ecently, a friend of mine traveling to Rome asked me to recommend where in the city he should stay. Trastevere? Near the Sistine Chapel? Piazza del Popolo? Near Tiburtina Station?
None of the above. Since Rome was once a second home, I shot back fast. Trastevere is too touristy, I explained. Ditto for the two that follow. Tiburtina can be dodgy, and is far from everything else. I suggested Monti, the old Rome neighborhood behind the Coliseum, or Testaccio, another old Rome-now trendy neighborhood on the other side of the Tiber from Trastevere.
Testaccio was the last place I lived in Rome during my eight-year post-college sojourn in the city.
My friend ended up picking a place in Prati, near the Vatican. Bravo, I said. Although I’d never lived in Prati, if I ever move back to Rome, I would consider it — precisely because it would be new to me, a fresh start.
But moving to Prati during my post-college period would have been akin to moving to Paris. Rome is a city of neighborhoods so tightly-knit and historic they feel like villages. People become very attached to their neighborhood, and this rubbed off on me.
I lived in three distinct Rome neighborhoods — not counting the first, Parioli, where I was more of a house guest than an inhabitant. After that, I moved to an adjacent neighborhood, Salario, which was a little less upscale, if also more commercial. My apartment was right at Piazza Verbano, in a gourd-colored palazzo that had an inner courtyard thick with plants.
My roommate Stella and I lived in a fifth-floor apartment that faced the buzz of the piazza: there was a movie theater, a flower vendor, a taxi stand, a clothing store, and a bar-pasticceria where I went for bignes every Festa di San Giuseppe (Feast of Saint Joseph). Stella was an architecture student with great taste, so we had a minimalist but colorful interior. She didn’t want pets, but a pigeon made her nest — and laid her eggs — outside my window.
The most compelling part of the neighborhood, however, was the fact that my boyfriend Giuseppe lived a few blocks away. I’d walk back and forth between his place and mine, the dynamics of the loving, if dysfunctional, relationship dancing in my mind.
When we broke up, my first instinct was to move out of the neighborhood. But I remember feeling spaesata — a lovely Italian word for out of place — as I looked for apartments around the city. I finally landed in Piazza Vittorio, where I had good friends and an interest in the immigrant groups living there. My apartment was tiny — like the cabin of a ship — but cozy and comforting. Piazza Vittorio felt both dynamic and transitory, echoing my own yearnings.
That dwelling lasted only six months, however, due to a strange twist of Italian bureaucratic fate: The Hotel Napoleon that fronted the property won a long-standing lawsuit, and bricked up the windows in my apartment that faced the hotel. Feeling suffocated, I once again searched the city for a new home.
One memorable place was across from the Arch of Janus, close to the Bocca della Verità. The location was almost too good to be true, but the building was old and decrepit. Inside, it was dark and loud — a world in black and white. I felt like I was inside a Fellini film. I’ll never forget it, but it wasn’t my place.
I finally lucked out in Testaccio, a complete break from my past. My apartment was luxuriously large and rent-controlled. The neighborhood bustled with the old and the new; its working-class roots had only partly given way to chic new establishments and young professionals, many of them foreign like myself.
Testaccio is known for restaurants serving real Roman fare, and my favorite was Pizzeria Nuovo Mondo, a misnomer since there was nothing “new world” about it. They didn’t have a website (but are now on Facebook), they had paper tablecloths and hand-written menus, and the waiters flirted with you. People crammed in for classics like olive all’ascolana (breaded and stuffed olives), arancini, and enormous pizzas.
Now, when I visit Rome, I feel comfortable in all three neighborhoods, but I stay at Piazza Vittorio, with the same friends that welcomed me there years ago. Some venues have come and others have gone, but the pulse of the neighborhood feels the same.
Fassi Gelateria, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, was kind of like our Cheers Bar. It is apparently now owned by Koreans, and there are new flavors like crema di Fassi, but you can still get what you’ve always come for.
Last fall when I visited Rome with my daughter, I was happy to see the same guy taking money and dispensing receipts (Rome cashiers are a pillar) — in his own little booth by the wall. He’s grayed a little, but he still wears a double-breasted suit and a skinny tie. And, he still remembers me.