Flirting and eating in Rome

BURNING QUESTION: "Cara, where have you been all my life?"
MICHAEL MULHERON
BURNING QUESTION: "Cara, where have you been all my life?"

We have an understanding, Raimondo and I. Every morning I visit his cafe on Rome’s Piazza Novana for my caffe normale (espresso) and maritozzi con la panna (sweet buns filled with whipped cream), and every morning he tells me how beautiful I am.

“My Kiwi bella, I have fallen in love with your doe eyes, your long dark hair and your abundant breasts. Let me take you home where we will make love for hours.”

All this before a drop of caffeine has chased away sleep’s demons. And in plain sight of my wedding ring. But before you accuse me of hubris, or adultery, ask any female who’s ever visited Italy and they’ll confirm this nation’s unassailable position at the head of the world’s flirting league.

SPOILED FOR CHOICE: In a city where your trousers get tighter simply by being there, the only problem is choosing where to eat. Here, travellers enjoy sunshine and great service in Campo dei Fiori.
SPOILED FOR CHOICE: In a city where your trousers get tighter simply by being there, the only problem is choosing where to eat. Here, travellers enjoy sunshine and great service in Campo dei Fiori.

Italian men, it seems, are genetically conditioned to flirt shamelessly and at every possible opportunity. They’ll shout at you from across the street, emerge from shops to kiss you on both cheeks, hug you and let their hands drift south. They’ll wink at you in restaurants, mentally undress you as they serve you in the market and express their admiration in  bold capitals.

At first, I thought they were taking the mickey; I am, after all, no Elle Macpherson. Emboldened by Raimondo’s cheesy lines, I ask him why Italian men are such public admirers of the female form.

“Italian men love to make a woman feel beautiful. We believe we will die without you. But we don’t mean anything by it. At the end of the day we go home to our wives and mamas.”

Clearly, the memo on sexism and political correctness got lost in the post. But it’s hard to be offended by such good-natured attention, particularly when flirting is one of Italy’s greatest gifts to the world.

Its other great gift is food and no-one does gluttony better than the Italians. Here in Rome, Italy’s good time girl, it’s practically an Olympic sport. Roman Emperors may have feasted on honey-braised dormice and roasted sow’s uterus, but today locals prefer simple osteria, with their cheesy chequered tablecloths, strings of garlic and verbal menu, or more upmarket ristorante; enoteca, which are pretty much wine bars with a deli attached, and simple tavernas and trattorias, which serve the rustic, usually offal-based dishes Romans are known for.

In a city where your trousers get tighter simply by being there, the only problem is choosing where to eat. I spend a week getting lost in cobblestoned back streets and criss-crossing the city to eat my body weight in ricotta-stuffed calzone, gelato studded with chestnuts and hunks of buffalo mozzarella the size of bread plates. In return, the Eternal City gives me five extra kilos and some of the best food experiences of my life.

I start my foodie tour in the Campo dei Fiori which literally means ‘‘field of flowers’’. Back in the 16th Century it was where the posh folk lived; today it’s the best place to get your fruit, veges and flowers. I spend far too many hours at Forno Campo de Fiori, which has been churning out thin crispy pizza rossa (flatbread topped with tomato sauce) since Joan Rivers was wearing her own nose.

A short waddle away is Antico Forno Rosciolo, where three generations of the Roscioli family have kept Romans in pizza bianca, the flatbread and olive oil combo that’s soft on the inside, crispy on the bottom and lightly toasted on top.

It’s not every day you get to type these words, but I lose a whole afternoon to deep fried artichoke hearts. The Jewish Ghetto, which hosts Europe’s oldest Jewish community, was once walled off from the rest of the city to ‘‘protect’’ the Christian majority. Today, it’s a charming mash-up of ancient, Medieval and Renaissance architecture and some of the city’s most distinctive cuisine. A stroll along the main drag, Via Portico d’Ottavia, yields kosher food shops, bakeries, pizzerie and bars.

It’s hard to resist the flirtatious waiters at Da Gigetto, or the fact that this restaurant has been churning out carciofi alla giudia, the Jewish speciality of fried artichokes, since 1920. They taste so much better than they sound, although it could be that a generous hand with the house wine and an endless stream of compliments from staff who look as though they moonlight as Armani models, means I’m slightly biased.

Later in the week I return to the Ghetto, but this time with a friend who claims the baccala in guazzetto (salt cod in a sauce of tomatoes, pine nuts and raisins) at the blink-and-you’ll-miss it Sora Margherita is “like a kiss from an angel”. Turns out she’s right and I don’t know whether to eat my fish or frame it. The health police would no doubt have me arrested, but it seems rude not to finish the meal with more crostate (jam and ricotta tarts) than is strictly necessary.

Cross the River Tiber and you’ll experience what the locals refer to as the ‘‘real Rome’’. Trastevere is certainly the Rome of your collective imagination, with stunning palazzi, narrow lanes covered with vine trellises and rows of laundry hanging from windows. Don’t even think about eating till after you’ve paid a visit to Trastevere’s centrepiece, the Basilica di Santa Maria, Rome’s oldest church which features a stunning 12th-Century Byzantine-style mosaic facade.

Campo dei Fiori aside, Trastevere boasts Rome’s highest number of restaurants and bars. In fact, many Romans see this former working-class enclave as a place simply to refuel. I start at Roma Sparitaserves, which is famous for its traditional dish of cacacio e pepe, pasta with pecorino romano sheep cheese and black pepper. It sounds like something you could knock up at home, but Marko, my chiselled Adonis of a waiter, says I shouldn’t let the simplicity fool me. Maybe I’m bewitched by the setting, overlooking a charmingly down-at-hell piazza, or perhaps it’s the fact that the steaming mound of pasta comes in a fried parmesan basket, but it tastes like nothing that’s ever emerged from my kitchen.

Romans love to boast about their gelato and at Doppia Coppia, a tiny gelateria on Via della Scala, I consume a month’s worth of calories in one hit. I would gladly sell a body part for their chocolate chip gelato, but the peach and pinenut certainly gives it a run for its money.

“Coming to Rome and not going to Pompi is like visiting New York and not experiencing the Statue of Liberty,” Raimondo tells me on my last morning. I figure my carnival of calories may as well finish with a bang, so I take the metro one stop from San Giovanni to Piazza dei Re di Roma.

Pompi is basically the love child of a gelateria and pastry shop, filled with delights such as bigne, cassata siciliana, pannacotta and cannoli. But its real catnip is tiramisu. Literally meaning ‘‘pick me up’’, Ponti features three varieties of this creamy, espresso-laden dessert: banana, strawberry and classic. I stick to the latter, which comes with the usual side order of compliments: “Cara, where have you been all my life? Take me back to New Zealand, I will be your Italian stallion.”

Ah Italy, I’ll be back for your fabulous food, your history and architecture and your gorgeous men with their silver tongues. That’s if I can fit into an aeroplane seat ...

More Roman romance is in evidence at the Italian Film Festival at The Paramount, Wellington, October 10 to 28.

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