Testaccio: An ode to a true Roman neighborhood

Reading my Corriere dello Sport in my neighborhood was a daily ritual over the last four years. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Reading my Corriere dello Sport in my neighborhood was a daily ritual over the last four years. Photo by Marina Pascucci


How do you say goodbye to a neighborhood that feels more home than your hometown? How do you thank people who embraced you for four years without speaking your language? How do you explain sorrow over moving, when you’re only moving two kilometers?

Rome does that to you. Testaccio does that to you. It’s a neighborhood few tourists know and not many Romans know well, as I do. But unlike the Eternal City, my home isn’t for eternity. This weekend, after the four best years of my life, I’m moving. I’m going across the Tiber River and up the hill to Monteverde, an upscale, green neighborhood peppered with huge trees and modern eateries and home to the biggest park in Rome.

I’m excited, anxious and curious. But I’m also filled with sorrow and melancholy. As I’m writing this on my 35-square-meter terrace, with the sun peeking over my penthouse roof, I can see the opposite bank of the Tiber below me. Yet with this move looming, that river seems as wide as the Atlantic Ocean.

It will be tough to leave this 35-square-meter terrace overlooking the Tiber.

It will be tough to leave this 35-square-meter terrace overlooking the Tiber.


I don’t want to move. From the minute I set foot in this palace of an apartment, I knew I’d found a home, hopefully permanent. I covered the walls with artwork and photos. I filled my closet with red and yellow AS Roma gear. I nurtured my landlady’s plants and lined the terrace with flowers of purple, white, yellow and red. On my terrace I entertained, ate, drank, wrote and bathed in the sun, like an old Roman senator easing into retirement.

So why leave? It’s for a boring reason: security. My landlady, for reasons she never fully explains, refuses to give me more than six-month contracts. Every six months I had to sweat out a rent increase or even a 30-day notice. Negotiations consisted of “sign or leave” the week a contract expired. She would never discuss it leading up to the next contract. However, due to weird Italian tax laws way beyond my comprehension, she only raised my rent once. The 1,000 euros I pay a month remain well under market value. I always signed.

However, when you’re retired in Rome, little stress becomes big stress. If I eliminate that stress every six months, I’ll have nirvana: a stress-free life. Who wouldn’t want that? So I found another penthouse apartment that’s bigger (55 square meters vs. 45) with a bigger kitchen, living room, closet, bedroom and even bed. It doesn’t have the same romantic terrace but it has a wide balcony that wraps around the entire apartment.

A courtyard in Testaccio. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A courtyard in Testaccio. Photo by Marina Pascucci


My girlfriend, Marina, is ecstatic. She’s a third-generation Roman who has always called Monteverde “chic.” She’s also ecstatic she has a stress-free boyfriend. I signed a four-year contract which, under Italian law, allows me to get a residency card, a family doctor and utilities in my name and, thus, cheaper bills. It’s for the same 1,000 euros with a smaller condo fee (68 vs. 100). It has an elevator. No longer will I have to hike up 90 steps if I forget a notepad. A bigger, cheaper gym is only three blocks away. An old-fashioned Roman public market is only two tram stops away. Doria Pamphilj, Rome’s 455-acre park, is just beyond that. I’m excited, too, in a way. I’ll live in Rome the rest of my life. After four years, it’s time to explore another neighborhood.

Now it’s time to say a heartfelt goodbye to my old one.

Rome’s neighborhoods are very distinct, as different in appearance and vibe as different countries. Centro Storico is where remnants of Ancient Rome are everywhere you look. Nearby Monti, anchored by the Colosseum, is hip and maybe the most vibrant in the city. L’EUR is where Mussolini’s dream of a fascist neighborhood fell short, leaving it to become a relatively modern, comfortable zone with wide boulevards, big buildings, a man-made canal and terraced lawns.

Mauro in my edicola. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Mauro in my edicola. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Testaccio has changed through the years, too. Once so working class it was referred to as “the real Rome,” it has gentrified some. Older couples started selling their apartments to the young professionals. Soon it became one of the hippest places in the city yet still keeps its down-home Roman image. Located a little more than a mile south of Centro Storico — In about 15 minutes I can walk to Circus Maximus where they held the chariot races — Testaccio remains a true Roman neighborhood. The only tourists it attracts come for AirBnBs and tours of our famous public market, Mercato Testaccio. It has no hotels, no pubs, hardly even any postcards. It’s where old people sit in tree-filled Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice and speak the old Romanesco dialect.

It’s where I don’t understand a damn thing.

It doesn’t matter. It’s here where I perfected what I call my “piazza mentality.” When down, mad, frustrated, go to a piazza. It’s what separates Rome from the rest of the world’s great cities. You don’t hear traffic. You hear birds. You don’t eat dust. You eat gelato. I solved most of the world’s problems, including some of my own, sitting in the shade in that piazza.

The Fontana delle Anfore in Piazza Testaccio. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Fontana delle Anfore in Piazza Testaccio. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Testaccio has two great piazzas. Santa Maria Liberatrice, across the street from the church of the same name, is my anchor. It’s where I buy my newspapers at the edicola and where I eat my breakfast staple, cappuccino bencaldo (extra hot) and chocolate cornetto, at the nearby cafe, Linari, home to the fastest service in Rome. Two blocks away, historic Piazza Testaccio housed Mercato Testaccio for 100 years before it moved south a few blocks five years ago. Today the piazza is a flat cobblestone square with the Fontana delle Anfore in the center. Built in 1927 by Pietro Lombardi, it moved down the street to Piazza dell’Emporio in 1935 and returned to Piazza Testaccio three years ago. On any given weekend afternoon, you dodge soccer balls kicked by children and their fathers, still showing skills 40-50 years after they hung up their cleats. The wives and mothers sit on the wood benches ringing the piazza, gossiping and eating paninos.
Orazio in L'Oasi della Birra, home to 1,500 wines and 500 beers. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Orazio in L’Oasi della Birra, home to 1,500 wines and 500 beers. Photo by Marina Pascucci


On one side of the piazza is my local watering hole. L’Oasi della Birra features 1,500 different wines and 500 different beers from around the world. It also has one of the best aperitivos in Rome. Ten euros gets you a buffet of pastas, vegetables, quiches, rice dishes and a variety of cold cuts, topped with some of their designer chocolates they sell on the side. Their covered patio seating with picnic tables is where I held many scambios (language exchanges), cardinal reunions (fellow Yank expats John Samuels and Jeff Larsen and I played cardinals in HBO’s “The Young Pope”) or just plain wanted a buzz (its delicious Centaurus on tap is 12 percent alcohol).

The top destination in Testaccio, however, became my daily ritual. Mercato Testaccio marks the pinnacle of La Dolce Vita’s food pyramid. The white-walled, open-air market is filled with the best fresh foods Italy has to offer. Those Sunday farmers markets in America where you pay $2.50 for an organic tomato? Those are sold every day in my market at a fraction of that cost. Walk around and suddenly the most hardened bachelor gets in the mood to cook. Who wouldn’t when you see prosciutto with nary a trace of fat, tomatoes so sweet you eat them like apples, bricks of parmesan with major bite, lean sausage, clementines and oranges perfect for morning juice, fresh loaves of multi-grained bread, tuna steaks caught that morning in the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea, fresh pasta sold in a dozen different shapes, fat green and purple grapes, bufala mozzarella shipped up from Campania, cheeses from all regions of Italy.

Federico and pajata at Mercato Testaccio.

Federico and pajata at Mercato Testaccio.


Shopping in Mercato Testaccio isn’t just a necessity to a healthier life. It’s a social experience. Over four years I’ve gotten to know the merchants I frequent. They’re like neighbors. I shopped at the same supermarket in Denver for 23 years. I never knew the name of a single clerk. They never asked me mine. But when I make my rounds after the gym I always stop by to see Federico, the butcher and Lazio fan who always reminds me of every Roma loss — with a smile. There is Alessandro the pasta man, another laziale who puts our differences away to suggest the best types of pasta for certain dishes. Then I buy fresh fruits and vegetables from Paola and her sister who wake in the countryside at about 4 a.m. to drive into Rome with their produce.
Federico and pajata at Mercato Testaccio.

Alessandro the pasta man.


I got to know Antonella, the cheese lady and frequently ask about her ailing husband I met at the hospital and their new grandchild. Then there is the fishmonger, covered in blood and carrying a knife the size of a machete, greeting me every Tuesday and Friday (the days the fish are caught) with “Centottanta e quindici (180 degrees for 15 minutes)” because I can never remember how long to bake tuna. I always go to the same places. Going to another place for vegetables feels like sleeping with another woman.
Ruins of the 2,000-year-old warehouse that used to house olive oil around the corner from my apartment. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ruins of Porticus Aemilia, built in 174 BC to house olive oil and other goods around the corner from my apartment. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Testaccio’s working-class history goes back to Ancient Rome where it served as a warehouse for olive oil, grain and other goods shipped up the Tiber from the Tyrrhenian. Around the corner from my home stands the remains of Porticus Aemilia. the warehouse built in 174 BC. The shell of the structure still covers nearly the entire block and was one of the key storing facilities for Ancient Rome. Locals tell me Julius Caesar occasionally strolled my street checking supplies.

However, the ancient Romans had a dilemma. What do they do with all the terracotta pots carrying the olive oil? The demand for olive oil 2,000 years ago was so great, Rome had to import some from Libya and Tunisia. They couldn’t recycle the pots so they dumped the fragments in a pit where what is now seven blocks from the Tiber. They covered them with lime to kill the smell of the rancid olive oil. Finding it a convenient dumping ground, the Romans continued the practice until 250 A.D. when new type of pots were made.

Marcello, my flower man in my piazza. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Marcello, my flower man in my piazza. Photo by Marina Pascucci


To this day the pile remains. The estimated 53 million pieces stand 115 feet high. The fragments were known by the Latin name testae, and the neighborhood became known as Testaccio, meaning “bad fragments.” The pile, called Monte Testaccio, was abandoned after the fall of Rome but during the Middle Ages was used as a communal site for jousting exhibitions and feasts. In the 20th century, some savvy locals discovered the spaces between the terracotta fragments provided a breeze. They built houses and wine cellars into the side of the mountain. Today, Via di Monte Testaccio rings the mountain and is home to the most raucous nightclubs in Rome, none of which, I’m proud to say, have I ever entered.

To get to Mercato Testaccio from my gym, I must pass the remains of what was the largest slaughterhouse in Europe during the 1800s. I pass huge warehouses that housed animals until they were butchered and hung on hooks that still loom overhead where I walk. The poor workers were often paid in offal, all the awful parts no sane person would ever eat. Their industrious wives, however, made dishes, some borrowed from the even poorer Jewish Ghetto, that have remained staples in restaurants around Testaccio. There is trippa alla romana, soup made from the lining of a cow’s stomach; payata, the intestines of milk-fed calves; coda alla vaccinara, oxtail stew; and baccala’, fried cod.

Sometimes I think Roman cuisine is all based on a dare.

The building where A.S. Roma was born in 1927. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The building where A.S. Roma was born in 1927. Photo by Marina Pascucci


While those dishes remain, the slaughterhouse closed after World War II when locals started complaining about the smell. Today the MACROS houses a music school, the architecture department of Roma Tre University and art exhibits. Sometimes you’ll see a demonstration for animal rights. Yes, some things in Testaccio have changed.

During the early 20th century, Testaccio was a slum, a dump, a place of criminals and thieves and violence. However, Benito Mussolini, in one of the many underrated things he did for Rome, ordered a renovation of the neighborhood. I hear my building was one of those reclamation projects.

Testaccio truly is AS Roma territory. This graffiti along the Tiber is across the street from my flat. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Testaccio truly is AS Roma territory. This graffiti along the Tiber is across the street from my flat. Photo by Marina Pascucci


It was also about that time when my beloved A.S. Roma was born. In 1927, in an unimposing building three blocks from me, the club was signed into existence. Until a few years ago it housed the Roma Club Testaccio, a place old-timers — and one expat American journalist — could sit and watch Roma games on a big screen. Today, the club has moved near the market and the old headquarters is now a sports betting parlor. From 1927 until 1940, Roma played in Campo Testaccio, across the street from Monte Testaccio. Today, it is a weed-filled vacant lot with some lasting remains of the old grandstand. It’s too historic for the city or local romanisti to change a thing.

In some ways I’m moving out of my comfort zone. Marina warns me that Monteverde was built by the fascists and still is home to many evil laziale. However, the local stadium is home to ASD Trastevere, the Serie D team I also support. I’m sure I’ll get to know the coffee jockeys and pizzeria owner. I’ll have grand aperitivos on my balcony overlooking the forest of trees spread through the neighborhood. I’ll be fine. I’m retired in Rome. How can I not be happy?

But part of me will always miss waking up to see the dirty Tiber flowing below and sitting outside my sun-splashed Linari reading about Roma’s triumphs and failures. I’m hoping the prosciutto in Monteverde’s public market is just as lean, its tomatoes just as sweet, its parmesan just as biting.

One last aperitivo Saturday night. This is about a third of the people who came. Photo by Marina Pascucci

One last aperitivo Saturday night. This is about a third of the people who came. Photo by Marina Pascucci


More than anything, I hope I find a neighborhood that embraces me as much as Testaccio did. A zone that fed Ancient Rome fed me for four years. As I fill my rented van with my last backpack of belongings, I’ll look back at the old brick building one last time.

Arrivederci, Testaccio. Grazie mille. Non cambiare mai. Ma mi hai cambiato per sempre. (Goodbye, Testaccio. Thanks so much. Don’t ever change. But you changed me forever.)

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Lisbon: Sing a song to Portugal’s oft-embattled capital

People in Lisbon have reason to sing and fado can be heard all over the ancient neighborhood of Alfama. Photo by Marina Pascucci

People in Lisbon have reason to sing and fado can be heard all over the ancient neighborhood of Alfama. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Arms and the Heroes, who from Lisbon’s shore,
Through Seas where sail was never spread before,
Beyond where Ceylon lifts her spicy breast,
And waves her woods above the watery waste,
With prowess more than human forced their way
To the fair kingdoms of the rising day:
What wars they waged, what seas, what dangers passed,
What glorious empire crowned their toils at last!

— Luis de Camoes, “Os Lusiadas,” 1572

LISBON, Portugal — I’m standing below Camoes’ statue in, appropriately, Praca Luis de Camoes, a pretty plaza in the middle of downtown Lisbon. He stands regally, a knee slightly bent, holding a sword in his right hand. He looks more like a sailor battling Amazonian Indians than the greatest writer in the Portuguese language. He’s considered Portugal’s Shakespeare. Camoes wrote mostly of love and longing with poetry that has touched hearts and minds from Portugal to Macau.

In “Os Luisiadas” (The Lusiads, the mythical name for the Portuguese), instead, he wrote of Portugal’s conquests. In the 16th century, Portugal was the scourge of the open seas. It was Europe’s wealthiest monarchy. Vasco da Gama (India), Pedro Cabral (Brazil), Ferdinand Magellan (around the world) were just some of the explorers who made huge discoveries or did world firsts.

Camoes also made his mark by drinking himself penniless, hitting on the king’s queen and mistresses, killing a man and losing an eye in the army. They’ve learned to take the bad with the good in Lisbon. Its history is rife with international triumphs, terrible leaders, natural catastrophes and civic comebacks.

Today it’s on one of its upswings. Its economy is growing. Its unemployment is dropping. Officials from around the world come to Lisbon to study its revolutionary softer approach to drug abuse. No longer is Lisbon that European capital too far out of the way to visit. It was the destination for 10 million tourists in 2016 with some of the cheapest prices in Europe and its famed port wine that packs much more wallop than that wimpy sangria of their hated neighbor, Spain.

The view from Largo das Portas do Sol in Alfama. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The view from Largo das Portas do Sol in Alfama. Photo by Marina Pascucci


While an earthquake in 1755 leveled most of Lisbon back to the Iron Age, one area brings back memories of when Portugal was Muslim and Moors roamed the streets and governed the town. Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood stretches up a steep hill leading to the 11th century Castelo de Sao Jorge. Between our bed and breakfast across the street from the mighty Rio Tejo and the castle’s ramparts lies a labyrinth of narrow, cobblestone alleys that twist and turn like a blackberry bush. The dark, narrow staircase near our B&B ascends steeply onto a walkway where restaurant staffers are setting up red chairs for another night of wine, women and song. A few feet up the walk on a tiny square, three black men sit on plastic chairs chatting and smiling. They’re in a better mood than the man on the next level up, sleeping in a pup tent with a sign in front reading, “Help any way you can.” A fisherman’s hat sits nearby with a few stray coins.

It’s not nightfall yet fado, Portugal’s version of the blues, is already drifting in the air. I look around and can’t tell where it’s coming from. The singers who dress to the nines and entertain diners probably haven’t woken yet. I see no sound machines. I see the music is coming out of Alfama’s windows. I’m hearing fado in stereo.

The route of old-fashioned Tram 28 takes visitors on a beautiful 40-minute ride through the city. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The route of old-fashioned Tram 28 takes visitors on a beautiful 40-minute ride through the city. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Too bad I hate fado. Well, I hate most music and fado, screeching songs of bittersweet love born on these very working-class streets, joined my list of genres with which I can’t be in the same room. Lisbon is called Europe’s Havana. It’s not just because you can’t walk anywhere, particularly Alfama, without hearing music coming from someone’s window, a plaza or an idling car. It’s also a city that is recovering from a brutal regime, has inspired important writers, however tortured, and where the people can forget their problems in music and most importantly, for me, great alcohol.

My lovely and talented girlfriend, photographer Marina Pascucci, recently took me here for my birthday over a long weekend. She’d been to Lisbon before, stayed in the Alfama and regaled me with tales of dimly lit alleys, romantic restaurants and lovely walks. I’d also been to Portugal. In 2010 I went to Porto where I fell dangerously in love with its legendary port wine and learned the hard way that it’s about 20 percent alcohol.

Our room at B. Mar Hostel & Suites.

Our room at B. Mar Hostel & Suites.


I spend much of the night of our arrival trying to keep Marina from throwing herself in front of one of Lisbon’s historical street cars from sheer embarrassment. The hotel she reserved, the B. Mar Hostel & Suites, gave us a room only a refugee could love. The double bed was shoehorned into the room so tight we had to nearly enter it from the foot of the bed. The closet consisted of four hooks on the wall.

I don’t care. I read enough about Alfama to know people from all over the world descend here for a taste of Old Portugal. And we are in the middle of it. Alfama hotels are outrageously expensive for Lisbon, ranging from 150-250 euros. I forgave her.

Marina and I spent New Year’s Eve in Fez, Morocco, home of the world’s largest car-free zone, known as a medina. Alfama reminds me of Fez. The few cars can barely negotiate the narrow alleys climbing the hill. Alfama is also Lisbon’s most social neighborhood. We stroll past neighbors sitting on stoops, talking below flapping laundry. Merchants stand outside their tiny shops, not barking at customers but engaging in conversation with passersby.

Me with a Tawny Red, Portugal's famous port wine. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me with a Tawny Red, Portugal’s famous port wine. Photo by Marina Pascucci


What Lisbon has thankfully added since the Moors’ departure in 1147 after 400 years is some of Europe’s best booze. I became familiar with port wine in Porto, Portugal’s No. 2 city 200 miles north of Lisbon, and very familiar with a Portuguese hangover. Who knew wine could hit like brandy? They’ve been growing grapes here since the Romans arrived 2,000 years ago. Thank the British, who never met an alcohol they couldn’t swill, for adding the punch. During its war with France in the 17th century, England faced a – gasp! – wine shortage. It signed a treaty with Portugal to produce wine and, according to legend, added brandy and grape juice to help preserve shipment back to England.

What I found is my favorite sweet wine, perfect for an after-dinner drink or, in our case, a daily nutrient in Lisbon. As the day’s dreary drizzle drifts away and darkness approaches, we find a little hole in the wall with two tables outside where a young, hip couple and old man have glasses of beaming ruby red wine. Ginjinha da Se is a local hangout where a heavily tattooed waitress serves us a variety of Portuguese cheeses and a glass of Tawny Red, considered port’s table wine. Next to us a grizzled local in dirty clothes digs into a cheese and meat plate. A string of lit Christmas balls hangs on the wall next to rough pencil drawings of Lisbon scenes.

Portugal's elixir to the gods. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Portugal’s elixir to the gods. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Marina is a typical Roman teetotaler and is used to abiding my pursuit of exotic alcohol. In Lisbon I find the perfect target in ginjinha. It’s Portugal’s traditional cherry liqueur. Cherry being my favorite fruit, it’s a perfect combination. Down the road and down a slight incline, we discover another little spot called Casanovas. Behind a tiny bar with only two seats stands an old man poured tall narrow bottles of ginjinha in small, bell-shaped shot glasses. We sit in the back on overstuffed round pillows next to two local business women and walls lined with photos of old Portuguese entertainers. Ginjinha is so sweet, after two sips you have an insurmountable quest to find vanilla ice cream to pour it on.

For a true grasp of what Lisbon is about, however, you must push yourself away from the bar and learn its history. This is a city that’s had its heart broken more than a teenage boy. Invasions. Lousy kings. Natural disasters. Coups. It’s amazing the place is still standing. The Portuguese think so, too. They are famous for being among the biggest complainers in Europe. No one underestimates their country more than the Portuguese who are known for complaining about everything from prices (it’s among the cheapest countries in Europe) to its bureaucracy (come to Rome, baby) and out-of-control tourism (your gross domestic product hit 17-year high last year thanks to a 13-percent jump in tourism).

Back under Camoes’ statue, I dive into Lisbon’s history. I’m not a big guided tour guy but many European capitals do free walking tours. A tour of Reykjavik, Iceland, last May was terrific so I brave pouring rain to walk the cobbled streets of Lisbon with Eduardo, a wise-cracking, self-deprecating young Portuguese.

Some things I didn’t know about Lisbon:

The Moors brought azulejos, their beautiful hand-painted tiles, to Portugal in the 15th century and they can be found all over Lisbon. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Moors brought azulejos, their beautiful hand-painted tiles, to Portugal in the 15th century and they can be found all over Lisbon. Photo by Marina Pascucci


* It’s the second-oldest capital in Europe behind Athens, founded in 1200 B.C. It beat Rome by nearly 400 years.

* The Phoenicians found the Tejo calm and made it easy to dock. They docked and stayed for 1,000 years. Unlike the Romans who left monuments like business cards around the world, the Phoenicians left no evidence they were ever here.

* It has been invaded more than an army refrigerator. After the Phoenicians left came the Romans for 500 years, then the Barbarians, the Visigoths, the Moors and the Spanish. “The Visigoths were lazy,” Eduardo says. “I think we inherited that from them.”

* Coca-Cola was illegal here until 1974. It was considered too capitalistic, which tells you something about the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.

Lisbon has been the working place for some of the worst leaders in Europe, a string of corrupt swindlers, liars and frauds, not that I have reason to talk, being from the U.S. But look at some of the guys who led Portugal through history:

Statue of King Dom Jose I in Praca Do Comercio. Dreamstime photo

Statue of King Dom Jose I in Praca Do Comercio. Dreamstime photo


King Dom Jose I. He was the king during the earthquake of 1755. It leveled almost the entire city — except for Alfama. Churches collapsed and those who weren’t crushed burned alive from the falling candles. Then came tsunamis that killed even more. A reported 90,000 of Lisbon’s population of 270,000 died. After the earthquake which destroyed his palace, King Dom Jose became claustrophobic and never again went inside a building. He lived outside of Lisbon in a giant tent. He came into the city only twice.

Under his orders, he had a statue built of himself. It remains today anchoring the massive riverside Praca do Comercio, a proud man astride a steed. But if you look close, you can see how the townspeople who hated him got the last laugh. The horse is small with a bow tie on its tail. It’s not a war horse. It’s a show pony. He didn’t know. The horse is trampling snakes, supposedly representing his enemies. No. The snakes were added to scare away pigeons. To this day, no pigeons land on the statue. It’s also facing the river. He wanted it to represent himself as a sentinel. Nope. In actuality he’s facing the river because he never looked at the city. His back is facing town.

King Joao VI. Wikipedia image

King Joao VI. Wikipedia image


King Joao VI. In the 1670s gold mines were discovered in Brazil and soon Brazil became Portugal’s sugar daddy. They shipped 90 tons of gold a year to Portugal as well as jade and diamonds. Portugal became the richest country in Europe. In 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte told Portugal to stop trading with England or he’d attack. King Joao took the gold and fled to Rio de Janeiro and made Rio the capital of the Portuguese Empire. Lisbon turned into nothing more than a dock. The French then took the dock, the English took it from the French and the Portuguese fought off the English.

The Portuguese told King Joao to leave Brazil and come home and he said, “Thanks, but have you seen the weather down here?” The king finally returned but told his son, Pedro, to keep order and gold in Brazil. In 1822 Pedro declared himself emperor of Brazil and made it the most important province of the empire. He recognized Brazil’s independence and that collapsed the Portuguese empire.

Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Tumblr photo

Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Tumblr photo


Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Hired as the minister of finance in 1928, Salazar led Portugal to its largest economic growth in 400 years. Hailed as a hero, he was given total power in 1933. (Seen this script before? Same ending.) He rewrote the constitution and outlawed all political parties and labor unions. He made it illegal for more than three people to gather. He started PIDE, Portugal’s version of the Gestapo. He had friends interrogated.

During World War II Portugal was officially neutral and Salazar used the country’s natural resources to play one side against the other. Portugal was lousy with tungsten mines. Tungsten is used to make bullets, light bulbs and tanks, which somewhat come in handy during world wars. He began a bidding war between England and Germany and England wound up paying four times the original price. Filthy rich Portugal became one of the few Western European countries during the war that didn’t suffer rationing or blackouts. Thus, Salazar stayed in power.

Lisbon's subway system is one of the cleanest in Europe. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Lisbon’s subway system is one of the cleanest in Europe. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Salazar liked Adolf Hitler as a leader but disliked his racism, which is like saying you like vanilla ice cream except for the taste. While Salazar claimed he was not a racist, one of Hitler’s prize Volkswagens was found in Salazar’s collection. His government reigned until a military revolt in 1974, making it the longest dictatorship in Europe.

Today the leadership is quite different. Take drugs. Lisbon is a relatively safe city and one reason is it decriminalized drugs in 2001. It started treating addiction as a disease instead of a crime. The government hired public health companies to make treatment more readily available. After a brief uptick, drug use dropped dramatically. Heroin use plummeted from 100,000 users to 25,000. HIV infections dropped 90 percent since 1999. Overdose deaths have dropped 85 percent and the drug mortality rate is the lowest in Western Europe, 1/50 of the U.S. It is now known worldwide as “The Portuguese Model.”

Portuguese cheeses. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Portuguese cheeses. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Portuguese cuisine will never be accused of being addicting. It’s heavy and its reflected in much of the population. One of its signature dishes is called francesinha, a big sloppy mess of ham, sausage and beef inside two slices of white bread and covered in bubbling, melted cheese. It looks as if it was invented by two drunk frat guys at 3 a.m. Francesinha is Portuguese for “Little French” and was actually invented in the 1960s by a Porto native who returned from France and wanted to add a twist to Portuguese cuisine.

Our meals in Lisbon were hit and miss. At Santo Antonio de Alfama, near our B&B, I had a wonderful duck thigh with orange and olive salad along with brie cheese and raspberry sauce and the best fried potatoes of my life, small and crispy and delicious with a mayo-herb dip.

But then we escaped a downpour into a seafood restaurant with the schlocky name of Sea Me near Praca Luis de Camoes. Marina’s allegedly fresh calamari was so frozen inside she had to send it back. My grilled sea bass, chosen off a bed of ice, consisted of about six bites for the larcenous price of 25.62 euros.

The counter at Adega Portuguesa, a local diner. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The counter at Adega Portuguesa, a local diner. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We eventually found more authentic places away from Alfama’s center, on the riverside near our hotel. At Vila Flor, a modern, airy place with high bar tables, I had a wonderful mixed grill of smoked sausages, ham and chorizo with rice and a sausage pate.

It’s clear tourism has helped fuel Lisbon’s economy. The Castelo de Sao Jorge has some of the most spectacular panoramic views of any castle I’ve ever visited but the restaurants and wine bars descending from it are comically touristy. Every restaurant posted menus in multiple languages. I think one was translated into Apache.

The economy is hopping is Lisbon and people have time to relax. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The economy is hopping is Lisbon and people have time to relax. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Still, Lisbon is one of Europe’s jewels and always has been, despite the turmoil, devastation and incompetence. The view from the castle reveals a sea of red-tile roofs, majestic church towers and a mishmash of neighborhoods carved up by narrow, cobblestone alleys. Too bad Dom Jose’s horse is facing the river. He’d like what he’d see.

In a lifetime of sports, A.S. Roma’s historic Champions League win over Barcelona tops them all

Kostas Manolas after his goal in the 82nd minute put Roma ahead 3-0. BBC photo

Kostas Manolas after his goal in the 82nd minute put Roma ahead 3-0. BBC photo


I never saw a sportswriter cry.

I spent 40 years in the business and I never saw one of my brethren break down from the sheer emotion of what he or she was witnessing. I sure as hell never did. If my story sang, if I made deadline, I could’ve covered the public execution of my alma mater’s coach and I’d be unmoved. Sportswriters are the vultures of journalism. We hover over the weak, and we pick at the dead. Our souls are ice. Sympathy, sorrow, do not run through our veins. Only cold blood. We only show emotion if we miss last call.

Yet Tuesday night, in a packed Olympic Stadium of 60,000 screaming souls lost in disbelief, joy and sheer, unadulterated passion, my area in the press tribune flooded with tears. Two journalists next to me embraced and wept on each other’s shoulders. Three more behind me took photos of the scoreboard, trying to keep tears from soaking their cell cameras. Press tables bounced from the pounding fists. It was as if this crusty collection of ink-stained wretches had experienced an epiphany, a vision. Here in Rome, the center of the Catholic world, we’re used to hearing of miracles.

But not like this.

A.S. Roma’s historic, mind-bending 3-0 win over Barcelona provided visual evidence of a miracle no one in the Vatican could make up. Behind by an autostrada after after last week’s self-destructing 4-1 loss in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal, Roma shut out the No. 1 team in the world, a team that had lost once in 45 games this season, and advanced (on away goals) to the Champions League semifinal for the first time.

I managed not to cry. I’ve been here only 5 ½ years. I’ve followed A.S. Roma for only 17. Yet I found myself, after 40 years in the business, taking sportswriting’s one given doctrine and shredding it, throwing it to the four winds.

I cheered in the press box.

This win may  have been the biggest in club's 91-year history. Metro photo

This win may have been the biggest in club’s 91-year history. Metro photo


In the U.S., you don’t do that. It’s a one-way ticket out of your seat. Yet rules in Rome are different. My once distaste for Roman journalists cheering during games has turned into a quiet, understanding nod the more I dive into Rome’s culture. Tuesday I screamed. I cringed. I gasped. Hell, I cheered.

I’ve earned that right. One benefit of retiring to Rome is I could leave my journalism’s objectivity at the door and become a fan again. I follow Roma through the prism of that new-found fanatic. I go to watch parties in my favorite pub. I curse players, coaches. Half my wardrobe is red and yellow. I now understand the highs and lows my readers experienced all these years, how a silly game’s outcome could establish your mood for the next 24 hours. Maybe longer.

It’s why Tuesday’s game meant so much. I’ve covered six Olympics, eight Final Fours, three World Series, two Super Bowls, the 2006 soccer World Cup when Italy won it all, countless big games of teams I covered on a daily basis. Yet at 62 years old, Roma’s win was the greatest game I ever witnessed.

In any sport. And I wasn’t the only one.

Edin Dzeko after his goal put Roma up 1-0 in the sixth minute. SI.com photo

Edin Dzeko after his goal put Roma up 1-0 in the sixth minute. SI.com photo


“You cannot imagine, I mean it was incredible, crazy. I don’t know how to describe it,” said Roma forward Edin Dzeko, by far the best player on a field that included soccer saint Lionel Messi and his deadly sidekick, Luis Suarez.

I started Tuesday wondering if I should blow off the inevitable outcome and instead go to Sunday’s bitter Lazio-Roma derby. I haven’t covered fights since I left Las Vegas. Instead, I sat down and mapped out the two difference between the A.S. Roma and F.C. Barcelona. How big is the chasm?

Bigger than the sea between the two cities.

To wit:

Revenues: Barcelona made $688 million last season. That’s the most behind only Manchester United. Roma earned $242 million.

Value: Barcelona is worth $4.5 billion behind only the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees and Manchester United. Roma is worth $569 million.

Payroll: Barcelona’s average player salary is $8.58 million, highest in the world; Roma’s is $3.38 million, fourth in Italy’s Serie A.

Stadium: Barcelona’s Camp Nou holds 99,354 and averaged 77,984 last season; Rome’s Olympic Stadium holds 60,000 for soccer and averaged 32,638.

Titles: Since 2008, Barcelona has won six domestic La Liga titles, five Copa del Rey domestic cup titles, five Spanish Super Cup titles, three Champions League titles, three UEFA Super Cup titles and three FIFA Club World Championship titles. Roma won the domestic Italian Cup in 2008. It has reached one European final: losing to Liverpool on penalties in the 1984 European Cup, the precursor to the Champions League which was renamed in 1992.

Youth academies: Since 2002, Barcelona’s has been considered the best in the world. The graduates have combined for 4,663 appearances and 773 goals for Barcelona. The AS Roma Youth Sector has won the Under-19 Primavera title eight times.

Lionel Messi was never much of a factor. Cadena SER photo

Lionel Messi was never much of a factor. Cadena SER photo


Star power: Messi has won five Ballon d’Or trophies as the best player in the world and four European Golden Shoe awards for Europe’s top scorer. In 412 games in 14 seasons he has 378 goals. He makes $667,000 a week, according to Forbes. That doesn’t include a $59.6 million bonus when he signed an extension in November or the $30 million annually from endorsements. Daniele De Rossi, Roma’s highest-paid player, makes $185,000 a week. In his 17th season, the midfielder has 42 goals in 437 games. He helped Italy win the 2006 World Cup.

2017-18: Before Tuesday Barcelona had 33 wins, 11 ties and one defeat. Its 24-7-0 mark put it first in La Liga, 11 points ahead of Atletico Madrid. Barca is in the Copa del Rey final. Roma was a combined 22-8-10. At 18-6-7, it precariously clings to fourth place in Serie A’s fourth and final qualifying spot for next season’s Champions League. It had just come off a 2-0 loss at home to Fiorentina.

On a perfect night in the 50s, I sat in my seat in the second row of the press tribune at almost midfield prepared to write about a gap Roma couldn’t possibly overcome. I sat next to one of my favorite soccer writers, a guy I’d been trying to reach for two days. Paddy Agnew has covered soccer in Italy since 1986. He’s Northern Irish. He’s no Roma fan. He follows rapidly ascending Burnley in England’s Premier League. I asked Agnew what hope teams like Roma have of becoming a European power with all the financial gaps between organizations.

“They have to attract more serious investment, and they have to be able to build a stadium,” Agnew said. “Then after that you’ve got to be lucky in how you spend your money when you have it.”

Olympic Stadium, the cavernous monument to the 1960 Olympics on the banks of the Tiber, is in need of replacement. But for one night, this old lady reached a fever pitch I never heard at Denver’s legendary decibel dungeon, Mile High Stadium.

While I’ve always been a glass-is-half-empty guy, those who see every glass half filled with fine Barolo wine saw in last week’s debacle some hope. Barcelona scored twice on Roma own goals when defensive slides by De Rossi and Kostas Manolas went into the net. Roma had the more aggressive attack. Messi wasn’t his usual dominant self. If you look close, Roma could play with these guys.

Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco, a relative unknown until he took over this season, talked optimistically for two days. He called Barcelona “a machine” but told the media, “We must believe until the end and hope to make a miracle or something truly unthinkable.”

Di Francesco made changes. He switched from his usual 4-3-3 formation with four players on defense to a 3-4-3 to add bulk in the midfield and disrupt Barcelona’s legendary ball-keeping skills. Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde made no changes.

What enveloped was what Corriere dello Sport called the next day, “The perfect game.” Roma was on the attack from the outset, putting Barcelona’s defense on its heels and keeping the ball away from Messi and Suarez. Manolas even stripped Messi on a breakaway. The fans got some hope — or maybe, at the time, just entertainment value — in the sixth minute when Dzeko miraculously managed to control a long, high-bouncing pass in the 18-meter box and bounce it past goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Still, Barcelona hadn’t given up three goals since a 3-1 loss to Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 13, a span of 50 games. This was a long way from a miracle. No one at the Vatican was turning on his TVs yet.

But the crowd got into it. The Roman night exploded even on corner kicks. Barcelona defender Gerard Pique barely blocked Aleksander Kolarov’s great goal attempt from close range and Patrik Schick sent a wide-open header just over the bar. Ter Stegen made a great save on a Dzeko header.

Roma was dominating. Barcelona tried playing ball possession to the extreme, a conservative tactic for a team this talented. Messi was just another body. His lone chances were a couple of free kicks that went way high. The half ended with Roma up 1-0.

I didn’t feel hopeful. But I felt proud. That was enough.

Valverde made no changes in the second half. He did not put in more defense. Then something happened. Hope. Optimism. Belief. And one helluva lot of noise. The skies didn’t open, but a miracle was starting to creep over Olympic Stadium’s circular roof.

On another Roma attack, Pique yanked Dzeko down by the shirt for a penalty kick. In the only time all night the stadium was silent, De Rossi drilled a bullet into the right corner for a 2-0 lead. In the 58 years of the stadium’s life, including an Olympics and a Serie A-clinching win in 2001, maybe never has it been as loud as that moment.

Thirty-two minutes remained. Suddenly, a lot of TVs turned on in the Vatican.

Barcelona was getting nervous. Messi got a yellow card for roughing Kolarov. Suarez rolled around for three minutes as if hit by a sniper, the most active he’d been all night. Ter Stegen stalled on free kicks like he was waiting for a cab. But he was the best player on Barca’s night and he made great diving stops on Dzeko and substitute Stephan El Shaarawy.

Time clicked down. Eight minutes remained plus stoppage time. But reality, Roma’s habitual enemy, refused to step in. The noise level rose. Roma’s Cengiz Under lined up for a corner kick. That day I read that the average Serie A team scores on set pieces, such as corner kicks, once every 10 chances. Roma scores once every 74. They had a better chance knocking it in with a pool cue.

Under sent a line drive curving short of the near post. Manolas, the best player in Greece, sprinted in front of the entire Barcelona team. His head flicked it sideways just past ter Stegen inside the far post for arguably the biggest goal in club history. Manolas ran through the field, chased by hysterical teammates, with his eyes and mouth as wide as if he’d seen an asteroid destroy a large planet.

In a way, he had.

Screw Zeus. Kostas Manolas is the true Greek god.

The press box rocked with heaving bodies. In a nearly out-of-body experience, I noticed myself yelling, “OH, MY GOD! OH, MY GOD!! OH, MY GOD!” The shock as a sportswriter had caught up with my joy as a fan. I felt 50 percent raw joy and 50 percent journalistic disbelief. Could this be happening? Where’s the pope?

The din made the stadium sound like the inside of a jet engine. Agnew couldn’t hear my comments yelled a foot away from him. Then 60,000 gasped when a ball bounced through the 18-meter box into Messi’s path. However, he couldn’t control the high bounces and Allison Becker grabbed it with ease. Manolas blocked two more shots. A Barcelona corner kick went out of bounds. Becker stopped one last cross.

As his final goalie kick floated to earth and the buzzer sounded, he dropped to the ground. Kolarov sprinted to him and slid on his knees into his arms. A handsome Brazilian goalkeeper and a heavily tattooed Serbian embraced like long-lost lovers. I tried hugging the journalists next to me but they wouldn’t break from their clutch, their sobs audible as they rocked back and forth.

Me and ANSA's Alessandro Castellani after the game. Note the final score in the background.

Me and ANSA’s Alessandro Castellani after the game. Note the final score in the background.


Agnew was the one stoic journalist left. I asked him if he’d ever seen anything like this.

“It’s two-leg football,” Agnew said calmly. “It’s 180 minutes. The 4-1 result from the first leg was a completely false result. Barcelona was not even the better team. Roma should’ve had a penalty and they scored the first two Barcelona goals for them. Roma happens to have a very good team. But if this is the best side in Spanish football then Spanish football is very overrated.”

I went into the mixed zone where Roma players in their traditional black suits hugged every official greeting them. Midfielder Alessandro Florenzi, who grew up in Rome’s Centro Storico, raced up the tunnel still hooting and hollering. Holding court was James Pallotta, the American owner who has spent every waking hour trying to build a $1.5 billion stadium in a city where building a lawn chair gets buried in red tape.

I asked him what the win says about the perceived gap between the two organizations.

“Over an intermediate or longer period of time there’s probably some gaps between the Bayerns and the Romas and the Barcelonas,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s a function of having three or four times more revenues than we do. They have a lot more flexibility. It gets tiring every day when people say we’re a super market.

“The Roma fans really — all of you — have to help us with the stadium. Because when we build that stadium — and it should get approved soon and if it doesn’t you really should go crazy — and we have that entertainment complex then our revenues go up as much or more than anybody else in Serie A. Then we start looking at revenues that put us, certainly in the (world’s) top 10 and maybe in the top five or six or seven teams. Then you can consistently play against everybody else.”

By the time I left the stadium, it was 12:10 a.m., 90 minutes after the final buzzer. A flag-waving mob refusing to leave surrounded Florenzi’s car yelling Roma songs. I stopped by a late-night snack stand across the street from the stadium and cars made a continual loop up and down the street honking horns.

The bus dropped me at Piazza del Risorgimento next to the Vatican. Horns rocked into the night. At 1:15 a.m. I arrived in my neighborhood, Testaccio, where A.S. Roma was signed into existence in a small building not far from my home in 1927. Youths in Francesco Totti jerseys walked by me waving flags. We exchanged clenched fists and “FORZA ROMA!”

Meanwhile, Pallotta was jumping in the fountain in Piazza del Popolo and the streets filled with impromptu parades and flags and songs and hugs. I called my girlfriend. Marina, a third-generation Roman, is a casual romanista. Even she watched the game and remained in shock. Later she wrote me, “La Roma e’ fatta cosi … fa schifo e e’ stupenda.. Come la citta!” (A.S. Roma does this. It sucks and is fabulous, like the city!)

With Wednesday's Il Corriere dello Sport at  my local newsstand.

With Wednesday’s Il Corriere dello Sport at my local newsstand.


Five years ago, I would’ve reacted with a nightcap and a good book. This time I walked in my door at 1:45 a.m. and couldn’t even remove my clothes. What did I just experience? This wasn’t just an historical event that awoke the sports world. I just experienced a high, the ultimate fan’s high. It’s when your heart grows into your throat. You’re short of breath. You rub your eyes to see if it’s all real.

My connection with this wonderful team has become entwined with this beautiful city. After years of pounding keyboards and catching flights, of chronicling teams’ successes and failures with the disattached observance of a prison guard, at 62 my transformation to fandom is complete.

This vulture has turned into a dove.

Gelato wars: My five favorite gelaterias in Rome

Italy has 19,000 gelaterias. Here are my five favorite in Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Italy has 19,000 gelaterias. Here are my five favorite in Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci


It was my birthday Thursday and what’s a great way to spend your birthday week in Rome? How about eating gelato every day? You can do that here. Sure, you can do that in Nebraska, too, but soon you’ll look like most of the people around you. Here in Rome gelato is considered one of the four major food groups, along with wine, pasta and local politicians. Like everything else in Italy, gelato is all natural, as pure as the olives in olive oil and grapes in wine.

I’ve done this before. When I lived in Rome the first time from 2001-03, I wrote a major tome about gelato for SilverKris, Singapore Airlines’ inflight magazine. I roamed the city on hot summer days, tasting gelato, interviewing gelateria owners, interviewing panting customers from around the world. Hey, it beat covering Iraq.

As one English tourist told me as she ate a large tub of nocciolo (hazelnut), mirtilli (blueberry) and caramel creme, “Is gelato ice cream or a Roman god?”

Good question. So cold. So sweet. So good. Why is gelato Italy’s favorite food?

It is Italy’s lunch break, its afternoon snack, its nightcap. Softer than industrialized ice cream you find in the U.S. and harder than soft ice cream spit out from machines in restaurant chains, gelato has the perfect velvety texture. In a country built on art and driven by romance, gelato is the fuel that ignites the masses. It also unites them. Strolling the cobblestone passageways snaking off Piazza Navona or in front of the 2nd century Pantheon, romantic Romans can’t seem to hold their lover’s hand without holding a gelato in their other one.

“When you eat a cone, it is love,” said Nazzareno Giolittli, owner of Giolitti, the hugely popular gelateria near the Pantheon. “It’s not possible for American people to walk along the street because it’s too frantic. Rome, it’s more slow. It’s a tradition to walk around the city. When old people look at ice cream, they become young again.”

Gelato doesn't travel well so one must come to Italy to taste the real deal. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Gelato doesn’t travel well so one must come to Italy to taste the real deal. Photo by Marina Pascucci


And I’m old. I turned 62 Thursday. But as I licked my way across Rome this week, I felt the same as I did when I first came to Italy and had my first gelato in front of the Duomo in Milan. I was 22. I’m firmly convinced if I keep eating gelato in Rome I’ll be young forever.

I don’t have to go far to find it. According to Bloomberg Markets, Italy has 19,000 gelaterias which in 2016 sold 157 million gallons. That equates to 6.8 billion scoops. Italians eat an average of 100 scoops a year for a total annual sale of more than $1.7 billion. According to Confcommercio, the gelateria industry employs 69,000 people. Considering Italy is going through its biggest recession since World War II, the gelato industry in Italy is as important as the auto industry in Detroit, except you get more mileage out of gelato.

The key is finding the right gelateria. Gelateria owners — or gelato jockeys as I call them — I talked to and my own mouth-watering wanderings over the years estimate that only about 20 percent of the gelaterias are natural. The rest are industrialized frauds using artificial ingredients and coloring to make the flavors look more inviting. As a result, their gelato is as inviting and real as the hookers flirting behind the windows in Amsterdam.

Want a tip? It’s easy. If the gelato is big and puffy and bright, it probably has more artificial ingredients than a small jet engine. Air creates that puffiness. And if the banana flavor is bright yellow and the pistachio bright green, keep walking. Think about it. Both fruits are kind of grayish. Real gelaterias present their gelato flattened in tubs. The ingredients are concentrated, real, natural.

Even healthy.

Yes, natural gelato is not real fattening. One hundred grams of gelato, depending on whether its fruit or cream based, is between 100 and 200 calories. One hundred grams of Cherry Garcia, one of Ben & Jerry’s most popular flavors, is about 300 calories. Also, eating an American ice cream cone isn’t the same when you’re walking around a suburban strip mall.

Cream flavors consist of egg yolks, milk or cream, sugar plus whatever flavor, be it chocolate or hazelnut or whatever. Fruit flavors consist of water or milk, sugar and fresh fruit. The real gelaterias change flavors with the season. You won’t find mango in January; you won’t find pear in July. It’s spring and fragole (strawberries) and lamponi (raspberries) are starting to return.

I remember Pasquale Allongi, owner of San Crispino, which The New York Times once called the best gelateria in Rome, flew in grapes from Chile. For his coffee flavor he used Blue Mountain coffee from Kenya. For his zabaione (marsala custard), he used marsala aged 25 years.

What do the industrialized gelaterias use? Picture a gelato jockey opening a bag.

Gianluciano Mereu, owner of Old Bridge near the Vatican. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Gianluciano Mereu, owner of Old Bridge near the Vatican. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“It’s faster,” said Gianluciano Mereu, owner of Old Bridge, my first favorite gelateria dating back to 2001. “For example, to do lemon or orange gelato, I must squeeze 20 kilos of oranges and lemons to make five liters of juice. They just open a sack and pour in powder for a few seconds. That’s the problem. It’s disgusting.”

Meanwhile, American ice cream is packed with vegetable fats for longer shelf life. What results is the shelf life of Ivory soap. The vegetable fats make it so hard, you not only can serve it with a knife and fork, it’s advisable.

However, gelato does owe something to the American ice cream industry. The ice cream cone was invented at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. At the time, ice cream had been in the U.S. since 1851 when it came to Baltimore and stabilizers were used to freeze it faster.

By that time, gelato had been in Italy for about 2,000 years. Arabian Sarazens brought to Sicily iced fruits known as sherberts which comes from the Arabic word sharba, meaning “fresh ice.” During the height of the Roman Empire, the Roman aristocracy often relaxed with a form of gelato made from fruit puree, honey and snow. They’d pack snow from Mt. Tolfa in the nearby Anti-Apennines mountains and carry it to Rome, using fresh horses every few miles.

Consequently, it was only a winter dish. Today, gelato is the Italian food of choice all year round. Emperors and paupers, senators and actors, English teachers and retired journalists.

You can't have gelato without panna. You just CAN'T! Photo by Marina Pascucci

You can’t have gelato without panna. You just CAN’T! Photo by Marina Pascucci


Another major aspect that sets apart Italian gelato is the panna (whipped cream). They all give it free, a big fat white fluffy dollop on top and it’s mostly handmade, not the Reddi Wip for which my old faux pas gelateria in Denver charged $1.50. It adds a creamy touch to the palate, not to mention a good excuse to lick your date’s nose when she misses.

Panna, however, can get you into trouble. It once got me thrown out of a gelateria. True story. Some guys get thrown out of bars in border towns. Some get thrown out of political rallies. I get thrown out of an ice cream parlor. I was at Giolitti’s first store, in my Testaccio neighborhood. An old crusty owner served me a cone and asked me if I wanted panna.

I said, “Of course. Gelato without panna is like sex without an orgasm.” I thought it was funny. Most gelato jockeys laugh, especially the women. He scowled, pointed at the door and said, “VAI VIA! (GO AWAY!). I wasn’t mad. I didn’t blame him. The guy probably hadn’t had an orgasm since Mussolini was hanging from his toes.

I recalled that story this week but something else hit me. If I’ve lived here 5 ½ years and am a regular gelato junkie, I need a top five list, one I can send to friends who need recommendations. Old Bridge is the only one that survived the test of time and never left the ranking, kind of like Duke basketball or Beyonce. For help, I blasted an email on my Expats Living in Rome Meetup website and asked for everyone’s favorite gelateria. I received more than 70 responses totaling 30 different spots. While I did my best to hit each one, I came up short before I started just injecting the black cherry gelato straight into my arm.

I used the survey as a research guide but mostly used my own past and taste for my top five gelaterias of Rome. They are all small. They are all inconspicuous. They are all authentic. And they will spoil you forever:

The dark chocolate dip at Brivido. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The dark chocolate dip at Brivido. Photo by Marina Pascucci


1. Brivido, (Neighborhood: Testaccio), Via Giovanni Battista Bodoni 62, Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-1 a.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Living five minutes away, I’ve made Brivido my nightcap. It’s cheaper than another glass of wine and much healthier. Although purists can argue that getting the free dip into big vats of white and dark chocolate isn’t healthy or traditional, I’m not traditional, either. Biting into a hard, white-chocolate coating and sinking your tongue into soft, creamy flavors of all natural ingredients is my idea of ending the day.

My favorite flavor, amarena (black cherry), is especially good here as they use raw cherries. I loved the new flavor I tried this week, arachide (peanut). Brivido also has a whole line of vegan flavors.

Since 1986 it has occupied a quiet street corner in my Testaccio neighborhood just a block from legendary Piazza Testaccio where you can now find fathers and sons playing soccer around the giant fountain. Owner Mady Amodeo laments how the spread of industrialized gelaterias in Rome has contributed to the fall of mankind, pointing to her pasteurization machines behind the display window to show the work she puts in every day.

There's always a crowd at Old Bridge. Photo by Marina Pascucci

There’s always a crowd at Old Bridge. Photo by Marina Pascucci


2. Old Bridge, (Prati), Viale dei Bastioni di Michelangelo, http://www.gelateriaoldbridge.com, 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Sunday.

This is extraordinarily biased as I’ve been going here for 17 years. Even between Rome habitations, I made beelines here on vacations. It’s a tiny shop with no tables or chairs just west of massive Piazza del Risorgimento. On sunny days Old Bridge is in the shadow of the Vatican wall.

I’ve always liked Old Bridge because of its portions. They’re the largest in Rome but do not sacrifice their natural ingredients.

“Since we opened 30 years ago, we try to use two components: the quality and the quantity of the product,” Mereu said. “We always thought that these two things together are fundamental for the success of our work. So we prefer to earn a little less but we give something more to our clients. It’s our philosophy to thank them.”

Like many gelaterias, Old Bridge goes to great lengths for its natural products. For its most popular flavor, pistachio, Mereu gets pistachios from Sicily near a volcano where the earth is richest. “They’re the best pistachios in the world,” he said.

Another Old Bridge has returned to Trastevere at Via della Scala 70.

Matteo Mercolini and Pietro Smarrazzo of Grezzo.

Matteo Mercolini and Pietro Smarrazzo of Grezzo.


3. Grezzo, (Monti), Via Urbana 130, http://www.grezzoitalia.it., Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight, Sunday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Matteo Mercolini, 28, became a vegan four years ago and did plenty of research on the health benefits and diet. Ironically, Grezzo opened four years ago in an inconspicuous shop in Monti, arguably Rome’s hippest, liveliest neighborhood today. It’s not so ironic that Mercolini took a job here slingin’ gelato two weeks ago.

“After I taste this my conception of gelato totally changed,” he told me. “I can not go to any other ice cream shops.”

Mine changed here, too. Grezzo is famous for its raw chocolate, and its display case is filled with tantalizing little chocolate chunks filled with everything from pralines to various nuts. Occasionally I’d drop by to buy my girlfriend, Marina Pascucci, who took most of these photos, a little gift box and a piece for myself. While I swooned in my own chocolate-infused sexual ecstasy, I never thought about trying the gelato. It has become Grezzo’s side venture, along with its cakes and cookies.

But Grezzo received some votes in my survey and a friend urged me to give it a chance. My friend was right. The chocolate, the raw chocolate gelato, was the best chocolate ice cream I’ve ever had. The chocolate beans are sun dried, not toasted like most places. So concentrated, the chocolate exploded in my mouth. I paired it with nocciola (hazelnut) which is 40 percent nuts compared to the usual 20 percent, Mercolini said.

“Keeping the process under 42 degrees, it allows us to maintain all the nutritional values and, of course, the flavor is more powerful,” he explained. “It’s more concentrated in the mouth.”

I look forward to this summer when they break out their mango, raspberry, blueberry and passion fruit, which match the chocolate in popularity.

Started in Turin, Grezzo will open a shop in Centro Storico near Largo Argentina at the beginning of May.

Neve di Latte gets its milk and cream from Germany. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Neve di Latte gets its milk and cream from Germany. Photo by Marina Pascucci


4. Neve di Latte, (Flaminio), Via Luigi Poletti 6, Monday-Friday noon 10 p.m., Saturday noon-11 p.m., Sunday noon-10 p.m.

Besides receiving multiple votes, it received the biggest vote from Alessandro Castellani, my sportswriter buddy and patron saint of Italian food and wine recommendations. Again, Castellani hit the bull’s eye. Sitting on a side street behind the MAXXI modern art museum in northern Rome, Neve di Latte looks anything but touristy. Its bland gray and white interior makes it look older than its eight years and there’s nothing fancy about the flavors.

But the gelato I had — pistachio and variegato (cocoa, hazelnut, cream) — was spectacular. You could actually taste the cream separate from the cocoa and hazelnut. How serious do gelaterias take their ingredients? Neve di Latte gets its milk and cream from a biodynamic producer in Germany where the cows graze at about 4,600 feet. Its Amadei chocolate and Parisi eggs are from Tuscany. La Stampa newspaper merely called the Parisi egg “the most delicious egg in the world.”

Underneath it all, the pistachio was as good as any I’ve ever had and I’ve tried it all over Italy.

Fatamorgana is one of the few chains I will frequent.

Fatamorgana is one of the few chains I will frequent.


5. Fatamorgana, (Trastevere), Via Roma Libera 11, http://www.gelateriafatamorgana.com, daily noon-1 a.m.

I had my top five set — until I came here on my birthday. It makes the list purely by its adventurous nature. Yes, as the sign says, it is also gluten free, egg free, milk free, nut free, sugar free. OK, we get it. But it’s also tradition free.

Fatamorgana, although part of a chain that’s always a red flag, has the most interesting flavors in Rome. On my visit I saw carrot cake, baklava, Lapsong Sonchong (a Chinese smoked tea) chocolate, blackberry and grapes. I’ve read about such flavors here as cinnamon-apple-nut, tiramisu and blueberry cheesecake. One called Bacio del Principe (Kiss of the Prince) is made of gianduja (a chocolate paste made from ground hazelnuts). Panacea is almond milk, ginseng and mint.

I had its famous banana cream with sesame brittle and the sesame’s salt adds an intoxicating flair to the sweet banana. I combined that with seadas:, pecorino cheese from Sardinia, chestnuts, honey and orange peel. You could taste every ingredient, kind of like a fine wine.

The mastermind behind all this is Maria Agnese, a country girl who made gelato as a child but never followed a recipe. She once used leaves from a local orchard’s almond tree and invented almond flowers gelato cream.

There are also stores in Monti, Re di Roma, Corso and North Rome.

Keep in mind, just like basketball rankings, gelato is a matter of taste, in more ways than one. Below is my survey results (with neighborhood in parentheses). Please note the many votes for LaRomana. It’s good but it did not make my list.

Fatamorgana (numerous locations) 8
LaRomana (numerous locations) 8
Fassi (Equilino) 6
Gracchi 4 (Prati)
Neve de Latte (Flaminio) 4
Grezzo (Monti) 4
San Crispino (Centro Storico) 4
Old Bridge (Prati, Trastevere) 3
Frigidarium (Centro Storico) 3
Giolitti (Centro Storico, Testaccio) 3
Brivido (Testaccio) 2
Guttilla (Monte Sacro) 2
Pico Gelato (Piazza Bologna) 2
Angelletto (Monti) 2
Millenium (Prati) 1
Rivareno (San Giovanni) 1
Cremeria Aurelia (Aurelia) 1
Siciliana (Prati) 1
La Strega Nocciola (Spagna) 1
Vecchi (Centro Storico) 1
Olive Dolci (Manzoni) 1
Like G (Prati) 1
Otaleg (Portuense) 1
Gelateria del Teatro (Centro Storico) 1
LaPalma (Centro Storico) 1
Ping Pong (Tuscolana) 1
Cremi (Trastevere) 1
Ciuri Ciuri (Quirinale) 1
Quinto (Centro Storico) 1
Tony (Portuense) 1

Buying a home in Italy: One American expat’s struggles

Chandi Wyant in Tuscany.

Chandi Wyant in Tuscany.


Frances Mayes’ 1996 blockbuster bestseller, “Under the Tuscan Sun,” made buying a home in Tuscany the pinnacle of Italian dreams. A garden. A beautiful kitchen to cook fresh Italian dishes. And, oh, that Italian sun. But it’s not always a love story. Buying a home in Italy can be a story of disillusionment.

Like me, Chandi Wyant is an American expat, travel writer, author and one-time Colorado transplant. Her book, “Return to Glow,” about her 40-day pilgrimage walk in Italy, has become a big hit. She moved to Tuscany for a second time last spring and was hopeful about buying a small house or apartment. It’s a long process and sometimes painful. In between moving out of freezing rental that had no heat, into another temporary rental with friends, she joined me for an online Q&A about her experiences house-hunting in Italy.

Homes in central Florence can be very expensive. Photo by Chandi Wyant

Homes in central Florence can be very expensive. Photo by Chandi Wyant


WHAT’S THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BUYING A HOME IN ITALY AND THE U.S?

The market is not liquid like the U.S. market tends to be. Flipping houses is not a thing with Italians. About 70-80 percent of Italians own the homes in which they live. Property is passed down through generations — or if Italians don’t inherit a house, they tend to buy one and one only.

Property in Italy should not be seen as an investment. It’s better to buy if you want to live there forever. Although if you’re not going to live in the property you buy and if it’s near tourist attractions, you can rent it out for income.

If you are concerned about resale, you need to know that it is usually quite difficult to sell a house that is located in the countryside. The best places for resale are the historic centers of popular cities.

WHAT HAPPENED IN YOUR SEARCH?

I looked at about 20 places in Lucca and surrounding area, and about 20 in the center and the outskirts of Florence. Then I got burnt out and stopped.

WHAT DO YOU GET FOR YOUR MONEY?

Price range in Florence: To get a decent-looking but small two-bedroom apartment in the center or slightly on the periphery but not in a horrible area, you are looking at a minimum of 300,000 euros ($360,000) and the kitchen is likely to be barbie sized and it’s unlikely there will be a garden or a terrace. To get two bedrooms with radiant floor heat and a large garden in a great location you are looking at 550,000 Euro ($670,000).

Living in Tuscany does have its romantic side. Photo by Chandi Wyant

Living in Tuscany does have its romantic side. Photo by Chandi Wyant


WE ALL HEAR ABOUT THE CONFUSING ITALIAN BUREAUCRACY. HOW BIG A PART DOES IT PLAY?

The process of using a real estate agent is different in Italy than in the U.S. Americans are used to choosing a realtor based on who they feel is sympathetic to their wish list, and who they know will go to bat for them. In Italy you don’t have such a luxury. There is no central data base like Multiple Listings Services in the U.S. Realtors have their territory. They represent only some properties. And they work for the seller as well as the buyer, which doesn’t allow for the “They have my back” feeling.

In my experience I spent about a hundred hours during a two-month period, searching properties online, then requesting further info when I saw something interesting, and then I received an onslaught of calls in Italian from realtors and had to set up eight showings with eight different realtors for a two-day trip to Florence.

The amount of realtors I spoke to and met was dizzying and I couldn’t keep them clear in my head. Needless to say I find the U.S. system to be more straightforward and more pleasant.

Finally I found a realtor in Florence who seemed more competent than the others, and who I felt really was taking my criteria to heart. I asked her if I could be exclusively with her. The answer was “Yes but…”

Because of the lack of a MLS, my exclusive realtor had to ask other realtors if she could show their property to me, if I wanted to see one she didn’t represent. Sometimes she got a yes and sometimes a no.

Lastly, regarding bureaucracy, there are numerous complex technical and legal aspects to buying property in Italy and foreigners can easily get in over their heads. My advice is to take it slowly, rent first and do a lot of research about the market and the process and the expenses, and always hire competent legal assistance when buying a property in Italy.

HOW MUCH DID THIS EXPERIENCE TAKE AWAY FROM THE ROMANTIC NOTION OF BUYING A HOUSE IN TUSCANY?

If you have a lot of money to spend on a property in Italy you may possibly still feel the romance of it that is encouraged by enticing photos on real estate ads and by Hollywood movies. If you are on a budget it can be a painful process if you have the romantic version in your head.

A typical kitchen in Florence.

A typical kitchen in Florence.


WHAT’S THE WORST THING YOU DISCOVERED?

The kitchens. When you’re on a budget they’re awful. And even if you have $670,000 to spend on an apartment in Florence, the kitchen will likely be enclosed by walls with no window.

I viewed a new apartment in Florence (550,000 euros or $670,000). I couldn’t afford it but it had radiant floor heating and a large garden, so I just had to see it. (After going through the winter months in a rustic countryside place with no heat the thought of radiant floor heat, and new, air-tight construction sounded like heaven.) I walked into the main room, a nice big space, with large windows and a glass door at the end of it, opening to the garden. But at the back of this room where there were no windows was the kitchen with walls around it, all closed in.

While I love hundreds of things about Italy, I will never love a windowless kitchen in a closet.

(Italians think kitchens must be hidden which is why they’re typically built into windowless corners, or even literally found inside closets.)

I am actually very adaptable to many things. When I lived in India I had to go outside and dig a hole to go the bathroom. But I have not been able to relinquish my love of a kitchen that is the heart of the house, a place that is inviting and festive, with an island where guests can sit with their wine while the host prepares food.

My dream kitchen and my dream of living in Italy may not “marry well” (to take a phrase from Italian) and I have to find a balance.

WHERE ARE YOU NOW IN THE BUYING PROCESS?

After doing a huge push with my search through December and January, I became disheartened about what was available in my budget. And the dollar was getting lower, so I took a break. I may have to stray farther into Florence’s periphery to afford an apartment that feels attractive to me. My next task is to get to know those areas and learn how resale prospects may change for an apartment in the periphery versus in the center.


Chandi is a world traveler, photographer, writer and historian. She moved to Tuscany in the spring of 2017 after a long love affair with Italy that started in the 1980s when she first traveled there at age 19 and then returned the following year to live in Florence and learn the language. Chandi has a master’s degree in Florentine Renaissance history and has taught at colleges in the US and overseas. On her website, Paradise of Exiles, she blogs about how to move to Italy.

Chandi’s memoir about her 40-day pilgrimage walk in Italy has been featured on numerous travel websites and podcasts to rave reviews. You can get the book here.

You can find her on instagram and Facebook:
instagram @paradiseofexiles
Facebook https://www.facebook.com/ParadiseOfExiles/