“When in Rome, do as the Romans do!” Well, here I am. As if it weren’t enough that I will be spending the next year in one of the most fascinating living museums that the world has to offer, there is also spectacular cuisine at every step, sophisticated people, a global political epicenter and oh yes, did I forget to mention that tiny city-state where Pope Francis resides called Vatican City?
It should come as no surprise that Italy has long been at the forefront when it comes to just about everything we love in this wonderful world of ours: architecture, art, automobiles, science, athletics, food, fashion, invention — the list is endless. Rome, the capital, is the political, geographical and cultural center of Italy. It is also important to point out that it was once home to the greatest empire in history, and responsible for the large-scale spread of sanitation, clean water access, infrastructure, education and civic life to much of the world. Remnants of that empire miraculously remain scattered throughout what is today a well-functioning, modern city. A walk through the city center, far preferable to the sometimes unreliable public transit system, is a journey through time and a scene out of a romantic movie. Magnificent structures, often thousands of years old, such as the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain and St. Peter’s Square will leave you in awe. While roaming through Rome, it is as if there is always sweet, symphonic music playing in the background, and sometimes, when you turn a corner, there actually is.
But Rome is about so much more than history and aesthetic beauty; it is about La Dolce Vita, which in English means “the sweet life.” And there is perhaps nowhere on earth where you can find people who do life better than they do it in Rome. For some, that might mean shorter work-weeks, more vacation time and lengthy meals. What that amounts to, ultimately, is a longer life expectancy and lower risk of developing heart disease when compared to the U.S. Romans are warm, affectionate, sophisticated about nearly everything and above all passionate. Beyond having a good time, they really care about whatever it is that is occupying their time, whether it is food, sex, sports or politics. In fact, it would not be uncommon to spot two Romans arguing on the street over something as simple as whether it is better to use pancetta or guanciale (two pork variants similar to bacon) in their recipe for pasta carbonara. Now that is something to be admired.
In the Eternal City, the food is not to be believed. One would be surprised to discover the degree to which Italian cuisine, along with just about everything else, varies from region to region. Be sure not to miss Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe, which is a simple, yet divine, dish containing only three ingredients: pasta, pecorino romano cheese and fresh-cracked black pepper. When made correctly, these flavors combine to make a taste that will leave you with a feeling of utter bliss. Just think of it as an Italian version of mac n’ cheese, something that warms the soul. Make sure to try it for the first time at a Roman Trattoria (informal cafe) in a piazza and sitting outside — it will make all the difference. Pair it with local wine, which is often inexpensive and delicious, and finish it off with the quintessential Roman dessert – Tiramisu. Everything in the cuisine defines elevated simplicity. All the flavors seep through in everything you eat: the freshness of the tomatoes and mozzarella, the saltiness of the prosciutto and the authenticity of the local ingredients in each dish.
In the end, one can only look on with wishful wonder at the breathtaking interplay of everything Rome has to offer. The ancient and the modern mix together almost, as nicely as the food and the wine. Here, it is the eternal gift of Roman life, simple things, which will call you back again and again for more.