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Rome – Thursday:

March 30, 2012

Another glorious sunny day and we set off for a different cafe for breakfast, just a short walk away. The cappuccinos were very good and I ventured slightly off piste and had a brioche with some crema in it, custard. The Italians like sweet things and a croissant or brioche rarely comes plain. Inside Robert showed me the display of mignons – little, canapé-sized cakes that he told me people buy to take as gifts to people’s houses.

We decided to head to the Testaccio area so Robert and Jenny could take me to one of Rome’s most famous delis – Volpetti. They also have a tavola calda, buffet, where we could have lunch. Testaccio, in the southern area of the city, was the river port of ancient Rome. The huge terracotta containers used back in the 2nd and 3rd centuries to transport oil, wine and grain, were eventually smashed and thrown into a huge pile that is now known as Monte Testacchio, which now just looks like a large hill.

Volpetti is a gourmet’s paradise. Even the window had me swoon and I took a photo of it before heading inside. It’s small. This is no Harrod’s Food Hall, but an ‘extra-ordinary’ version of your local Italian deli. Food is piled high and packed tightly, no little corner empty. There are cheeses, breads, oils, salamis and prosciutto; packets of herbs and spices, fresh pastas and glorious pizzas which you can buy a slice of. They were very friendly and helpful and I bought a few small things to bring home.

It was a bit too early to eat lunch so we walked a short distance to look round the Testaccio market.
This is an excellent fruit and vegetable market with more of a local-market feel to it than Camp de’Fiori. There were wonderful things like tardivo that we rarely see in UK, courgettes with their bright yellow flowers still attached, trimmed globe artichokes ready to cook, and some feather-thin greens I hadn’t seen before, agretti, similar to samphire and often grown on salt marshes.

How, we wondered, would we possibly be able to make a choice in Volpetti Piu for lunch. Should it be pizza with courgette flowers, some kind of pasta or – my choice – Melanzane Parmigiana, with its glorious layers of aubergine, tomato and mozzarella.

Next stop was a Steve McCurry exhibition at the nearby MACRO Future, a new contemporary art gallery housed in a converted slaughter house. This sounds a bit grim, yet while it was obvious that this was once some kind of abbatoir with the cattle pens and system of mechanised carriers that stretched above us, it’s a well conceived use of this area with all the barns turned into galleries, and it felt more like walking around a farm – albeit with no animals! The McCurry exhibition was stunning, really moving and included his famous photo of the young girl, Sharbat Gula, in Pakistan in 1984.

Making a slow way towards home, we headed for the ‘Protestant Cemetery’ (more correctly the cemetery for non-Catholic foreigners who die in Rome) where Keats and Shelley are buried. This is a quiet calm place, with tall cypress trees reaching high towards the sky and carefully tended by volunteers. Apart from seeing the poets’ graves, I wanted to see the beautiful sculpture, The Angel of Grief Weeping over the Dismantled Altar of Life. It’s the most moving sculpture and I stood by it for a time. Right outside the cemetery is the Piramide where a plebeian tribune was buried in 12BC.

Back at the flat, it was time for a well earned rest in the afternoon sun on the balcony. We decided to go to the local trattoria round the corner for dinner but found it full (obviously a sign that our choice was good), so we had to walk a little further to another one, Villetta. Here we chose to have a buffet antipasti to begin: gorgeous fresh artichoke hearts, grilled peppers, aubergines and courgettes – a vast array of lovely foods. As a main, I decided to embrace the Roman cuisine totally by having Saltimbocca alla Romana, veal cooked with prosciutto, which was very good.

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