, to, pardon the expression but take this literally, “drain the swamp.” Mussolini took the plan to Parliament in 1929 and the next year cleared the scrub forest. He constructed 10,700 miles of canals and trenches, dredged the rivers, dyked the river banks, filled the holes and built pump stations. The last channel, the one that leads to the Tyrrhenian Sea, was dubbed Mussolini Canal.

Soon, cute little towns started popping up: Latina in 1932, Sabaudia in 1934, Pontinia in 1935, Aprilia in 1937 and Pomezia in 1939. Gaeta, the nearest town to Papardo’ Beach, became an important seaport.

In a weird way, Mussolini will always be linked to bufala mozzarella.

In a weird way, Mussolini will always be linked to bufala mozzarella.

In 1933, the project employed 124,000 people. Many were poor from the Veneto region near Venice. When the project was completed, 2,000 families were settled in two-story houses and given a farmhouse, an oven, a plough, a stable, cows and land. To this day, many people around here still speak the Venetian dialect.

What is often overlooked, however, is during the project those workers were interned in camps enclosed by barbed wire. Many developed malaria. Many quit.

And oh, yes, Benito, about your friendship with Adolf Hitler …?

Tomato production is huge in Agro Pontino.

Tomato production is huge in Agro Pontino.

Marina and I discussed this over a superb breakfast spread of chocolate-ricotta muffins, fruit and steaming, foamy cappuccino with Maria Dea, the owner of our gorgeous lodging outside Sonnino, a small town of 2,000 climbing the side of a cliff above the sea. Casale Re’ is an agriturismo homestead in a sprawling two-story white stone house with a warm swimming pool complete with a steady stream of fountains spewing water along the side. Outside our room has views of the rich agricultural fields Mussolini cleaned up and the sea beyond. Fresh grapes hang from vines next to the parking area and would later be on my breakfast plate. A restaurant is under construction behind the pool.
Casale Re'

Casale Re’

Maria told us official papers show the building is from the 19th century but thinks it was built 200 years before that. Casale Re’ is difficult to find. We spent way too much time crisscrossing the narrow, windy country roads that passed under bridges and ran along canals. But we curbed our frustration by marveling at the olive orchards, agricultural fields and high stacks of watermelons in the country stores. We went by factories that produce the luscious bufala mozzarella that always makes me swoon when eating it on a bed of fresh prosciutto. We’d drive along narrow roads shaded by Mediterranean pines and pass flatbed trucks with their payloads stacked with bright red tomatoes like giant cherry Jujubes. Giant rolls of grain the size of tanks (Mussolini reference entirely intended) lay side by side under a wood shelter.

From October to December, long after the sea has cooled, this area is crawling with Italians who flock here for the best olive oil in the country. With fresh produce everywhere and famous olive oil, the food here is even better than the beaches. In Pontinia for lunch, we stumbled onto an agriturismo called Pegaso 2000, a two-story red structure with potted plants lining a patio. Inside were stained-wood tables with cast-iron chandeliers and a family that has run the place for generations. The fettuccine ragu di manzo (wide pasta noodles with a tomato sauce of ground steak) beat anything I’ve ever had in Emilia-Romagna, the birthplace of ragu. The best yet is the pasta, vegetables, bread, wine and bottled water (the tap water here isn’t THAT clean still) were all of 17.50 euros.

Ambrosia 23

Ambrosia 23

We stepped up for dinner at Ambrosia 23 in Terracina, one of the beach towns that dot the seaside like beach balls. On a small road along the canal, we sat in dark brown wicker chairs with red and white flowers on the table and exposed stone walls. I went local, eating the spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and bufala mozzarella, a fantastic combination only made better knowing everything was made or picked within a short walk from our table.

Joined by another couple from my neighborhood in Rome, we had three seafood pasta dishes, octopus salad, grilled calamari, baccala’ (Lazio’s famous fried cod), a basket of fresh bread and a bottle of white Riflessi wine from nearby San Felice Circeo.

Of course, Mussolini never got a chance to taste the cod of his labor. He sold out Italy at the hands of Hitler and by the time he was hanging from his toes in Milan in ‘45, the Nazis had taken over this region. They stopped the pumps, opened the dikes, refilled the marshes and devastated the population. Italy had switched allegiance to the Allies and this was Germany’s version of biological warfare.

However, the major structures for water control survived and Agro Pontino, was restored. The last case of malaria, thanks also to the invention of DDT, came in the 1950s. By the year 2000, this area’s population had grown to 520,000.

Like Richard Nixon whose ties with Red China were overshadowed by the Vietnam War, Mussolini’s clean-up job in Lazio will be buried under the weight of setting back a country for years through misguided fascism.

Which means his legacy will be greater than the fascist the U.S. has now.

Iceland’s Hakarl (fermented shark meat) isn’t as hard to eat as it is to pronounce

The shark meat dries for three to four months before being consumed.

The shark meat dries for three to four months before being consumed.


HELGAFELLSSVEIT, Iceland — I firmly believe much of Icelandic cuisine is based on a dare.

They eat whale in Iceland. They eat puffin. You’ve seen whales. Ever seen a puffin? It’s a cute, little black-and-white bird with a bright red beak. It’s meant to be photographed, not eaten. At one AirBnB, a traveler brought in a package of hardfiskur. That’s wind-dried haddock. Calling it “fish jerky” is an insult to all jerky. Picture spoiled carp with the general texture of shrapnel and you have hardifiskur.

But the greatest of the gross, the lowest of the lousy, is a food so vile its legend — not to mention its aroma — has reached every corner of the globe. It’s called hakarl. If you know Iceland, you know hakarl. You just didn’t know the name, nor can you pronounce. In Icelandic’s inane pronunciation guide, you say it HOW-kaht. That’s Icelandic for fermented shark. (At one time, it was called rotted shark. However, they changed the name after changing the preparation process not to mention for PR purposes.)

While talking to Icelanders around the country, they’ve all tried it. It’s an Icelandic holiday tradition, kind of like American fruitcake but much worse — if that’s possible.

As a food writer, I’ve had to hold up our reputation for getting down and dirty with the most disgusting foods that keep mankind alive. As a traveling food columnist for The Denver Post for eight years, I forced myself to down some foods that required a six-pack chaser: sheep penis in China (Chinese believe animal penis promotes virility which helps explain why there are 1.4 billion Chinese), four-inch-long flying cockroach-like insects in Cambodia called a kadam tuk (you dig into their back and scrape out their eggs), ambuyat in Brunei (a gelatinous matter found in sago trees with the texture of papier mache). People ask me what the most disgusting food I’ve ever eaten. I always say it’s a tossup between live beetle larvae in the Amazon (they actually move in your hand) and a bacon cheeseburger at Hooters (one lawyer from Atlanta wrote in and asked, “Hooters has food?”)

I was told and read that hakarl would, pardon the pun, hurl them all aside. Icelanders told me, “The only thing worse than the smell is the taste.”

Spoiled cheese. Urine. Cleaning fluids. The descriptions of the tastes alone made me want to keep driving as I passed the big shark sign indicating the cutoff from the main road.

I found the center of the hakarl universe on an isolated farm called Bjarnarhofn in the little region of Helgafellssveit. The Bjarnarhofn family have harvested Greenland sharks on the northern coast of West Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula for 400 years and is the leading producer in the country. The farm consists of a small museum ( and display room, perfect for tastings, although the bathroom is inconveniently located down the hall, too far for one little boy who blew chow after thinking the shark bit was a Jujube.

The museum is filled with knick-knacks from around the area: stuffed birds, ship wheels, model boats, old photos. On one wall are photos of fishermen next to sharks hanging up from boat hooks. The sharks are twice as tall as the men. And UGLYYYYYY! Greenland sharks don’t have the trademark pointy nose. They’re blunt faced, as if they spend their days underwater running into sea walls.

Greenland sharks are the fourth largest in the world, growing up to seven meters.

Greenland sharks are the fourth largest in the world, growing up to seven meters.

The guide is a little Italian woman named Maria Stella Faccin. She’s from Rimini and doesn’t miss Italy after living in this natural paradise that is Iceland. She was a bundle of enthusiasm and a wealth of information about the sad, dark, isolated world of the Greenland shark. She gathered us in front of a video screen and told us that the Greenland shark is the fourth largest in the world. It grows to seven meters and 1,200 kilos. It’s Iceland’s only shark. And here’s the catch: It’s the most toxic shark in the world.

Greenland sharks (they just sound mean, don’t they?) live in the North Atlantic between Greenland and Iceland. They swim three to five kilometers deep, meaning the water that nearly paralyzed my hand on the south coast is even colder, between 30-40 degrees. To protect itself from the cold, the shark produces a natural antifreeze. Also, its urine circulates through the body to keep it warm, although Icelanders frown upon freezing tourists who do the same.

Both are highly poisonous.

“It is so toxic, if you eat it fresh, you die,” Faccin said. “No question.”

So these shark farmers, instead of buying them in the ground for weeks as was the old tradition, ferment the sharks for six to nine weeks in a fermentation room. Then they hang them in a special drying room for three to four months. After that, they are ready to eat. No cooking. No browning. No frying. Nothing.

Raw shark sushi, sans poisons.

“It forms a brown crust which makes it look like it’s smoked,” Faccin said.

This is one of Iceland’s oldest practices, something that has nearly died out the last 70 years. In the 14th century, they were prized sources of — get this — electricity.

The Greenland shark has an enormous liver. It makes up 1/10th of its entire body, meaning the liver weighs 100-150 kilos. If you boil it, you’ll get oil. That oil was sold all over Europe to light street lamps. In the 1910s alone, 32,000 Greenland sharks were killed. However, when the advent of electricity took hold, the Greenland shark wasn’t needed.

Iceland hasn’t hunted sharks since 1950.

So why did I see sharks hanging from hooks in photos around the museum? Maria said the farm uses only sharks accidentally caught in fishing nets.

“Why don’t the fishermen throw them back?” I asked, forgetting that it’s not exactly like throwing back a brook trout.

She said the shark’s odd breathing system doesn’t allow them to stay stationary. When they get trapped in nets, water can’t flow into their gills and they drown underwater.

How they became food is a little like the first guy who ate milk. Can you imagine how brave he was? Think about it. Some farmer told a guy, “See that thing hanging under the cow with the spigots sticking out? Squeeze one of them and drink whatever comes out.”

In the 16th century, fishermen buried the leftover shark parts underground to dispose of the meat — and also the smell. One day someone dug up the shark . It was all dried up. He ate it. He didn’t die.

And a disgusting Icelandic eating tradition was born.

It is sold to restaurants all over the country but Icelanders really only eat it at some traditional holiday feasts. It’s to remind them that they are Icelanders and have a reputation for eating food unsuitable for UNICEF.

“Shut up and eat your puffin, Thor.”

I asked Faccin about the Greenland sharks’ current status as “near threatened” despite being protected by the European Union.

She said, “We only do 60-80 sharks a year on average. We’re the only farm in Iceland. Some do one shark a year. On a world basis, that’s not many at all.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund, Greenland sharks are also threatened by climate change and diet, as increased development in the Arctic areas has put more waste in the ocean. Little is known about the Greenland shark as they spend so much time at such depths where marine biologists can’t record numbers. The WWF is backing the University of Windsor’s efforts to tag and track them as part of the Ocean Tracking Network which works with marine biologists around the world.

In Greenland, the shark is used for emergency dog food.

“All it does is get them drunk,” Faccin said.

On the wall are some of the things found in sharks over the years: the skin and bones of a polar bear, a partially digested seal, the tail and skull of a baby whale.

“So you can tell,” she said, “they’re not squeamish.”

Hakarl is mostly served during Icelandic holidays or family gatherings.

Hakarl is mostly served during Icelandic holidays or family gatherings.

It finally came time to try one. I suddenly regretted eating such a huge breakfast in my AirBnB in Stykkisholmur 20 minutes away. Sitting in little glass bowls were small white rubbery squares. Next to them were little pieces of bread. What, we’re supposed to eat it like an hors d’oeuvre?

“Eat it with the bread,” Faccin said. “It takes some of the taste away. But then try it without the bread.”

I tried the first method and all I tasted was bread. The shark was merely a rubbery texture. Then I tried it without garnish. I braced myself, like awaiting a shot from a needle the size of an epee. I put it in my mouth and chewed.

It wasn’t bad. Really. It wasn’t disgusting at all. It smelled a bit like ammonia but the taste was kind of smoky, much more smoke than urine. (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.) Maybe I didn’t get a particularly pungent sample. I tried another. Again, decent. I had another. I was starting to develop a taste for something Gordon Ramsey couldn’t keep down.

“See? It’s not bad,” said Faccin who proudly says she eats it every day.

Me trying hakarl at the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum.

Me trying hakarl at the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum.

I wouldn’t serve it at my next terrace aperitivo in Rome but it definitely doesn’t deserve it’s, well, putrid reputation. At least, it doesn’t make my top five worst foods.

And at only 12 euros for the museum tour, it’s the best food bargain in Iceland.