Just hours after leaving the office we found ourselves in the dimly lit L’Arcangelo, enjoying Rome’s most beloved Gnocchi alla Matriciana, of pillowy fame in Bon Appétit contributor Katie Parla’s best pasta dishes in Rome. After the meal we walked through the narrow streets to our hotel, opening a small door cut into the middle of a huge wooden door to reveal the Navona Queen B&B. We were greeted by our very friendly host and shown to our room, simple and clean, though a bit noisy above a busy road. Despite the traffic, we were soon fast asleep.
A spotlight of sun on our faces forced us out of bed the next morning, revealing a beautiful view through the shutters out over the red roofs and domes of the city. A typical spread of breads, meats and cheeses awaited us in the dining room, where we gratefully sipped on steaming caffès before stepping out to street to begin our explorations. Our first stop was the Vatican Museum. In February there were no lines and minimal crowds in the exhibits, and we were quickly gazing up in awe at some of the world’s most famous works of art.
Each room was uniquely exquisite, a museum unto itself, and in what seemed like no time at all we had been wandering the halls for hours, mesmerized by pieces such as the Sistine Chapel’s magnificent frescoed ceilings, Raphael’s colorful frescos, and the Gallery of Maps, a sumptuous hallway of brightly painted world maps decorated in gold. We could have easily spent all day admiring the brilliant collections, but after a full morning feasting our eyes on so many treasures, our stomachs told us it was time to go. We grabbed a hot Panini around the corner and wandered back through tiny alleyways to our hotel for a short rest.We spent the afternoon wandering past ruins, boutiques, and cafes before walking down the street for dinner at Roscioli, home to another pasta dish from Katie’s list: Rigatoni Burro e Parmigiano. The door opened to reveal a classic Italian meat and cheese shop with tables lined up in the small space between the wine and the counter. We were squeezed in along the wall of wine amidst happy chatter, listening to excited customers as they purchased gifts of cheese and pasta to take home for their families at the register behind us.
It didn’t take long to understand why there was a line out the door of hopeful foodies being turned away – after a glass of the house prosecco, a fresh creamy burrata salted with anchovies, and a plate of housemade charcuterrie, we were already in heaven, and we hadn’t even made it to the pasta. But soon enough we were gazing upon a large plate of Rigatoni and another of Rome’s signature Cacio e Pepe. Deceptively simple in appearance due to their basic ingredients of noodles, butter, and cheese, both dishes left us mourning our last bites and wondering how in the world something could taste that good?
In the morning we headed to the Pantheon, arriving just as the Rome Women’s March was getting underway. We joined the masses for a while, taking a break to tour the Pantheon, then grabbed a caffè and continued the short walk from the Pantheon to the iconic Trevi Fountain. As the backdrop for many famous movies set in Rome, and thus one of the most recognizable symbols of the city, it is consequently a huge tourist attraction. The fountain itself is stunning, but we found the posing tourists equally fascinating, but quickly overwhelming. We soon escaped down the narrow streets toward the Colosseum by way of the Gardens of Montecavallo, a pretty, quiet garden of orange trees overlooking the Parliament. Just beyond the gardens lay the Traina column, set among a field of beautiful crumbling ruins in beautiful contrast to the brilliant green and blue of its backdrop. Ten minutes later we reached the magnificent Colosseum. Once hosting crowds of up to 65,000 as they cheered over gladiator contests and executions, it is the largest amphitheater ever built, dating back to 72 AD, and must be seen in person to fully grasp its immense presence.
In the warm afternoon sun we walked another 30 minutes past the Colosseum to the Pyramid of Cestius, a little-known Egyptian pyramid just outside the center of Rome, most likely built between 18 and 12 BC. It stands at 36 meters (about 120 feet) high and was built as a tomb for a wealthy Roman in the craze at the time for all things Egyptian. Between 271 and 275 it was built into the fortifications of the Aurelian walls, which likely helped it survive the centuries, though now it lies at a busy intersection next to a train station. Still, it was quite impressive.
Ducking into a tiny cafe, we savored another strong, smooth caffè before walking back along the riverbank towards the city. As we approached the city center, we noticed a park on the hill above us. With a few hours to spare before dinner we curiously climbed the stairs, discovering the 5th century Sabina church and adjoining Orange Garden ( Giardino degli Aranci) on Aventine hill at the top. The orangerie offered a leafy, tranquil oasis and a gorgeous view out over the roofs of the city. We admired the view on the terrace for a moment, then noticed a line forming further down the road. We joined a small crowd at the end of the queue – for what? we didn’t know – watching as one by one, each person put their eye up to a hole in the doorway (of the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta) and walked off. Finally, it was our turn. Squinting through the mysterious hole, we were amazed to see a perfectly framed keyhole view of St Peter’s Basilica across the city. Shaking our heads, we descended back into the city, past the Roman Forum now bathed in the soft light of dusk, its crumbling white and gray stone ruins gloriously illuminated.
Deviating from Katie’s pasta list, we took a chance on a highly recommended Tripadvisor pick and headed to Hosteria numeri primi in the young Trastavere neighborhood just across the river from our hotel. Always a good omen, the air smelled of truffles as we sat down, and we soon discovered why. I copied most of the other diners and ordered the house special, handmade tagliatelle covered in shrimp and black truffles. I nearly gasped as I took my first bite, the intense truffle and seafood flavors melding into something bordering on nirvana. This was accompanied by a delicious pistachio ravioli and a good wine. Complete with a cozy cavernous feeling and pleasant service, it was an incredible dining experience.
The melodic chiming of Churchbells woke us on Sunday. After breakfast, we wandered between squares and fountains until we passed in front of the Spanish Steps. We continued on, detouring past one of the original gates to the city and climbing up to the park above the steps, a large green space in the city. Crossing the expansive lawns, we worked our way back to the top of the steps. One hundred and thirty-eight in all, they are placed in an elegant mix of curves, straight flights, vistas and terraces and are the widest steps in Europe, making them popular hangout spot.
Heading away from the main touristic zones, we decided to squeeze in one last pasta from the list. This required a bus ride across town to Tavernaccia da Bruno, known for their large slabs of wood-fire grilled lasagna. Not realizing that lunchtime would be busy, we hadn’t made a reservation and arrived to find the spacious dining room filled with the local crowd. Luckily, the kind wait staff gave us a seat at a small table with another couple and quickly served us a slice of perfectly browned and bubbling lasagna. Pleasantly full, we walked back to the city, stopping for one last cannoli and long look at the Vatican before heading to the airport. But we still have six pastas left to try.