Notes on life and food in Italy from a Canadian in Rome.

Rome
10/21/2020

Real estate: An introduction (Roman-style)

Way back in October of last year, we sort of decided that we would buy an apartment. I say sort of because we wandered farther and farther into the world of Roman real estate until suddenly we were in so deep that there was no turning back – even today, keys in hand and renovation creeping slowly towards completion, neither of us can manage to get immobiliare.it to stop sending us daily emails full of apartments for sale.

Buying an apartment in Rome is… an undertaking. The process swallowed us whole. One minute we were casually browsing the listings hung in real estate agents’ windows; the next, we were spending our evenings studying floor plans and scrutinising bad cellphone photos on real-estate listings while slotting numbers into the world’s most complicated spreadsheet, engineered by Valerio to take in a bunch of information and spit out the true market value of an apartment.

We sifted through what must have been thousands of listings online, rejected most immediately, and actually went to see a total of eleven. From the listing, I was convinced that the first place we saw would be The One. It was one street over from our current place, so close that I could see my bedroom wall if I craned my neck out of the window in its stairwell. Online, it looked spacious, and like it would need very little work. I went in prepared to love it; the reality check was swift.

One apartment in a former convent in Trastevere featured stained wallpaper curling itself off mildew-spotted walls and dark rooms stuffed with ancient, rotting furniture. Another apartment, this one in Monti, had a lovely large bathroom… that opened directly into the undersized kitchen. I fell hard for a place on Piazza San Cosimato because it felt spacious and light-filled; further inspection revealed a future plumbing disaster in the making.

A lot of people tried to give us a lot of advice about the whole process, but one thing I heard over and over was not to get emotionally involved. It’s just an apartment, they said. It’s a logical decision, not an emotional one. Except – it’s not just an apartment, it’s a future home, and every little factor, from the quality of the market down the street to the light filtering in through that potential future living room window is going to shape some part of the life lived inside.

It was impossible for me to not get emotionally attached. Valerio looked to his spreadsheet for an objective opinion. I either liked the feeling inside or I didn’t. I am, after all, the girl who moved to Rome on a whim. Spreadsheets don’t really resonate with me.

One day we found it – The One. Except we didn’t really know it was The One right away, just that we both liked the neighbourhood, it was the right size, it had a floor plan that didn’t leave us wondering about the sanity of the architect, a kitchen that didn’t appear to be wedged into a hallway, and actually had the holy trilogy of ample natural light, an upper floor, and an elevator.

We liked it. A lot. And the spreadsheet liked it, mostly. But as is so common in the world of Italian real estate, so began a multi-faceted patience-testing drama involving an unpleasant and paranoid owner, dodgy documentation, and disagreements over numbers. And so passed two months between our first visit and when we finally made an offer – an offer that was accepted after two extremely nail-biting weeks, exactly the day before Italy went into lockdown. That was in early March.

On the last day of July, the rogito – the final part of the sale, the actual deed – was signed. We drank a bottle of champagne in the apartment’s echo-y, empty living room. A few days later, the construction company came in with their sledgehammers and jackhammers and started breaking up the floor and tearing down some walls.

But that is a story for another day. Stay tuned.

Way back in October of last year, we sort of decided that we would buy an apartment. I say sort of because we wandered farther and farther into the world of Roman real estate until suddenly we were in so deep that there was no turning back – even today, keys in hand and renovation creeping slowly towards completion, neither of us can manage to get immobiliare.it to stop sending us daily emails full of apartments for sale. Read more…

9/26/2020

Summer, summarized

It’s characteristic for me to complain about summer – the heat, the humidity, the closures in August, and so on. It’s no secret that summer is not my favourite season, at least not here in Italy. That said, the season has its advantages, and this year was a particularly memorable combination of travel, pandemic, and major life events. Here’s a summary of the season’s highlights…

Amalfi Coast:

This was our first real getaway after the lockdown. We rented a woefully underpowered motorino and explored the (blissfully empty) cost from Positano to Cetara, sweated copiously while ignoring the hotel clerk’s advice and walking between Minori and Amalfi (which I recommend, if sweaty but gorgeous potentially deadly situations are your kind of thing), tried and failed to spend an afternoon sunbathing at the beach (beaches in the age of Covid are complicated), ate pasta at every opportunity, drank too much local white wine, and took a spur-of-the-moment day trip to Capri.

The giro:

If spending hours pedalling a bike up some very long hills sounds like fun to you, then I highly recommend the giro del parco d’Abruzzo, a 108 kilometer loop – with 1800 metres of elevation gain – through one of Abruzzo’s most beautiful national parks. I had been wanting to cycle (but also dreading) this route ever since Valerio first told me about it, partially because I am competitive and wanted to prove that if he could do it, I could do it too, and partially because it actually sounded like fun, in that sort of twisted is-it-fun-or-is-it-torture way that seems to go hand-in-hand with a lot of sports. Anyhow, at the beginning of July we cycled the giro, and I surprised myself by finding it less challenging than I expected, and also by actually still being able to use my legs the next day.

The birthday weekend:

Valerio and I have our birthdays within a couple days of each other. This year, we drove up into Umbria to spend the weekend at a countryside palazzo with vineyards, a view over the hills near Orvieto, and – importantly – a pool. The first night there, we were the only guests. The storm that was predicted never materialized, and we ate a quiet dinner on the terrace with one of those ridiculously perfect sunset views, the kind that feels too beautiful to actually exist without a helping hand from Photoshop. If that sounds nauseatingly romantic, you’ll be relieved to know that the spell was broken the next day by a gruelling mountain bike ride featuring dust (so much dust), sweat, and swarms of horseflies repeatedly biting my back.  

The apartment:

We bought an apartment! Writing this makes it feel like a quick thing – like a single event – and not like the long, drawn-out, frustrating, multi-step, often incomprehensible, simultaneously stressful and thrilling process that it was. Anyhow, we bought an apartment, we drank a bottle of champagne in its surreal, echoing emptiness – and then we immediately sent the construction company in to tear down a bunch of walls and rip up floors and cut giant gashes through the ceilings.

Tropea: 

Admittedly, heading to one of Italy’s popular beach destinations during the week leading up to Ferragosto, and also during a pandemic, was potentially not our most intelligent choice ever. But I wanted – quite desperately – to spend a week lounging on a sandy beach and staring out at the sea, and I also wanted it to be a place we could easily reach by car. The “easily” part turned out to be less than accurate when we got stuck in hideous snarls of pre-Ferragosto traffic the whole way down from Rome into Calabria, but Tropea fulfilled the sandy beach/sea-staring part very nicely. I had booked us an umbrella and two sun beds in prima fila for the entire week, as well as a vacation rental apartment with 360-degree views from its rooftop terrace, so the fact that the rest of the beach was ridiculously crowded or that every restaurant we tried in town was completely mediocre (if not flat-out terrible) was more or less irrelevant. We enjoyed the sunset over the sea from our terrace while eating too much ‘nduja and soppressata.

Abruzzo: 

We spent so much time in Anversa degli Abruzzi (where Valerio’s family has a house overlooking a startlingly green valley) this summer that I’ve started to feel like somewhat of a local – the old ladies no longer stare suspiciously at me and the barista knows my order. I spent many mornings working from one of the bars in the town’s main piazza, held Zoom meetings from the house’s back terrace (Valerio’s grandpa occasionally shuffling into the background of the video, a fig once dropping onto my keyboard in the middle of a call), and hiked up various mountains as soon as the weekend rolled around.

The apartment (part 2):

Obviously I can’t talk about torn-down walls and ripped-up floors and leave it at that. We are currently past the phase where it looks like something terrible happened inside and in the middle of the “reconstruction” phase, where the pipes and wires have been placed and covered, the holes have been closed up and the walls are being smoothed out. But with no flooring, no doors, no kitchen, no bathroom fixtures, nothing that makes the apartment, well, actually livable, we are still far from the “move-in-ready” phase. I am dreaming of a day when we don’t need to make snap decisions about the position of a bathroom fan or have animated discussions over exactly where an electrical socket needs to go. 


It’s characteristic for me to complain about summer – the heat, the humidity, the closures in August, and so on. It’s no secret that summer is not my favourite season, at least not here in Italy. That said, the season has its advantages, and this year was a particularly memorable combination of travel, pandemic, and major life events. Here’s a summary of the season’s highlights…

Tropea
9/26/2020

A week in Tropea in photos

See more…

Amalfi Coast
10/3/2020

Amalfi Coast, un-touristed

So many things don’t live up to expectations that I feel almost thrown when an experience goes ahead and exceeds them. I felt that way about the Amalfi Coast – something so famous, so revered, so notoriously over-touristed couldn’t possibly be that good, could it?

I think I actually would have been suitably disappointed if I had visited at any other time. Wall-to-wall tourists and places where you need to book your dinners months in advance if you even want to think about eating at a good restaurant are so not for me; I had been traumatized by proxy through stories of ridiculous traffic jams, packed boats and buses, and restaurants serving plates of mediocre pasta at staggering prices.

And then the pandemic happened, and the tourists evaporated, and in late June we booked a fairly spontaneous long weekend trip to the Amalfi Coast. It was idyllic. The place is gorgeous – and I mean seriously, drop-dead gorgeous in that way that feels like you’ve wandered into a film or someone’s dream. The first thing we did after arriving (other than wolfing down an insalata caprese at the first bar we wandered past) was walk the four kilometres between the towns of Minori and Amalfi, which is apparently normally ill-advised due to traffic and tourists who’ve never driven in Italy trying to pilot a rental car down one of the country’s most notoriously narrow and curvy stretches of road, but worked out quite nicely for us if you don’t consider the buckets of sweat lost over those few kilometres. The scene around each corner is more beautiful than the one before it, and walking was the only way that would let me stop and take a million pictures every ten steps.

The next morning, we rented a scooter and wove our way down the curvy and hair-raisingly narrow road to Positano, where we explored and took another million pictures and sweated more and then wandered into a random restaurant with a picturesque terrace and ate an excellent lunch (no reservations months in advance, no sticker shock after being presented with the bill). After lunch we explored the coast in the opposite direction, down to Cetara, famous for its anchovies. We adore anchovies; it felt like an appropriate pilgrimage to make. We bought jars of salt-packed anchovy fillets and little bottles of colatura (fermented anchovy liquid; it’s better than it sounds), and then sat sipping beers at one of those authentically grimy small-town fisherman bars while Italian top-forty radio clashed with hymns projected by screechy loudspeaker from the nearby church. We ate intensely sour lemon granita from an extremely sketchy roadside truck on the way back to the hotel. It was perfect.

I realize that the whole weekend was so good because we had the place to ourselves, so to speak – I think I heard maybe two or three couples speaking a language other than Italian, and even the Italian was local, regionally-accented Italian; there were no tourists on the Amalfi Coast, a situation which I’m sure has never happened before and will likely never happen again. And I realize that this is a bittersweet, awkward, thorny thing to enjoy, because a pandemic has created this situation and now a lot of people and businesses are seriously suffering – but spinning a bad situation into something good, I’m glad I got the chance to see such a beautiful part of Italy in a more calm, authentic state.

So many things don’t live up to expectations that I feel almost thrown when an experience goes ahead and exceeds them. I felt that way about the Amalfi Coast – something so famous, so revered, so notoriously over-touristed couldn’t possibly be that good, could it? Read more…

Rome
9/26/2020

What I cook when I don't want to cook

The recipe for this pasta is simple: there is no recipe. There is only a handful of non-negotiable ingredients: a clove or two of garlic, a dried peperoncino, olive oil, anchovies (the good ones; this is not the place to skimp on quality), and – obviously – the pasta itself. The garlic gets slightly crushed (not chopped) with the side of a knife, the peperoncino crumbled, and they both go into a pan with a generous pool of olive oil. The oil is heated, gently, just to the point where bubbles form around the edges of the garlic cloves and the seeds from the peperoncino just barely start to dance. Then the heat is cut, the garlic is discarded, and the anchovies – I used six filets if I’m cooking for two – go in and get stirred around until they dissolve.

You can stop here if you want. I often do – this is a perfectly delicious lazy pasta sauce that comes together in no time at all, doesn’t require chopping and simmering and extra dirty dishes, and really doesn’t need any improvement. Big flavour, low effort.

Or you can wander over to the fridge and pull out that half red onion that needs to be used up, a generous handful of cherry tomatoes, and a sprig of parsley. The onion gets sliced, the tomatoes halved, and they both get tossed into the pan where they simmer – over low heat, to not burn the anchovies – until the onions have gone all soft and the tomatoes have relaxed into something that’s starting to look a little saucy. Pull the pasta (linguine is a good choice) out of the water a minute or two before it’s done and drop it into the pan where it’ll finish cooking along with the sauce and some of the pasta water, as needed.

Plate, top generously with roughly chopped parsley, devour.

It’s so much more than the sum of its parts, and is so satisfyingly quick to make that you can prep the ingredients, cook the sauce and clean up the kitchen in the time it takes to boil the pasta.

The recipe for this pasta is simple: there is no recipe. There is only a handful of non-negotiable ingredients: a clove or two of garlic, a dried peperoncino, olive oil, anchovies (the good ones; this is not the place to skimp on quality), and – obviously – the pasta itself. The garlic gets slightly crushed (not chopped) with the side of a knife, the peperoncino crumbled, and they both go into a pan with a generous pool of olive oil. The oil is heated, gently, just to the point where bubbles form around the edges of the garlic cloves and the seeds from the peperoncino just barely start to dance. Then the heat is cut, the garlic is discarded, and the anchovies – I used six filets if I’m cooking for two – go in and get stirred around until they dissolve.

You can stop here if you want. I often do – this is a perfectly delicious lazy pasta sauce that comes together in no time at all, doesn’t require chopping and simmering and extra dirty dishes, and really doesn’t need any improvement. Big flavour, low effort.

Or you can wander over to the fridge and pull out that half red onion that needs to be used up, a generous handful of cherry tomatoes, and a sprig of parsley. The onion gets sliced, the tomatoes halved, and they both get tossed into the pan where they simmer – over low heat, to not burn the anchovies – until the onions have gone all soft and the tomatoes have relaxed into something that’s starting to look a little saucy. Pull the pasta (linguine is a good choice) out of the water a minute or two before it’s done and drop it into the pan where it’ll finish cooking along with the sauce and some of the pasta water, as needed.

Plate, top generously with roughly chopped parsley, devour.

It’s so much more than the sum of its parts, and is so satisfyingly quick to make that you can prep the ingredients, cook the sauce and clean up the kitchen in the time it takes to boil the pasta.

Rome
10/3/2020

A (small) silver lining

A tiny positive thing to come out of the lockdown: My favourite bar, Roscioli Caffè, purveyors of Rome’s best cappuccino and pastry, has created a small outdoor seating area in front of the bar. It does feel slightly like I’m sitting sandwiched between several parked motorini and the morning traffic of Via dei Giubbonari, but still – being able to sit, even linger over a breakfast at Roscioli feels luxurious, considering that their pre-coronavirus norm involved wolfing down a cornetto in their narrow indoor space while twenty hungry people hovered millimetres away, eyes boring into the back of my head as they silently urged me to eat faster*.

Today, as I finished the last bite of my usual (cappuccino, pastry loaded with apples and cream), the woman at the table next to me pulled a small sketchbook and a pocket-sized set of watercolours out of her purse and began painting the scene in front of the bar. I’m not sure if she was a local or a tourist (tourists are slowly creeping back into Rome), but it felt good to see someone revelling in Roscoli’s newer, slower, more relaxed reality.

* Although I admit that I actually love the packed, frenzied atmosphere of Roman bars at breakfast time. Usually.  

A tiny positive thing to come out of the lockdown: My favourite bar, Roscioli Caffè, purveyors of Rome’s best cappuccino and pastry, has created a small outdoor seating area in front of the bar. It does feel slightly like I’m sitting sandwiched between several parked motorini and the morning traffic of Via dei Giubbonari, but still – being able to sit, even linger over a breakfast at Roscioli feels luxurious, considering that their pre-coronavirus norm involved wolfing down a cornetto in their narrow indoor space while twenty hungry people hovered millimetres away, eyes boring into the back of my head as they silently urged me to eat faster*.

Today, as I finished the last bite of my usual (cappuccino, pastry loaded with apples and cream), the woman at the table next to me pulled a small sketchbook and a pocket-sized set of watercolours out of her purse and began painting the scene in front of the bar. I’m not sure if she was a local or a tourist (tourists are slowly creeping back into Rome), but it felt good to see someone revelling in Roscoli’s newer, slower, more relaxed reality.

* Although I admit that I actually love the packed, frenzied atmosphere of Roman bars at breakfast time. Usually.