Tag Archive: Pizza

Batter up for pizza!

Gluten free pizza

Buenos Aires Herald
On Sunday supplement
Food and Wine

This column started a few months back with a look at one of Argentina’s contributions to the world of pizza, the pizza a la parrilla, or grilled pizza. Now, as we all know, pizza is nature’s most perfect food, encompassing the fabled food pyramid in just the right proportions, or, when paired appropriately with pitchers of soft drinks and beers, the four basic food groups of salt, fat sugar, alcohol/caffeine. All the things we love to eat and love to hate because we know, somewhere in the dark recesses of our brains, that they’re just not good for us. It doesn’t stop us from diving in, but we know about it.

With the success of two recent columns heading into gluten-free territory, I decided to throw in one more, especially because after mentioning that I’ve come up with a good gluten-free pizza crust, I got hit with a whole bunch of e-mails asking for the recipe. Likely this will be the last GF write-up for awhile, although you never know. These things have a way of working themselves out.

Now, the first part of this is coming up with a decent gluten free flour mixture. Anyone who’s ever been subjected to most of the pre-mixes out there on the market knows that they have a tendency to come out with the color and texture of a dry-cleaner’s shirt cardboard. The flavor hovers somewhere between yuck and god-awful. And that’s surprising, because there are plenty of folk out there who’ve written blogs and books and actually come up with excellent alternatives to wheat flour when it comes to baked goods. Yet, the corporate giants of “food” production seem to think that if they makes something that tastes, looks, and feels good, no one will believe it’s good for them.

So, the crust. Tried and true by both us and numerous friends – those who weren’t on gluten free diets who we didn’t tell, didn’t spot the difference. That’s as good as you can want!

240 grams rice flour
80 grams potato starch
80 grams mandioca/tapioca starch
2½ tablespoons powdered milk
1¼ tablespoons honey
1¼ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 packet instant yeast or ½ cube of fresh
300 ml warm water
2½ tablespoons olive oil

Combine the last three ingredients together and set aside for 30 minutes until bubbly and yeasty smelling. Beat together with dry ingredients in a mixer (doing this by hand takes a lot of work to get it really completely lump-free). Let it rise for 30 minutes, covered, it should be bubbly and have risen a bit, though not as much as traditional wheat dough.

The dough will be like a very thick batter, it’s not something you can knead like a traditional pizza dough. Oil a pizza pan well. Pour the dough in the pan and press/spread it out evenly. Let sit for 15 minutes somewhere warm. Bake in hottest possible oven for 7-8 minutes on the bottom rack, until the top is just set and it’s starting to turn golden underneath. Top with your favorite toppings and return to oven to finish baking – about another 10 minutes.

Here’s my quick and easy pizza sauce for when you don’t have time to slow cook one:

1 can whole, peeled plum tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons each of dried parsley and oregano
1 teaspoon chili flakes
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil

Cook garlic in oil until turning golden. Add other ingredients and cook for 20 minutes over low heat. Feel free to adjust it spicier if you like with more chili flakes, or fresh chilies.

After the dough is just set, as described above, spread as much of this sauce as you like on top of the dough, scatter the other ingredients, and top with cheese.

A series of recipes and articles that I started writing for the Buenos Aires Herald Sunday supplement, Food & Wine section, at the beginning of 2012. My original proposal to them was to take local favorite dishes and classics and lighten them up for modern day sensibilities. We’re not talking spa or diet recipes, but at the very least, making them healthier in content, particularly salt, fat and portion size. As time went by, that morphed into a recipe column that, while emphasizing food that is relatively “good for you”, wasn’t necessarily focused on local cuisine. At the beginning of 2013 I decided to stop writing for them over some administrative issues, but it was fun while it lasted.

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That’s Amore, the Pizza Story

Pizzas a la parrilla

Buenos Aires Herald
On Sunday supplement
Food and Wine

Let’s start with a little history. You all remember the Roman Empire, occupying the Holy Land and all that. There was a kid, started a religion… long story. Here’s the thing, there was this local flatbread, called matzoh, and while the Roman soldiers liked it, they thought it lacked a little… focus, or hearth – that is, matzoh was traditionally just baked on hot stones, and the Romans were used to things coming out of a wood-fired oven. The story is really lost in antiquity, and this is more legend, but, what the heck? Some historians claim it came from the neighboring Greek Empire, where a flatbread called plankutos was used essentially as a dinner plate. A little work on the recipe, a little charring in the fire, picea as it was described in Latin – meaning a charred crust – and soon Roman housewives, especially those from the poorer parts of Italy around Naples, were making the pre-cursor to Neapolitan pizza, generally considered to be “the classic”. The dough was made from flour and olive oil or lard, and topped with cheese and herbs just to give it flavor. Other historians claim the name comes from the Italian verb pìnsere, meaning to press something out – let’s face it, we’ll probably never know.

Tomatoes, you might remember, didn’t come along until they were brought back from Mexico and Peru – post-Columbus, in 1596 – half a millennium after the “invention” of pizza. Even then, they were only slowly accepted, as, at first, they were thought to be poisonous (originally the plant was brought back as a decorative household plant). Pizza was considered a peasant dish until Queen Maria Carolina of Naples convinced her husband, King Ferdinand IV, to serve it up – more or less as a lark – at a state dinner in the late 1700s.

While grilled pizza was introduced in the United States at the Al Forno restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island by owners Johanne Killeen and George Germon in 1980, it was inspired by a misunderstanding in translation that confused a wood-fired brick oven with a grill. Grilled pizza did exist prior to 1980, both in Italy, and in Argentina where it is known as pizza a la parrilla. It has become a popular cookout dish, and there are pizza restaurants that specialize in the style. Grilled pizza is created by taking a fairly thin irregularly-shaped sheet of a yeasted pizza dough, placing it directly over the fire of a grill, and then turning it over once the bottom has baked and placing a layer of toppings and a drizzle of olive oil on the baked side. Toppings are generally as thin as possible to ensure that they heat through, and chunkier toppings such as sausage or peppers must be precooked before placing on the pizza; it is not uncommon to add garlic, herbs, or other ingredients to the crust to maximize the flavor of the dish. Grilled pizza can also be cooked on a stove-top grill or griddle.

Grilled Pizza Dough

90 grams bread flour
4 tablespoons whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon cornmeal
¼ teaspoon sugar
1 packet dry yeast
240 ml warm water
1 tablespoon olive oil
Mix water, sugar and yeast together and let sit until the yeast proofs. Mix in remaining ingredients and knead until smooth and elastic. Cover and let rise in a warm place until double in volume. Punch down, wrap in plastic, and then ideally chill this dough for a minimum of one hour, up to 3 days.

Roll out very thinly – less than ½ cm thick and then place directly onto a very hot grill (outdoor or indoor). Cook until the bottom is browned, then flip. Brush the top with olive oil, top with toppings, and cook just until the crust is done and the toppings are warmed. This type of pizza is best with very thinly sliced, simple ingredients, often greens and some sort of cured meats (mortadella and arugula is a favorite) – not piled up. It doesn’t lend itself to cheese pizzas (although a grating of parmesan is common), though if you wish to make one, place it onto a baking sheet after briefly cooking the second side on the grill – just enough to lightly brown it – then top the pizza and then stick it under the oven to melt and brown the cheese.

A series of recipes and articles that I started writing for the Buenos Aires Herald Sunday supplement, Food & Wine section, at the beginning of 2012. My original proposal to them was to take local favorite dishes and classics and lighten them up for modern day sensibilities. We’re not talking spa or diet recipes, but at the very least, making them healthier in content, particularly salt, fat and portion size. As time went by, that morphed into a recipe column that, while emphasizing food that is relatively “good for you”, wasn’t necessarily focused on local cuisine. At the beginning of 2013 I decided to stop writing for them over some administrative issues, but it was fun while it lasted.

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Mr. T’s Pizza

“The test of a great pizza is its irresistible crust. If you have never had a pizza with a thin grilled curst, you will love its crispy texture and charred flavor.”

– from Grilled Pizzas & Piadinas by Craig W. Priebe

Grilled Pizzas and PiadinasBuenos Aires – The quote above comes from one of my relatively new favorite little cookbooks. It’s a great, step-by-step guide to making various types of grilled pizzas and, those wonderful fold over pizza sandwiches, the piadinas. It’s well-written, to the point, doesn’t make any outlandish claims to having invented the genre as, well, one in particular has, and best of all, is really nicely illustrated with superb photographs that give you a solid sense of what you can expect. It also covers the gamut from basics to elaborate, from savory to sweet, and from pizza for one to party planning. And maybe the really best thing of all, they make it easy. What more can you ask from a cookbook?

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I felt compelled to start sampling my way through more of the offerings of the pizza a la parrilla world in and around Buenos Aires, and so I’ve started on that little journey. Now, to start down that path, I’m going to begin with Pete Gonzalez’ house. Pete, perhaps better known as the Blessed Pedro González Telmo, or by his diminutive (shared with his patron saint), San Telmo, was just a guy, you know? In fact, the “San” is not even factual, since he was never canonized. The “Telmo” is, in Spanish and/or Portuguese, the diminutive of Erasmus, or Saint Erasmus, the real San Telmo, patron saint of sailors everywhere – though our boy Pete generally is invoked by Portuguese and Spanish sailors – just to be different one supposes – and just exactly how much good does invoking a guy who was never actually sainted do?

Pizza a la parrilla at La Casona de Sr. Telmo

Now, there’s a little mini-chain, three shops, that gets all that right, calling themselves simply, “Sr. Telmo”, or Mr. T as I like to think of him. He never, by the way, lived here in Buenos Aires, let alone in the neighborhood that bears his name. The flagship of the trio, if one can call a somewhat dark, slightly dingy spot a flagship – more of a flagrowboat perhaps, is on the side street of Carlos Calvo, at number 240. Here, they refer to it as La Casona de Sr. Telmo, Mr. T’s Big House. I met up there earlier in the week with a visiting writer from OUT magazine, here hoping to find a vibrant, thriving, and numerous gay american expat population – I wish him luck, I’m afraid I was of little help in that regard, and so far the couple of people who I referred him to tell me they didn’t feel they were either. Perhaps something will come of it, since a couple of people decided that maybe we should try to get a group together and see just exactly who will show up (so if you’re a member of the category – 9 p.m. this Saturday at Empire Thai, downtown – I won’t be there, Saturday night isn’t exactly free time for me).

Wait, back to the pizza, since that’s what we’re here for. Let me just say that this place’s pizza isn’t quite what I think of when I think of grilled pizza. It’s grilled – not cooked over, say Saint Elmo’s Fire (San Telmo, you know, that’s where it comes from) and, it’s a pizza. I give them that. But it’s not that stretched out, cracker thin, misshapen crust that we’ve all come to know and love, topped with just a few, thinly laid ingredients so that they warm through while the dough cooks on its second side. This is really just a thin crust regular pizza where they happen to cook the dough on the grill, and quite possibly finished in the oven to melt all the cheese on it. Here, we sampled a half and half of their “Hot Pizza”, touted as mozzarella, bell peppers (red and green pickled as it turned out), spicy olive oil, and “various picantes”, which seemed to consist of a drizzle of a hot sauce that may have been the chipotle style tabasco sauce; and the other half, my luncheon companion wanted to try something “truly local” – what could be more unusual and uniquely Argentine than hearts of palm drizzled with salsa golf? Though it sounded vaguely interesting I eschewed the idea of trying the pizza named after the house with its toppings of bechamel sauce, ham, broccoli and mushroom – perhaps in a pot-pie?

So, the evaluation – beyond that it just doesn’t come across as real grilled pizza to me… the dough was relatively bland, but I’ve had worse. The toppings, perhaps just based on our selection, not that interesting – the “Hot Pizza” the more enjoyable of the two, but neither was a winner – the telltale sign I suppose is that with one pizza designed for two people, we left two of the eight slices behind on the plate, one of each. And at least on my part, it wasn’t because I was full. So, I’ll give this spot a just “okay”.

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The perfect food

Cuisine & Vins
March 2008

cuisine insider tips
The perfect food

Io Te Amasso
It could be argued that Pizza is Nature’s most perfect food. After all, constructed properly, it’s virtually an illustration of one of those food pyramids – a grain based crust, plenty of vegetables, some meat, and a good helping of dairy in the form of cheeses. Of course, it just as easy to construct one that goes heavy on all the “wrong” things and turn it into a nutritional or gastronomic nightmare, but agreement on what that would be, especially gastronomically, would be hard to find.

Local rumors to the contrary, pizza was not invented in Argentina by Italian immigrants. It was brought with them. Many porteños might argue that it was “perfected” here, but I’d have to guess that they’ve simply never been to Italy and tried the pizza there, nor many of the versions to be found in other food capitals of the world with big Italian populations. Regardless, pizza is a mainstay of local cuisine and it’s definitely worth exploring.

Argentina does offer up some unique versions that I’d like to touch on. First, a general guideline – there are four main types of pizza here, differentiated by their crust. The first, and most common, is a la piedra – or cooked on a stone. It’s not always actually cooked on stone, in fact, often it’s just cooked in a straightforward deck oven, but the idea is that it’s cooked on a hot, flat surface at very high temperature. The crust tends to be a medium thickness. Where Argentines provide something truly unique is in their wood-fired ovens for this style of pizza – and it’s the wood that makes them unique – a local type of evergreen called quebracho, which gives a fascinatingly elusive pine sort of note to the crust. While locals might disagree, and tout one or another of various famous classic spots, my personal favorites for this style of pizza are Güerrin, Corrientes 1368, near to the Obelisco, and Tuñin, Rivadavia 3902, in Almagro.

The second type is al molde, or what we might call “pan pizza” – usually cooked up in a cast iron pan and with a thicker crust – rarely approaching what we might think of as Chicago or Sicilian style, but definitely in that direction – coal fired ovens seem to be popular for this style of pizza, given them a nice smokiness. For me, the hand’s down winner in this category is Las Cuartetas, at Corrientes 838, in the heart of the theater district.

Then, there are the two types of thin crust pizza – the first, and not particularly common, is the napolitana style – wood burning oven, extremely high temperatures, cooked fast, and with a crust that’s thin and lightly crispy. The places that offer these up tend to do a decent job of duplicating the style, but for those who eat pizza worldwide, it’s not unique, and is probably of more interest as a change of pace for those who live here. Io Te Amaso, at Malabia 1885 in Palermo, or Bakano, at Agüero 1669 in Recoleta (both with other branches) turn out the best versions of this style.

Up in Rhode Island, in the U.S., is the famed Al Forno restaurant, where they claim to have invented “grilled pizza”, more or less by mistake, back in 1980. I don’t know. I do know that I’ve eaten grilled pizza in Italy, and I’ve certainly eaten it here, where the style is called a la parrilla. And there are places here that have been in business far longer than those 28 years since 1980 – the question, I suppose, is what style of pizza they were serving back then – there’s one spot out in far western Liniers that claims they’ve been serving it for over 40 years. The style is a very thin, almost cracker-like crust, which is generally cooked on one side on the grill, then flipped, and the toppings added to warm while the other side cooks – it’s a very quickly cooked pizza, and becoming more and more popular here. The best is probably Morelia, at Humboldt 2005 in Palermo, though they get a very close run for the money from the quite creative (though pricey), Minna, Olga Cossetini 1691 corner of Rosario Peñaloza, in Puerto Madero Este (the other side of the docks).

Gata 2000
Last, but by no means least, is Buenos Aires’ unique contribution to the pizza world – the fainá, a flatbread made of chickpea flour, the crust baked and served up plain. Though fainá likely originated in Liguria, where it is known as farinata, (and there are similar breads from other spots around the Mediterranean – Gibralter’s calentita or Nice’s socca come to mind) – what makes it special here is that it is served as an adjunct to pizza – a “classic” porteño lunch is a slice or two of pizza and a slice of fainá – which is often laid atop of a slice of pizza as a top-crust, or eaten in alternating bites – and a glass of Moscato. Some visitors find it weird, others take to it like a duck to water, and, of course, there’s wide variation in quality – the worst being when it’s served refrigerator cold, which happens more than I like to think about. The best fainá I’ve found to date is at Gata 2000, Pichincha 810, in Boedo, and they turn out a darned good pizza a la piedra as well.


In October 2006, I started writing for this Spanish language magazine, covering their English language section for travellers. I wrote for them for about two years. The copy editor, apparently not fluent in English, used to put each paragraph in its own text box on a two column page, in what often seemed to be random order, making the thread of the column difficult to follow. I’ve restored the paragraphs to their original order.

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Beer and Pizza Cure Cancer

Beer

6/12/2006, 3:18 p.m. PT
The Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — For many men, a finding by Oregon researchers sounds too good to be true: an ingredient in beer seems to help prevent prostate cancer, at least in lab experiments. The trouble is you’d theoretically have to drink about 17 beers a day for any potential benefit. And no one’s advising that.

Researchers at Oregon State University say that the compound xanthohumol, found in hops, inhibits a protein in the cells along the surface of the prostate gland. The protein acts like a switch that turns on a variety cancers, including prostate cancer.

Dr. Richard N. Atkins, CEO of the National Prostate Cancer Coalition, said the experiments are encouraging and “perhaps men could take it in pill form someday.”

He noted an ingredient in tomatoes, lycopene, has previously been linked to prostate cancer prevention.

“It’s every man’s dream to hear that beer and pizza can prevent cancer,” he said. “However, the 17 beers and four large pizzas needed to get enough xanthohumol and lycopene to help prevent prostate cancer is unfortunately not advised.”

Atkins noted that drinking 17 beers a day can lead to alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver, and overdoing it on pizza can lead to obesity and other health problems.

Strange, this “new discovery” published just a few days ago. Especially when one looks at things like this report from more than ten years ago (excerpted, there was a lot of scientific “stuff” in the report):

Scientists Recommend 120 Gallons of Beer Per Day
By Adam Marcus
HealthSCOUT Reporter

FRIDAY, Aug. 18 — It’s news that would make Homer Simpson say “No Duh!”: The chief ingredient in beer apparently helps guard against heart problems, cancer and even Alzheimer’s disease. But there’s a catch. (Of course.)

The molecule is so rare that a person would have to drink about 120 gallons of beer — or roughly 1,300 12-ounce bottles — every day to reap the benefits. The problem, Buhler says, is that xanthohumol is such a small component of hops that it doesn’t make sense to rely on beer to get it. It would be better, he says, to increase the xanthohumol content of hops, presumably through selective breeding or genetic engineering, or to make a nonalcoholic brew that’s rich in the compound.

But the best method in Buhler’s mind would be to synthesize the molecule into a pill. “And if you want to drink a little beer with it, that’s fine,” he says.

Interesting, that idea to increase the amount of xanthohumol in beer… a few years later, in 2002…

Cancer-fighting beer developed in Germany

VIENNA (Reuters Health) – It sounds too good to be true, but German scientists say they have developed a beer that could help fight cancer.

The brew contains high levels of a potent antioxidant called xanthohumol, which is found in hops and has been shown in previous laboratory studies to stem the growth of tumour cells.

The compound is found in very low concentrations in normal beer, so the German Cancer Research Institute in Heidelberg asked researchers at the Technical University of Munich to see if they could enrich the compound.

Using a method they are keeping secret, the scientists brewed beer with 10 times the normal content of xanthohumol, but a calorie and alcohol content similar to that of standard beer, the university said in a statement on Wednesday.

And by 2005, it had popped up again in an ABC News report:

Beer May Fight Disease
It turns out that beer hops contain a unique micronutrient that inhibits cancer-causing enzymes. Hops are plants used in beer to give it aroma, flavor and bitterness.

The compound, xanthohumol, was first isolated by researchers with Oregon State University 10 years ago. Initial testing was promising, and now an increasing number of laboratories across the world have begun studying the compound, said Fred Stevens, an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry at Oregon State’s College of Pharmacy.

Earlier this year, a German research journal even devoted an entire issue to xanthohumol, he said.

What Stevens and others are discovering is that xanthohumol has several unique effects. Along with inhibiting tumor growth and other enzymes that activate cancer cells, it also helps the body make unhealthy compounds more water-soluble, so they can be excreted.

Most beers made today are low on hops, however, and so don’t contain much xanthohumol. But beers known for being “hoppy” — usually porter, stout and ale types — have much higher levels of the compound. Oregon’s microbrews ranked particularly high, Stevens said, which is not surprising: U.S. hops are grown almost entirely in the Northwest.

Still, no one knows how much beer is needed to reap the benefits.

Really? So the scientists who published the amounts of beer necessary to reap the benefits, the ones who discovered the compound, don’t know what they’re talking about? Most fascinating for me is the progression from 120 gallons of beer a day down to 17 beers (plus four pizzas) per day. I predict it will not be long until some brewery offers up health claims of a slice and an ale for all that ails us. The headline I wrote above will most certainly show up in a tabloid one of these days. Hmm… pizza and beer. I can live with that.

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Pizza in BA: An absolute must, have to, don’t miss, to die for

What’s Up Buenos Aires
NEWS
June 18, 2006

Pizza in BA: An absolute must, have to, don’t miss, to die for

pizzas
Pizza is one of those things that is easy to carry on about. We all have our likes and dislikes. Thin crust, thick crust, red sauce, white, cheese or no, and toppings from simple herbs to tuna and pineapple. Properly constructed, a pizza could be the illustration for the USDA’s food pyramid, with it’s grain-based crust, vegetable, meat, and dairy toppings.

Buenos Aires in particular, with its strong Italian-rooted population, and Argentina in general, offers up its own takes on Nature’s most perfect food. Locals can wax poetic and argue for hours over not only which pizzeria serves up the best pie, but whether pizza porteña tops New York, Chicago, or even Naples for quality. That’s not a debate I care to weigh in on, I prefer to think that everyone brings their own contribution to the table. Why limit yourself?

Pizza in Buenos Aires tends to show up in one of four guises. There are variations on the theme, with coal, wood, or gas fired ovens that produce differing results, and further variations on the former two with various types of charcoal and wood being used – for example, quebracha wood, a type of evergreen, being unique to many of the country’s ovens and grills. The most common of the four types is the pizza a la piedra, or pizza cooked on a stone. Generally a thin to medium thickness crust, this is probably the most familiar to folks from other places. Arguably the finest spot in Buenos Aires for this style is Güerrin, right by the Obelisk.

Pizza al molde, or pan pizza, is a favorite for many folk. A thicker crust, sometimes showing up a bit like just a thicker version of the piedra and sometimes a true deep-dish style – this can range from something similar to what we think of as “Sicilian” to classic “Chicago”. Though there are folks who would disagree, I think it would be near impossible here to beat Las Cuartetas, also near to the Obelisk.

Although not some new invention, as some folks here like to boast, pizza a la parrilla, or grilled pizza, is a relatively new introduction to the Capital. Cracker thin crusts, and given that most of the places serving it are sort of trendy new hotspots, often far more creative toppings than the norm, are the hallmarks of this style. There aren’t many places offering it yet, and the contenders to the throne don’t have a clear winner – Minna, in Puerto Madero Este; Morelia in Palermo Viejo; and Mamina in Liniers are clearly the top of the heap.

Buenos Aires’ unique contribution to the pizza world is the faina, a pizza, or focaccia, made of chickpea flour, the crust baked and usually served unadorned or with a simple herb or onion topping, as an accompaniment to a standard pizza. Though faina clearly comes from Liguria, where it is sometimes called farinata, (and there are versions throughout the Mediterranean – Gibralter’s “national dish” of calentita or Nice’s socca come to mind) – what makes it unusual is that here it is served as an adjunct to pizza – a “classic” porteño lunch is a a slice or two of pizza and a slice of faina – which is often laid atop of a slice of pizza as a sort of top-crust, or eaten in alternating bites – and a glass of cheap Moscato.

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ROME: The Eternal City

Q San Francisco
January 1999
Pages 26-30

ROME: The Eternal City
Images Brett Kaufman

roma1

The Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Imperial Fora, the Circus Maximus, the Sistine Chapel, the Borghese Palace, the list goes on and on. These are the ancient places you’ve read about since you were a kid. Welcome to The Eternal City!

Over the course of western literary history, more has been written about Rome than about any other single city on the planet. For the inveterate traveler, wanderer, amateur archaeologist, poet or artist, it is, perhaps, the one “must visit” city. It is hard to imagine a more fascinating assemblage of the ancient and the modern in one place.

During my years of reading about Rome two things always stood out. First, I was led to manifest visions of a city overrun by feral cats. Somehow or other there seemed to be more denizens of the feline variety than the human. When I arrived, I did find cats, scattered here and there, and indeed they do run free, but they tend to remain in small, localized areas of some of the older ruins dotted throughout the city.


“I should like to see Rome,” she said; “it must be a lovely city, or so many foreigners would not be constantly arriving there. Now, do give me a description of Rome. How does the city look when you enter in at the gate?”
– Beauty of Form and Beauty of Mind, Hans Christian Anderson


Second, I was led to believe that Rome existed as a city of fountains–which turned out to be absolutely true. Fountains are everywhere. Most of them are small, not quite nondescript. But the major ones are truly awesome. The foremost spouting water attraction in the world is undoubtedly the Fontana di Trevi, a massive, amazing sculpture of water and marble. A photo in front of this fountain, preferably in the evening when it is beautifully lit, is a must for tourist and Italian alike.

My fountain of choice is Fontana delle Tartarughe. Located in Piazza Mattei, this 16th century fountain has been modified by several major sculptors over time. The graceful sculpture depicts four young boys in the buff assisting four tortoises on their climb into the top of the fountain. The Tartarughe is also located near one end of one of my favorite streets in Rome, Via Giulia, the main street of the old Jewish Ghetto, now home to great little art galleries and design shops.

One of the most popular places to hang out and people watch is Piazza Navona. Crowds of locals and tourists gather round to watch artists and performers do their thing around this multi-block open space.

For myself, Piazza del Popolo is where I go to sit, soak up some sun and watch the world pass by while surrounded by four massive lion fountains that guard the space. Popolo is also known, by those who apparently know such things, as one of the piazzas where gay men and women congregate. Popolo makes a great starting spot for a day of sightseeing, equipped with gothic churches, ancient ruins and a fascinating Italian art museum.

Sightseeing is the major reason to vacation in Rome. There is, of course, the necessary visit to the Vatican Museums, especially the Sistine Chapel. If you don’t want to wait in line forever, get there early, take a walk through the Chapel first, and then go back to the Museums later. (Major tip: Don’t wear shorts or sleeveless shirts when touring Rome, especially in religion related places–Romans are notoriously conservative about mode of dress and will bluntly refuse you admission to most churches, and definitely Vatican City. The same is true of many restaurants.)

roma2If, like me, you are into really ancient ruins, a stop by the Largo Argentina for a look at the four Republican temples is well worth it. This square block area is also home to an amazing number of cats that have overrun the sacred grounds and are now considered kind of sacred themselves. A morning at the Imperial Forum and the Colosseum is impressive, however, access to the latter, and whole sections of the former, is limited because of crumbling rock and restoration attempts.

For the truly classical-oriented, a short train trip out to the 1st century city of Ostia Antica is an absolute must. I spent an entire day there exploring the ancient ruins. Some of the most fascinating mosaics, including a gym floor laid out in black and white tile pictures of naked athletes and an anatomical invitation floor mat at the local bathhouse, are a couple features sure to catch your eye.

Speaking of bathhouses, if you want to see what they were really all about, drop by and spend an hour or two at the Baths of Caracalla near the Circus Maximus. When operational, the Baths–equipped with gym, solarium, sauna, whirlpool and private lounges–handled 1600 people per day. You’ll never look at a modern “health club” the same way again!

If you want to be awed by a monument, go to the Pantheon. Incredibly well preserved and beautiful, it will take your breath away. Dating over two thousand years old, it is in better shape than many buildings built in the last century. While you’re in the neighborhood, you can drop by Piazza Minerva and see one of my favorite statues, a really cute little elephant.

The impressive Spanish Steps (with a great little fountain at the bottom, the scene of much cruising) is also, of course, a must visit. I prefer to start at the top, from where you get a full view of Rome, and walk down, though the fitness buffs among us will want to walk up. From the base of the steps you can hit the major shopping district where you will find every fashion designer in Rome along Via Condotti and Via Borgogna.

If you just want to relax and see some beauty, drop in and wander around the nearby Borghese Park where you can see everything from old villas to statuary, to a small lake, to the stunning Galleria Borghese (by appointment only).

DINING OUT

Food in Italy is, of course, a major concern. Let’s start simply. Coffee. More specifically, espresso. Two places serve exceptional espresso: Sant’Eustachio (82 Piazza Sant’Eustachio) and La Tazza d’Oro (84 Via degli Orfani), both near the Pantheon. Personally, I am a fan of the latter, but try both and decide for yourself. Also, in the late afternoon, La Tazza d’Oro serves a great espresso ice with whipped cream.

Ice cream, well, gelato, is an Italian passion. The most famous and most popular spot to get some frozen heaven is Giolitti at 40 Via Uffici del Vicario; with their array of flavors that makes Baskin Robbins look like amateurs, it’s tough to do much better. There is one exception, San Crispino. With two locations (56 Via Acaia, in the southern suburbs, and 42 Via della Panetteria, by Fontana di Trevi), they serve the most amazing ice cream you will ever have. The owners use only the absolutely best ingredients they can find: their house flavor uses honey from their own bees, their zabaglione flavor uses a twenty year old reserve marsala wine, their scotch flavor uses an eighteen year old single malt–an ethereal experience to say the least.

roma3You’re in Italy, so pizza, right? Not quite what you’re used to at home, but you’ll find the real thing here. Hands down, the best pizza I’ve ever had is from a little hole-in-the-wall called Da Giovanni, at 39 Piazza Campo de’Fiori. Piazza Campo de’Fiori is also one of the coolest places to hang out. There are several coffee bars, several wine bars (including one of the best, La Vineria, at #15), and one of the best open-air food markets you’ll ever visit. The other must see food markets for those who, like me, like to visit them, are at Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and, if you’re in the area of the Vatican, Piazza dell’Unità.

Now back to pizza; rather, Pizza Bianca–which is basically what we call focaccia. Simple, oiled, salted and sometimes herbed pizza dough baked light and delicious. Romans slice these open and fill them with a variety of meats, cheeses, and vegetables. The secret spot to acquire some has no name on the door, people just usually call it the “you know, the no-name focaccia place.” Owned by Salvadore Paladini, and located at 29 Via del Governo Vecchio, this is the one snack place you can’t miss in Rome. Have a Bianca filled with stracchino cheese and arugula while you sip some mineral water and stand around. Then take another one to have with you for when you get hungry later. Maybe stuffed with mortadella and cured Sicilian olives?

Few restaurants in Rome are really great, but almost all that I’ve eaten in are quite good. Here are the four that I would recommend you check out if you have little time and want to sample the best.

For lunch, Sora Margherita, at 30 Piazza delle Cinque Scole. This is a bargain priced osteria serving serious Roman-Jewish fare. Watch for owner Margherita Tomassini to serve you, with a twinkle in her eyes and a casual “signorine” (“ladies”) as she sets your food out.

For a simple dinner and great people watching, head over to the area around Piazza Navona. Hang for a bit and watch the world walk by, then walk down the little side street off the west side of the piazza to the corner of Via delle Pace, #25, and have a drink and dinner outside at Bramante. This savory little place is owned by friend Giuseppe Pecora. Tell him I said, “Buona Sera.”

For a great dinner and an incredible wine selection, you must visit Al Bric at 59 Via del Pellegrino–one of Rome’s newest wine bars that, unlike many wine bars, pays just as much attention to food. While not inexpensive, the selection of great Italian fare and wines is worth the tab. By the way, restaurants in Italy, generally, charge the same as retail stores for wine, so you won’t get hit with outrageous prices for your fave quaff.

Last, but by no means least, one of the best high-end restaurants in Rome is a place called Il Convivio, at 44 Via dell’Orso. Not particularly classic food and not even completely Italian, this restaurant offers more of the cutting edge of cuisine in Rome. If you want to see what a great chef in Rome is doing with modern multi-cultural cuisine, this is the spot you want to hit.

WHERE TO STAY

The fun thing about Roman accommodations is that you can live like a queen or live like a monk. There are plenty of good hotels in Rome ranging from really cheap to really expensive. Expect that hotel rooms will not be particularly large. In general, however, the hotels are clean and well-managed.

Hotel staff in Rome are notoriously helpful for making sure you enjoy your stay. Most hotels provide a Concierge who will get you restaurant reservations, gallery appointments, and provide you with directions and ideas for all sorts of things to do.

roma4If you don’t mind a room in which it’s hard to turn around without bumping into something, I recommend the Rinascimento, conveniently located near Campo dei’Fiori, at 122 Via del Pellegrino. A small (18 room) converted palazzo with modern, clean rooms, this is one of the better bargains you will find in Rome. Another good choice is Hotel Alexandra at 25 Via Veneto–a bigger hotel, with larger rooms, but still relatively inexpensive.

A last note on hotels. Make sure you have reservations and confirmation in advance. Rome is not a great place for people who show up planning to “wing it.” It’s a popular tourist destination and hotels rarely have rooms available for someone who just wanders in off the street.

SPECIAL NOTES FOR THE GAY TOURIST

Start from the following groundrules. This is a major European city controlled by one of the most rigid religious organizations on the planet. Living space is at a premium both in terms of availability and cost. Gay people have a choice of living with their parents till the day they “marry” or sharing a small apartment with way too many people. Friends expect each other to hang together, and they don’t really care about sexual orientation; they’re more interested in the clothes they wear, the movies they just saw, which coffee or wine bar is the present hot spot, and whether the sauce on last night’s pasta was made the way grandma used to make it. (Of course, that’s pretty much what you’re interested in as well!) So, it makes perfect sense that the only gay bars and clubs in Rome are oriented around tourists–nobody local really goes to them except occasionally to dance, or to show friends visiting from elsewhere that there are really gay clubs in Italy.

Generally, gay friends gather around their favorite coffee bar, wine bar, or at some local piazza–every clique has its hang-out. Cruising in Rome is not one of the easier propositions since everyone gives everyone else the once or twice over. It’s just hard to tell if they’re looking at you or at your clothes. There are gay events, dances, lectures, social gatherings. Some of them are by invitation, many are open to whomever wants to attend. The best way to find out is to consult one of the monthly magazines that cover the social scene in Rome. Try glancing through Time Out Rome (English and Italian), or Babilonia (Italian only), a national gay publication that also publishes an annual guide to the entire country in both Italian and English; or drop by Rome’s only gay bookstore, Babele on Via dei Banchi Vecchi just off Via del Pellegrino. The magazines and guides are generally easy to find at street kiosks.

roma5A quick listing of the more popular gay places; everyone knows The Hangar, Rome’s oldest gay bar. The best times to visit are Friday, Saturday, and Monday late evenings. American owned, it is probably the most popular (and one of the easier to find), with a primarily tourist clientele, though a lot of the Gen-X age Romans hang there too. A great address too: Number 69, Via in Selci, near the Colosseum. Nearby you’ll find L’Apeiron (5 Via dei Quattro Cantoni), a two level club big on music videos. For dancing, there are two major places: L’Alibi in the Testaccio district, at 44-57 Via di Monte Testaccio, near the Pyramide; and L’Angelo Azzuro, at 13 Via Merry del Val.

Except for the above-mentioned places, gay spots seem to open and close with such rapidity they would leave the Tasmanian Devil dizzy. Even a just acquired, up-to-date listing probably warrants a phone call to ensure that any given club is actually still there. Bars and clubs are also notoriously difficult to find. Most are hidden behind plain facades with little if any indication that you are in the right spot. They also tend to be in either out-of-the-way neighborhoods or somewhat seedy locales.

OUT & ABOUT IN THE CITY

A few notes about getting around Rome. First, you will probably arrive at Fiumicino Airport. Unless you’ve got an incredible amount of luggage, don’t take a cab into the city. It’s not a short drive and it will blow a huge hole in your budget. There’s a direct train line into the center of the city, you can take either a local or express, each no more than a few dollars. From Stazione Termini you can then take a cab, bus, or metro. Cabs, again, are not cheap, but depending on where you need to go, they may be your only reasonable option.

The bus system covers the entire city extremely well, but it can be incredibly slow, incredibly packed (especially close to rush hour), and very confusing. It is, however, only 1500 lire, less than a dollar. The metro, or subway, consists of two lines that cross the heart of Rome. To get to any of the major sightseeing spots, this is probably your best choice other than your own two feet. I’m a big fan of walking around Rome. It’s not laid out in “a grid” like many American cities, so it can be a bit bewildering, but you’ll discover some amazing little piazzas and sights as you wander.

A caveat about public transportation. It’s operated on the honor system. You buy tickets from machines and walk through open gateways or climb onto buses through doors that are not necessarily close to the driver. You are supposed to punch your ticket in little stamping machines located near these gates or doors. The ticket is time-stamped and is then good for 75 minutes. Within that time period, should someone official ask to see your ticket, you’re in good shape. You’ll see that a large number of locals don’t bother to buy or punch tickets at all and take a chance that nobody will ask to see their ticket. They’re probably right. But it’s a major fine if you’re caught without one that is stamped.

As far as I’m concerned, the one indispensable guide to wandering around Rome is The Blue Guide to Rome (Norton). This 400 page, regularly updated guide covers not only detailed instructions for getting to and from places, but detailed historical and cultural notes and tips. It also includes pretty decent maps that detail the core of Rome.


Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.

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