Italy is one of those places that just about everyone dreams of visiting. Americans tend to view it as the golden land of most of our favorite foods and drinks — pasta, pizza, things covered in cheese, wine, wine covered in cheese, etc. But, believe it or not, there’s more! Things like spots of great historical significance, beautiful architecture and religious relics. As our last trip was to the States back in November, Tal and I felt we were long overdue for a short trek somewhere. We quickly settled on Italy, and though we were partial to Florence, tickets prices pushed us to Rome: we’d spend 3 nights and two days in the cradle of Christian civilization. Here, a short retrospective: 1. A Theft on a Train Much like Barcelona, Rome is well known as a haven for pickpockets. “They’ll walk past you, and next thing you know, you’ll be sitting naked on the street without a shekel to your name,” they all told me. “Never look anyone in the eye, or they’ll steal your eyes,” I’d heard. But I never believe overcautious people, and so I boldly exited the airport with both my eyes open and my bag on my back. We found a train into town — the last one of the night — and quickly boarded. Let it be known, Tali Kassutto is way street smarter than I am. As the world goes on around me, I can often be aloof, not noticing the bigger picture. But not Tal — the girl notices the subtleties of every situation, catalogs them in her brain and stays watchful. As such, she has undoubtedly scooped me up from idiotic situations more than a few times (Queue to scene: Driving through a Bedouin town in the Israeli Negev, I lean out of the car asking, in Hebrew, if there are any good hummus joints around to two Bedouin teenagers walking past a dumpster fire. They scowl. Tal pulls me inside the car and says ‘It’s time to go.’) For this quality, I thank her with the very core of my being. Together, we’re an unstoppable team. Apart, I’d fall off a high cliff or get kidnapped. So as we sit on the train, Tal said, “Jus, you’ve got to put your bag on your lap. It’d be crazy if we lost our bags before we even got into Rome.” “Those are just rumors!” I insisted. “My bag is at my feet.” “Jus,” she said. And I knew she was right. She always is in these cases. So I put my bag on my lap and we waited for the train to start. We heard the engine switch on and the whole train buzzed into a slow crawl forward. And that very second, a young woman screamed, this blood-curdling howl that made every head on the train car swerve backwards with a jolt. “My passport! My bag! He took it, he took it!” she screamed. But by then, the doors were closed and the train was moving. The man we’d walked past to reach our seats had, the very second before the train left the station, grabbed this poor lady’s bag and bolted, knowing the closing doors would give him protection. How genius is that? I’d love to know success rates on train robberies in Italy. Gotta be scraping 90% — you don’t even need an elaborate escape plan! Just walk away with your new woman’s purse like you bought it for your wife. These Italians are really on to something. 2. Jewish Gladiators! Our first morning in Rome, we got an early start. I’d roughly mapped out a route that would take us to major sites, parks and whatnot on Day 1, and the Vatican and western half of the city on Day 2. Though it took a few trips to perfect, Tal and I have reached a gloriously symbiotic way of traveling. Left to my own devices, I would probably carry around a map and jet from place to place, eating like a scavenger as I went, finishing the day a few minutes before the next day started. Tal likes to explore at a slower, more organic pace. A perfect travel day for her is to meander with a few stop-offs in mind, but leaving plenty of room for discovery of the small, out of the way wonder. Together, we meet in the middle — I push her to see more, and she ensures that I’ll actually ingest what I’m seeing. I couldn’t ask for a better travel partner. That said, we began the morning exploring Trastevere, the neighborhood where we’d rented a small flat, wandering through cobblestone alleyways, passing churches and coffee shops, the streets so narrow only ambitious drivers and motorcyclers drove through. By midmorning, we’d already drank two cappuccinos, explored the city’s biggest Sunday market, walked the Circus Maximos (former home of Roman chariot racing) and a few lovely churches. Finally, we came upon the Colosseum, easily the most lauded tourist attraction in the city that doesn’t house the Pope. As is our rule: big line, no go. And what’s more: pay to enter, no go. So we were content just watching this tourist madness unfold — thousands of tour groups unloading from buses, snapping photos, buying Colosseum-y nicknacks and eating Colosseum-shaped ice cream. Then we met some Gladiators. Real, live Gladiators. From Petakh Tikva, Israel! These two guys approached us and asked where we were from, naturally in English. “We flew from Israel!” I responded excitedly. And right there, we found out that Gladiator 1 was Israeli, still had family in the Tel Aviv suburb, and was so happy to meet us! Tal had told me they would ask for money, as taking pictures with tourists is literally their source of income. But, like an idiot, I figured we’d already bypassed that trap. These were Israeliators! We were practically brothers.
Then they asked for 5 Euro. Lesson learned. But the Colosseum was pretty swell. Very big, impressive. But too swarmed with tourists to feel like a real life moment.
3. The Food Play-by-Play Tal and I have traveled to some pretty great spots. Even in just our experiences in Europe — London, Barcelona and Budapest are all beautiful, majestic cities, each great in its own way. But the food in Rome was truly some next level shit. Largely because of that, this was the only trip where we left thinking, ‘We need to come back to Italy as soon as possible with an unlimited food budget and eat until we are significantly rounder, then retire in some villa and drink wine until we die, fat and happy, with a hundred fat and happy grandchildren running around stomping grapes and making cheese.’ But when traveling, we also tend to eat at a slow and steady pace. There is breakfast. Then a late lunch. Then second lunch, then a break before dinner. Second lunch, my friends, is key. If you are backpacking through a city, you’re bound to be walking all day. We don’t really ‘vacation.’ We’re constantly on our feet. So a lunch at, say, 1 or 2, will need to be followed by a Second Lunch at, say, 5, before a dinner at, say, 9:30. Second Lunch will save you, I promise. In Rome, however, we ended up in so many delicious places, we had to break our own rules and go big. We found an ice cream shop that was set up like a fine dining establishment. In the back, a dining room with mirrors lining the walls and a chandelier. But in the front, utter chaos, as dudes dressed as ship captains scooped the good stuff.
"I can't believe how professional this ice cream crew is. This is the best thing I've ever seen."
The shop was also home to some rather suspect pastries.
Sounds delicious. We ate at a pizza place that was so packed with people there wasn’t even standing room. Each of us ordered our own pizza. It was one of the most gluttonously fantastic moments of the trip. So much so that we went twice.
Oh, and there was this.
Let it be known, though it is no surprise: Pasta in Italy is unlike pasta I’ve had anywhere else. It is perfect. If god was a chef, his beautiful baby Jesus creation would be Italian pasta. And, these were great, too! We drank lots of these.
What’s more, restaurants in Rome weren’t afraid to get involved in politics, either. This one, near the famous Trevi Fountain, boldly proclaimed its stance on both war and tourism.
And yet, there is such a thing as ‘too much.’ On our second day, we ate the only ‘not amazing’ meal of the trip at a neighborhood joint in the mostly residential Testaccio. We wound back to Trastevere to explore the alleyways and stumbled upon Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà, well known as Rome’s best beer bar. We enjoyed some European craft brews, then decided it was time for second lunch. It was an odd hour for second lunch – 6 p.m. – so most restaurants were cleaning up from lunch hour to prepare for dinnertime. Thankfully, we found a quaint spot to enjoy some pasta and the equivalent of a bathtub full of wine.
Things quickly devolved into Tal and I laughing hysterically at menu misspellings, each other, our kind fortune to be in Rome and lots of other nonsensical things that two drunk kids in love laugh about. Mainly, though, it was this: easily the oddest thing I’ve ever seen in a restaurant bathroom. She’s even got socks on.
Just waitin' for a train, or something. Following too much beer, then too much wine (but just enough second lunch!), I decided it was prime time to buy some expensive cheese. This would prove to be my downfall. One man can only handle so much cheese. And the block of truffle-infused white cheese pushed me over that cliff. But, lord, was it good! We got back to our flat and took a desperately needed nap. Tal woke me up by showing me the iPhone footage she’d shot of me singing “Let It Go” from Frozen in my underwear. At least is wasn’t in public. 4. Goddamn, Rome is beautiful Here are some shots to prove it. Note the church whose main draw is “Light Up Moses.” You can pay just one Euro and the leader of the Jewish people gets a blinding spotlight in his face. Whoever said the Church persecutes Jews? He’s got his own blinding spotlight!
Three nights, two days and more pasta and Jesus to keep me satisfied until next time. Our favorite city in Europe so far, though there are sure to be many more. *Many of these photos shot by Tali Kassutto