travel

Monti is a small global village between the main train station and the colosseum, and from its labyrinth of small streets and stairways you catch glimpses of the surrounding city like pictures in a frame. The dome of Santa Maria Maggiore looms at the top of the via Panisperna, where a curtain of ivy, trained onto the streetlight cable, hangs across the street; the tops of two massive Corinthian columns fill the view at the end of the via Baccina, and the once you reach them the vista opens out across the Foro di Augusto a baroque dome and a Romanesque bell tower half a mile away. As it descends from the via Nazionable, the via dei Serpenti, Monti’s main street, perfectly frames the Colosseum – a beautiful effect after dark, when the monument is illuminated.

Description: Monti is a small global village between the main train station and the colosseum, and from its labyrinth of small streets and stairways you catch glimpses of the surrounding city like pictures in a frame.

Monti is a small global village between the main train station and the colosseum, and from its labyrinth of small streets and stairways you catch glimpses of the surrounding city like pictures in a frame.

I first heard about Monti over a meal, of course – this one a mission to check out II Margutta, one of the few purely vegetarian venues in a city so carnivorous it proudly serves calf entrails and goat brains, bits of anatomy shunned in other cultures. My guest, Elisabetta Povoledo, is a correspondent for the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. So she was eager to provide a sharp, if depressing, assessment of Italian culture in the scandal – plagued reign of then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had populated both his government and his media properties with bodacious babes and right-wing nostrums. Before he was forced to resign, he had dismissed concerns about Italy’s economic health with the declaration: ‘the restaurants are full’.

Asked about popular neighbourhoods, Povoledo steered me to her friend Elizabeth Minchilli, a writer whose books celebrate the glories of Italian life and who blogs about food and her two homes-one in Moti and her other in Todi, a town in Umbria. I arranged another meal.

Description: Todi, a town in Umbria

Todi, a town in Umbria

Monti gets a smattering of foreign visitors who have wandered off-piste from the archaeological sites or been drawn by its affordable small hotels and cosy restaurants. But they come in pairs, not large groups. And barely dilute the impression of Monti as a calm and congenial residential neighbourhood with both an old-world patina and a cutting-edge vibe. The nexus of local street life is the small piazza about halfway along the via dei Serpenti, where the fountain is a gathering place for mothers and toddlers during the day and anchors a lively cocktail hour on weekend nights, when the cafés overflow with young Romans. In the surrounding streets fashion and home-furnishing boutiques stand beside the original artisans’ shops. Although the district is increasingly chic, I was told the butcher’s shop upholds its proletarian perdigree by dispensing the best cuts to people of the left. (the president of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, a former Communist Party leader, also live in Monti, and probably eats very well.)

Description: The nexus of local street life is the small piazza about halfway along the via dei Serpenti

The nexus of local street life is the small piazza about halfway along the via dei Serpenti

Monti has plenty of good restaurants, including a high concentration of Indian, Thai, Japanese and Chinese options. Minchilli directed us first to Urbana 47, which is noteworthy for its ‘locavore’ calues; it uses only ingredients produced in Lazio, the region surrounding Rome. The menu, which lists the suppliers (including a Trappist monastery), is inventive, short and tailored to the season. Pressed to take me to her tru neighbourhood favourite, however, she chose the more traditional La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, where we were greeted as family and served the world’s best caponata, with chunks of succulent aubergine the size of dominoes. We also made impromptu visits along the street, stopping in to see someone’s new puppy and to pick up some items from a local artist. It was relaxed and intimate in a way that reminded me of Trastevere back when students could cadge a meal for less than £2 and stout grandmothers with swollen ankles lowered a basket to the street to do their shopping and exchange the latest gossip with the vendors.

On a quick back to Italy a few months later, I managed to dine – finally – at Al Moro. The experience was not my most simpatico Italian meal. The mimeographed menu was endless, which made me nervous, having only a few well-chosen things on offer, not all of them written down. And the waiter didn’t seem inclined to help us navigate the more than 30 piatti del giorno (daily specials), 23 fish dishes and lists of contorni (side dishes). Instead, we used the signposts of a dish prepared ‘al Moro’ and confirmed that the house specialities were the better choices.

Description: I managed to dine – finally – at Al Moro. The experience was not my most simpatico Italian meal.

I managed to dine – finally – at Al Moro. The experience was not my most simpatico Italian meal.

It was only by chance that we got to sample a rare, seasonal delicacy, notice of which had been squeezed onto the menu, inexplicably, next to the veal tonnato rather than with the other funghi dishes. Credit to Minchilli, a true aficionado of Italian produce, for teaching me about ovoli: rare, egg-shaped mushrooms which have a short season in the autumn. Sliced paper thin and sautéed, they have a subtle, buttery flavor and a distinctive yellow color. I ordered a single serving for the table and it elevated an evening of Italian standards to higher gastronomic plane. The ovoli were exquisite, and chances are I’ll never eat them again.

Description: Credit to Minchilli, a true aficionado of Italian produce, for teaching me about ovoli: rare, egg-shaped mushrooms which have a short season in the autumn.

Credit to Minchilli, a true aficionado of Italian produce, for teaching me about ovoli: rare, egg-shaped mushrooms which have a short season in the autumn.

Italians know their relationship with food to be a dynamic, social adventure. But what I rememver about the breakthrough scene in the film Eat Pray Love (which was meant to be a valentine to Italy’s cuisine), when Julia Roberts shows she has learned to order a meal in Italian, is that she sticks to the menu and uses the waiter as a messenger, not a co-conspirator and guide. It shoed me she still had some way to go before she fully understood the T-shirt slogan I saw on a little boy in Monti: life is too short not to be Italian.

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