Rome was our favorite city. The history, the charm – and above all, the food! A few weeks ago, Vidal and I were searching YouTube for some fun travel and food videos in Italy, as we reminisced of our wonderful trip to Europe back in 2004. Whenever we talk about that trip, we always bring up our most favorite restaurant there – the Taverna Romana- which was a truly Italian experience; unforgettable. I searched on YouTube, only to find that the owner, Tonino, had recently passed away, and his beloved wife sold the tavern. I can’t imagine going back to Rome and finding any restaurant as authentic as that mom-and-pop taverna. We were blessed to have experienced it. I had read tourist reviews of people raving about the food, but thought Tonino was a cranky old guy. How sad that they didn’t see through that rough exterior to see the wonderful man we saw, He even smiled for us, and welcomed us back the rest of the week with open arms. Like family.
AN ITALIAN DRIVER AND HIS QUIET MOBILE CALL: WELCOME TO ROME!!
Wednesday, July 7, 2004. Still nursing a knee injury from running with the bulls in Pamplona (well, from dancing in the streets beforehand), Vidal had gotten me a wheelchair at the airport and a bulkhead seat on the Volare plane. We landed at 8:30pm, but unfortunately I was the last one off, due to the wheelchair. We saw a man holding up a sign: ‘Sr. Vidal’, and assumed it was our driver, but we had to wait for our luggage, which came out last. Another 15 minute wait for that before we got in his Suburban, then he asked us where we were going. Confused, as he had been sent by the nuns at our pensione to get us, I just said we were going to the Convent. He asked us which one. I pulled out my papers to look for the name, told him it was Istituto il Rosario- on Via Sant’Agata dei Goti. Where is it?, he asked… He did not know where it was, so he picked up his mobile phone to call his office…. All this of course as he was driving at full speed, like he was in Mexico City or on Chicago’s Dan Ryan, no sign of slowing and it might as well have been rush hour with a ton of traffic ahead of us, going quite a bit slower. He rode on the tails of cars without seeming to bother the drivers whatsoever, as they would simply change lanes to get out of our way without complaint, as if he were Moses parting the sea of cars; all of that while he was talking on his cell phone. Let me rephrase that for anyone not accustomed to Italians having a conversation: all the time he was yelling – loudly – on the cell phone. Then he would hang up and ask us something in a perfectly normal friendly voice, like where are you from, first time to Rome, etc. I was trying hard not to laugh out loud, thinking, oh, yeah! WE ARE IN ITALY!! Poor Vidal was sweating profusely and turning green, thinking we were going to die… His only experience with Italians was our Italian-American friend Tony from New York, who was an even-tempered Prozac addicted card carrying flower child compared to our driver.
THE ANCIENT CITY IN LIGHTS
It was late, the convent had a curfew, we were starving and there was no way I could be in Rome and not see something my first night. For that reason I had chosen the convent, as it was supposed to be a few blocks from the Coliseum. I started to pray for three things: 1- Please get us safely to the convent; 2- Please let us see something of Ancient Rome along the way so I would not have to drag Vidal’s butt out 5 minutes before curfew to see the Coliseum, and 3- Please get us to the convent in time to feed our growling bellies- we were famished! Suddenly, I saw some ancient buildings that were lit up with floodlights and asked what they were; he simply said, ‘Caracalla’. My heart leaped and a grateful ‘Thank You’ went up to heaven- we had just passed by the Terme di Caracalla, the Roman baths of Emperor Caracalla of 212AD; we were in ancient Rome! Prayer #2 answered, I knew I would sleep happy that night! We passed up an old aqueduct; I thought to myself, ho-hum; I had seen Roman aqueducts before so it was not as thrilling as the Caracalla, but then realized they were different… They were Roman aqueducts- in ROME- my first aqueduct sighting in the great city itself! Then suddenly… There it was- the Coliseum, all lit up! I was so thrilled and thankful to God for it! I knew we were close then, as the convent was only a few blocks from the Coliseum; it was 9:40pm. Even so, our driver got lost and had to make another screaming call…
WE ONCE WERE LOST BUT NOW WE FOUND OUR WAY TO THE CONVENT
We pulled up at 10pm at the convent, with Vidal’s help (yes, his fake Italian was that good) and assistance from 3 people in the streets and a call to the nuns. Prayer #1 answered- we checked in at 10pm; the sisters were so lovely, so sweet, and spoke perfect Spanish… They were all from Columbia! We got turned around trying to finding our room, #202; isn’t that the way it always is when one is pressed for time…? Cute room with separate twin beds, it was still bigger than what we had in a few other places in Europe. We went back down quickly to ask about something nearby for dinner as we were cutting it close for the 11pm curfew; they directed us to a local tavern (Sisters! Really?) – the Taverna Romana. We asked the sister, a lovely little elderly lady from Columbia, what would happen if we got back a few minutes late, as we were concerned we could not eat that fast. With a straight face, she told us not to worry, they would just lock the doors and just let us in when they opened up in the morning! A bit more relaxed, we followed her directions: Walk to the end of the street, turn right at the wall, a few doors down. We hurried (I hobbled fast); just a short walk away we found it.
THE BEST LITTLE RESTAURANT IN ROME: NO PASTA, FINITO!
The Taverna Romana was a family run tavern, quite busy, but there was fortunately one table open. The owner, in his white shirt, white pants and white apron, greeted and seated us. He gave us menus, showed us the pasta side of the menu, told us in Italian,
“No pasta, finito!”
then turned the menu over, told us ‘si’ for that side of the menu, ‘no’ for the pasta side of the menu. He told us the specialty in Italian, Abbacchio scottadito- ‘burned-finger lamb’, pointing to it on the menu. We ordered wine, water and antipasto to start; Vidal ordered the lamb, I ordered sausage. He told me no, pointing to the lamb. I pointed to the sausage again. He said no, pointing to the lamb. Slightly confused at the apparent communication problem, I showed him the pasta side of the menu and said, ‘pasta no?”; he smiled and nodded in agreement, “Si, pasta, no!” I was in an Italian comedy, right? I held up the other side, pointing at it- ‘this side, si?’ He smiled and said “Si”! So I pointed to the ‘Si’ side, and ordered the sausage. He smiled, repeated again sausage no, you want the lamb… at least, I assumed that was what he said, as it was all in Italian! I gave up, ordered the lamb. He smiled and said ‘Molto buono!’ He walked away, I about bust a gut laughing, trying to tell Vidal that was a typical Italian scene from a comedy… Oh dear God, thank you so much! I love Rome! The antipasto, olives and hollow bread came out… Oh, my dear Lord, we are in HEAVEN! The best Pecorino cheese, the best spicy olives, delicious bread, sausage and some indescribably delicious spicy dried beef, accompanied by a small jug of splendid house wine; even the mineral water was perfect-not too fizzy. It was all so perfect; it was to die for… And then came the Abbacchio scottadito… six lamb chops each, finger smacking good, I could read into our new Italian friend’s smiling eyes- “I told you so”! I couldn’t wait to see if they made my favorite dish, Fettuccini Alfredo. We both knew we would be returning there, to our new favorite restaurant IN THE WORLD, every night. We asked for the check at 10:50pm, we were back at the convent seconds before the doors shut at Il Rosario at 11pm sharp.
ON A CLEAR NIGHT, YOU CAN SEE ALL WITHIN ROME
Back at the convent, Sister Marta told us breakfast would be served from 7-9am (ha ha, Vidal, can’t sleep late!), and recommended a hop on hop off bus tour to get us oriented. Great, we said, we love those! -we had been so grateful that we took advantage of a hop-on hop-off bus tour earlier in Barcelona, it was really a great way to get the lay of the land without losing precious time, and with trivial bits that I love so well, to boot! Sister Marta also told us we should take a look up on the roof, as we could see the Colosseum, so we did… It was like a dream, seeing the top of the Colosseum all lit up, just a few short blocks away. I found a copy of Luke’s Gospel in our room, in 7 languages. This is sooo cool, thank you, Lord! Sweet dreams, fair sisters…
– Excerpt from: A Pile of Rocks on the Side of the Road: Taco’s European Adventures, Chapter 40