Retired in Rome Journal: Losing 10 pounds in Italy isn’t as hard as you think

I'm not a great cook, but I'm a good cook in Rome. Fresh pasta and sweet tomatoes can make simple meals delicious.
I’m not a great cook, but I’m a good cook in Rome. Fresh pasta and sweet tomatoes can make simple meals delicious.
I received a little bit of a shock Tuesday. I weighed myself for the first time since I moved to Rome Jan. 10. I’ve lost 10 pounds. None of them were ugly. I’m down to 90 kilos or 198 pounds. At 6-foot-3, I’m the lightest I’ve been in more than 20 years. That’s not good. My best friend, whom I grew up with in Eugene, wrote me, “You’re the skinniest I’ve seen you since you were in high school.” When I graduated from high school, I was 6-2, 165 pounds. You think you women have body issues?

So do I.

Losing weight in Italy shocks people. It’s like getting fat in rural Sudan. It makes no sense.

I’ve spent half of these blogs writing about my adventures in pasta, sausage, buffala mozzarella, French pastry, Italian pastry, cappuccino with foamy whole milk and pizzas so perfect you think artists made them instead of cooks. In fact, I’m writing this from Linari, a pasticceria (pastry shop) in my new neighborhood. Since it opened in Testaccio 40 years ago, it has built a reputation as arguably the best pasticceria in Rome. I’m typing while standing guard over a display case of chocolate-filled cornettos, cannolis and white mountains of chocolate-flecked baked meringue.

Most people would gain five pounds just looking up.

The lifestyle in Rome, however, has built-in safeguards. Like Romans, I walk everywhere. When I lived in Centro Storico, I didn’t need public transportation for two months. Rome is one of the world’s great walking cities and I would walk four to six miles a day. Even when I wasn’t going anywhere, I’d just wander. I have a pile of business cards from restaurants and cafes I stumbled on just in my daily rambles. Even when I take a subway, it’s a 10-12 minute walk.

A car is out of the question. Even if you can afford one, if the outrageous insurance costs don’t drive you mad the parking will. You’ve heard of double parking? Romans triple park. If you’re ever in Rome and hear a car horn go off for 10 minutes, it’s not stuck. It’s a guy notifying the neighborhood that his car is pinned to the curb by two other parked cars. When the offending motorists comes out to free the other guy’s car, they don’t exchange words. They exchange pleasantries. Forza Roma!

It’s the infernal life in the Eternal City.

Food is the other safeguard. Yes, it’s Italian. Yes, it’s pizza and pasta and cheese and tomato sauce. Throw in some gelato and you think Venice can’t be the only city in Italy that’s sinking. Actually, the food in Italy — the true Italian food — is healthy. The sausage is leaner than any I’ve had in the U.S. The pasta is fresh. The tomatoes have no preservatives. Even the gelato has a third to two-thirds fewer calories than Ben & Jerry’s. The sauces are simple with few ingredients. But each ingredient is special.

Last night I made a penne pasta with just two crumbled sausage links, some chopped red bell pepper and three crushed fresh tomatoes. Sprinkled with some parmigiano reggiano, I had a delicious, healthy meal that didn’t make me waddle out of my chair.

Americans don’t know how to do Italian food. The sauces have more ingredients than a jet engine. The massive portions could feed Tuscany. I remember working in Las Vegas and attending a press conference for a touring pro basketball team from Italy. The sponsors had the poor insight of holding at an Olive Garden. The players were disgusted just by the garlic bread. They all ordered plain pasta with tomato sauce.

Basta cosi! (That’s enough).

Consequently, Italians are remarkably fit. A fat person stands out here like a jaguar walking across the Roman Forum. I remember my first stint in Rome I saw an extremely overweight woman walk by me near the Vatican. Curious, I turned and followed her. Then she began to talk. She was an American. I wasn’t surprised.

The Italians have a saying for their being. It’s called La Bella Figura (The Beautiful Form). It’s not just physical. It’s a mentality, a quest to always look your best even when the difficult life in Italy beats you down. Romans can’t afford many clothes but the clothes they buy are top notch. They carry themselves in a way that says they want to be looked at, whether it’s a woman’s stilettos that skip gracefully over 2,000-year-old cobblestones or a man’s scarf he wears even when it’s 60 degrees out.

All Romans aren’t beautiful. But most are fit. I always said Americans have the best-preserved women in the world. A driven independence and fitness centers that fill every afternoon at 5 have provided the U.S. with an ageless species. But two-thirds of the American population remains overweight. Half of those are classified as obese. In Italy, only a third are fat. Combine that with Roman women’s style, Italian fashions and sense of self worth and you have women here who can make Michelangelo’s David even harder than he already is.

Myself? I joined a gym Tuesday. I meet with a nutritionist next week. I’m going to put back those 10 pounds. It’s time to put Italian sausage to work.