The Realities of Living in Rome

Just as I wrote about the great things about living in Rome, here are the less than great things about living in Rome.

How hard it is to get things done, like paying a bill. This can take a long time because sometimes you do not have the bill you need to pay, then you have the wrong number, then the wrong amount, then the reminder is sent through a system that you cannot access, and so on. But, once you get the bill, the solution is to get help from your local kiosk by showing them the bill and insisting that you want to pay!

The bureaucracy (actually this can be an advantage at times because speaking loudly enough can sometimes get things done).

The slow internet.

The power outages.

The traffic. It can be deadly. There is double, triple parking on many streets. There is little attention to lanes. Cars often stop at crosswalks but with the pedestrians also walking all over the streets, it is basically a melee.

Not disable friendly. The stairs and steps everywhere. Plus, the cobblestones and broken streets make walking quite difficult.

The heat in the summer. Romans tell me that up until a few years ago, the 90+/32+ days were a few weeks. Now it starts in May and ends in September/October.

Trash, double parking, and cobble stones make Rome a tough city for pedestrians.

The broken streets.

The trash. Rome is a dirty city.

The lack of international food of high standard.

The dubbing of films (which hinders people from learning foreign languages). WTF.

The Great Things About Living in Rome

Since the honeymoon is over for me, I thought I’d remind myself of why I chose to live in Rome.

It is Rome. The eternal city. The place that people dream of.

The sun shines almost every day.

The produce is fresh, local, and delicious.

The markets are great.

You can fill up your own bottles at certain wine stores. Even the box wine is good.

The olive oil is great.

Wine is cheap and good.

Romans are generally friendly. Speak English or act like a tourist and you will get a better reaction. Actually, just say hello first.

The taxis are not too expensive.

You can walk everywhere when it is not too hot.

The train system up and down Italy is fast and not expensive. Four hours from Rome to Milan. One and a half hours to Florence.

You can be a tourist in your own town.

Rome is an international city.

Many people speak English.

It is a big city so you can find almost anything that you want.

One can eat zucchini flowers almost every day.

The food is good.

And, if you like Roman history and ruins, this place has them everywhere, including in McDonalds and the department stores.

Later, I will write about the stuff that is not so great. For now, I’ll go out and enjoy Rome.

The Digestivo Will Cure You

An digestif made from arugula. I can’t recall what the other one was made from.

As they say, what does not kill you, will make you better. I am always suspicious of things that are supposedly really good for you or things that will increase my sexual stamina. Usually these things are things that are terrible tasting.

Often, you are offered a limoncello at the end of the meal.

Italians have an obsession with their intestinal and gut health. Drinking a little digestif, digestivo, is something many of them are accustomed to.

“Amaro” is bitter. No kidding.

Digestifs are usually an alcoholic beverage that you enjoy at the end of meal. It is not meant to be downed like a shot. As with many things in Italy, most of the Italian digestifs are bitter. Oh how they love bitter here!

I have tried a few. Some made from walnuts and some made from arugula. The one made from arugula is a specialty of Ischia, an island near Capri.

If they are not too bitter, then they are often too sweet. When I tried the Ratafia, I was delighted because while sweet, it at least tasted good.

The “elixir from Abruzzo” was quite good.

The Nine Levels of Life In Italy

Some countries are great for tourists. Italy is one of them. Is it this way for everyone? Here is my list of diminishing joy.

The Amalfi Coast.

Tourists: At the top, tourists. To be a tourist in Italy is a delight. All the mechanisms are here, from ATMs, efficient trains, to affordable food to make you spend your money! The average salary in the United States is almost double that of the average Italian salary, making American dollars welcome.

An Aperol Spritz during aperativo.

Exchange students: With the benefit of home and host nation working to make your study abroad semester ah-maze-balls, this is clearly a great place to be. A semester is like a long holiday filled with movie sets, people flirting with you, free things (sample this, take this, have this), and the massive moshpit of AYCE other students all here to find the dolce vita, or meet Romeo, or feel inspired by Raphael, in a land of where wine is part of daily life (and gives no hangovers because of the rules limited wine production to grapes). Every year, Florence receives over 7,000 American exchange students (80 percent women).

The streets are cute here. Even in big cities like Florence. Sorry, “Firenze.”

Digital Nomads: This new group of people will find Italy a great place to be. The limits on sitting in cafes and restaurants is fairly limitless, the Internet speed is not bad, WIFI is almost everywhere and free, and overall prices are not too high.

International organization employees: Life in Italy with the aid of your home and host nation to smooth out the transitions makes life in Italy a cushy place. Depending on how many years one is assigned to Rome, reality may set in.

Some locations just blow your mind. Yes, one of those wine jugs would be a perfect souvenir (it’s the size of a carryon suitcase).

Native born white Italians: Yes, life is sweet. The bureaucracy is just a reminder to slow down…

Students: This includes non-exchange students, Italian and foreign. Being a student in Italy is a life filled with optimism and discounts.

Expats/binationals: For these long term residents of Italy, it is a great place but you still have to deal with the bureaucracy which may drive you absolutely bonkers at times, but then, after a stop at a coffee bar, it will seem all okay.

This pizza can be had at the Napoli train station! Upstairs in the food court.

Long term white immigrants who speak fluent Italian: Life is good, even sweet at times.

Newly arrived immigrants: For those who are not white and do not speak Italian, life in Italy is confusing but it will get better.

The water that pours from the fountains is potable. It tastes pretty good and is usually cold.

There are currently 60 million Italians. In 2019, 65 million tourists visited Italy. It may seem like there is no more room, but actually, there is. Try visiting Le Marche, Abruzzo, Basilicata, Sicily, Calabria… or visit in the off season.

Ten Unknown Local Dishes to Try

While there are many local specialties that everyone will recommend, like orecchiette in Apulia, I want to mention some that do not get mentioned as often.

Egg soup, Salina: A soup with poached eggs and vegetables.

Egg soup

Fried cheese, Abruzzo (and other areas): This fried cheese is a bit like haloumi in Greece, but not as salty. Served melted from the oven. In Salina, it is deep fried.

Fried cheese

Pizzeli (wine cookies): Most regions of Italy have round hard not sweet crackers that are for dipping in wine.

Egg cheese balls, Abruzzo: These were like a cheese egg souffle in a round donut hole size and shape. Served with red tomato sauce.

Raw artichoke salad: Actually, try any of the salads and vegetables that you have never tried before like raw fennel or artichoke.

Fried egg tart, Campania: A frittata which is then deep fried.

Taralla (Napoli): These are another baked bread twist. Many places in Italy make them like a small ring but in Naples, they are longer.

Fish balls, Salina: On this island off of Sicily, one can try tender fish balls. Try them. They are surprisingly good.

Fish balls

Pizzette (small pizzas), Rome: Many bakeries sell mini pizzas (many with no cheese or red sauce as a pizza just means a type of bread). These pizzette are often served at happy hour.

Pane Cunzatu, Salina: This is like a giant garlic bread. The plate-sized bread is toasted and smothered in toppings. Absolutely awesome!

Cunzatu

The melon-cucumber of Apulia: I wrote about this before. When in season, it is served as the “vegetable” but only to locals so make sure to ask!

Melon cucumber slices served with radishes

The “Busy” Scene on the Aeolian Islands

Fresh prawns.

The Aeolian islands are called the gourmet islands. I think they may have styled themselves as this as a tourist attraction. Conde Naste Traveler magazine called them this and based the article around a female Michelin star chef who owns Signum on the island of Salina, the second largest of the Aeolian islands. Lipari is the biggest.

The upstairs of the catamaran.

Getting to the islands is by boat or catamaran. Of helicopter if you want. The catamaran from Milazzo on Sicily took under two hours. The port restaurant at Milazzo is really good. Best bread I’ve had, excellent sandwiches, good beer, and well, overall better than they need to be for having a captive audience. The ferry from or to Naples from Salina is about six hours and I wouldn’t recommend it. The air conditioning only worked well on one side and because the Italians have a severe fear of upsetting their digestion, those that had sat over there were wearing their jackets and scarves but refused to move. Even in the windy cold side of the boat, it was still only 80 F or 27 C. The hot side of the boat was 99 F or 37 C (I carry a thermometer with me for just this sort of situation). When I opened up some of the vents to get more air, I had many fingers waggled at me to stop. The toilet also became somewhat of a fetid horror.

A view from one of the Relax Salina Boats.

Getting to and from the islands is fairly easy as there are ferries and local boat companies that stop at the various islands including Stromboli, famous volcanic island. Ask at your hotel or B&B. Everyone knows everyone on these islands so they will all have a cousin or brother or son who has a boat.

The social media director was way fly and hip looking.

But, the islands are famous for their food scene. The restaurants I liked in Santa Marina on Salina were Lo Schiavo, nni’ Lausta, and Mamma Santina. Down in Lingua, there is a restaurant, Il Gambero, on the harbor which runs a shuttle (the dad runs it) to Santa Marina. Try the local speciality called “pane cunzato” a sort of large garlic bread with various toppings. I loved it because they used raw garlic. Although seafood is the speciality, there are vegetarian options on all the menus.

Imagine this fresh tuna from the fish shop.

If you have an opportunity, buy the fresh tuna tartare at the fish shop, Pescharia A Lampara (there is only one fish shop). It’s so fresh and glistens like rubies.

Linen in all sizes.

While resting between meals, buy linen and crochet. If you can afford it. Some of the nice dresses were handmade and cost 700 euro. Be aware that this is small town life so many shops close for lunch. But a few don’t and most have air conditioning. The people are generally friendly. The main street of Santa Marina is mainly pedestrian making for good shopping and eating. And people watching.

View from Hotel Mercanti di Mari

For happy hour, go to the Hotel Mercanti di Mari by the harbor where they have a make your own bruschetta station. Drink wine and admire the view of the harbor.

Unusual bread at the local bakery.

If you want a nightclub, go to the Porto Bello restaurant by the dock. Just be aware that any shenanigans you take home with you will be known all over the island. If you don’t mind adding to the local action, then never mind.

The main street in the morning when the delivery trucks are allowed in. Nni’ Lausta on the left has a secret garden.

The reason many go is for the food and one could just visit Salina and eat well. But, stay a while longer, and become part of the local soap opera scene… I befriended a local, not knowing that he was a local passionate about more than fish. When I described this local casanova to the manager at the place where I was staying, she said with a wise nod that she knew who I was talking about . She added, “he is busy busy all the time”… on an island with as many bikini clad tourists as this one, one can see how he constantly had a fresh “catch.”

One of the many gourmet food stores.

Otherwise, sit back and enjoy chatting with the locals and soaking up the local. If you imagine a BBC feel-good romantic comedy, then you get an idea of what I saw in this little island buzzing with flashing smiles, bronzed arms, and twinkling glances.

Nni’ Lausta’s upstairs terrace is perfect for an assignation. Or just a rest from the heat of the day.

Why Italy Does Not Need Michelin Stars

The best pickle I’ve had in Italy but is it worthy of a Michelin star? Signum.

Some of the worst meals I’ve had in Italy have been in fancy expensive Michelin star restaurants. Some people get super excited about Michelin stars and deem those restaurants better than others. I do not get it. The Michelin star system started out as a way to get the tires worn out. Italy does not need these fancy restaurants. Actually the Michelin star system has nothing to do with how fancy the restaurant is but solely the food, cooking, and constituency of those things. The general public seems to not know this. Michelin is not even all over the world yet (they say that they are taking is slowly). Michelin has not reached South America yet. Imagine that! There are restaurants in Lima that should have a star, but Michelin hasn’t gotten there yet. If consistently making good food was really the reason to give a place a star, then many more would have them.

Eggplant parmesan with anchovy from Mamma Santina, Salina. Not by a Michelin chef. But stellar nonetheless.

The food in Italy is already natural, local, and delicious. The various types of Italian cuisine (there are many) are based on local, simple, and delicious. Michelin seems to go for innovative, expensive, and small portions. Add to that how hard it is to get a reservation at a Michelin star restaurant, and it is just not my idea of a good food experience. Some of the finest dishes I’ve tasted were not by a Michelin star chef.

One thing that many people like about small portions is that it allows them to try many things and it is a form of portion control. You can try that anyway in Italy. The portions of appetizers and first courses are not necessarily that huge. Or share with a friend. Most restaurants will even split the dish onto two plates.

Bao at the Michelin star chef’s place, Signum.

The last Michelin star restaurant experience underlined why Italy doesn’t need Michelin Star restaurants. One of the dishes “invented” was a bao, a steam Asian style bun. But it wasn’t as good as the authentic ones and I do not think it highlighted the ingredients. Then we had an appetite stimulant of pickles which were the most sour I have had in Italy. I can see how this was innovative for Italy where sour is not sour. One dish was a roasted escarole (half an escarole head). It cost 38 euro.

Caponata at Signum. One of the normal dishes there.

I guess my biggest peeve with these restaurants is that they are so pricey and pretentious. Most of the places on my list are not expensive, and not pretentious. Nothing makes food taste bad like attitude.

The current system where restaurants are listed in the Michelin guide is just like Yelp or TripAdvisor. The guide in Italy is Gambero Rosso. The Michelin guide is separate from a chef earning a star, of which there are 367 (318 have one star) in Italy. I am glad when a woman gets a star but I don’t think that makes the overall system better. The Michelin guide badge is a round red sticker that you can see on many restaurant doors alongside the ones for TripAdvisor.

I tend to use Google ratings because I like the democracy of the system. It relies on average eaters reviewing places and not a specialized team of experts who want to wear out your tires in France. In Italy, most restaurants make consistently good food. Or consistently bad. Try them for yourself.

M’s Adventures Top Ten Restaurants in Italy

A crunchy creamy cannolo. Two would be cannoli.

Obviously, this list is a work in progress as I have not been to that many restaurants, not even 100. First, a word about dessert. Stick to the tiramisu. Except when you really want to try the cannoli and the young man says that they make it in house.

This list is only places that are not super super famous. But, first let me mention one famous place in Verona. Antica Bottega del Vino was recommended to me by a sommelier. It is all the pomp and atmosphere that you did not know you wanted to watch with your food. Maybe they hire the barkeeps to look like Roman gods? The food was clearly cooked by someone trained as a professional chef. It looked like that too. But was still great. I have not included any photos from there because their website shows what the place looks like quite well.

Grilled cheese in ‘nni Lausta.

Peccato del Vino, Otranto, Apulia: The owner will make you feel so welcome and the bubbly doesn’t hurt either. Her dishes are riffs on classics and not in a way that makes them unrecognizable, but in a way that makes them delicious, and distinct.

Those russet filaments of chili make my day. This is in Otranto.

‘nni’ Lausta, Santa Marina, Salina, Aeolian Islands, Sicily: of the many excellent restaurants we tried on Salina, this was the one with the most refined food.

At ‘nni Lausta, the classic caponata is presented with bread crumbs on the side.

Mamma Santina, Santa Marina, Salina, Aeolian Islands, Sicily: For their innovative eggplant parmesan, made with local anchovies but still a traditional dish. All their other food was also excellent. This restaurant is located in a hotel but don’t be put off by that. The restaurant is open air and overlooks the town and the sea.

The upstairs garden of ‘nni Lausta is an oasis.

La Tagliata Fattoria, Positano, Amalfi Coast: A recommendation. Also famous, but still on my list, not for the food which is homemade and good, but for the magical view, and the family. And the elevator.

Everything on this plate was made within an arms length of the plate.

Le Comari di Farfa, Castelnuovo di Farfa, Sabine Valley, Lazio: I think this place is only open as part of special tours. I went with Johnny Madge on an olive oil tasting.

This customized vegetarian lasagne was the star at Le Comari di Farfa.

The place that most likely not to be on anyone else’s list was a camping site. In fact, I can’t even find it on my Google maps… But, don’t judge. If the food served there had been served in a fancy place in Bologna or Verona, people would be raving about it. Their pasta alle vongole was so good that we each had our own serving. The cannoli was as gourmet as you can get (as you can see from the photo at the top) served on a slate plate and with a dusting of powdered sugar. Although cannoli are famous from Sicily, this one was at the other end of Italy… the lesson is that if your navigator (me) says to go there, then try it!

Trattoria il borghetto, Salve, Apulia: I recommend this place because the “mayor” of Torre in Pali sent us there. The restaurant is in a small hilltop village and one eats inside a castle courtyard. It has that sort of fairytale feel to it. The meal is a large one with many first courses so make sure you are hungry.

Osteria dell’elefante, Lazio (Where Rome is located): I wrote about this before. I really like them.

Finally, I also recommend the steakhouses (we went to one called 101 Best Steakhouses located near the train station) in Florence. Even if you don’t eat meat. Just thinking about their steak makes me weak at the knees, but their vegetarian ravioli was good too.

Was that ten? But, as I keep finding new ones… I will update this list.

Grocery Stores in Rome

Tuna is a main staple in Italy. This generic store brand is half the price of the fancy gourmet kind.

Grocery stores in Rome are small, but, you will probably be able to find everything you want or think you want. For some speciality stuff, you will need to go to the international stores as the basic chain stores have very little “international” food. While the chain stores are convenient, I actually prefer the little mom and pop stores, but they are dying away.

The entrances to the stores are often quite small.

Pam, Coop, Conad, and Carrefour are the main chain stores in the center of Rome. Carrefour is tiny here, unlike in some places where they are megastores (like in France).

This aisle is fairly wide for here.

For the Wegmans/Whole Foods type stores, there is DOC (by Coop) and NaturSi (some are quite basic and others have a wider variety like the one on Piazza Farnese, which also has a cafe).

It being Italy, one can buy zucchini flowers.

For the bargain chains, there is Todis, Lidl, Metro, and some that I can’t recall the name of, maybe Tiger?

Eggs are not refrigerated in Italy.

The largest combined “super-Target” type stores I’ve seen here are Conad and Elite.

Castroni has almost everything from the far reaches of anyone’s empire.

Most of the local “rione” markets will have everything for basic shopping but markets tend to close by 2 pm. Many of the specialty stores like delicatessens and bakeries have started carrying other products like milk so that you can do much of your grocery shopping there. I can find almost everything I need for grocery shopping at the farmers market on Via San Teodoro, but it will all be made locally, so no imported goods.

Yes, the wine is cheap. They make it here.

The hardest products for foreigners and expats to find in Rome is cilantro and corn tortillas. I notice a trend in “Mexican” food so these products should be easier and easier to find over the years. Again, finding TexMex is a subject that continually follows me around the world. Gringos are obsessed with it.

For international products, Castroni is a shopping emporium with an Aladdin’s den of dry goods, but also refrigerated goods. There are many Asian shops that carry goods from all over the world, including some fresh vegetables.

For those looking for vegetarian foods or gluten free foods, all these are now easily found in most grocery stores. “Exotic” foods require a bit more hunting. Also, sometimes, the store may not have a whole lot of the one product that you want. I consider it a victory when I can buy more than one bottle of my favorite type of milk.

Wild Abruzzo

When I think of Italy, I tend to think of ancient cities. Rarely do I think about snowcapped mountains. Just a few hours drive from Rome is the region of Abruzzo and it is known for being “wild.” Abruzzo is home to the Abruzzo bear. Who knew that there were bears in Italy? We didn’t see any bears but we did see snow. In April.

If you love nature, then I recommend visiting Abruzzo. Maybe on your tenth visit to Italy?

Abruzzo also has coastline, but I think of it as a mountainous place.

Caffe Freddo

The chocolate syrup is an extra touch. This one is from Naples.

When it is hot in Italy, you want to order a “caffe freddo” (cold coffee) which is sort of like a coffee milkshake. It’s a bit confusing because it is not a “frappe” which is a different drink. I include a photo here so that you can see that a frappe is a coffee which is frothed to the point where it has a frappe/froth/head on top. A caffe freddo has milk added, a frappe does not.

A frappe — not a caffe freddo.

When you see the slush machines spinning with coffee colored caffe freddo, you know that summer has arrived. A caffe freddo is different from an iced coffee or milkshake.

A caffe freddo from Otranto, Apulia.

As an aside, the milkshakes in Italy are quite liquid and not unlike a caffe freddo except that they are not always as cold. Also, you can get a milkshake most of the year but caffe freddo is a summer thing.

A caffe freddo from Salento, Apulia.

The Original Confetti

The English word confetti comes from the Italian word for an almond confectionary. This candy is from the town of Sulmona in Abruzzo, with a tradition stretching back more than three hundred years.

Paper confetti is called “coriandoli” in Italian. And just to be even more confusing the Italian for cilantro is “coriandolo” so a single confetti. In the renaissance, the confetti used for celebrations was coriander seeds in small pieces of paper used as a breath freshener. The almonds coated in sugar were also part of the celebration. At some point these all got mixed up.

The town of Sulmona is a pretty mountain town. But the main reason to visit is to buy almond confectionary (the confetti) and saffron.