omething surprising happens when you move to Europe. You find that you don’t want or need as much as you had before, and that problem-solving becomes a fascinating daily experience as intriguing as removing the cobwebs from languages you didn’t use much except for ordering in restaurants or saying hello to your Italian grocery owner.
Home, now, is practically anywhere for me, including Austin, Texas, a fishing village in France, and of course, my beloved Rome. But Rome holds first place in my heart because it feels like a small town and because I can find almost anything I need for any occasion right on the streets – seasonal clothes, walking shoes, sewing supplies for repairing a hem or stitching up a turkey, summer and winter hats, gloves, rowdy underwear, good books, pencils and paper (that is, if you still use them) but especially cooking utensils.
The bancarelle, or street stalls, have long supplied my Rome life with instant and inexpensive gratification — I still have cheap pots from 1986 that boil water perfectly well. But then I discovered the ghetto branch of a shop called Arcobaleno, one of a chain of three in Rome, and about close to a five-and-dime store as anything you’ll find in the 21st-century.
On my last trip there in search of a cheap parmesan knife (and sandalwood soap — yes, they have bath supplies, too), I came across an elegant, stainless steel dagger with great leverage and a powerful handle at just about the same price as the cheapos you find in ritzy kitchen shops. I also noticed a new rack of beautiful stainless pots, from saucepans to pasta pots, at prices that made me wish I hadn’t invested so much in the past for snazzy baked enamel casseroles and copper saucepans.
You can easily furnish a kitchen in less than an hour of pleasure-shopping at this magic place. In addition to pots and pans, you’ll find glass and plastic snap-on lid storage containers, beautiful knives — the steel blade ones that can be sharpened over and over, unlike some of the very expensive “chef’s knives” — champagne stoppers, garlic presses, ravioli cutter, pasta makers, you name it.
Just across the street, at the Portico d’Ottavia (worth a detour), you’ll find a more upscale cook’s dream of a store, Limentani, which has two Rome branches (the store was founded in 1820, and the other outlet is on Via Po).
Limentani’s orgy of pots, pans, kitchen tools, crystal, glassware, and china is so vast that I sometimes feel as if I’ve succumbed to a kind of Stendhal syndrome for chefs and fall back into bed before another jaunt to the ghetto (or to Gigetto, across the street, for carciofi alla giudia…).
Thanks to a very patient and attentive salesman (leaning innocently into my right buttock in the Baccarat section), I found 20 amazingly thin, simple and beautiful glasses (in another area!) for candles at my stepson’s wedding, later distributed among the family for serving frosty mojitos.
Searching for small baking dishes for custards, soufflés or eggs en cocotte, my attentive helper disappeared for two minutes and came back with six choices, in all sizes at a €5 each. Try to top that at kitchen and bath specialty shops where the mark-up is usually double.
It’s not just the price that attracts me, especially at Arcobaleno, but the presence of so many things you think you’ll never find and which are almost always tucked away in a yet-undiscovered corner of the place. Coat hangars, suit covers, ironing board protectors, bath mats, shower curtains, cleaning supplies, toys — and the list goes on.
At the cash register of my branch you’ll find the manager singing a Neapolitan medley or a Roman stornello in a raspy cigarette voice as he comments, between notes, on the weather, politics, manners, society, what you’ve selected, and most important, you. If there is any shop in Rome that makes you smile as you hand over your euros, it’s Arcobaleno.
— Arcobaleno (three outlets); Via Portico d’Ottavia, 3. Tel. 06.6819.2825. Open daily 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Closed Sunday.
— Limentani (two outlets). Via del Portico D’Ottavia, 47. Tel. 06.6880.6949. 9 a.m.-1 p.m.-3:30 p.m.-7 p.m. Mon-Fri; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday.