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My dinner with Purgatorio was a perfect example of this process. He greeted the Settimio waiters and many of the patrons by name. After a brief conversation about the day’s catch, he settled on a whole fish, backed in salt to indescridable succulence, with stuffed squas blossoms just coming into season. For wine, he requested ‘that stuff I had when I was sitting over in the corner last week’, which, alas, was not enough ‘talk’ to guide the waiter to the same vintage. No matter, it was a deliciously memorable dinner.

Description: After a brief conversation about the day’s catch, he settled on a whole fish, backed in salt to indescridable succulence, with stuffed squas blossoms just coming into season.

After a brief conversation about the day’s catch, he settled on a whole fish, backed in salt to indescridable succulence, with stuffed squas blossoms just coming into season.

That evening was in stark contrast to an earlier outing to Agata e Romeo, which several sources touted as Rome’s premier restaurant of the moment. Located a bit out of the centre, near the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, it is difficult to book and heart – stoppingly expensive. Yet the atmosphere when we arrived on a Tuesday night was eerily subdued, in the manner of traditional French temple to gastronomy. Most tables were occupied by diners scanning the room self-consciously – not a crowd that would make suggestions to the kitchen, which remained out of view. But I was dining with two lively fellow journalists, and by the end of our meal, which was only occasionally spectacular, our animated chatter had broken through the fourth wall of formality. Romeo, who acts as maitre d’, came over to talk and then pulled his wife Agata, the chef, out of the kitchen to give up some family lore. Suddenly, the convivial spirit of her parents’ day, when the restaurant evolved out of a modest inn, cut through the reverential hush of haute cuisine.

Description: That evening was in stark contrast to an earlier outing to Agata e Romeo, which several sources touted as Rome’s premier restaurant of the moment.

That evening was in stark contrast to an earlier outing to Agata e Romeo, which several sources touted as Rome’s premier restaurant of the moment.

I rented an apartment near the Pantheon, where it was shamefully easy just to tumble out of the door and wander the narrow streets of the centro storico, occasionally getting pressed to the wall by a flash flood of tourists following their guide’s uplifted umbrella. It’s a miracle, really, that Rome can absorb nine million visitors a year without becoming a thoroughly commercialized self-parody. But it does, and I suspect that in some obscure church, on a small piazza hidden down a tiny alley, there’s a patron saint of la dolce vita. Over the years she has done a good job of helping this glorious city to shoulder the burden of history without becoming a fossilized relic.

Description: Pantheon

Pantheon

In the centre this means that no amount of peddling can diminish a sense of real life well lived. Although the piazzas are crammed with sketch artists, rent-a-gladiators. Trinket hawkers and, my personal favourite, a man who whittles exquisite humming birds, from carrots and parsnips, the centre is also the seat of government. Purposeful parliamentarians and ministry staff in impeccable suits share the cobblestoned streets and pavement tables with day-trappers-not interacting, exactly, but partaking of the same pleasures; the beautiful buildings, the splashing fountains. The sunshine. One the streets around the parliament, fleets of identical government-issue Alfa Romeos stand ready, all painted what an old family friend from Calabria called ‘pezzonovante azzurro’ (roughly translated, from the Sicilian reference to gun caliber, as ‘big-shot blue’).

Description: humming birds

Humming birds

The privileged passengers in those cars are among Rome’s most discerning diners, so it was no surprise that a half dozen of the restaurants recommended to me were a stone’s throw from my apartment, tucked among the postcard shops and budget pizza places. At Maccheroni, which makes nearly everyone’s list. I selected thick-as-worms tonnarelli from the menu of hearty, inexpensive Roman classics and sat at a rickety table on the street, with a view of a sword swallower. The next day, a few years away, I joined the patrons on the enclosed patio of Quinzi & Gabrieli and sipped Champagne with an elegant meal of cuttlefish and crispy artichokes that cost three times as much.

Description: At Maccheroni, which makes nearly everyone’s list. I selected thick-as-worms tonnarelli from the menu of hearty, inexpensive Roman classics and sat at a rickety table on the street, with a view of a sword swallower.

I selected thick-as-worms tonnarelli from the menu of hearty, inexpensive Roman classics and sat at a rickety table on the street, with a view of a sword swallower.

Rome reveals its true self only on the second, third or umpteenth visit, once you begin to wander without a destination. And these revelations often happen when you least expect them; you’ll turn a corner and find yourself in an exquisite little piazza, unchanged since the Renaissance, spy a gorgeus courtyard through a briefly opened door, or look up to see an expanse of terracotta roofs and towering umbrella pines that take your breath away. Still, I was surprised to discover an entire neighbourhood I never knew existed, one rich in stunning visual moments and in a genuine sense of city life.

Description: Find yourself in an exquisite little piazza, unchanged since the Renaissance, spy a gorgeus courtyard through a briefly opened door.

Find yourself in an exquisite little piazza, unchanged since the Renaissance, spy a gorgeus courtyard through a briefly opened door.

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