Rome

Leave the tourist path behind and seek out these hidden gems

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)December 29, 2013 

SEARCHING FOR THE HEART OF ROME —

Stand in the Colosseum’s massive bowl and you can practically hear the roar of the ancient crowd. But to capture the sounds of today’s Rome, it’s best to get away from the flurry of tourists and settle into a quaint trattoria such as Da Tonino, where everyone within its rustic walls chatters away in Italian.

No sign outside announces the restaurant; my wife and I dined there courtesy of a local’s tip. And that cloaked quality was precisely its appeal.

Hidden gems — ignored by the guidebooks, well off the tourist path — await in nearly every nook of this wondrous city. Of course, visitors should crane their necks at the Vatican, sip espresso at an open-air bar in Piazza Navona and climb the Spanish Steps. But in a place with a history so long and rich that it is dubbed “the Eternal City,” only one approach seems plausible: Peel away the layers, savoring each one, to get a deeper sense of the place.

In our journey to do just that, we walked everywhere, from an underappreciated villa with some of the world’s foremost fountains to a neighborhood bakery with marzipan confections — and places beyond.

Our feet are still recuperating, but our souls are soaked with indelible memories.

CUL DE SAC

Cork dorks should head posthaste to Cul de Sac (Piazza di Pasquino 73; enotecaculdesac.com), to sample scores of wines they can’t get elsewhere (start with a glass of the cesanese, although it’s impossible to order poorly here). But this locals-laden enoteca has way more to offer: a locavore menu with eight kinds of pate, sundry salumi and cheese and homemade pasta, friendly service (a waiter actually asked an indecisive customer how much she wanted to spend on wine) and a fabulous vibe inside and out.

Tucked into a prototypically quaint but preternaturally quiet piazza a block west of the Piazza Navona, Cul de Sac’s outdoor tables fill by 7 p.m., which is still happy hour for Romans. The booths inside rest under shelves of bottles reaching to the 12-foot-high ceiling, with the nets in between to keep any errant bottles from conking customers on the head.

JEWISH GHETTO

At a couple of entrances to the Jewish Ghetto, you must pass through turnstiles (no coins needed) that we dubbed “pedestrian roundabouts.” Sadly, the Jews who were forced to live in this flood plain near the Tiber River in the 16th century (after two millenniums of being a free community), had to come in and out through locked gates in massive walls.

The walls came down in the late 19th century, and a stately, imposing synagogue (Lungotevere D Cenci) went up on the neighborhood’s edge. The old ghetto now has a few Jewish merchants and restaurants serving Roman Jewish specialties. Don’t miss the fried artichokes at Giggetto (Vie del Portico d’Ottavia 21; giggettoalportico.it), and walk off your meal on tree-lined riverside Longotevere de Cenci.

VILLA D’ESTE

Villa d’Este’s array of eye-popping frescoes are almost worth the 20-mile trek from Rome to Tivoli by themselves. The grandiose fountains in the “backyard” more than cinch the deal.

Installed by one Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, the son of Lucrezia Borgia, these 25 acres of waterworks (Piazza Trento, Tivoli; villadestetivoli.info) use ancient Roman hydraulic-engineering principles and range from the simple to the massive, from an endless row of smaller jet streams to a multifaceted “nymphaeum.” These spigots aside, the gardens include lovely landscaping and some gravity-defying trees. Similar landscapes are depicted inside, spread through a suite of art-filled rooms that, were they housed in Rome, would be anything but “hidden.”

DAGNINO

Taking a hungry kid to Pasticceria Dagnino (Via V. Emanuele Orlando 75; pasticceriadagnino.com) would easily make the shortlist of Worst Ideas Ever. Popping in as an even slightly ravenous adult isn’t such a grand notion, either. The almost unending assortment of mouthwatering sweets at this Sicilian-style bakery includes ice cream and cake, cookies and cannoli. But what marks it as Sicilian is a boundless batch of that island’s cassata cakes and marzipan crafted into brightly colored, exquisitely detailed fruits. Drool alert! You can skip all that eye candy by sitting and ordering at a table in the tony gallery near the Termini station, but why would you? Bonus points for the best cappuccino by far we had during our two weeks in Italy.

MONUMENTAL CEMETERY

Most of us have found ourselves in a museum gawking at some oddity and thinking (or saying) “Is this art? Really?” That’s certainly the rote response at the catacombs in the Church of the Immaculate Conception (Via Vittorio Veneto 27; cappucciniviaveneto.it), where thousands of bones have been fashioned into light fixtures, hourglasses, arches and even flowers in rooms with names such as “The Crypt of Pelvises.” The Catholic Church’s Capucin sect, which has a history of an often-cultish relationship with the dead, crafted these “works of art” with the remains of 4,000 of their flock. Appreciating, or at least understanding, this attitude is enhanced mightily by a fabulous museum above the crypt, leading to a plaque that advises “What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you shall be.” OK, then.

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