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

PIAZZA NAVONA

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, http://www.eitchborromini.com), 25 euros, dinner 50. Dessert, Tre Scalini (Piazza Navona 28, 06-688-01996, http://www.trescalini.it), 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.

VILLA BORGHESE

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, http://galleriaborghese.beniculturali.it/it), 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 VATICAN

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, http://www.enotecadelfrate.it) 5-7 euros per glass, dinner La Pratolina (Via degli Scipioni 248, 06-3600-4409, pizzarialapratolina.it) 40 euros: 60 total.

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

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

SPA

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, acquamadre.it), 60 euros. Juice, Pascucci (Via di Torre Argentina 20, Pascuccifrullati.it), 7 euros: 135 total.

The Forum from behind Il Vittoriano.

The Forum from behind Il Vittoriano.

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, ilvittoriano.com/exhibitions-leica.html),14 euros. Total: 28 euros.

Madre opened two years ago. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Madre opened two years ago. Photo by Marina Pascucci

MONTI

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, madreroma.com) 28 euros. Dinner, La Taverna dei Monti (Via del Boschetto 41, 06-481-7724, tavernadeimonti.info), 30. Dessert, Grezzo (Via Urbana 130, 06-483-443, Grezzorawchocolate.com), 6.00. Total: 64 euros.

Appia Antica was built in 312 BC.

Appia Antica was built in 312 BC.

APPIAN WAY

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, http://www.parks.it/parco.appia.antica/Eser.php), 3 euros per hour first three hours, 10 euros all day. Dinner: Ristorante L’Archeologia (Via Appia Antica 139, 06-788-0494, larcheologia.it), 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.

Four years in Rome: An anniversary ode to my favorite city in the whole world

Four years ago today I arrived in this city and never plan on leaving.

Four years ago today I arrived in this city and never plan on leaving.


I went to my 101st country last year. Iceland blew my mind and wallet with equal explosiveness. Laos, No. 100 on my list, was a paradise I never knew. But No. 1 in my world remains the country where I live. And its capital is still my favorite city.

Today marks my fourth anniversary of moving to Rome. Much has changed since I arrived with a duffel bag, two backpacks and a roller bag. I’ve met the woman I hope to spend my life with, my Italian has improved to where I naturally speak it before English and I’m bitching about Rome’s lousy public services.

But no, the honeymoon hasn’t worn off. I still wake up and take my cappuccino to my terrace and get weepy thinking how lucky I am to live in this paradise.

Then I see a dead carp on the bank of the Tiber and come back to reality.

I never want to fall into the trap of being a whiny expat. That’s why every Jan. 11, my anniversary, I jot down all the little things I love about living in Rome. Read them. Get inspired by them. Dream about them. Because the reality of living in Rome is better than the dream:

Centro Storico has so many alleys and crannies, every trip in is different.

Centro Storico has so many alleys and crannies, every trip in is different.


I love driving the narrow alleys of Centro Storico with the windows down and feeling the warm summer breeze then emerge in front of a 13th century church, all back lit like a monument.

I love the bite of the salami piccante pizza at Pizzeria Remo down the street and how the lusty fresh tomato sauce makes it one of the greatest food combos known to man.

I love how you can swap recipes with an Italian buddy and no one thinks it’s gay.

I love watching the old couples gossip in my Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice, even though I don’t know the old Romanesco dialect and have no clue what they’re saying.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci


I love having lived here four years and never having a bad bottle of wine.

I love knowing I could live here 1,000 years and never try all the wines in Italy.

I love how the fishmonger at my Mercato Testaccio sees me and automatically says with a knowing smile, “Tonno? Centottanta e quindici,” meaning “Tuna? 180 degrees and 15 minutes” which I always order and always double check how to bake.

I love that Radja Nainggolan, my favorite player on A.S. Roma, turned down more money to stay in the adopted city he loves like I do.

I love escaping a rainstorm in Piazza del Popolo’s Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo and seeing a Caravaggio masterpiece over my head, totally free as I dry off.

I love getting up early for a conchiglia, the triangle-shaped puffed pastry named for the seashell it looks like, when it’s warm and gooey at Caffe In on my piazza.

I love how the cash register at L’Oasi della Birra, my local beer bar and enoteca, is surrounded by designer Italian chocolates to tempt you as you leave with a healthy buzz.

I love how I can wear a designer suit to a casual aperitivo when the sun’s still out and I fit in just fine.

Piazza Navona at dusk.

Piazza Navona at dusk.


I love strolling through Piazza Navona just after dawn in winter, before the tourists pour in, when fog settles in just above Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.

I love how Marina, and all Italian women, think sexy high heels are casual wear, too.

I love how every wine region in Italy comes to Rome to push their product in one room during wine tasting events in tony hotels.

I love Rome-Palermo 56 euros round trip on Alitalia.

I love the grilled calamari at Amelindo in Fiumicino, the town known more for Rome’s airport than boasting the largest collection of affordable, fresh seafood restaurants in Italy.

Blow Lounge

Blow Lounge


I love the Blow Lounge.

I love reading books about Roman history in the summer with my terrace door open and Andrea Bocelli filling the air.

I love how grated parmesan cheese gives fresh pasta the cheesy flavor it has and then topped off with a pile of parmesan on top.

I love how no cafes in Rome offer coffee in paper cups.

Marina Pascucci

Marina Pascucci


I love how Marina never complains about my Italian but always encourages me to get better.

I love how no Italian woman wears Birkenstocks.

I love going through Campo de’ Fiori in the morning just in time to stop at Forno Campo de’ Fiori for its ungherese, a big fat toasted dough ring covered in white icing.

I love standing in the Olympic Stadium’s press tribune and hearing “Grazie Roma” right before AS Roma and its opponent marches onto the field.

I love that my Testaccio is one of the few neighborhoods in Rome that still honors pausa, the afternoon break when everything closes from 1-3:30 or 4 p.m.

I love how Italian leather shoes feel as comfortable on Day 1 as they do on Day 100.

I love SportWeek’s photos of Italy’s beautiful women athletes.

I love looking down at my courtyard from my fourth-floor kitchen window and seeing cats sunning themselves in the morning sun before it disappears behind the building.

Marina and I on Terrazza Borromini.

Marina and I on Terrazza Borromini.


I love the view of Centro Storico at sunset from the top of Terrazza Borromini while clinking wine glasses with total strangers in overstuffed couches.

I love Marina serving me espresso in bed with her cat, Coco, asleep near my feet.

I love a cold Italian craft beer at 8 percent alcohol outside on a hot summer day with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

I love Sicilian takeout.

Tiburina Island

Tiburina Island


I love talking to people from around the world on Tiburina Island as whitewater rushes by us during an Expats Living in Rome Meetup.

I love how Italian has no word for “hangover.”

I love the Roman dialect profanity “La mortaci tua!” meaning “Your family is dead!”

Abbey Theatre Irish Pub

Abbey Theatre Irish Pub


I love sitting upstairs in Abbey Theatre Irish Pub with our private room full of romanista dining on the best pub food outside London and watching AS Roma beat the mortal piss out of another opponent.

I love Marina’s father was a member of Italy’s Communist Party and loves Barack Obama.

I love that Italy’s Communist Party was pro labor and not pro Stalin.

I love eating my prized pasta amatriciana, covered in parmesan, on my terrace with cold clementines while looking out over the calm Tiber River on a warm spring day.

I love leisurely Sunday mornings outside at my Linari cafe, with my chocolate cornetto, cappuccino ben caldo (extra hot) and Corriere Dello Sport, and dig into Rome’s best pastry and 30 pages of soccer news.

I love AS Roma 2, Lazio 1, Nov. 18, 2017.

Me at a Roman cistern. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me at a Roman cistern. Photo by Marina Pascucci


I love getting thirsty in summer then taking a draw from the ice-cold cisterns that have graced Rome for nearly 150 years.

I love how only one-third of all Italians are overweight compared to two-thirds in the U.S.

I love the romantic walk along Via dei Vascellari, the narrow cobblestone alley in Trastevere on my way to Trattoria Da Enzo, home of the best carbonara in the city that invented it.

I love how Federico my macellaio (butcher) wears a white fedora, not like the thousands of tourists who parade around idiotically with them but as an ode to macellai who wore them in the early 20th century.

Marina with friends.

Marina with friends.


I love how Marina’s fantastic pictures of us in Rome make me more grateful for living here than I did when I first arrived.

In the art capital of the world, a small shop in Rome keeps a dying art alive

Paolo Pugelli, in the Bottega Mortet shop, has been an artisan for 48 of his 62 years.

Paolo Pugelli, in the Bottega Mortet shop, has been an artisan for 48 of his 62 years.


Anyone started Christmas shopping yet? I’m done. I’m almost always done by early December. I don’t waste time. I don’t bull rush shopping in one harried night in a mall. I shop all year. Wherever I go around the world I find something for my family in the States. In fact, I bought my first present for this Christmas on Jan. 1. This year my family is getting, in the mail, gifts from Thailand, Laos, Sweden and France as well as Italy.

Too bad. Only 1 ½ miles from my home in Rome I found a place that truly would provide a unique gift. Historical, too. Bottega Mortet is home to a family of artisans who have carried on a tradition that long ago nearly disappeared. In the early 20th century, the area between Piazza Navona and the Tiber River was chock-a-block with little shops specializing in gold and silver art objects. These artists rubbed elbows and dust with carpenters, cobblers and tailors.

Carpenters, cobblers and tailors can still be found all over Rome. Gold and silver artisans? They’ve gone the way of the horse and buggy. But like the one or two horse and buggies that clop through my Testaccio neighborhood to cart tourists around nearby Centro Storico, some gold and silver artisans remain. They’re just not for tourists. They have a market ranging from learned art collectors to the Vatican.

From a marketing standpoint, Bottega Mortet may as well be underground. I found the shop after 30 minutes roaming the narrow roads and twisting alleys north of Piazza Navona. Today the neighborhood is lined with carpet shops, small outdoor cafes and souvenir stores, all anchored by the 18th century Palazzo Sant’Agostino. I had to ask a cafe coffee jockey for directions. He pointed down the street to a large tower that looked torn off a castle somewhere. In the adjacent building I walked through a cutout door no more than 5 ½ feet high into Palazzo Scapucci, built in 1444 for the powerful Frangipani family.

Bottega Mortet is in a quiet, hidden courtyard near Piazza Navona.

Bottega Mortet is in a quiet, hidden courtyard near Piazza Navona.


I found myself in a quiet courtyard with various doors. Not a single one had a sign. A tall man wearing a moustache and a dusty black apron stood outside one door talking on his cell.

“Dove Bottega Mortet?” I asked.

He pointed to his door. I entered and saw sitting on a stool in a dark corner Paolo Pugelli. Wearing a long gray smock, he was looking under a small spotlight at a table filled with little red art objects. Above him was a small loft holding busts of ancient sculptures. Maybe this is where all the heads of headless statues I see in Rome museums end up.

Pugelli is 62 years old and has been a fine metals artist since he was 14. He is the cousin to the Mortet family, of whom Andrea was busy in an adjacent room equally cluttered. Dante Mortet had just left. I walked along an ancient wood floor past stacks of dusty books crammed in a chimney space. An old glass case held a replica soccer World Cup trophy, gold figurines and gold coins.

It’s as far from the high-end art shops along tony, ivy-lined Via Margutta as you can find but they are no less valuable.

Michele Monaco, a collaborator, fine tunes a piece for the family that opened the shop in the early 1950s.

Michele Monaco, a collaborator, fine tunes a piece for the family that opened the shop in the early 1950s.


Bottega Mortet is not a store. Bottega means “workshop” in Italian. It started in the early-1950s, bridging a gap between a dying Italian art and the modern consumer. Michele and Andrea are sons of Aurelio Mortet, who started the business. Another Mortet has a store outside of Rome.

While Michele took little hammers and chisels to little gold objects, I asked Paolo why this charming place is one of a dying breed.

The base used for the pope's hat and ring.

The base used for the pope’s hat and ring.


“It’s true that many things changed in this work,” he said. “Also the taste of people changed. The entire society changed. How could I say, the way of interpreting beauty and art changed. Once upon a time, people wanted a special, particular object and they used to go to artisans. Nowadays people often prefer to buy name-brand objects.”

That means malls, touristy stores along Via del Corso, lobbies of five-star hotels. How boring.

Anyone can come into the shop and look around. However, the shop runs almost entirely on individual commissions. People get an idea of what they want and discuss it with one of the family members. They put their heads together and come up with an idea. The family has a good reputation, at least according to one customer.

Pope Benedict XVI.

When he reigned across the river in Vatican City from 2005-2013, Pope Benedict had a representative come down to the shop about six or seven years ago. They wanted a specially, handmade gold cross.

The gold cross Paolo made for Pope Benedetto XVI.

The gold cross Paolo made for Pope Benedetto XVI.


Paolo took out an old copy of L’Osservatore Romano, The Vatican’s daily newspaper founded in 1861. On the front page is Pope Benedict, the cross swinging conspicuously around his neck. The pope liked it so much, his office invited Paolo to come for a rare private audience with some professors.

“I answered that I thought it wouldn’t be right to go there,” he said. “I’m not a professor. There’s no sense because in your life you must be humble. I was very pleased but I’m already very happy that the pope was wearing my cross. That’s enough.”

For a man who has done his job for 48 of his 62 years, Paolo hasn’t lost any excitement for his craft. He has zest in his voice, a gleam in his eye. I asked him what he liked about his job.

Pope Benedict XVI on the front page of L'Osservatore Romano.

Pope Benedict XVI on the front page of L’Osservatore Romano.


“I always loved design and art,” he said. “I am somebody who is so lucky to have found what I like to do. I think it’s everybody’s dream to have a job with passion. I always say that if you do your job with passion you are very lucky. To become rich, you must steal. Work must be made with passion and this is the richness.”

For anyone wanting a handmade gold, silver or bronze figurine and have an idea you always wanted to bring to fruition, you can contact Bottega Mortet at 39-06-686-1629 or bottega.mortet@fastwebnet.it.

The Baths of Caracalla: But really, how clean were the Ancient Romans?

Terme di Caracalla (235 AD) hosted 6,000-8,000 Romans a day.

Terme di Caracalla (235 AD) hosted 6,000-8,000 Romans a day.


Today’s kids probably wonder what it was like for me growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s without Internet, cell phones and the Kardashians. After being retired in Rome for nearly four years, I think back further, like 2,000 years.

What was it like in Ancient Rome, without water treatment, toothpaste and showers?

Rome was the most powerful civilization in man’s history, but how clean were Romans when the toilet flush was 1,300 years from its first plunge? Only the real rich had private baths and the tenements didn’t have running water. Did you know Julius Caesar brushed his teeth with urine?

No, that wasn’t why he was stabbed 23 times. Urine is what Romans used for toothpaste. They made soap out of urine. When someone in Ancient Rome said, “I’m pissed off,” it likely meant he just took a bath.

Baths were big in Ancient Rome. They were all over the city. They still are. I once took a bike ride down the Appia Antica, the ancient road to the sea and along which Spartacus’ rebellious slaves were crucified (see Ancient Rome: Failed Labor Strikes). I passed the remains of huge villas with expansive tiled floors where hot tubs once sat.

A rendition of what the complex looked like in the 3rd century AD.

A rendition of what the complex looked like in the 3rd century AD.


I recently toured Rome’s most famous baths, the second largest in Ancient Rome. Terme di Caracalla (Baths of Caracalla), less than a mile southeast of Circo Massimo, are only a mile from my apartment. I pass them all the time. On a warm fall day, I took the bus up the street and got off next to the complex.

The Terme di Caracalla looks like a sandstone Legoland after your kid went at it with a 9-iron. Tall yellowish towers are interspersed with jagged walls enclosing massive halls with tiled floors.

About 1,700 years ago this place was the new nerve center of Ancient Rome. It covered 62 acres, measuring 337 x 328 meters. It featured 252 columns, 16 at least 12 meters high. Its main bath building was 214 x 110 meters with 44-meter-high ceilings. It had four cold pools, 12 medium pools and seven hot pools. It had an Olympic-size swimming pool 50 meters by 22 meters enclosed by 20-meter high walls. The whole complex could hold 1,600 people at a time and 6,000-8,000 people used it per day. And it was free.

Started in 212 by Emperor Septimius Severus, it was finished by his son, Caracalla, in about 235 AD. It was called one of the Seven Wonders of Rome. The Terme di Caracalla was one giant spa, the Palm Springs of its day.

To understand the importance of Caracalla to Ancient Rome, you must understand the importance of baths to Ancient Romans. Public baths were where Romans got clean. Even in the countryside, Romans, including slaves, would wash every day and would have a thorough bath on every feast day.

The baths were scattered throughout the Roman Empire and often became the hub of the city. The Romans built one of their most elaborate public baths in England where they introduced a sophisticated water system and an array of different pools. The town’s name?

Bath.

Where the gym once stood.

Where the gym once stood.


I paid my 8 euros at the modest ticket booth, void of the schlocky souvenir store you usually must walk through in many Rome sites. The summer high season is over, leaving the complex to only a few of us. I found myself in the first room, a giant open rectangular space that represented the gymnasium. Workers were refurbishing tile on the old floor. Romans would wrestle, box or do calisthenics before turning right into an adjacent dressing room.

On the other side of the dressing room was where the Olympic-size pool stood. To its right, side by side by side, were the cold, medium and hot pools. Today, the 20-meter walls still stand but holes exist where the pools once were. Fragments of the floors decorated with ancient Roman figures lean against the walls. Grass covers where beautiful tile once lay. The floors of the bath once were colored marble glass brought from the Orient and ringed with bronze and marble statues.

The walls stood 20 meters.

The walls stood 20 meters.


Coal and wood were burnt underground to heat water from an aqueduct that was in use until the 19th century. Slaves worked in tunnels that stretched for hundreds of meters under the baths. Those tunnels are open to the public but the gate was unfortunately closed when I arrived.

The villas on Appia Antica have better preserved pools but the massiveness of Caracalla is stunning. If you close your eyes and let your mind drift (You get good at that after four years living among ancient ruins), you can imagine the buzz, gossip and flirting that went on here 2,000 years ago. At the time in the 3rd century AD, anarchy began creeping into Rome and cracks started appearing in its once impenetrable empire.

One of the old pools.

One of the old pools.


Terme di Caracalla was in use until 530 before the Goths ransacked Rome and cut off the water supply. Shortly thereafter, with the citizenry unwilling to bathe in standing water used by 6,000 other filthy Romans, the baths were abandoned.

Since then it became a burial ground for pilgrims in the 7th century. An earthquake in 847 destroyed much of the building then in the 12th century it was used as a quarry for construction material and a vineyard and garden in the 14th century. Then in the 16th century the archaeologists poured in it from around the world and continue to this day. Its design inspired New York’s Penn Station and Chicago’s Union Station.

As I wandered the huge grounds, I was impressed with how attentive Romans were to hygiene. I read Ancient Romans went to the baths every day, that women used lanolin from sheep wool for sweet-scented skin. But, like Rome, this story has many layers. My research peeled back the silky, rich appearance of the Roman populace to reveal something else.

Piss. Shit. Rats. Parasites. Oh, and one hungry octopus.

Yes, just as Ancient Rome’s opulence and riches hid Rome’s true violence and poverty, Rome’s baths hid the filth underneath. Rome in the 3rd century had 144 public toilets, not nearly enough for a city population of more than 300,000. The latrines fed into a main sewage system designed more for drainage than water treatment.

While historians have praised Ancient Rome for its elaborate sewer and drainage system and its cleansing of public odor, the ancient toilet was a receptacle for embarrassing, gross disasters. Due to the sulphide and methane found underground, you could be sitting on the commode when the ground underneath your derriere explodes. Rats often crawled up through the toilet. Toilet paper was sometimes a communal sponge on a stick.

And then there was the octopus …

The historical website Ancient Origins wrote about an Iberian merchant in Puzzuoli near Naples where he hooked up his toilet to the public sewer. One time an octopus swam from the sea, through the sewer system and up through the toilet into the man’s home where he feasted on pickled fish in the pantry.

Original artwork still adorns the grounds.

Original artwork still adorns the grounds.


Also, Rome spread filth around its empire. According to the journal Parasitology (Yeah, I know. I need a life.), Romans built public baths in nearly every new land they conquered. What else did they bring with them?

Parasites.

“This latest research on the prevalence of ancient parasites suggests that Roman toilets, sewers and sanitation laws had no clear benefit to public health,” said Piers Mitchell, author of the study. “The widespread nature of both intestinal parasites and ectoparasites such as lice also suggests that Roman public baths surprisingly gave no clear health benefit, either.”

Even Roman food added to the filth. The favorite condiment in Ancient Rome, a fish sauce called “garum,” helped spread parasites as well.

Refurbishing tile in the old gymnasium.


Rome still has public baths. Last year I blogged about AcquaMadre, a bath house in the Jewish Ghetto designed on a smaller scale along the lines of those in Ancient Rome. Three years ago I blogged about a huge thermal pool complex in Viterbo north of Rome. I gave my girlfriend, Marina, a gift card for QC Terme, a beautiful spa in Fiumicino near Rome’s airport.

But that is now. Ancient Rome was then. Now I want to do what I’ve been dying to do since researching this blog.

Take a real long, hot shower.

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.

Casarecce

Casarecce


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.

Molise.

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)

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

DIRECTIONS
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