Troy Hightower

« David Toutain | Main | Florentine Food Tour »

Roman New Years

It’s 7 pm on Sunday, New Year’s Eve and all the bells in all the churches in Rome are ringing at once. And all the church domes and bell towers are lit up against the moonlit sky. This spectacle we observe, glass of chilled, bubbly Franciacorta in hand, from the enclosed rooftop terrace of our cozy Roman apartment at 13 Via della Pace—which we dub Tredici, a couple of short blocks from Piazza Navona, in which the annual Christmas market continues until the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th.

That morning we ambled down Navona and across to Campo Dei Fiore first thing to provision for the last day of the year. Primo stop, the Antico Forno for pizza bianca, the best pizza bread in the world, slathered with oil and pulled from the wood-fired oven in six foot long sheets, then whacked to size to order. The open air market yields lovely cheeses...a youthful parmesan-like morsel the young cheese-monger calls Gallinata, La Tur goat/sheep cheese, and Monteveronese, full of tiny holes and with a powerful aroma. We grab olive oil, baby lettuce, tiny fagiolini, tomatoes and a big bouquet of flowers to color the white on white apartment. There are beautiful violet/green carciofi, striped romanesco zucchini, bitter puntarelle, dusky aubergines, and multi colored peppers, but these will wait for another day.

At the far corner of the Campo from the Forno sits Antica Pizzicheria Ruggeri, a most upscale deli. Almost 100 years old, manned by a phalanx of white-coated counter men. When my turn comes, I request un etto, 100 grams, each of prosciutto San Danieli, mortadella and salmone affumicato.  Then pancetta, a tangle of fresh fettuccine, 4 eggs, reggiano, and we have the makings of pasta carbonara. And finally, because it’s New Year’s Eve, four costly ounces of Osetra caviar and a bottle of bubbly.

Dinner supplies in hand, we stroll up Via di San Pantaleo to Enoteca Cul de Sac, which we recall from previous trips—a great wine bar with terrific food. We sip crisp local Frascati while perusing the menu, and start with pate campagna and snowy curls of cured lardo on warm bread. Come secondi we move on to thin slices of cold veal tongue with piquant green sauce, and an incredible long-simmered dish of coda ala vaccinara...our enthusiastic young waiter states that this traditional Roman oxtail dish is his absolute favorite food. He recommends local Cesanese red with the coda, and Sangiovese with the veal tongue. A barrique-aged 12 year old grappa from Marolo and a chilled glass of Vino Santo round out a terrific meal in a most interesting setting with great and friendly service.

We were in Rome for New Years maybe 20 years ago, in a little apartment near the Tiber. Our friend Doug Wilson was staying for a couple of days, and on New Year’s Eve, near midnight, we walked out into the Ponte Umberti I and saw a few big deal, or at least according to memory. This trip—wow, what a difference!   Desultory fireworks start around 10 pm, and grow slowly bit by midnight approaches, all hell breaks loose, with ground-level cherry bombs and firecrackers exploding in the streets below, and aerial shows erupting all around. At midnight it is pandemonium....major aerial displays in a dozen locations all around the city. The thick smoke reminded us eerily of the recent fires of October in Sonoma. It went on strong for a full 30 minutes, and tapered for another 20—just incredible. And the view from the birdhouse terrace at the top of the apartment is a full 270 degrees...

New Year’s Day, we are not up until well after 10, when a brief cloudburst opens up...unpredicted by any of the weather services. The annual Rome New Year’s Day parade will get underway soon, starting at Castel St Angelo, and ending at St. Peter’s square, where the Pope will emerge to give his annual Angelus blessing. We can only see it on live Vatican TV, as we’ll never make it out in time after the late night.

New Year’s Day is passiagiata all day around Rome...the streets and piazzas are filled with humanity, the cafes and trattorias overflowing into the sidewalks. We take a peek into the Chiesa Santa Maria della Pace, then begin a lazy stroll through the Piazza Navona, over to the San Luigi Dei Francesca church to view three famous Caravaggios in a side chapel at the rear....they are striking for the intensity of colors...rust, yellow, ochre, red against inky backgrounds.

Caffe Sant' Eustachio is open, and packed, so we inch our way to the scontrino to pay, then to the counter to order a granita di cafe con panna — strong sweet coffee turned into grainy ice, topped with whipped cream. Many say this cafe makes the best coffee in Rome, and perhaps the world. Sant' Eustachio supposedly still has its own private aqueduct that brings water from the mountains directly to the cafe. Across the piazza there is a curiosity atop Sant’Eustachio lieu of a Christian cross, a stag's head with a cross on top of it. The story says the saint converted to Christianity after he saw a stag with a crucifix in its antlers. One of our favorite Roman fountains sits nearby in the piazza...a low, broad, scalloped-edge streaked-marble basin. (Link to fountains of Rome?)

As we wander down Piazza Santa Chiara, past the ecclesiastical clothing shop Di Ritis (where we will return to buy bright red Cardinal socks) the sky opens, so we rush to the calm of the elegant bar off the lobby of Grand Hotel Minerva, to sip Martini Rosso over ice while we wait out the storm. I snap a quick photo in front of Santa Maria Soprano Minerva of Bernini's elephant-obelisk, whose hidden symbolism is said to signify rebirth of both the earth and man. The Piazza della Rotonda is packed, but the iconic Pantheon itself closed, so something else we have to return to revisit for a view of the coffered ceiling, mosaic floors and famous oculus. We pass through Piazza in Campo Marzio and along Via Stellata to take in the sweet little baroque church Sant'Antonio dei Portoghesi, then along Via dell' Orso and make a dinner reservation at an old favorite, Hostaria L'Orso 80.

Via Dei Coronari is a ten or so block long street lined with jewelry, clothing, houseware and antique shops. The antique and related shops are of quality, and uniformly closed. The jewelry and clothing shops are mostly of lesser quality, and mostly open. The luxe shops with elegant window displays line Via Condotti and surrounding streets, leading to the Piazza d' Spagna, also crowded with Romans and visitors alike. One difference we’ve noted between Florence and Rome is how much harder it is to walk the streets of Roma, with uneven cobblestones compared to the level, large granite flagstones of Firenze. Another striking difference is street trash.....Florence is impeccably clean.....Rome the opposite.

A stroll out Via Dei Banchi Nuovi, and back the parallel Banchi Vecchi provides more window gazing for antique jewelry, furniture, decor and art. A favorite wine bar, Il Gocceto is at the corner of Banchi Vecchi and Carceri, and we’ll return for local wines and light lunch of marinated vegetables and Piedmontese cheeses.

We wend back through the quarter to the Hotel Rafael to mount to the rooftop bar with its 360-degree view of Rome. Shortly after we order, though, the rain returns, and we are forced down one level into the enclosed bar to sip Negronis and while away the last of the light of the first day of the year.

New Years night contrasts classic Rome and new Rome...venerable Rome and young Rome, in a sense. We make our way to Hostaria L'Orso, and are escorted into the back room. There are tables with elderly and middle aged couples, a couple of families—comfortably spaced. Warm, mustard yellow walls, linen napery, not so young waiters who mostly don’t speak English...we like the chance to practice Italian. In the rear section there are several elegantly dressed men and women, mostly in their late seventies or eighties. As we sit, order vino, peruse menus, more dressed-to-the-nines elderly folk move into the back room. Ultimately there are 40 or so, and we learn from the patron that this cohort comes every year on January first. Small cliques of them come every month, but the whole gang convenes to start the New Year. For ourselves, we enjoy the complimentary antipasto of a slice of fried zucchini, and small arrancini—fried rice balls stuffed with cheese. We are delighted that there is a range of fish available, and settle on Spada and Orata, respectively, both grilled, with sides of spinach and patate arrosto. The waiter returns crestfallen,,,,the Spada is gone, but.... they have l'umbrina, a similar meaty fish. Both turn our to be impeccably fresh and fantastic. The elegant party in the rear is in full swing enjoying themselves as well. We take grappa and Vin Santo to finish, and are presented plates of chewy nougat, panettone and ciambellini cookie rings to finish.

We meander back through streets alive with people celebrating, and drop into the Bar Fico, where the old Rome new Rome contrast is stark....dark mottled walls, mismatched tiny tables and chairs, pumping rock, and a crowd almost all 30 or younger dressed in torn jeans, baggy sweaters and duffel coats—all sipping colorful cocktails. We’re the oldest people in the place by a bit. A table of billiardino, Italian for table footie, rattles behind us, adding to the din.

Back at Tredici, a sweeping vista from the birdhouse across Rome lit by the first 2018 full moon brings January First to a satisfactory the fact that it’s the first supermoon of the year on the first day of the year portentous for 2018?

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend