I knew we weren’t in Oklahoma anymore by about the 600th sidewalk café we passed, with dozens of people drinking wine and digging into pasta on a cool Friday night. By the ornate statues and structures and monuments that pop up literally every two blocks in any direction. By the thousands of alleyways we walked down that were streaming with life. By the two 50-year-old guys who turned a corner and came our way, padres dressed in their long robes just out for a stroll, probably headed for a gelato.
Our first night in Rome was exactly my idea of a good time in a new city. Walk around and check it out.
We met up with our group: Jim and Julie Sluss, Theresa Marks, and Darrell Bull and his son Mitchell. Jim Sluss is OU’s senior associate dean in the College of Engineering. Julie Sluss is a nurse. Theresa is an assistant dean of engineering for academic student services. Darrell Bull is an OU engineering grad who is vice president for Crestwood Midstream Partners in Houston. Mitchell is a senior at Jenks High School. On Saturday, we hook up with more OU folks, including students coming to study this semester in Arezzo. But Friday, it was just us seven Oklahomans.
Teresa and the Slusses have spent a lot of time in Italy and know their way around. So away we went.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Or in a millennium. If it had been, probably would have more 90-degree intersections. Which would be shame.
Any comparisons I made previously to New York are a sham. New York is a grid, until you get down into Lower Manhattan, when it becomes sort of a diagonal stew. Rome is not like that. Not like that at all. Rome’s city center is a maze of narrow streets and narrower streets and alleyways and narrower alleyways. Some of the alleys have auto traffic, some not.
They’re not like our alleys. Our alleys are for garbage dumpsters and commercial back doors. Rome’s alleys are for small shops and sidewalk cafés and doors that lead to apartments or who knows what. I have no idea how pizza delivery boys learn all the streets and addresses. Of course, I have no idea if Rome has pizza delivery. You’re never more than 200 feet from a shop that will sell you a pizza. If you can get out your front door, you’re in pizza range.
Even on decent-sized streets, the roads without sidewalk cafés, Rome’s sidewalks are narrow. That’s another difference from New York. New York’s sidewalks are virtual autobahns; built for multiple lanes of traffic. In Rome, your left hand can touch a building while your right foot stretches into the street.
Jim Sluss was our guide Friday night, and I couldn’t have retraced our steps with a map. You go in every direction, never for more than a block or two without switching, and it’s all fascinating.
SEAFOOD PASTA; THE FIRST OF MANY
Did you ever have one of those nights where you just didn’t know where to eat? Maybe you’re back in Oklahoma, or maybe you’re visiting some other place. Maybe you don’t know what you want or nothing good comes to mind or you’re just not sure if some place is any good.
Think of the total opposite of that, and that’s Rome.
I swear, Friday night I saw 1,800 places I would have gladly walked into and been excited about dinner. Sidewalk cafes. Hole-in-the-wall joints. Pizzerias. Tiny little places with cool pasta dishes on the tables and bottles of olives in the windows and pizzas under hot lights, ready for consumption.
At 10 p.m. Friday, the city was full of people, all outside, eating or walking or socializing. Italians eat late, which is fine by me as long as I get to eat early, too. Street vendors are everywhere, selling wallets and purses and trinkets and beers. They can get dogmatic; if you show interest in a product, anything from a laser pointer to a rose, it’s almost impossible to get rid of your salesman.
Street entertainers are prevalent, too, from a girl playing a violin in a plaza to a hobo-dressed mime who had amazing comedic timing.
The Slusses took us to a place they’ve discovered, Enoteca Barberini, and it was a small, charming place that reminded me a little of San Antonio. You know how you can enter a joint in San Antone from the street but also from the back, along the Riverwalk? That was this. It’s front door was on some decent-sized street, but we entered from one of those cool alleys that lead somewhere.
Enoteca Barberini was fantastic, but I’ll bet I saw 200 places that seemed to be just like it.
We had quite the meal and it wasn’t all that expensive. I had some kind of seafood pasta dish. Get ready. You’re going to read a lot about seafood pasta dishes. That’s my favorite meal in the world, and I might eat it every night. I really couldn’t find it on the menu, though I know it was there. But Jim Sluss had a cell phone photo of his son’s plate from awhile back, so he showed the waiter, and the waiter knew exactly what I wanted.
Turns out it was thick, creamy pasta covered in all kinds of mussels and clams and shrimp and crab and tomatoes and who knows what else. I probably worked five minutes clearing out the shells before digging in. Superb.
The Dish had veal. A couple of people had lasagna or a little lighter seafood pasta dish. We had a couple of good appetizers, including a cantaloupe and prosciutto plate. Prosciutto is one of those thin Italian meats. I don’t know why it goes with cantaloupe, but it does.
We had two bottles of water for the table (one distilled, one sparkling) and a bottle of wine. And the entire bill was 165 Euros for seven people. That wasn’t bad at all.
The doors were open at both ends, a nice breeze flowed through the narrow restaurant that probably seated 60 and just as our dinner was about over, a couple of local kids took a tiny stage right behind us and started playing rhythm guitar.
I hadn’t noticed the piped-in music in Enoteca Barberini until we’d been there awhile and I heard “I Love the Nightlife.” Haven’t heard it? Yes you have. Alicia Bridges. 1978. Disco. “I love the nightlife, I like to boogie, on a disco highhhhhhhh.”
Oh well. We play sublime Italian songs in our eateries back home. No reason Italy can’t play American disco.
In all the truth, if you’d have shown me a photo of the two kids playing guitar, I’d have guessed them to be the Boston Marathon bombers. That’s who they looked like to me. But then they started playing a medley of songs. Started with a snazzy version of “Yesterday” and eventually got to “All of Me.” Anybody that can mix the Beatles and Willie Nelson is all right by me.
We put several Euros in their tip jar and went back into the night.
We’ve got a couple of walking tours of Rome planned. But we got a preview Friday night. We saw all kinds of things.
* The Spanish Steps. Probably 50 yards wide, the monumental stairway of 135 steps connects two plazas — the Piazza di Spagna at the base and Piazza Trinita dei Monti at the top, where the Trinita dei Monti Church sits. Alas, the church’s façade is under massive renovation, so we didn’t get the full effect. The plaza at the base once was home to the Bourbon Spanish Embassy, and the steps were built with a gift from French diplomat Etienne Gueffier. The Spanish Steps were completed in 1725, which in Rome constitutes new construction.
Hundreds of people sat on the steps and took in the Roman night.
At the base is the Fontana della Barcaccia, the fountain of the Old Boat, so named because it is in the shape of a half-sunken ship with water overflowing its bows. The fountain was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII and was completed in 1627.
Alas, the fountain, too, is under renovation. That’s the problem with old stuff, sportswriters included. It’s got to be spruced up from time to time.
* Obliques: Spoils of war. Every few blocks you’re likely to come across an ornamental tower or monument engraved with intricate scenes or adorned with precious valuables. Stuff Roman warriors brought back from victories 2,000 years ago. Makes our old stuff, like from 1921, seem a little green.
* Trevi Fountain: It, too, is under total renovation, so much that it’s petitioned off from the street and mostly covered by scaffolding. But it’s still impressive.
The Trevi Fountain stands 86 feet and measures 161 feet wide. The Trevi Fountain was finished in 1762. The fountain depicts thirsty Roman soldiers in 19 BC guided by a young girl to a source of pure water.
* The Pantheon: We’re touring it in a day or so, so I won’t go too much into it. But it’s worth talking about twice. Theresa has become well-versed on antiquity — she occasionally teaches an art history class at the OU campus in Arezzo — and she has all kinds of interesting things to say about the Pantheon, a building commissioned by by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus 27 BC-14 AD. Yes, that Augustus; founder of the Roman Empire, its first emperor and the guy from Luke’s second chapter. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”
Two thousand years later, the Pantheon’s dome remains the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The Pantheon has been in continuous use throughout its history. Not exactly the Oklahoma County Jail.
THE GELATO NAZI
The Slusses took us to a gelato joint near the Pantheon for some Italian ice cream and quite the experience. You remember Seinfeld’s soup Nazi? Where you better know what you want and you better know it quick?
That was this place, basically a big ice cream shop on an alley, packed with people. The place had a dining room that would seat probably 100. Two people sat in there. There was a service charge to use the dining room. They do things a little differently over here.
Anyway, the gelato was fantastic. With each order, you get two flavors; I had white chocolate and caramel, with whipped cream on top. They don’t give you a ton with a single order, which is fine. After a big meal, you’re not looking for a Serendipity dessert. Just a little refreshment to help the seafood pasta go down.
Anyway, you pay first, then take your ticket to the counter, muscle your way to the front and get someone to wait on you. With seven in our party, our scooper — a guy in his 40s, probably, not totally dissimilar from Seinfeld’s soup pal — was snapping his fingers and pointing and ready for action. But I’ll give him this. It was a mob scene, and he knew who had ordered and what face to find to return the gelato and where to turn next.
WRINKLES IN TIME
I am blessed with an internal clock. Nothing too organic. I don’t wake up at 3:32 a.m. and know immediately it’s 3:32. But I have a good sense of what time it is, even in the middle of the night. I know it’s somewhere between 3 and 4. I know in general what time is doing, even if I don’t check it.
And I’m not checking it in Rome. I haven’t worn my watch in months. The band broke and I haven’t bothered to get a new one. I do what all Americans do. I use my Swiss Army Knife, the old iPhone, as my watch. Except in Italy, I haven’t taken it off airplane mode because I haven’t figured out how to avoid roaming charges. I don’t mind paying for anything I know I’m paying for; I don’t like paying for stuff I don’t know is coming.
Anyway, in Rome, it’s not that my internal clock is off. It’s that my internal clock is gone. When your mind is working two places — What time do we have to be at dinner? What time was Sadie’s second show, “Annie,” back at Sooner Theater in Norman on Friday? — it’s hard to adjust. Plus you’re battling jet lag.
Time zones mess me up when I go to California. So you can imagine how loopy I am in Rome.
For example, we had been warned not to sleep when we got to Rome, else it throw us off for several days. I didn’t think a nap would hurt, and it didn’t. We had been up for basically 22 hours (the Dish probably slept 90 minutes on the plane, me none at all). So we slept for 21/2 hours Friday afternoon, then got up to meet our friends.
We got back to our hotel a little after 11 p.m. Friday. I answered a couple of emails, looked at my laptop clock (which doesn’t reset from Oklahoma time) and told the Dish. If my dang cell phone worked, you know what I could be doing? Going on the radio with Jim and Al back on the Sports Animal in about 15 minutes.
The Dish started working on photos she had taken, I read The Oklahoman at newsok.com and tried to catch up with the NBA Draft, read some of the “The Racketeer.” My eyes started drooping and we suddenly realized it was 2 a.m.
I’m typing this at noon Saturday. The Dish is still asleep.
Hopefully by Sunday, we’ll be fully immersed into Italian time.
Until then, arrivederci.