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When in Rome (mangiamo!)

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“Cut the guanciale likRomee this, in matchsticks.” Paolo held the pig cheek on a kitchen table cutting board, giving me time to write the steps as he efficiently prepared carbonara and vittelo for six.

It was hard to believe that we had only arrived in the Eternal City that afternoon. We had flown down the west coast of Italy, arriving in Rome under that impossibly deep cerulean blue bowl of a sky. After a breathless drive across the city with soundtrack of hardcore and horns, Paolo, Stefania, and their black lab welcomed us to the apartment with a so-called “light lunch” of deceptively simple delicacies of local breads, meats, cheeses, and gorgeous tomatoes, followed by a blueberry digestivo. Then, in case there was any doubt that we were really and truly in Rome, we drove to the Colosseum. There were no lines, so we walked right in, up, down, and around the nearly 1000-year-old landmark, selfie-ing as we went. On the way home, we stopped to pick up a lasagne pan of tiramisu that Stefania’s mamma made in the time it took to mention we couldn’t wait to try tiramisu in Italy.

And that set the pace for the following days. Like exploring the set of a film that we’d seen a hundred times before, we wandered ancient streets with buildings in all the warm shades of sienna, bustling with daily life, scooters, and the smell of something incredible to eat. On our own we checked off must-see Rome: the Spanish Steps higher, the Trevi Fountain more spectacular, the Piazza Navona more impressive in real life than on film. With Stefania and Paolo we discovered more: a lake in the crater of a dormant volcano, a hilltop town that celebrates the harvest by pumping wine through the fountains, a secret keyhole with a perfect view of St Peter’s.

We quickly fell into a new eating routine: a mid-afternoon stop for gelato, a late-afternoon aperitivo that was usually an Aperol spritz. In the evenings, dinner was the main event. One night our hosts took us to a traditional Osteria where we didn’t have to order anything: dishes quickly and magically appeared from the wood-burning oven. That meal, which consisted of at least ten different types of meat along with cheeses, showcased the variety of local Italian cuisines beyond pizza and pasta. Another night we went to have Puglian barbecue: speciality cuts of meat driven up from the heel of Italy included bombette: delicious pork encasing cheese, herbs, and other ingredients, grilled to order in a custom oven with flames coming out the sides so that grease doesn’t drip down into the coals or wood. Served with baked potatoes and salads, it was all housed in an unremarkable building that from the entrance looked like a butcher shop.

Our last day in Rome, we braved the skip-the-line touts at the Vatican and took our chances in the shady queue. It was worth it to finally arrive in the glorious Sistine Chapel and marvel at the bright colours and intricate detail of Michelangelo’s masterwork. After a final spritz, we found the perfect vantage point over the Tiber to watch the sun set over the largest church in Christendom. As the Romans do, around ten p.m. we enjoyed one last carbonara, the perfect finale to our six evenings in the ancient capital, feeling mille grazie that the road had led us to Rome.