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Rome – Staying in Testaccio

View from Aventine Hill, Rome

Testaccio is a middle class Roman neighborhood located about a mile south of the Colosseum. It is off the tourist trail, so you won’t have the crowds of Americans you’ll find in the Historic Center, or wandering the streets of Trastevere. While you are out of the hubbub of some other neighborhoods, you can take a tram or metro just a few stops to get to any of Rome’s most famous locations.

View through the Keyhole, TestaccioBut Testaccio is more than just a quiet refuge to sleep between museum visits, it is a vibrant and satisfying community where you should spend some time. There are great restaurants and cafe’s. Testaccio has one of Rome’s best food markets, as well as the best Neopolitain style pizza (Da Remo) around. There is the historic interest of the Pyramid of Cestius, built while Jesus still walked the land. There is the Monte di Ceci, an ancient trash heap, a hundred feet high made solely of broken olive oil amphorae. There is the sovereign city within a city on Aventine Hill of the Knights of Malta with its famous keyhole view of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Tesstaccio also has contemporary arts and culture, with the MACRO Museum of Contemporary Arts acting as an entrance to the City of the Alternative Economy, and the street art that covers building walls in Tesstaccio and neighboring Ostiense, You’ll have plenty of edgy art that can clean a palate over-sated with Renaissance sculpture and oil paintings.

The Non-Catholic Cemetery, Testaccio, Rome
One of my favorite walks in the Testaccio neighborhood includes a tour of the Street Art, a detour to the NonCatholic Cemetery, a stop at the Testaccio Market, and a climb up the Aventine Hill to enjoy the view through the Keyhole and from the Orange Garden. If you time it right you can stop for lunch at Via Velavedotta, Volpetti’s, or the Tram Cafe. Have a look at my Testaccio map to get your bearings.

The Abitart Hotel is a reasonably priced 4-star hotel in the heart of Ostiense, a few blocks south of Testaccio. There are dozens of AirBNB options in the Testaccio neighborhood, and you’ll find other hotels on the Aventine Hill, near the Keyhole.


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Porcini Mushrooms in Tuscany

Fresh Porcini Mushrooms - Florence

Porcini mushrooms are a delicious reason to visit Italy in the autumn. I love visiting Italy during harvest time. There are plenty of fresh vegetables. The vineyards are harvesting grapes. But most importantly, there are fresh porcini.

Sometime mid-autumn, after the rain comes, mushroom hunters can be seen around Tuscany parking their trucks and heading out into woods with sacks or baskets. Later in the day, when Porcini are plentiful, you’ll see pick-up trucks parked outside of town with boxes for sale.

As I usually stay in Airbnb’s and I always bring my own kitchen knives, I am excited to buy them roadside. However, if you’re not in the mood to cook for yourself, you’ll see them on the daily special menus at local restaurants and trattoria.

Porcini are large white fleshed mushrooms. If you purchase them to cook yourself, you’ll get about 50% – 50% cap and stem. As the caps are considered the best, I usually cook them separately. I find porcini, during the season sell for about 15 EU per Kilo, that’s around $6 per Pound, so, they are quite a deal.

There are many ways to prepare porcini mushrooms. There are sauces, with tomato and herbs. There are deep fried mushroom pieces. I’ve even had a saute of porcini and potato. All these just mask the delicate flavor and texture of the mushroom, (though deep fried with a marinara dipping sauce is pretty good).

My favorite porcini method is derived from my favorite trattoria porcini, so here I’ll direct you to both. Antica Trattoria Papei just behind the Campanile in Piazza del Campo, Siena serves Porcini prepared with nothing more than the “Tuscan Holy Trinity”, olive oil, salt, pepper. They are so good, the first time I ordered a contorni, I immediately ordered a second round.

The preparation is simple. Clean the cap, cut off the stem, rub it with olive oil, salt, and pepper. In a cast iron skillet, heat olive oil. It should begin to thin but not smoke. Neve let olive oil smoke. Lay the whole porcini cap top down in the hot oil, and cook for about five minutes over low heat. turn it over, cook for another five minutes. Turn it one more time, and continue to cook until the cap is soft through and through.

When they serve this dish at Antica Trattoria Papei, the porcini comes out like a savory creme brulle. The flesh is almost like custard, the cap is crispy on top.

Truth be told, I haven’t been able to achieve the crispiness of the Papei preparation, but I’ve matched the flavor and texture of the flesh, and it is a peak taste experience.

Now, I don’t travel with a cast iron skillet, though I’m lucky to find one in the Airbnb’s where we stay sometimes. However, I do carry my 8″ French Knife and a Bread Knife wrapped in two or three cotton kitchen towels…we all have our priorities.

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Buying a coffee in Italy

Getting coffee in Italy is easy. There are usually coffee spots in every block. Of course, coffee in Italy is different from coffee in the USA. In Italy you never get a bottomless cup of drip coffee as is most common in the states. All the coffee comes out of an espresso machine. The coffees you might order include an espresso, a cappuccino, a latte, a macchiato, and an Americano. I’ll describe these in a moment.

Two Cappuccinos and an EspressoFirst though a few notes about getting a coffee. The most common place to stop for a coffee is a small store with a BAR sign. Unlike bars in the USA, Italian BARs are like candy stores with liquor and an espresso machine. (Note – most bars also have a toilette.)

When you walk in a bar look around, you might see three things. One – you’ll surely see a counter with a barista ready to serve. Two – there might be chairs and tables. Three – there might be a cash register (cassa) with a cashier.

If there is a cashier, you go to the cashier first, order your drinks, pay, and take the receipt to the barista who will make your drinks. If there is no cashier, you walk up to the bar and order.

Busy Roman Coffee Bar

Often there is a higher price for your drinks if you plan to sit. If you want to take a table tell the cashier or barista, “per tavolo” – for table – before you order. They will then either charge you accordingly, or ask you to sit for a server to take your order. As far as I’ve seen there is no way to tell about table service, so, I just always ask “Per tavolo?” and do as I’m told.

If there is no cashier, the barista, or table server, will bring the requested drink, and not expect you to pay till the end. If you’re ready to go, and no one is offering a check you can ask “Il conto?” – the check?

Coffee drinks are as follows –

Espresso – (also called “caffe”) shot of dark rich coffee in a tiny cup
Cappuccino – shot of espresso with foamed milk
Caffe Late – shot of espresso with more foamed milk often served in a glass
Macchiato – shot of espresso in a tiny cup “marked” with foamed milk
Americano – an Espresso with extra hot water to approximate a drip coffee (actually better than it sounds)

On a long day of touring and sketching, it is refreshing to stop every few hours and sit with an espresso. An espresso at the counter usually costs about a Euro, so it is the same cost as using public toilettes, and you get a coffee.

Though tipping in Italy is not mandatory, as in the US, it never hurts to leave a bit. “Il resto” – the change – is commonly left with your empty cup. I find that a 5% tip is greeted with gratitude. Anything over 10% is greeted a little suspiciously.

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Tickets on public transit in Rome

Tabbacchi Sign, Rome
There are three types of public transportation in Rome; Metro, Tram, and Bus. All three use the same tickets. You can purchase individual tickets at Tabacchi (tobacco / candy shops located all around Rome) or at Metro stations.

You can purchase unlimited one-day, three-day, one week and one month tickets at Metro stations in person or through a machine. For now, I’ll just talk about the one-ride tickets available at all these locations.

A single ride ticket gives you 100 minutes of unlimited riding on any city bus, tram (street car) or Metro (underground subway). The 100 minutes does not commence until you validate it on your first ride, so, the ticket can be in your wallet for days or weeks ready for use. If you do plan to use mass transit, I recommend you purchase a few tickets and have them in your pocket. It is sometimes hard to find a place to purchase tickets, especially late at night.

Metro Turnstile - RomeYou enter the Metro by inserting your ticket into the slot on the turnstile. Thus validating it and beginning your 100 minutes of use. It pops out of the top of the turnstile, you should pocket it to prove you’ve paid, and to have in case you transfer to a bus or tram and want to prove you have a validated ticket,

You can get on busses and street cars through any door. If the ticket you hold has not been validated, insert it into the orange machine bolted to one of the handrails. It will stamp a validation and return it to you. Pocket it. for the next 100 minutes you can ride any bus or tram without pulling it out, but it is there incase a transit inspector asks you to produce it. You only have to process it again if you enter the subway using a pre-validated ticket. Bus Validator - Rom

At the end of the 100 minutes, the ticket is worthless. You might as well throw it away, or save it for your travel scrap book.

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Buying Produce in Italy

Weighing Produce in an Italian Grocery
Don’t forget to weigh your produce

I hope you’ll buy your produce own  produce while visiting Italy. You’ll either visit a vendor or street cart, or maybe go to the Coop or Conad Grocery. If so, there are two ways to handle your selection.

In a grocery store –

All bulk produce is labeled with a price, and an item number. You are expected to arrive at the check out stand with your produce “pre-weighed” and labeled. Select your produce and put it into the plastic bag provided. Make note of the item number. Find the scale, like the one pictured here. place your bagged produce on the scale and press the item number that matches your produce. A printed label will come out of the scale which you attach to your bag.

If you’re like me and you don’t want to use all those individual plastic bags, you can weigh your items individually, print the labels, put all your produce in one bag, and attach multiple labels. The check out person will scan each of your labels on the single bag.

At a produce stand –

At a produce stand you don’t weigh your own produce. If fact, you don’t touch your own produce. You ask (or point) the the amount you want, and the proprietor will weigh and bag it for you. It is considered rude to handle a vendors produce yourself.

Remember, produce comes in Kilos, that’s a lot of potatoes. A good word to know is “Etto” and etto is a 10th of a kilo, or a bit less than a quarter pound.

Ask for “un atto” if you want that amount, Due, Tre, or Quattro etti for more. Like most Italian words, where the singular ends in “o” – Etto, to make it plural you switch it to “I” – Etti.