Monday, January 21, 2013

Smooth Getaway Postcard From Rome Italy

Cramped into a one-hundred-year-old pasticceria along a narrow section of the Via del Portoghesi, I watched my frothy cappuccino arrive and take its place beside my chocolate tartufo: a heavenly over-priced truffle worth every Euro. A good meal is easy to come by here. Italian lessons are nearly as effortless when you’re immersed in the local environment. This little eatery is a wonderful place to find both.

Recently, I discovered how to ask for an outside table with extra room for my coffee, laptop and writing pad. However, this morning, it’s freezing. Rain is coming in sideways with hail pelting the canvas above. Hundreds of little pellets pound the back of my head, as water spills off the awning, saturating my papers and soaking my keyboard. My socks are now sponges and my feet are submerged in rainwater rushing towards the drain around the corner.

“Sta andando a piovere oggi?” is Italian for “Is it going to rain?”  I should have learned that one last night.

Rick Steve, the traveling guru of all things Europe, has stayed in every hotel or hostel and eaten his way across Italy for almost forty years. His books have guided me in over a dozen European cities, from Amsterdam to Athens. Once I discovered that he had moved into social media with downloadable iPhone apps, I felt like I’d just won the lotto.

Rick’s app Ancient Rome gives tips on everything from beating long queues to out-of-this-world restaurants. According to his tip of the day, his favorite trattoria Gino’s is located at “Numero 4 Vicolo Rossini,” an “easy walk just behind the Parliament Building.” Parliament was the ideal landmark, because I just happened to be standing in front of it.

Ancient Rome’s city map is sort of a crude charcoal drawing. Yet, that seemed to matter little. Rick promised it would be “worth the journey.” The map showed the restaurant sandwiched in-between the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon, directly in-line with the Roman Parliament. The app assured me it was easy to find. It wasn’t.  

After an hour of walking in circles around Rome’s legislative offices, I began to attract the attention of the Italian police. I was so absorbed in looking for Numero 4 Vicolo Rossini that I didn’t realize I’d been stalking the home of the Italian government, yelling into a GPS device while wearing dark sunglasses and toting a backpack. It was the first time I’d ever been asked to “Present papers!” Rick’s counsel on food and lodging is greatly appreciated, but his artistic mapping prowess leaves much to be desired.

Sprawled across the marble steps of an adjacent piazza, I opened my travel book, unfolded a Disney-sized city map, and typed Gino’s address on my iPhone. Studying everything in front of me, as if I were planning the invasion of a beachhead, I realized I had nothing to worry about. After all, entire continents have been discovered by folks who got themselves lost. 

I fired Rick Steve and hired Steve Jobs. The bouncing blue dot on my iPhone now plotted a new course and pinged its way along with every step I took. Within ten minutes, the dot stood still, announcing my arrival.  Before me was a mountain of bricks stacked ten meters high. No door. No food. Just mortar. Peeking around the corner, I noticed a concrete marker reading Gino's - Numero 4 Vicolo Rossini that protruded from a small cave-like opening in the same wall. My quest was complete.

Vicolo Rossini isn’t on a map. Most likely, because Gino’s sits in the middle of a twisted alleyway less than twelve meters long. The abutting buildings loom so close that one needs to turn sideways to avoid oncoming people. As I made my way towards the entrance, an eighty-one-year-old with a shock of curly white hair resting atop his collar stood up to greet me. This was Gino. His smile was identical to the younger one staring out from the black and white photo on the wall.

Reservations are normally required and there wasn’t an empty seat in sight. Still, I explained in my egregious Italian that I had journeyed almost two hours, gotten myself lost, and was only “una persona!”  Gino smiled and patted me on the back. To my surprise, he warmly ushered me inside like a long lost family member. Within seconds, he prepared a table for me out of nowhere. 

Like a 1940s movie star having dinner at the Brown Derby, I watched the patrons who failed to call ahead get turned away. With a shoulder shrug and slight tilt of my head, I stared at all those forlorn faces with an “I’m-sorry-but-I-got-here-before-you-did” look on my face, while mountains of warm fresh-baked breadcrumbs fell into my lap. 

A former haunt for local politicians, Gino’s is a typical Roman-style, family-run, cash-only business. With just over a dozen tables, I counted over sixty occupied seats – a gridlock of diners crammed together, talking with their hands, laughing at each other, asserting political views loudly, and causing such ruckus that it was nearly impossible to hear myself think. The kitchen was so close I could hear the clinking of the plates and silverware, as if I were washing the dishes myself. I could make out the churning cylinders of the meat-slicer. Closing my eyes, I imagined thinly-shaved layers of proscuitto piling up beneath the blade.

I heard the whistle of steam, signaling to a chef the Cappelletti was ready to serve. I noted the popping of corks from bottles of Barolo being opened behind a centuries-old wall. The ceilings in the cavernous expanse were arched and frescoed with cheery-looking cherubs on brightly-colored backgrounds of an ageless Rome. The edges of the archways were outlined with smoothly-curved planks of cedar, each one picking up where the last one ended. 

Children ran between the tabletops with just enough room for their tiny frames to squeeze through. They showed off their coloring skills to those eating and beamed with delight as everyone marveled at how they managed to stay within the lines. This was authentic Rome - a blending of chaotic noises into one glorious chord.

As Gino shuffled around the room, grating cheese and pouring wine, his son Anthony and daughter Giata took orders, cleaned tables, and replaced the cutlery. His ten-year-old great-granddaughter Theresa was perfecting the art of hostessing. To each new customer, she gave a hospitable greeting. Then she ever-so-slightly grimaced, bit down on a colored pencil, carefully studied the room, and strutted her way to a table no larger than a school desk. Like jamming square pegs into round holes, Theresa somehow managed to find a space for each patron. She obviously took her job seriously.    

Anthony performed a well-choreographed series of bobs and weaves around the tables, as if in a limbo contest. Zigzagging his way towards the kitchen, he gripped a dozen wine glasses by the stems. Each arm passed over the unsuspecting heads of diners by mere inches. No one noticed a thing. Not a single conversation stopped. Not a hair was grazed nor a single glass broken.

After the meal, I stepped outside, sad that dinner was over but delighted by the experience. Heading back to my hotel, I heard Gino calling from behind. “Tornare Domani!” (Come back tomorrow!) “Noi siamo stranieri piu!” (We are strangers no more.”) It was the most fabulous meal I had ever eaten.

Dan Beckmann is a photographer, writer, and journalist who lives in Orlando Florida. He worked as a cameraman, producer, and editor with the Today Show at NBC News, traveling extensively throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Africa from their Tel Aviv and Jerusalem Bureaus. His work has been featured on the BBC, Sky, Reuters, Discovery Channel and Nat Geo, plus he contributes regular columns to the Orlando Sentinel.


  1. Now I'm ravenously hungry! Thanks for the tour!

    I got quite a laugh out of your attracting the attention of the police...

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