Eight weeks into my fellowship at the American Academy Rome I made a list of reasons to return to New York and a list of reasons to stay in Rome after my AAR stint. After an hour, the list of reasons to return to New York was still blank and I determined to plant myself and my two young daughters in Rome for a while. That ended up being 19+ years.
I found an art/design studio where I could work within the walls of an orto (garden) attached to a 17th century villa once owned by the historic Chigi family in the Trastevere neighborhood. Soon thereafter we found a three-bedroom apartment in the heart of the neighborhood on Via San Francesco a Ripa, which we made into our home in Rome.
Trastevere is a medieval neighborhood across the Tiber River—its name literally means “across the Tiber”—from the historic center. Lore says that at the turn of the 20th century less than half of the Trasteverini, as residents of the ‘hood are called, had ever crossed the bridge into the city. Why bother? By day it is a quiet place filled with winding narrow streets and large open piazzas. By night it is a lively destination for Romans and visitors alike where they eat and drink, doing so outdoors for eight or nine months of the year.
Now that I have returned to live in my hometown of New York, here are the places for eating and drinking in Trastevere that I go to when I find myself back in Rome:
Bar San Calisto (Piazza San Calisto) is open early in the a.m. for caffé, spremuta (fresh squeezed OJ) and excellent whole grain cornetti (croissant Roman-style). It would be difficult to imagine while sitting tranquilly at a table in the traffic-less piazza (at no charge!) having a morning caffé or juice with a handful of ancient Trasteveriane baritoned nonne (grandmas), who are chain-smoking, that by 11pm the place would be splitting at the seams with people of all ages standing, sitting, conversing in many languages, drinking inexpensive beers, wines and digestivi. I never walked home after dinner at a friends’ house without a nightcap there.
On weekends, for a change of pace, I’d walk 20 feet further into glorious Piazza Santa Maria and sip a Campari and eat patatine and olive (crisps and brined olives) at Caffé di Marzio, hanging with friends to people-watch for a while.
Just next door to the Bar San Calisto is my favorite restaurant in Trastevere, Ristorante Paris or as I call it ‘The Paris’, whose featured dishes are Roman-Hebraic based, like the fritti misti, including some of the most tasty fried artichokes in Rome. Usually I ask them what fresh fish of the day there is and have it roasted with potatoes to share with a friend. Add a bottle of their Vermentino white wine and life is very good.
Arguably some of the most authentic Roman pizza is around the corner at Pizzeria ai Marmi on Viale Trastevere, 54. The regular clientele call it l’Obitorio (the morgue) because of the long, marble-slabbed tables and the cold, bright fluorescent lighting inside. The sidewalk is crowded with tables during all but the coldest months and the pizzeria is always full with locals and others. Don’t be concerned about the wait on line, just get at the end and it will move very fast. While you are waiting, notice which waiters are getting yelled at the least and try to get in one of their areas. Once seated try to spend at least a minute during your meal watching the pizzaioli work the pizza dough, put on toppings then toss them into the 900 degree wood burning oven ’til they are slightly scorched. Another suggestion: order some of the great appetizers, like fried olives (olive ascolane), supplì (fried rice balls), and baccalà (battered and fried cod fish) as the pies take some time. If you need your waiter for more beers or if you wonder why your pizza order still hasn’t arrived have the person facing the waiter start flagging him down, as it’s usually very busy. When the evening is all over you will likely be speaking to your neighbors at the next table and already becoming nostalgic about your truly Trasteverian pizza experience.
Photos by Eleonora Baldwin
Kevin Walz is a renowned designer and artist who has worked in the USA and Italy. He is also a fantastic gardener and home cook that specializes in healthy, mostly vegetarian recipes such as pasta with chickpeas or borlotti beans, Tuscan bean soup (ribollita), all sorts of delicious baked goods and homemade gelato using fresh seasonal ingredients often from his urban garden in New York City. He is a regular contributor to numerous design and style publications and guest blogger for Casa Mia.