Italy 2014 Day 2: Il Giardino Romano (Rome)

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I set our alarm for 6:30am, thinking we had 9am tickets for the Borghese Gallery. Ooops. I had, in fact, figured we’d be too tired on our first full day in Rome for an early morning museum visit, so those tickets were in fact for the next day (Saturday), not today (Friday). We had nothing definitively scheduled until 1pm when I had reserved entry tickets to the Vatican Museum.

(Side note/tip here: If you are ever planning on visiting Rome to see the Sistine Chapel, DO buy your timed admission tickets in advance on the official Vatican Museums website. Don’t waste hours upon hours standing in the general admission line hoping you’ll get in. Or, if you’re feeling especially flush and want to contribute to a good cause, consider becoming a Patron of the Arts in the Vatican Museums and you may be able to schedule a private visit to see the Sistine Chapel and their art restoration work, as we did on our 2009 visit to Rome. It was well worth it.)

Nevertheless, that meant we were up early and had a full morning to fill. We started off with a wonderful breakfast at our hotel; the included buffet was outstanding every day, featuring fresh pastries and cakes, pineapple and melon, fresh juices, smoked salmon, meats and cheeses, yogurt, eggs, bacon and everything else you could possibly want. We ate well this morning figuring we might end up skipping lunch or just grabbing a small bite on the go near the Vatican later. But our first stop? Palazzo Corsini, as we decided we were going to focus this trip on several palazzos and smaller art collections we missed our first time in Rome.

The view of the gardens behind Palazzo Corsini

The view of the gardens behind Palazzo Corsini.

Palazzo Corsini was a quick cab ride from our hotel and features a small but impressive collection of paintings from the Corsini family collection. There are a number of works by Carlo Maratta (whom we have one painting in our private collection which is attributed to), Giovanni Lanfranco, Guido Reni, and most notably  Caravaggio’s St. John the Baptist (one of our goals this trip as well was to finish off seeing all of the Caravaggios in Rome as well as in Naples later on…). Actually the work we were both most impressed with was Orazio Gentileschi’s beautiful Madonna and Child. It’s a wonderfully realistic and humanistic painting full of incredible warmth and detail.

We were finished there in about an hour’s time and it was 11am. Since we were just across the street from Villa Farnesina, we had to stop in for a quick return visit to see the beautifully frescoed rooms.  With work by Raphael, Il Sodoma, and Sebastiano del Piombo it’s always worth a visit when in Rome, especially for the incredible “perspective room” (the sweetie always has fun showing unknowing tourists where precisely to stand in the room in order to get the perfect perspective point with the trompe l’oeil frescoes. Many tour guides don’t even know the secret…)

Villa Farnesina

Villa Farnesina

After that it was time to start making our way along the Lungotevere toward Vatican City, a pleasant if brisk walk that gave us time to sneak into a few small churches along the way (as we always do if the door is open). San Spirito in Sassia was the most interesting with some older fresco art inside. But it was approaching 12:30 so we ducked in quickly to St. Peter’s Square to see their presepe and gawk at the long line of visitors waiting to get into St. Peter’s Basilica (it was only until far later in our trip that we learned the reason for their huge crowds: that John Paul II’s tomb had been moved up from the crypt into the church proper now, and was drawing huge numbers of pilgrims and other visitors. Thankfully we saw the church last time, and didn’t need to revisit…)

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter’s Square

The presepe in St. Peter's Square

The presepe in St. Peter’s Square

If you are unaware, there is a separate entrance to the Vatican Museums – and the Sistine Chapel – that’s a bit of a walk from St. Peter’s Square. So we boogied our way along and past the long lines, hucksters and people trying to sell advance purchase tickets to the much shorter admittance line with our timed tickets. We were actually inside by 12:50 and rushing as best as we could to the Sistine, which was our main reason to revisit. How can you not go to Rome and want to revisit Michelangelo’s masterpiece?

The crowds inside were as horrible as ever, but one still cannot fail to be amazed. We lingered a long time, then also revisited Raphael’s Rooms and the Borgia Apartments – and then went back one more time through the Sistine before departing (we didn’t need to see the rest of the museum again this trip—didn’t have the time for it and did a good job last time.) On our way out it was a pleasant surprise to see the statue of Oceano completely restored and on display, which we had seen them working on in 2009 during our visit via the Patrons of the Arts. The sweetie thought Oceano actually looked a bit like David Gilmour…

We were quite famished after finishing the museum around 3pm, so we grabbed a few quick paninis from one of the many food trucks near the Vatican and rested our feet for a while. How is it even simple food truck fare tastes so good in Italy? We tried to figure out what to do with the rest of the day. We had several churches we wanted to visit or revisit to see Caravaggio’s work in situ, including San Luigi dei Francesi, which did not seem too far of a walk from the Vatican. So we crossed the ever-famous Ponte San Angelo and walked along the river for a time, before cutting in to Piazza Navonna—which was a mob scene.

Finding a small corner of peace for a rest in Piazza Navonna.

Finding a small corner of peace for a rest in Piazza Navonna.

The Piazza was taken over by a Christmas market of toys, crafts, and lots and lots of food. It was the Friday before Epiphany and you could tell the locals (and Italian tourists) were out in droves getting ready to celebrate. The crowds were too much for us to linger about, so we scurried off and managed (with no small effort) to find San Luigi, home to three magnificent Caravaggio paintings: The Calling of St Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.

Grabbing a quick (no flash) snapshot of two of the Caravaggios in San Luigi. It was a mob scene; Caravaggio has truly obtained "rock star" status these days...

Grabbing a quick (no flash) snapshot of two of the Caravaggios in San Luigi. It was a mob scene; Caravaggio has truly obtained “rock star” status these days…

Nearby was also the Palazzo Madama where the sweetie had to pose for a picture because it was one of Caravaggio’s lodgings/studios during his time in Rome thanks to his patron Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte. Now it’s a senate building.

palazzo madama

From there, we weren’t far from the Pantheon and that’s always worth a revisit—especially around sunset. While I don’t usually like to dine in the overpirced, touristy cafes near major piazzas and attractions in Italy, they are perfectly fine for enjoying a glass of wine and the view for a time. Or perhaps catching a nap after a very busy morning and afternoon.

pantheon at dusk

naptime

After lingering over our drinks—and going inside the Pantheon to pay our respects to Raphael and Queen Margherita—it was time to start thinking dinner. I really was craving my artichokes after being denied the night before! And the one area I knew I should be able to find them is in the Roman Ghetto. That would also get us at least on the walking path back toward our hotel…if I could manage not to get lost. In Rome that’s often not an easy task. What seemed like a small distance on my map was actually an awful lot of walking…but along the way we discovered an area of Roman ruins we’d not visited before, and was currently mostly being used as a feral cat sanctuary!

area sacra sanctuary cat

We played with the cats for a bit but I was getting hungry—and desperate. Finally a familiar landmark from our last trip helped me find our way to Via del Portico di Ottavia, the main street of Rome’s Jewish area as it stands today. Last visit we had two wonderful meals in the Ghetto, but one of the restaurants we’d visited that trip was currently closed for renovations. Should we revisit the other, or try a new one? Each proudly proclaims their true heritage and being the “only” place to enjoy “real” Roman-Jewish cuisine…and going by online reviews I checked quickly on my phone was not helpful.

Fortunately it was just past 7 and as we stood debating, a couple of locals were parking their car and came over to offer what seemed to be needed assistance. They recommended Il Giardino Romano as their personal favorite, not only for the food but for being very reasonably priced. Sounded good, so we decided to give it a try—and what an experience that turned out to be!

Upon entering the restaurant, we saw a big photo of Anthony Bourdain and a proclamation that Il Giadino Romano was the only Jewish-Roman restaurant the famous celeb chef visited on his Without Reservations Rome episode. Well, I haven’t always had the best experiences with restaurants touted by Bourdain (or Anthony Zimmern, as much as I love Bizarre Foods)—and his Rome episode was one of my least favorites! But that didn’t deter me once I looked at the restaurant’s short but tempting menu. Of course, it was all in Italian so we had to guess about a few things (or try to look them up quickly on my iphone), with which we had mixed results being correct…

giardino1

We were seated in the back courtyard room, plasticized for winter but still comfortable and pretty—especially as we got to dine literally sitting next to ancient Roman ruins! We each started with their Antipasto del ghetto: a sampling of the classic carciofi alla giuda, fried baccala and fried zucchini flower stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy. The artichoke was perfection, maybe the best version of it I’ve ever had (and no American Italian restaurant I’ve been to ever gets this dish right, not even Marc Vetri’s. They are always too heavy and greasy; this was light and crispy deliciousness.) The baccala was very good as well, and the zucchini flower was again one of the best I’ve ever had.

Antipasti del ghetto

Antipasti del ghetto

Next up, pasta. I had the tagliolini con spigola e carciofi: with seabass and artichoke. This was reminiscent of the pasta dish I had the night before, with small cherry tomatoes and fish mixed with a vegetable, this time artichokes instead of squash blossoms. Very nice. The sweetie had what I believe was a special pasta of the day, simply with artichokes—can you tell we were on an artichoke kick that night? Again, very good and surprisingly filling for what seemed like a reasonable, not-too-large portion.

Pasta with artichokes and sea bass

Pasta with artichokes and sea bass

Pasta with artichokes

Pasta with artichokes

By this point we were getting pretty full and questioning our choice of ordering two secondi instead of one to share (which then became our normal mode of operation). We’d also been guessing a bit at this point; I’d ordered the Coda alla vaccinara, which was correctly oxtail stew with vegetables and white wine. This was very tasty but I admit, the rich and unctuous texture and mouth-feel was a bit much for me after an already rich first two courses.

oxtail stew

Oxtail stew (sorry for the poor photo quality).

Sweetie was in trouble, however. He’d ordered the Coratella ai carciofi (which I forgot to photograph), thinking it was simply some kind of lamb stew with artichokes. Well, it was actually lamb innards, and his first bite was a bit piece of liver—which he has serious issues eating. The funny thing is I absolutely love liver, any and all kinds of it! And he liked my oxtail stew better than I did, so we ended up swapping a lot of bite as I ate most of the liver on his plate (which was delicious). I also have to say it was my first time eating lung, spleen and heart and I thought it was all delicious! But both dishes were extremely rich so it was difficult to do them justice as our stomachs were crying out in defeat.

Even so, sweetie still wanted dessert—maybe to clear away any memories of having to eat some liver? So we shared one tiramisu to finish the meal with our espresso.

tiramisu

With a bottle of wine and water the total was about 108 Euros. On our way out we watched for a while as a gentlemen outside was trimming the artichokes for later service.

trimming artichokes

I tried to find out the secret to their preparation; his explanation was that they are cooked, stem up, over very very low heat for about 20 minutes until the artichoke hearts are tender. Then, the oil is turned up very high, the chokes are “smashed” down by their long stems, and fried for an additional 5 minutes until crispy. He kept insisting that it is not olive oil but what he called “nasa” (?) oil used instead, but I cannot find any explanation anywhere about what that is. Anyone?

With very full bellies we welcomed the long walk home in the cool but not uncomfortable January air! And then settled in for the night knowing the next day we actually did have to get up early to make it to the Borghese on time.

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