Rome: The filthiest capital in Europe — and it might be second as well

A common sight: The dumpsters in front of my apartment building.


Sandro Ferri, my old friend at my corner edicola, walked out of his small newsstand to show me something on the ground near his window. It was a small circle of what looked like new concrete. It was once a home — for mice. They used to come up through the hole and head to what was on the other side of his newsstand.

I didn’t have to look. I knew. It’s five dumpsters, all bursting at the iron seams from garbage spilling out of their openings, like pus from open sores. Surrounding the dumpsters were piles upon piles of plastic garbage bags, left there too long for Sandro and me to remember when they weren’t.

This is where the mice came to feed, that is, until he covered the hole last month. Sandro has had this newsstand since 1997. I asked him if it was like this then.

“It’s much worse,” he said. “I’ve never seen Rome like this.”

Neither have I. I first came to Rome in 1978. The air was filthy but the streets were clean. I came again in 1998, during Rome’s economic upturn, and they cleaned up the air. The city was as pristine as what you see in the tourist brochures. I lived here from 2001-03 and fell in love with the city, its beauty, its light. I vowed I’d return forever — and today find myself up to my heart in garbage bags.

Rome is plagued by a lack of space for a public landfill. Observer photo


You may have to go back to the 5th century AD, right after the fall of the Roman Empire when everyone from the Goths to the Vandals sacked the city, to see Rome this filthy. A massive garbage problem that has escalated for six years has turned Rome into the filthiest capital in Europe. I know. I’ve been to every one but Nicosia, Cyprus; Vallata, Malta; Chisinau, Moldova; Bucharest; Sofia; Minsk; Kiev and Warsaw. No other city is within a dumpster fire of Rome as the dirtiest. Rome might be second, too.

I’ve seen worse in the world. Cairo, Jakarta and Port-au-Prince come to mind. However, no other city has built such an international reputation on its respect for beauty. From art to fashion to architecture, Rome has symbolized style, class and elegance since the Renaissance. I tell my friends and visitors that Rome still is the most beautiful city in the world.

Just don’t look down.

If you do, you’ll see sights that will turn your intestines. Bags of garbage spilling out from overflowing dumpsters and onto sidewalks. Seagulls picking open plastic to get to discarded table scraps. Entire stretches of road heading to the beach lined with garbage bags. Hookers sitting on chairs in front of a mountain of trash don’t dress it up a bit.

The garbage is even attracting wild boars into the city. Millennium Report photo


I’ve read reports of scavenger birds fighting wild boars for rat carcasses.

And the smell … you don’t even have to look while walking down a sidewalk to know you’re by a dumpster. During one stretch this steaming summer, they didn’t pick up the garbage on our street for 15 days. I asked Sandro what’s it like to work next to this and he held his nose.

We live in Monteverde, a “chic” neighborhood of tree-lined streets, classy apartment buildings from the ‘30s and tony bars and restaurants. Yet on most days my street, Via Monte Verde, looks like an alley in rural India.

“Rome is the window on the country,” said Carlo Pascucci, a Monteverde native who runs my neighborhood beer bar, Stappo. “Here is something that jumps in your eyes because we are the fucking Eternal City. The garbage is all around. Rome is the Eternal City. We can’t have eternal rubbish around.”

How bad is it? According to The Associated Press, Rome produces 1.7 cubic tons of rubbish every year. About 1.2 million of it gets exported at a cost of 180 million euros. The other 5 million apparently don’t get collected. Why? Rome’s garbage problems began in 2013 when its Malagrotta landfill, once the largest in Europe and Rome’s only garbage dump for 30 years, closed due to “lack of maintenance.”

Think about that for a second. What kind of lack of maintenance would a garbage dump require to be labeled a “lack of maintenance”? Of the three current landfills, two have been closed for maintenance and another burned to cinders under suspicious circumstances.

What is left is a blighted city and a fuming populace. In October a protest in front of city hall called Rome “an open sewer.” An organization called Roma Fa Schifo (Rome Sucks) did a song parody on the problem.

Rome chief physician Antonio Magi put Rome on “hygiene alert” and could upgrade it to “health warning.” He said diseases are surfacing from — get this — feces of rats, insects and birds eating the trash. Some citizens are spreading rat poison over the excess garbage on the streets, causing more noxious fumes from the rotting rat corpses in Rome’s summer heat.

Bella Roma!

Who’s to blame? Like Rome’s garbage, blame is spread everywhere:

Even tourist sites are having problems. The Points Guy photo


* AMA ROMA. AMA Roma means “Love Rome.” That’s the most disingenuous name this side of Fox News. The heart for “AMA” on its trucks should be a discarded pizza crust. According to Mayor Virginia Raggi, AMA was 600 million euros in debt as of three years ago. Romans have little sympathy. They pay an average garbage tax of 597 euros per habitat a year, nearly twice Venice which has the second highest at 353. Some offices in Rome pay 4,500 euros.

Private companies have dominated the history of Rome’s garbage collection. Prosecutors have tried connecting it with organized crime and gone after the owner of Malagrotta, Manlio Cerroni, a lawyer who goes by “Il Supremo.” The biggest problem is Rome flat out has no place to put its garbage. The Malagrotta closure put intense pressure on the three other landfills. The fire then knocked out the Salario dump which treated one quarter of Rome’s garbage.

Add maintenance problems on trucks and you have a city of 2.8 million people with no place to throw a wine bottle. Ofttimes, the trucks will pick up the garbage from the overflowing dumpsters but leave on the sidewalk the garbage bags that didn’t fit. Visitors who see piles of garbage next to empty dumpsters must think Romans are as filthy as their city. (More on that later.)

AMA boss Lorenzo Bacagnani has plans. He wants to build 13 new facilities, including three recycling plants, which will process 880,000 tons of waste a year. He says Rome will become “a model for Europe in waste management.” If you know anyone in Rome who wants a landfill in their neighborhood, have them contact Lorenzo. No one has stepped up. I tried talking to AMA. They directed me to the city government.

Rome mayor Virginia Raggi. Il Tempo photo


*CITY GOVERNMENT. The paddle girl in this whole controversy is one 41-year-old Virginia Raggi. Three years ago she became Rome’s first woman mayor on the platform of being an outsider from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. She’s a young, attractive lawyer, not a grizzled, insider politician. She promised to shake things up, including the broken-down organizations of AMA and ATAC, Rome’s pre-Renaissance public transportation service.

She’s beautiful but has had little to no impact. She asked other towns in Lazio and other regions in Italy to open their landfills to Rome. On Facebook, she wrote, “Romans don’t need a new dump or new incinerators. Romans don’t deserve this non solution which would end up sweeping the dust under the carpet once again.”

She has a plan to expand door to door collections from a few neighborhoods to the whole city. Her goal is 70 percent of the waste collected separately by the time her term ends in 2021. The percentage stood at 44 percent last year.

In the meantime, she is battling Nicola Zingaretti, the president of Rome’s Lazio region, in a headline-grabbing blame game. Zingaretti said Raggi should be “ashamed” after she “reduced the most beautiful city in the world into a disaster zone.” She claimed the disaster was manufactured to cause political damage. He claimed this summer he’d solve the problem in seven days, a prediction she — and everyone else — all but laughed at.

Thirsty anyone?


It’s been about a month since his boast and yesterday I had to shoehorn a plastic milk bottle into the crammed dumpster on my street.

The infighting and head banging aren’t going over well in a city where the inhabitants are turning on its government. I’ve lived here for seven years over two stints and Romans always amazed me at their ability to stay cheerful through crises. I’ve never seen them so angry.

Christian Raimo, a writer and neighborhood administrator who has supported some protests, wrote, “City managers have demonstrated they’re completely unfit to design an effective strategy able to address Rome’s waste problem.”

I contacted the city and they didn’t return my emails requesting comment.

Retake Roma’s Monteverde Vecchio founder Paolo Monteverde with fellow volunteers Alessio Carlevaris and Manica Tatiana.


* CITIZENS. About three weeks ago I was walking to my gym behind two well-dressed, middle-aged Italian men. One blatantly dropped a large plastic wrapper on the sidewalk — right in front of a dumpster far from full. Furious, I pointed at the wrapper and said, “Questo e’ SPAZZATURA! Metterlo nella SPAZZATURA! (That’s GARBAGE! Put it in the GARBAGE!)” What did he do? He shrugged, a shrug that said, “I don’t care and I don’t care what you think.” So I told him, “SEI UNO STRONZO! (YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!) VAFFANCULO! (GO FUCK YOURSELF!)” He turned the corner. I don’t even know if he heard me. Everyone else on the street did. They stared.

The U.S. has many problems but litter isn’t one of them. The rest of Europe is spotless. Last fall I was in Liechtenstein and saw a woman light a cigarette and walk half a block to place the match in a wastebasket.

Mediterannean populations have a reputation for being void of environmental enlightenment. However, I’ve been all through Greece and in many parts of Spain and haven’t seen the blatant disregard for litter as I have in Rome. Much of it isn’t Romans’ fault. If they find no room in dumpsters, they must put their garbage on the sidewalk. I’ve done it. When people on the outskirts see entire rest stops filled with garbage bags, it’s natural to add to the pile.

But it’s clear some Romans don’t care as much about their streets as they do their art, food and fashion.

“We have some kind of ignorance,” said Carlo, sitting in his small air-conditioned bar with such lovely Italian craft beers. “We lost what we were before. There were so many kilometers of city but every neighborhood had its rules. We used to respect. We lived in a way that was taught by our ancestors. But now we’re living what the television and media tell us how to live.”

He told me one day last week he was on his motorbike at a traffic light. Some guy in a car next to him rolled down his window and threw out an empty cigarette package. Pascucci picked it up, took it to him and said, “YOU LOST THIS!”

“He went white,” Pascucci said. “Sometimes these things make me crazy. I said to him, ‘It’s not the right way in this city.’ I put it on his windshield.”

One of the many protests in Rome this year. Guardian photo


The organization Retake Roma began 10 years ago to help educate Romans about the environment, work with AMA on collections and call police when they see violations. The founder of the Monteverde Vecchio branch, who calls himself Paolo Monteverde for the neighborhood where he grew up and now lives and works, agrees not all of the problems fall on the city.

“We wanted to do something concrete to bring back the decorum of Rome and sensitize the people of Rome of taking civic responsibility,” he said as fellow volunteers swept up leaves and dirt on the sidewalk. “Even though it’s not your private property, it’s everybody’s and so is the civic responsibility, to wake up this civic sense, to bring the beauty back in Rome.”

Organizations like Retake Roma and Roma Fa Schifo give hope to my beloved adopted city. We need a massive parcel of land more than anything else but in the meantime public awareness might make a bigger dent than me cussing out a local on a sidewalk.

Asked about Retake Roma’s mission, he later wrote in an email, “On the one hand making adults and students aware of waste reduction, to differentiate while encouraging the reuse and recycling of materials, etc. On the other hand, explaining the penalties for those who dirty or throw rubbish or leave bulk (furniture) in the street, also collaborating with AMA for some events (they lend us materials and withdraw the sacks of waste that are produced during a Retake event.)

“If we see bulk in the street we report it. If we see who abandons them we report to the police the plate of the vehicle. If we see bags of rubbish outside the bins we put them in. We also promptly inform AMA and/or the municipality of cases of bins overflowing or overturned or burnt or missing or badly positioned.”

The problem has cast a mask of gloom on the normally upbeat Romans. My corner coffee bar, Romagnani Caffe, is my Cheers. Everyone knows each other. All the barristas know what I order. Yet AS Roma’s soccer fortunes are often replaced with conversations of rubbish, like the time they saw an estimated 250 bags of garbage around the previously mentioned dumpsters across the street.

I asked Carlo how sad he is.

“So much. So much,” he said, slowly shaking his head. “I hate this city what it has become. Because it was never like this. This was a different metropolis from all the others all over the world. We used to have a big city with a lot of people that had a community sense, a living-together sense.”

It’s still there. Unfortunately, we are all living together in filth and the sense that this community is falling apart. Add holes in the streets, buses that burst into flames and tortoise-like public services and you have a city on the verge of collapse. Rome is nearly 3,000 years old, was once the center of the most powerful civilization in man’s history and now it can’t pick up a discarded Barilla box.

Maybe it’s time to plug some more holes.

15 tips on how to beat the heat in sweltering Rome in July and August

A tourist walks under the sun in front of the Colosseum. Temperatures are in the high 90s this week. AFP photo.


How hot is it in Rome this week? It’s so hot …

… the oracle in Julius Caesar’s hand on the statue near the Forum has been mysteriously replaced with a bottle of Gatorade.

… rats have left their piles of garbage on the streets and checked in at the Marriott.

… the Saudi Arabian Embassy just moved in a beer keg.

OK, I shouldn’t complain. My old United States is melting like gelato. Record temperatures are killing people and electrical grids. Baseball fans in Chicago’s Wrigley Field gave a standing ovation to a slight breeze. The state of Texas has melted into Mexico like dollops of pancake batter on a skillet.

Here in Rome, it’s summer as usual. Temperatures this week range from 93-97 with humidity at a relatively mild 35-50 percent. Screw relativity. Rome is still broiling. July is THE worst month to visit this city, as I wrote four years ago. It’s hot. It’s crowded. Public transportation is cut back to the age of chariots. The biggest impression with which you’ll leave Rome is how in the hell did the Roman Empire survive 900 years with these summers?

August isn’t quite so bad. Half of Rome leaves on vacation, leaving it less crowded but also with many establishments closed. August weather is about the same. If any of you are foolish enough to visit Rome in these two months, you can still enjoy it without drowning in your own pool of sweat.

Do not, however, jump into a fountain. Eight tourists were recently fined 450 euros each for jumping into the Trevi Fountain. Forget the “La Dolce Vita” reenactment. It’s no longer interesting, and it’s no longer free.

This is my seventh summer in Rome. I’ve learned a few things along the way, such as hibernating on my balcony and just eat fruit. I know you visitors can’t do that (You wouldn’t quite fit) so here are 15 tips, A Guide to Roasting Rome (with links to past blogs with more details).

Me at one of the 2,500 nasonis around Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci


1. Tap water. It’s not illegal to buy bottled water in Rome, but it should be. For 2,000 years Rome has been known for its fantastic tap water. Some of its ancient aqueducts are still in use today, bringing fresh, cold water from the distant mountains to your hotel room. Along with Scandinavia, it’s the best tap water I’ve ever tasted. Instead of spending money on bottled water, go to any bar and order “acqua rubinetto con ghiaccio (tap water with ice).” It’s free and they’ll often bring you a whole pitcher of water with ice on the side. Or you can kneel next to one of the 2,500 cisterns or “nasoni,” the drinking fountains that look like a large nose. Stick your finger over the narrow nose-like opening, and out shoots a stream of fresh, cold water through a hole on top. And it’s cold even in July.

Sperlonga


2. The Beach. Few people know that Rome is on the sea. Its Ostia neighborhood is hard on the Tyrrhenian Sea and is one of many beaches accessible from the city. Ostia’s beach isn’t beautiful. It won’t make you forget Greece. However, it has perfect sand with nary a rock, its water is relatively clean and it’s the perfect temperature. A local train from the Roma Ostia Lido station in the Ostiense neighborhood goes straight to Ostia where you have a short walk to the beach. There are also cheap trains and buses to more beautiful beaches farther south at Sabaudia, Sperlonga and Gaeta.

Me at the Sheraton Roma.


3. Pools. Tired of touring? If you’ve seen one more marble statue you’ll turn into one? Find a pool. Rome’s hotels aren’t like Las Vegas’ but most are accessible to the public. A couple times a summer I go to the Sheraton Roma in l’EUR about a 10-minute walk from the EUR Fermi Metro stop. It has a beautiful pool 9 feet deep with padded lounge chairs and a pool bar where they’ll serve you free ice water all day. It’s 20 euros entry and well worth it. But bring snacks. The pool-side menu is expensive. Public pools include Acquaniene in the Parioli neighborhood (15 euros) and Piscina delle Rose (16) also in l’EUR. Here’s a detailed list: https://lolamamma.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/best-swimming-pools-in-rome/.

The world’s most popular food is even more popular now. Photo by Marina Pascucci


4. Fruit gelato. Everyone eats gelato in Rome, regardless of month. It’s mankind’s favorite food, right? But in summer, go heavy on the fruit flavors. They’re natural. They’re fresh. They’re cool. True Roman gelaterias only use fruit in season. Thus, this month order fragola (strawberry), melone (cantaloupe), pesca (peach), pera (pear), amarena (black cherry), fico (fig). No don’t order fig. Fig sucks. Click here for my five favorite gelaterias in Rome.
5. Museums and churches. It doesn’t matter if your idea of art is a tattoo. It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist or a devil worshipper. The one thing you’ll get out of going to Rome’s museums and churches is the cool air. Use the steaming afternoons for your culture ventures. Museums must be air-conditioned to preserve the art and churches somehow are naturally cool, remarkable considering how huge they are. Hey, maybe there is a God.
6. Wear shorts. When I lived here from 2001-03, few men wore shorts. Now it’s chic. However, they must be the right shorts. This is Rome, Italy, not Rome, Georgia. Don’t wear cutoffs. Don’t wear gym shorts. Don’t wear a swimsuit. Wear knee-length shorts with stylish shoes, preferably light shoes such as loafers. You can take advantage of the annual July sale to buy what you need when you arrive.
7. Tour in the morning. Romans get up real early. When in Rome … set your alarm. Or sleep with the drapes open and let the sun wake you up at just before 6 a.m. That’s when I wake. I go across the street to my corner bar, order a cappuccino and cornetto and read the paper in pleasant 75 degrees while the sun comes up. This is the time to hit Rome’s main sights. Go to Piazza Navona before 7 a.m. and you’ll have it nearly all to yourself. I’m a film extra and shot a scene in CBS’ “Blood & Treasure” before dawn at Trevi Fountain. The gurgling torrent of water is even more beautiful when seen without the fountain ringed with cell-snapping tourists.

Lake Nemi. Photo by Marina Pascucci


8. Castelli Romani. This is a series of 14 small towns tucked into the Alban Hills high above Rome southeast of town. Each one has its own attraction: Ariccia for porchetta, the sizzling, suckling pig so luscious inside fresh bread; Genzano for fresh bread sold all over Rome; Nemi for strawberries; Castel Gandolfo for the pope’s castle retreat above a gorgeous lake. Temperatures drop significantly in these towns and are easy to reach via the COTRAL bus line outside the Anagnina Metro stop or direct train from Termini station.
9. Outdoor clubs at night. I don’t like music but I hear Rome has some good outdoor bars on summer nights. Check out this website for listings and bands: https://www.wantedinrome.com/whatson/top-10-outdoor-venues-in-rome-this-summer.html

Mithraeum in Basilicata di San Clemente. Tertullian.org photo


10. Rome underground. This is courtesy of Elyssa Bernard of Romewise: You don’t have to bake at the Forum to see ancient ruins. Rome also has terrific sites underground. Check out the Mithraeum under the Basilicata of San Clemente near the Colosseum. Mithraism was a cult based on Roman mythology in which the god Mithras killed a wild bull and its blood caused plants to grow. Mithraic temples, almost always underground, hosted initiation rites for the Mithraeum followers. Then walk about 500 meters to the Roman houses at Celio where, legend has it, two Roman soldiers lived in the subterranean dwelling until they were beheaded. The houses have 20 highly decorated rooms. Then walk into nearby Parco del Colle Oppio and visit Domus Aurea which Nero built after the fire of 64 AD. Reservations (39-06-3996-7700, http://www.coopculture.it) are highly recommended.
11. Pausa. This is the Italian siesta. From about 1-4:30 p.m., many businesses close. Although Italy’s economic recession has lessened this tradition, many Romans still use this period to take care of personal business, rest, have lunch or visit with friends. When the afternoon heat reaches its peak, go to your air-conditioned room and take a nap. Wake up as the sun starts to set.
11. Lunch inside. One reason I love Rome is I can eat outside about nine months a year. However, in July limit it to breakfast and dinner. Don’t even think about lunch. Even in the shade it’s miserable. The misters many restaurants in Las Vegas and Phoenix and other steaming spots haven’t made their way to Rome. Rome’s restaurants are all air-conditioned and lovely inside. Save the outdoor ambience for the evening.

Marina and me at Terrazza Barromini.


12. Rooftop bars. Speaking of evenings, after the sun sets at about 8:30, head to one of Rome’s many rooftop bars for a cocktail or glass of wine. This is the Rome you’ve read and dreamed about. My two favorites: One, Terazza Barromini atop Palazzo Pamphilj behind the Chiesa di Sant’Agnese in Agone on Piazza Navona. You sit on overstuffed couches while an elegant wait staff whisk drinks to you as you stare out at the rooftops of the churches in Centro Storico. Reservations (39-06-6821-5459) are required. Two, Atlante Star Hotel in Prati near the Vatican has a beautiful terrace with spectacular views of St. Peter’s and Castel Sant’Angelo, the castle Hadrian built and later used as a popes retreat.
13. Ice Club. This is kind of schlocky and can be found in other cities. But when I walk by it on the charming narrow road of Via della Madonna dei Monti in July, I am very tempted to enter. It’s only 15 euros. Inside is 40 tons of ice and 23 degree temperatures. You’re handed a blanket and a menu of different-flavored vodkas. It’s in the Monti neighborhood near the Colosseum which seems to trap summer heat like a nursery for African violets. I have never visited the Ice Club but some sweltering day I will. Reservations recommended: 39-06-978-45581 or info@iceclubroma.it.

Villa Doria Pamphilj


14. Parks. Believe it or not, Rome has more park acreage than Paris. Our parks just don’t have the cache. Still, they are great places to plop down in the shade by a lake and have a picnic or a bottle of wine. I live in Monteverde just below Villa Doria Pamphilj, a 455-square-acre park covered in Mediterranean pine trees with jogging paths, a huge lake and a 17th century palace once owned by Prince Camillo Pamphilj, nephew of Pope Innocent X. Or go to Villa Borghese and picnic before touring its museum or Villa Ada in the ‘hood of world embassies.
15. Italian craft beer. Italy is the fastest growing beer nation in the world. Twelve years ago, Italy had only 70 craft breweries. Today there are more than 1,000. They are strong, smooth and varied. You can get IPAs, lagers and Belgian-style ales. My favorite birrerias are Bir & Fud, Via Benedetta 23 in Trastevere, a narrow bar with 30 beers on tap and a small patio, and Open Baladin, a beautiful, back-lit bar near Campo de’ Fiori at Via Degli Specchi 6, featuring 40 beers on tap and many more in a bottle. Here’s a link to a story I did on Rome’s beer boom for BeerAdvocate magazine in 2014. Is drinking beer healthy for beating dehydration? No but screw it. It tastes good.

Want to be an American expat in Rome? Here are 10 tips to live by

Members of the Expats Living in Rome Meetup group gather at Rec23 for their annual Tuesday aperitivo.

Members of the Expats Living in Rome Meetup group gather at Rec23 for their annual Tuesday aperitivo.


You’re standing in line for 60 minutes to pay an electric bill you don’t understand and think the postal worker taking your money is speaking medieval Bulgarian instead of Italian. You then go stand outside for 45 minutes waiting for a bus that should’ve arrived 30 minutes ago. You return home to a freezing or sweltering apartment, depending on the season, and cruise the web looking at other flats more suitable for Hobbits than Americans.

Welcome to life as an American expat in Rome.

I understand the appeal. You’re bored with your job. You hate seeing the U.S. turn into the Fourth Reich. You’re reaching that make-or-break age where you either change everything or continue your Bataan Death March into what’s left of Medicare or onto a fairway in Florida. You spent the best week of your life in Italy on vacation. You still look at that photo of St. Peter’s, back lit at midnight. Or you’ve read my blog for the last five years.

Let’s quit everything and move to Rome!

If this is you, I’m here to help.

As I wrote in my recent fifth-anniversary blog, my Rome honeymoon has worn off. However, the long list of positives (In fact, I list 48 in the blog) far outweigh the irritation of waiting for a bus. I love Rome. Retiring here was the best decision of my life, and I’ve never been happier. I’ll never live anywhere else.

But I’ve learned a few things along the way. You won’t find these tips in “Lonely Planet” or on a brochure at your nearest Italian consulate. They’re a survival guide that serves as a continuous loop through my brain as I walk the narrow cobblestone streets of my favorite city in the world.

I’m not the only one. Rome has Americans living here either on government contracts or as students, entrepreneurs or retirees like me. The Queen Bee of American expats is Patrizia Di Gregorio. She was born to Italians in the small town of Piedimonte Matese in Campania, moved to Schenectady, N.Y., as a baby and returned here in 2000. A year later, she started Expats Living in Rome, a terrific Meetup group that gathers expats from around the world and some Italians every Tuesday night for Italian and English lessons, a buffet dinner, lots of wine and beer and international conversations.

The group’s Facebook page has 21,000 followers.

Now, 47, she has given more advice to Americans in Rome than the pope. We exchanged anecdotes about the ugly Americans we’ve seen. I once had dinner with one acquaintance who ordered meatballs and was aghast when they served her polpette, little dry hunks of meat. Spaghetti and meatballs is served in Rome, New York, not Rome, Italy. Di Gregorio talked about how Americans can’t find anything to do from 1-4 p.m. every day when Italians have their pausa, the afternoon break.

I asked her how many Americans she has seen come here and not make it.

“Plenty,” she said, facing a big room full of tables in the Rec23 cocktail lounge where instructors are teaching Italian to expats and English to Italians. “One, the document situation is hard. I just feel like a little bit of Americans are spoiled. They feel they can live anywhere because they’re American.

“Any immigration, you’re going to have that. But Americans think they should bypass that because they’ve been stamped American. ‘I’m American! I can do whatever I want.’”

That’s a big mistake, my fellow Americans. Life here is hard. The language barrier is massive. The bureaucracy is mind boggling. The social scene is polar opposite of the U.S. You need to be independent, confident and adventurous. Anything less and you won’t last three months.

We must realize that we are no different than the legally documented West Africans and Albanians and Syrians. When I renew my visa at the Questura, the police station that documents immigrants, I am no better than all the others with different-colored skin sitting around me. We all have one thing in common:

A willingness to do about anything to live here.

“Expats need to understand they’re immigrants regardless if you put the fancy word ‘expats’ next to it,” Di Gregorio said. “Any immigrant living anywhere, especially if you don’t know the language, you have to work harder in order to make it. And in this country, compared to the UK and the U.S. you’re not going to make as much.

“And you have to work harder to make that little bit they’re going to give you.”

I won’t give tips on finding a job. That’s a whole separate blog and, being retired, I have little experience job hunting. What follows is a guide to get you started once you arrive. Read it, clip it, keep it handy in times when you want to smash your head against a 2,000-year-old marble statue or execute the entire population.

Call it the American Expat’s 10 Commandments:

Me with one of my many scambio partners over the years.

Me with one of my many scambio partners over the years.


1. Learn Italian. This. Can. Not. Be. Emphasized. Enough. I’ve written about this before. Many Romans know some English. Some are conversational. Few are fluent. If you don’t know Italian, you’ll starve. In five years of shopping in two charming open-air public markets that sell the freshest, most natural food in the world, I’ve met two people who speak English.

I know people who have gotten by without Italian. However, they surround themselves with other expats or Italians who speak English. I don’t want to just talk to a New Yorker or a tour guide or a hotel clerk. I want to talk to my fishmonger, my barista, the guys in my gym. That’s where you get a sense of the Roman soul.

Take lessons. Language schools and tutors are all over Rome. But the best way to learn is either live with Italians, get a job where you speak Italian or get an Italian lover. You either live it, work it or sleep it.

For five years I’ve done scambios, language exchanges where you meet a local who wants to learn English. You speak Italian for an hour and English for an hour and correct each other. But women, be cautious.

Some Italian men use them to meet women. You’ll know when they ask definitions for body parts.

My old friend Claudia at Linari, my favorite bar in Testaccio.

My old friend Claudia at Linari, my favorite bar in Testaccio.


2. Find a local bar. In Italy, “bar” means cafe. It’s where you go to get your daily coffee. Whether it’s cappuccino or caffe macchiato or caffe schiumato, discover your morning poison and go there frequently. Within three visits the local barista will know your name and your coffee preference. Soon you’ll be in daily conversations with him about current events and meet other regulars around your neighborhood. You can practice your Italian and start feeling like a true local.

Plus, you’ll drink the best coffee of your life.

Just this morning I was across the street at my Romagnani Caffe. I talked to Davide, my barista and fellow AS Roma fan, about Wednesday’s 7-1 humiliation at Fiorentina. He was very impressed with the new Italian word I learned.

Vergognosa (Shameful).

3. Buy a Metro pass. Do NOT buy a car. It’s not true Romans drive like drunk Formula 1 drivers. They do have brakes. They do stop, occasionally. The problem with cars is the expense. Owning a car adds about 20 percent to your yearly budget. Gas here is about 1.50 euro a liter. That’s about $5.70 a gallon. Besides, you’ll need the extra cash for the shrink after going crazy trying to find parking spots every day. This city is nearly 3,000 years old. It was not laid out with parking lots in mind.

The Metro pass gets you on the bus, subway, tram and regional trains. They go everywhere in the metro area. The pass is only 250 euros and I average about 500 trips on public transportation a year. At 1.50 euros for a single-trip ticket, that means I’m saving about 500 euros a year on transport.

That’s a lot of cappuccinos.

4. Find a rental agency. Expats move around a lot. They tire of roommates. In my case, they tire of landladies. You seek better contracts. You seek better neighborhoods. My 65-square-meter apartment for 1,000 euros a month in the “chic” neighborhood of Monteverde is my third home in five years. That’s not many for an expat.

The Internet is full of rental websites showing reams of vacant apartments in Rome. I’ve gone that route and found nothing that didn’t make me cringe, laugh or duck to get inside the tiny doorways.

Good rental agencies have the best properties available. I highly recommend Property International (info@propertyrome.net). They found my last two homes here (and my home when I lived here from 2001-03). Others they showed were very livable. The finder’s fee is one month’s rent but you’ll forget you paid it a week after you move in. Plus, they serve as a liaison between you and your landlord. That is invaluable.

Trust me.

5. Join Meetup groups. Romans are extremely open, curious and friendly, despite their cold reputation elsewhere in Italy. However, it’s somewhat difficult to come in social contact with them. Rome is a restaurant town; it’s not a bar town. People go out in groups, not individually. Bar hopping does not exist.

Meetups are casual groups united by common interests. I not only belong to Meetups Living in Rome but also Language Exchange (similar to Expats but different day), Internations (international clientele in business community), Rome Explorers (hiking and history) and Rome Wine and Food Lovers (wine tastings and restaurants). You meet at regular intervals in various places around the city. I meet new people from around the world every week. There are Meetup groups for all interest in the city (https://www.meetup.com/cities/it/rm/roma/).

For women it’s a safe haven from men who see Italian women as not nearly as sexual as they dress. Di Gregorio said her Expats Meetup is about 58 percent women and 42 men.

“I think expat women are targeted by these people with no life, no social skills and want to trap somebody for an hour and a half,” she said. “They don’t intend to meet up, period. They want to go exclusive to a small bar and just a you-and-I kind of thing, like a date. I do suggest not to do that because if you meet people at the event, if you like them you can continue to talk but at least you met the person and decide if you want to waste another hour and a half of your life.”

6. Buy Italian clothes. When you pack for your overseas move, bring a fraction of your wardrobe. Sell or give away the rest. You don’t want to walk around Rome looking like you walked out of an L.L. Bean catalog or a sporting goods store. It pained me to get rid of my college sweatshirt collection. But I look like a tourist enough. The last thing I want to do is be seen near the Colosseum wearing a University of Oregon hoodie.

Italy remains the international fashion capital and has the best clothes in the world. Rome is built for shopping. Entire streets, such as Via Cola di Rienzo and Via del Corso are lined with clothes stores.

Keep in mind the prices are geared toward female tourists so it’s not cheap. However, they’re also priced for local men. Thus, men’s clothes are not expensive. Twelve of my 14 pairs of shoes are Italian and each pair was so comfortable I could walk the old Appian Way as soon I walked out the door.

Also, Italy has saldi (sales) every January and July, lasting about a month. Stock up twice a year and you’re set for years down the road.

7. Get Rick Zullo’s Permesso di Soggiorno blog. Zullo is a friend and was the godfather of Rome bloggers (Rick’s Rome, http://www.rickzullo.com) until he moved to Florida four years ago. Before he left he wrote a terrific guide (https://rickzullo.com/permesso-signup/) on how to acquire a Permesso di Soggiorno, the holy grail of expats. It’s the visa you need to remain in the country. You must get it to remain Italy for a year and then renew it every year or two. It is wildly confusing.

Zullo’s blog is not. It takes you step-by-step, from going to the post office for the form to your Questura appointment and meeting face to face with immigration officials deciding your fate. In between, it covers every step in a concise, humorous manner. You’ll enjoy reading it. And you’ll be grateful when you walk out with that card that makes you legal.

Matteo Salvini’s immigration Nazis can’t touch you.

8. Learn patience. Americans are notoriously impatient. I was notoriously impatient even for an American. Everything takes a lot longer in Rome. Good Lord, you wait in a post office to pay your electric bill. It took me 48 days to get my Internet transferred from my previous apartment. PosteItaliane delivers packages to you — kind of when it feels like it. You get better odds in Las Vegas.

The most important Italian word you will learn is tranquillo. It’s just like it sounds. Stay calm. It’ll get done. Just give it time. Take a newspaper or your Italian homework to the post office. Make friends in your corner bar where you’ll work waiting for the Internet. Don’t go postal on PosteItaliane. You’re in Rome. What, you’ve got a corporate meeting to get to?

9. Take a cooking class. I’m not a good cook. However, I’m a good cook in Rome. The ingredients are so fresh and so tasty and so healthy, I can butcher a pasta dish and still make it better than anything I made in the U.S. Once you peruse the open markets, where everything is shipped farm fresh that day, you’ll want to cook.

Cooking classes are all over the city all year. In one I learned to cook zucca ravioli. I hate pumpkin. Pumpkins are made to be carved, not eaten. I now like zucca ravioli.

You’ll be surprised how much weight you’ll lose. Between the natural ingredients, smaller portions and all the walking you do, you’ll get in the best shape of your life.

Plus, learning to cook is a must for economic survival. Rome restaurants aren’t terribly expensive but eating out every night will end your retirement — or your stay — in a hurry. You don’t want to wind up eating cold pasta on the banks of the Tiber.

So take pride in a sink full of dirty dishes.

10. Leave an impression. I consider myself a mini ambassador to the United States. Many people I meet around Italy have never met an American. How they view me when I leave is how they may view Americans in general.

Americans have a reputation of being loud (I’m guilty as charged), arrogant (not anymore) and fat (nope). Be conscious about being nice. It isn’t hard. Italians are very curious people. They’ll always ask you questions about your life. Ask them about theirs. Show an interest in their culture, their holidays, their families.

Do not talk about money. Do not make your first question, What do you do for a living? Do not criticize the culture. (Although verbally filleting the public services and government corruption is fair game. You’ll sound like a local.)

Men, respect women as you’ve never respected them before. Roman women have evolved. They’re independent, ambitious, strong. The men still live with their moms. The women are dying for men who respect them for who they are and not just what they look like.

When you date, don’t touch them. Wait a few dates. Have deep cosmic conversations with them. Cook them dinner. Barring unmasked physical flaws, overt cheapness or wearing a University of Oregon hoodie, you’ll likely see them again. And if you do, don’t cheat on them. Roman women are dying for loyalty. It’s a rare quality here.

Well, there you have it. Hope that helps. Living in Rome remains a paradise for me. It’s a great life when your biggest stress is getting enough foam in your cappuccino, when your biggest decision is to drink red or white wine. So keep staring at that photo of St. Peter’s.

It still isn’t that far away.

Five-year anniversary in Rome: Honeymoon is over but the happiness and love remain

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci


Shortly after I moved to Rome five years ago today, a fellow expat scoffed at the rockets and red glare that swirled around me as I talked about my love for this city. She said, “The honeymoon wears off after about five years.”

Today is my five-year anniversary since I arrived from Denver with a duffel bag, a roller bag, a computer bag and lots of dreams and fears. Well, guess what?

She was right.

Rome’s problems are beginning to mount. So are my headaches. Topping the list are public services that are right out of the Pony Express era. It took my Internet provider 48 days to switch over to my new apartment. I switched services recently and got my Internet knocked out for another week. I ordered a new debit card on Dec. 26, after a cash machine ate my other one, and it’s still gathering dust in Milan’s airport.

However, still, there is no place I’d rather live. After all, every city has its civic embarrassments. Rome’s public services are the worst in the western world, the city is the filthiest capital in Europe and the local government has been rife with corruption scandals.

And Denver has the Broncos. So it all evens out.

Besides, making up for a city’s flaws is a glorious new apartment, good health, better friends and a bright future with a beautiful, talented girlfriend who loves to travel as much as I do.

Tonight Marina and I will return to Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, a wonderful trattoria near the Colosseum where I dined the first night of my arrival with my kind expat mentors from across the alley, Gretchen and Peter Bloom. It’s a Jan. 11 ritual, one I plan on continuing the rest of my life.

But it would help if my debit card arrived.

Another Jan. 11 ritual is my blog listing all the reasons I love living in Rome. No honeymoon is perfect. No marriage is perfect. Any life in Rome is better than life right now in the United States. The U.S. has bigger problems than a lousy post office.

So, once again, here is all the things I love about this city. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of items to list:

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci


I love how my barista at Romagnani Caffe across the street greets me with “Cappuccino bencaldo e cornetto cioccolato?” before I even give him my regular order of an extra hot cappuccino and a chocolate croissant.

I love how Romagnani Caffe’s cappuccino bencaldo is better than mine and always worth the extra 1.10 euro and the effort to get out the door.

I love Trevi Fountain before dawn, when all you hear is the splashing water.

I love never having a car with so few places in Rome and Italy you can’t go by tram, train, plane, bus or boat.

I love paying only 250 euros for a year public transportation pass, meaning my transportation in Rome costs less than $25 a month.

I love the slightly burnt outer crust on a wood-fire pizza.

I love how pizzeria waiters will always let you make up your own pizza off menu. My regular: gorgonzola and sausage.

I love strolling at night behind Il Vittoriano, the giant 1885 monument known as Mussolini’s Typewriter, and seeing the empty Ancient Forum glowing in perfect light and eerily quiet.

I love having coffee bars on opposite corners on my block, a cozy enoteca around the corner and a beer bar around the next corner.

I love how few bars have bouncers.

I love how the sun reflects off the lake 10 months a year up the street from me in Doria Pamphilj, Rome’s biggest and most underrated park.

I love the gorgonzola in pear sauce at Renato e Luisa, my favorite restaurant in Rome.

I love Lazio wines.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci


I love finding great wine bargains for under 10 euros in any enoteca.

I love the sexy terrace at the Radisson Blu hotel, the perfect place to see Rome’s most beautiful people from around the world at an Internations event.

I love how the nut lady at my Mercato Gianicolense pulls out her special stash of salted almonds from under her counter when she sees me approach.

I love how Birroteca Stappo, my new local bar, has my name on a card and I get a free beer when I reach a certain number of beers.

I love how Birroteca Stappo carries Italy’s growing list of delicious craft beers.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci


I love how Max, my fishmonger, knows to cut a smaller tuna fillet for Marina on the days I cook for her.

I love how AS Roma’s ultras fill Olympic Stadium’s Curva Sud every game, regardless if Roma is winning or losing, if they’re cheering or whistling.

I love watching Lazio lose.

I love Roma 3, Lazio 1, Sept. 29.

I love the white chocolate cornetto and pistachio cream cornetto at Sweet Paradise, the pasticceria near Marina’s.

I love the handmade Italian leather shoes Marina bought me for Christmas.

I love writing on my penthouse balcony on a Sunday morning, with a cappuccino at my side, with the birds chirping and church bells ringing up the street.

I love the No. 8 tram: Two blocks from my door and direct to Centro Storico in 10 minutes.

I love wine tastings every month without ever having to visit a winery.

I love my elevator. (Yes, elevators are near novelties in Rome. It’s a 3,000-year-old city. My previous three buildings had no elevator. It was sometimes a pain but no resident was fat.)

I love watching couples while away an entire afternoon with a cup of coffee at an outdoor cafe.

I love how outdoor cafes let couples while away an entire afternoon with a cup of coffee.

I love how the buildings along Via della Conciliazione perfectly frame St. Peter’s when I pass the long boulevard leading to the church on the No. 23 bus.

I love the white chocolate that goes over my black cherry gelato then solidifies at Brivido, my favorite gelateria, in my old Testaccio neighborhood.

I love fettuccine al salmone affumicato (smoked salmon fettuccine) anywhere, especially the way Marina makes it, with a glass of crisp white Frascati wine.

I love 3.50-euro beers in San Lorenzo, the university neighborhood.

I love free laser surgery.

I love the view from the Atlante Star Hotel in Prati near the Vatican with St. Peter’s to my right and Castel Sant’Angelo, Hadrian’s giant mausoleum, to my left.

I love the beautifully illuminated wall of beers at Open Baladin, which remains one of the top birrerias for Italian craft beer. The wall makes it look more like a museum than a beer bar.

I love red and yellow.

I love she-wolves nursing.

I love the ruins of the Ancient Roman warehouse around the corner from my old apartment and walking by it every day thinking Julius Caesar may have walked these same steps to check supplies.

I love 100-euro Italian suits during the twice-annual saldis (sales) at King Boutique.

I love the ivy strung all along Via Margutta, a narrow cobblestone street lined with antique and art galleries near Piazza del Popolo.

I love the pizza amatriciana at 72 Ore, my favorite pizzeria in Rome.

I love Sunday passeggiatas (strolls) down and around Centro Storico’s narrow, twisty alleys through the piazzas and past the shops, the pizzerias, the trattorias and the enotecas with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

I love the word francobollo (stamp). It’s the one word that makes me sound more Italian when I pronounce it.

I love Sensi di Vini, my local enoteca and maybe the coziest wine bar in Rome with only two tables.

I love photo exhibits with black and white photos of old Rome when the war was over and Italians were falling in love again.

I love Marina, the most beautiful woman in a city full of them.

Monteverde: My new Rome neighborhood on a hill is shedding its fascist past

In Mercato Gianicolense, one of the oldest public markets in Rome, they still sell table wine in bulk. Photo by Marina Pascucci

In Mercato Gianicolense, one of the oldest public markets in Rome, they still sell table wine in bulk. Photo by Marina Pascucci


When I first saw it, I had to take a step back, as if a ghost had gut punched me. Did I see what I thought I saw? It was April 30 and I had just moved into my new apartment. It’s a dream home for a retiree. Bigger. Brighter. Big balcony. It’s the same price as my previous flat and I am away from my evil ex-landlady.

But I heard stories, haunting stories, about my Monteverde, the Rome neighborhood on the hill. It’s the neighborhood Benito Mussolini made famous. The 1930s was ancient history. Wasn’t it? Yet there I stood in the elevator, looking slack-jawed at the inside of the door as it reached the bottom floor. There I saw it. Someone had knife carved it in the old wood.

A swastika.

The swastika on the inside of my elevator door.

The swastika on the inside of my elevator door.


I’m living among Nazis? I’d lived in Rome more than four years and had yet to meet a racist. I haven’t heard a racist comment. This is from the local welcome wagon? In America you get an apple pie. In Monteverde I get a swastika? I’m not even Jewish and I was insulted.

Well, next week will mark seven months in my apartment and, thankfully, I haven’t seen mobs jackbooting their way down my street. No one is carrying Nazi flags or shouting anti-Semitic slogans. This isn’t Charlottesville. It’s Rome. My neighborhood is as friendly as every other Rome neighborhood I’ve lived in and visited.

Yet Monteverde is still the neighborhood that fascism built.

Moving from Testaccio, Rome’s old working-class neighborhood that served as the city’s goods port, to Monteverde didn’t take long. I moved less than a mile and a half, just across the Tiber River and up the hill. But the differences are as big as the hill my No. 8 tram chugs up every day. Monteverde is the biggest neighborhood in Rome. The people are a mix of upper middle-class old-money Romans and middle to lower middle-class working stiffs.

Monteverde encompasses the city’s biggest landscaped park, lovely 455-acre Doria Pamphilj with its jogging paths and lakes and pigeons seducing lovers for bread crumbs. Every time I hear English when I walk by the outdoor cafes and coffee shops near the American University of Rome I think of my days touring campuses as a college football writer back in the U.S.

Piazzale Dunant. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Piazzale Dunant. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Monteverde is one of the few neighborhoods in Rome where you need public transportation to get around. Yet from my apartment, so much is so close. I have three cafes on my nearest corners. A wonderful local pizzeria, C’era Una Volta (There Was a Time), is also around the corner next to the Egyptian florist who sells me flowers for my Marina. I have two big supermarkets, non existent in Testaccio, within 100 meters. My dry cleaners is across the street. An excellent Lebanese restaurant and one of Rome’s few ethnic eateries, Meze Bistrot, is up the street one block. My local beer bar, Stappo, is on the next street over. My gym is 400 meters away.

I could live the rest of my life very happily and never travel more than the length of a high school track.

“Two people who don’t know each other, they meet in Monteverde and are soon friends,” said Davide Desideri, my barista at Romagnani Caffe across the street where I have become dangerously addicted to their chocolate cornettos and cappuccino. “It’s like a small town, Monteverde.”

By Rome standards, it’s a modern town. Back when Rome was the most powerful civilization that man may ever know, Monteverde was a barren hill made up of scrub brush and bushes. Even Trastevere down the hill at least served as slave quarters.

However, this area had two marvelous green spaces on the hill. Julius Caesar and Cleopatra used to flirt in what is now Villa Sciarra. Just to the west in the other bigger park, the powerful Pamphili family bought a villa in 1630 back when the Rome below was a malaria-infested wasteland. When Cardinal Giambattista Pamphili became Pope Innocent X in 1644 the villa was rebuilt into the lavish palace it is today.

Villa Doria Pamphilj

Villa Doria Pamphilj


While hundreds of lovers, walkers and dreamers frequented what is now Villa Doria Pamphilj, the rest of Monteverde was a swamp. Then came 1922. Mussolini took power. In a destructive attempt to return Rome to its ancient glory, he started a campaign to steamroll old dilapidated neighborhoods like Borgo Pio near the Vatican, Flaminia near Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Bologna near the train station. In 1938 he built a seven-story public housing tower in Monteverde to house 300 families, including many displaced from the leveled neighborhoods. Il Duce even came by for the dedication.

It remains today. Still called Casa Popolare, it’s on my 20-minute walk from my apartment to Doria Pamphilj and looks as if it hasn’t changed much in 80 years. Neither has the paint. It’s typical fascist architecture: tall, broad, with big strong columns. The courtyard is run down and scruffy. It’s still home to working-class Romans. The only difference is now they’ve turned into low-end condos.

Casa Popolare

Casa Popolare


Up the street about 200 yards is the apartment of one Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of the great cinematic minds of the 20th century. He put the “X” in eccentric. He had as much a penchant for young men as he did for exploring the soft underbelly of Rome’s otherwise glossy landscape. The lower middle-class kids playing in the projects around Casa Popolare fascinated him and he lived up the street with his cousin from 1955-59. It was during this time he wrote for Federico Fellini’s famous film “Le Notti di Cabiria (The Nights of Cabiria)” and wrote his second novel, “Una Vita Violenta (A Violent Life)” which was embraced by Rome’s thriving communist community.

The other day I waited outside the locked front door until a pretty tenant walked in. As I snuck in behind her, she looked at me without suspicion. She’s probably used to fans wanting to look. Inside the spacious, clean lobby is a plaque dedicated to Pasolini who was murdered under extraordinarily controversial circumstances in the beach neighborhood of Ostia in 1975. Some say he was murdered for his communist leanings. Some say it was a Mafia revenge killing. The 2014 movie “Pasolini” starring Rome-resident William Dafoe showed him getting beaten to death by two homophobic thugs.

Pasolini’s Monteverde is divided between Monteverde Vecchio (Old) and Monteverde Nuovo (New). Pasolini’s old apartment is in Monteverde Vecchio, which Mussolini and his friends helped build in the 1930s. While he built public housing and dragged Jews from the ghetto to their deaths, Mussolini’s fascist friends were moving to Rome and building big villas by the park. Not that they were rich, but some shipped palm trees from Africa to adorn their grounds. Wander around the stodgy residential areas near Doria Pamphilj and you’ll see some homes that wouldn’t look out of place in the Hollywood Hills.

My building is not one of them.

No. 8 tram. Marina Pascucci photo

No. 8 tram. Marina Pascucci photo


I live in Monteverde Nuovo, built in the last half of the 20th century. I live on the top floor of a relatively modern five-story building with great views of, well, other five-story buildings. But my street, Via di Monte Verde (City planners get an F for two different spellings of the place name), is lined with big trees leading to busy Piazzale Dunant, a giant square lined with high-end clothes shops where well-dressed men stand in their doorways, my tiny one-table enoteca called Sensi di Vini and my artisan gelateria, Il Gusto. Piazzale Dunant runs into Via Donna Olimpia, which serves as the dividing line between Monteverde Vecchio and Nuovo. It’s named for Pope Innocent X’s powerful, notably bitchy sister-in-law who rampaged through Rome on a horse-drawn carriage, leaving beggars and thieves in her wake.

The main drag of Monteverde Vecchio is Via Carini, noted for cozy enotecas and restaurants, all with, ironically, modern twists. Take Litro (Liter), an appropriately named wine bar just off Carini. It has 28 pages of available wines all in a book of — get this — bondage stories. Emblazoned with a naked nurse tied up and gagged, the grotesquely illustrated book is entitled “The Bondage Clinic and the Fetishistic Gang,” perfect when looking for the proper wine pairing with lesbian S&M.

Litro is where Marina and I met three of my fellow Monteverde friends. Fabio Salmoni, 40, and Carlo Passamonti, 45, are also fellow romanisti. We are huge fans of AS Roma, the local soccer club that we watch on Stappo’s big screen every week.

Fabio Salmoni. Marina Pascucci photo

Fabio Salmoni. Marina Pascucci photo


Salmoni is Jewish. Born and raised in Monteverde, he hung out in Doria Pamphilj where his mom would take him to play with his friends and, later, “Where I’d kiss the girls.” He recalls his childhood in the ‘80s and ‘90s when Monteverde had two schools: Medici Vascello and Morgani.

“Medici Vascello,” Salmoni said, “was fascist.”

Rome had a strong communist-fascist presence in the ‘80s, something Salmoni experienced first hand in Monteverde.

“Nazi fascism was born here,” he said. “When I was a student, Monteverde was conservative, right wing. I went to the Medici of Vascello school as Jewish and a lot of times we saw on the wall and on our desks Nazi symbols.”

He never heard anything to his face. In his day, Salmoni was a pretty good kickboxer. But Monteverde’s image has softened in the 21st century. Passamonti, a native of Sardinia, moved to Monteverde three years ago with his American wife, Tanaz.

Davide Desideri at my Romagnani Caffe. Marina Pascucci photo

Davide Desideri at my Romagnani Caffe. Marina Pascucci photo


Like myself, he sees Monteverde as a big neighborhood but also a very small town.

“I love L.A. for lots of reasons for what L.A. is famous,” he said. “But here in Rome, in Monteverde you can enjoy the distance between your place and your local pub. In 10 minutes you can be with your friends and come back home. I feel you can’t in L.A. where you live your life in your little area but the distance is crazy. From the city center in L.A. to another place is two or three hours driving in that crazy traffic.

“Now in this moment of my life — I’m 45 — from Stappo I’m back home in five minutes.”

Stappo (Italian for “uncork”) is my Monteverde nerve center. I show up an hour before gametime in the back TV room with the beer kegs serving as tables. Over some excellent Italian craft beer and Stappo’s signature American-quality cheeseburgers, I’d get the rundown on the lives of all the young professionals and their girlfriends and wives. It’s our Cheers, made even more neighborly by the owner, another Monteverde native.

Owner Carlo Pascucci has lived here all of his 40 years. He was born in the ‘70s when Monteverde had a reputation as the home of misfits, back when drugs were prevalent and so were the stories emanating out of the psych ward in San Camillo Hospital, the massive medical fortress two blocks from me.

That has changed. I smell marijuana smoke drifting from some bars and there’s the preeminent two homeless sleeping under the covering of Upim department store on the piazzale. But Monteverde, despite its size, has become as personal as tiny Testaccio to me.

“There are places where people don’t live on the streets,” Pascucci said. “In Monteverde you can live on the streets because it’s full of shops. There’s a big, big park which is beloved from the people living here. This is a big impression in the neighborhood. It’s a free space for everybody and where everybody can feel at home.”

Besides Stappo, my other regular pilgrimage is to Mercato Gianicolense. Every Rome neighborhood has an open-air public market. It’s what separates Rome from the rest of the Western world. It’s where you buy the freshest produce, meats, breads and cheeses with no preservatives and at affordable prices. It’s where you can buy homemade pasta for pennies. You want to know why Romans look so healthy? Look in the public markets.

Mercato Gianicolense has been unchanged since it opened in the early 1960s. Marina Pascucci photo

Mercato Gianicolense has been unchanged since it opened in the early 1960s. Marina Pascucci photo


Gianicolense is the most Roman of them all. My Mercato Testaccio moved from Piazza Testaccio, where it stood for 100 years, to a sparkling white shelter in 2013. My old market in Prati, near the Vatican, upgraded into what looks like a downtown parking garage. But Gianicolense has preserved the same gritty image it had when it first opened in the early ‘60s. Its narrow paths between stalls are dark. The preferred language is Romanaccio, the dialect within the Roman dialect devoted exclusively to profanity. Locals bring giant plastic jugs to fill up with table wine poured from giant tanks on a wall. By the fruit stands alone you could film a dozen Mafia scenes.

It’s also one of the few places in Rome where you can buy affordable fish. In the middle of a line of fish stands, is Massimo “Max” Barba. He’s been selling fish here since 1983, but unlike 90 percent of the labor force here, he can count to three in English. In fact, he’s fluent, thanks to five years living in Australia and a year in Los Angeles where he worked as a classical dancer.

Massimo Barba at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo

Massimo Barba at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo


He lives 200 meters down the hill from his stand and frets about Monteverde’s expensive housing. I pay 1,000 euros for 600 square feet, much less than I charge in rent for my similar sized condo in Denver.

“That’s not cheap,” he said. “The apartments here are really not cheap at all. They’re really expensive. It’s why the young people don’t buy anything here, including my son.”

He and his wife bought his son a place in l’EUR, Mussolini’s ill-fated fascist neighborhood where the construction stopped when Il Duce found himself hanging by his toes in ‘45. But Barba is right. Monteverde is “chic” but not young and chic. The amount of elderly hanging on to the arms of their children, themselves in their 50s and 60s, makes me feel Ospedale San Camillo’s waiting room extends to the streets of Monteverde.

Barba is typical of many Italians, highly critical of a long string of governments that have left Italy with the worst recession since World War II. The local government remains ripe with corruption. Unemployment for youth in Italy is 31 percent.

Fresh pasta stall at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo

Fresh pasta stall at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo


He’s not a fascist but even I will admit Mussolini did some good. He led the way to get San Camillo built in 1934, he renovated many neighborhoods, cleared a swath in front of St. Peters and built Via della Conciliazione, the long, wide boulevard providing a beautiful view of St. Peter’s. That doesn’t include turning southern Lazio, Rome’s region, from fetid swamp into prime beach towns. And, yes, he did get the trains to run on time.

However, befriending Adolf Hitler doesn’t look good on his resume.

“There’s a saying old people here say: We used to be better when we used to be worse,” Barba said.

Still, it’s pretty good now. I love Monteverde. After four years in Testaccio, having a new neighborhood is like having a new lover. It’s a whole new body to explore. My girlfriend and I recently cruised Via Carini, home to one of our favorite restaurants, Osteria Tuttoqua (Everythinghere), a romantic spot with covered outdoor seating and gourmet dishes such as orecchiette con gamberi, zafferano, fiori di zucca e bottarga di tonno (ear-shaped pasta with shrimp, saffron, zucchini flowers and dried tuna roe).

We started at Al Grammelot, a tiny enoteca with 12 tables and an eclectic antipasti serving of fusaja (Roman beans), porchetta (sizzling roast pork), caciotta (cheese from Tuscany), salami, green olives and bread. Featuring 1,500 bottles of wine, it became a wine bar 13 years ago after Teodore Capone transformed it from a fruit, vegetable and wine shop run by his father, Alfonso. Yes, Al Capone. No, not THAT Al Capone.

I asked Teodore about business in Monteverde.

“They said people come here for sleeping not for living,” he said. “But after 13 years we’re still here.”

Cefalu'

Cefalu’


We walked down one block to a cozy, brightly lit affordable seafood restaurant called Cefalu’. Named for the charming port town on Sicily’s northern coast, Cefalu’ features big old photos of Sicilian fishermen and tables brightly decorated with octopus, squid and other sea creatures. My orecchiette in scampi sauce was rich and fresh and Marina’s big pile of grilled seafood tasted as if we were outside on a Sicilian beach instead of an urban street in Rome.

We returned to Carini and had a nightcap at Nanana, a “con-fusion bistrot” with an Asian-slanted menu and a quiet bar next to a sunken dining room. The bartender had spent years in London and was a rare find, a Roman fluent in English. We talked about London’s rent, his native Puglia’s beaches. We also talked about Monteverde’s tranquility. We could hear wine glasses clinking in the dining room, the soft music playing in the bar.

Monteverde Vecchio didn’t seem so old. It’s still new to me. The swastika may remain on my elevator door for a while. But I’ll be here longer.