Travelogue: Return to Rome

It’s unusual that we are lucky enough to return to a major European capitol with only a few years having passed. But it appears that tossing those coins into the fountain worked their magic. I was thrilled when we decided to book tickets to Rome—and travel into the south of Italy—this summer.

Our flights were direct to and from Oakland to Rome FCO—we spotted some well-priced fares on Norwegian Air earlier in the year and paid the first of the many supplements to reserve seats together. In other words, do keep in mind that with budget airlines, you end up spending more than the advertised price. Still, we were really happy with the direct red-eye. We packed carry-on only (2 overhead-sized suitcases, one large backpack, the kids’ roller case, and a daypack/purse for each of us), and took off around 9pm. The kids got to watch one half-hour show in spite of the late hour, then Aron read a bedtime story, and they were pretty much out for the next 9 hours. I’m happy to report: so were we!

The last time we landed in Rome, we did so without our luggage or strollers meeting us at the airport. I can’t describe the relief of flying with all of our things and cruising through that very same terminal. It was the antidote to PTSD.

We’d found an Airbnb near Piazza Navona—just off via dei Coronari—and the host had arranged for someone to pick us up at FCO. When we arrived, the sun was just setting, and we made our way down the pedestrianized street to a little square with a fountain, Piazza San Simeone, to meet someone who would let us in and hand off the key.

I’d noticed that you could see the piazza from the apartment, and had visions of us going down for a long, romantic dinner after the kids were asleep, and still being able to see their room. And one could have done that!—though I’m sorry to report that we never did. We soon learned that we’d all be up late together, eating around 8pm, just about every night in Italy.

In fact, that first night, we wandered over to a spot that had been recommended by Monocle for its Cacio e Pepe, Giulio Passami L’Olio, and had just that! The combination of Aperol to start, some dry Rosé, and that perfectly toothy, cheesy tonnarelli pasta (mine with truffles) was a wonderful welcome to the Eternal city. I do wish we’d been able to sit outside—the evenings felt wonderful—but it reminded me how important reservations are in Italy. If you can, make reservations for lunches and dinners whenever you find a place you’d really like to go! A few times we asked our hotels or hosts to help us do so, but we could have been more on top of this. A good rule of thumb is a lunch reservation around 13/14:00 and a dinner reservation for 20/20:30 (many restaurants won’t open until 19/19:30). Even a restaurant that appears empty at 8pm may be completely booked up, with tables reserved for later.

I consulted multiple “best gelato in Rome” lists, especially the many articles David Lebovitz has written on the matter, and kept it handy. Many had locations close to our apartment, which was convenient for ending the nights. We’d promised the kids that a trip to Italy would mean eating gelato every single day, and they never forgot. (Not that I minded.) My only rule was that we wouldn’t be stopping at any of those less than stellar ones with brightly-colored gelato piled up high. If I were going to ever be a gelato snob, this was going to be the time. We had important places to try.

On my list to consider: Giolitti (reportedly the oldest in Rome, and one of the most famous), Venchi (to try their salted caramel), Gelateria del Teatro (just down the block from our apartment and the first place we stopped—heavenly), Don Nino, Fatamorgana (wildly creative, wonderful flavors), Ciampini, Grom (they came to New York and their pistachio is my gold standard), Cremaria Monteforte, Come il Latte, Il Gelato di San Crispino (Lebovitz claimed their caramel-meringue gelato to be life-changing and he’s not wrong; cups only), Frigidarium (I had to try the DQ-like dipped cone), Carapina (my favorite last time, but it has since closed!) and La Casa del Caffé Tazza D’oro (not gelato, but rather coffee granita con panna).

We’d slept so well on the flight, that I was naively cocky about how quickly everyone was going to be on Italian time. But when everyone was awake early the next morning, I realized we might be in for an afternoon crash.

Still, it was wonderful to get out into the city while everyone was just waking up. After the kids took the requisite drinks from our own Piazza’s fountain (we pretty much stopped at every single one we passed from then on), we walked out into Piazza Navona and had its magnificent fountains practically to ourselves. The others who joined us were local residents playing fetch with their dogs; Hudson and Skyler quickly joined in to assist.

We reminisced about the last time we’d been there—with only our one change of clothes that kids quickly soiled, and my experience washing poop out of one item in a bathroom sink while a sweet older woman spoke to me exclusively in Italian about Skyler’s new teeny, tiny dentini. And we pulled out one of the books we’d brought along as a surprise for the kids—Mission Rome: A Scavenger Hunt AdventureIt prompts the kids to find things at museums and monuments, or to practice local traditions and phrases, and earn points toward becoming a secret agent in the process. We didn’t have enough days for them to make it through the entire mission, but we could see immediately how it added to their engagement and excitement.

For morning cappuccinos (and it’s customary to only order coffee drinks with milk before 10 or 11am), we could have stopped in at any of the many counters we passed along Via dei Coronari or around the Piazza, but we decided we would start our trip at a favorite—Sant’Eustachio Il Caffé. In fact, back when William Grimes of the New York Times found the espresso in New York to be lacking (this was many, many years ago), he famously wrote: “When the need for a real espresso becomes overpowering, buy a ticket to Rome, tell the taxi driver to head straight for the Sant’Eustachio cafe. The espresso will be perfect. A little expensive, but surely worth the trouble.”

Indeed, its legendary pulls mean especially pricey table service, but it’s worth sitting down to savor the rich, wonderful Nutella Aragosta (lobster-tail pastries) that Aron and I find ourselves missing as soon as we leave. We only wish we could convince the kids to take real bites and not just try and lick the chocolate out. (Face palm.)

Here’s a funny thing: when we came back to Davis, and made Hudson his regular breakfast (banana with peanut butter, yogurt on the side), he told us: “Italy was wonderful except for the food. Too many pastries.” I nearly keeled over in shock. Our American kids definitely did miss their American breakfasts. We slowly started to figure out how to make sure they had something more familiar first thing, but it took us a while. Even though we had a full kitchen in the apartment, we never fully stocked it. There were just… so many pastries!

Our morning coffee break seemed to kick off a day of eating. We next walked to Campo de’Fiori to shop its market stands—which are reliably consistent it would seem to those of us who have only visited in the summer: fresh pomegranate juice, beautiful displays of beans, tomatoes, melons, squash blossoms—and even some black truffles!—alongside hats and Italia t-shirts. We lingered briefly, recreating some favorite photographs from our last visit…

…and then stopped into the forno at the corner of the piazza for some fresh, delicious pizza bianca.

And I think it was only a block further that we came across the Roscioli family’s caffé pasticceria (they’re famous for their bread) and we stopped again for due caffè espressi at the counter, and some more pastries. We also used the occasion to make a lunch reservation at their Salumeria ristorante (which surely would have been wonderful, but alas I’m afraid we ended up far away and didn’t keep it).

Just as it was last time, Hudson’s (and now Skyler’s) top priority for Rome was visiting Boca della Verità (“The Mouth of Truth”). Most people recognized the ancient aqueduct cover—which is housed in a lovely little medieval church, the church of Santa Maria Cosmedin—from a scene in Roman Holiday; Hudson and Skyler were fascinated by it after reading about it in the children’s book, This is Rome. Legend says that if you put in your hand in its mouth and tell a lie, your hand will be bitten off. There always seems to be a long line to visit, as everyone is hoping to pose for photos. The children were happy to wait, however—equal parts excited and nervous to put their hands in and tell it a truth: “I love my family.”

Afterward, we sought out lunch in the Jewish Quarter along Via del Portico d’Ottavia, with the goal of sampling one of Rome’s specialties—carciofi alla giudia (deep-fried artichoke), and then went for our daily gelato at Fatamorgana. I could have returned to the latter over and over. The flavors I sampled were all amazing—and there were so many innovative ones! Skyler’s peach tasted just like biting into fresh fruit. Hudson opted for his new favorite, stracciatella—cream with fine shavings of chocolate. And Aron had the dark, smoky, tabacco-chocolate, which was impressive—but he was ultimately envious of my incredible scoop of basil.

You might recall that we got to the Roman Forum too late for entry on our last visit and spent very little time in Ancient Rome. We made it a priority on this visit, arranging a tour with a woman, Isabella, who had been recommended by a friend. She was only available to meet on our first full day, so we decided to go for it—and take the jet lag risk. Honestly, it was a gamble—and we pretty much lost the bet.

After ice cream, we stopped back at the apartment for a break, and both kids promptly fell into a deep sleep. And it was nearly impossible to rouse them when 3pm came around, and it was time to catch a ride to the Colosseum. Hudson was grouchy and close to tears at even the prospect of walking through the gates. I confess I got upset with him about the attitude, which only made things worse. So our visit with Isabella didn’t exactly get off on the best foot.

It took a while, but eventually she engaged both of them with tales of gladiators and the chance to choose their own gladiator names “I’d be called ‘bloody,'” said Hudson, to which Skyler replied she would be “bloody, too”—though we made it into “bloody, two.” Not the fiercest of titles, really. Later, when the option to instead pretend to be empress came up, Skyler was much more enthused. Not exactly a princess, but close enough.

Still, drumming up excitement for the Colosseum wasn’t as easy as you’d expect. First, the idea that something is special simply because it’s old and preserved is a tough one for someone like Skyler, who is still figuring out yesterday versus last year. And for both kids, old is grandpa and grandma. (Sorry, mom and dad.) They’ve never seen Russell Crowe battling tigers in Gladiator, and there aren’t any Disney cartoon depictions of ancient Rome. We’d shown them Hercules (at least the concept of a gladiator was introduced), and I’d bought Hudson a comic-strip style introduction to the rise and fall of the Roman empire which seemed to help at times, but I wish I’d picked up something with more renderings of what the colosseum or the forum would have looked like in use. Some tour guides bring along iPads and visual cues to help with this, and I do think that could be an advantage for young children who haven’t seen Ben Hur or Spartacus. 

Of course Aron and I still enjoyed the tour, and the kids warmed up by the time we got to the forum—plus, if you buy your entry tickets online ahead of time (as you should), your guide can take you through the lines.

After seeing the Colosseum, we walked up Palatine Hill and tried to imagine emperors like Augustus having lived there, before descending into the forum—the ruins, most dating from the 5th through 1st centuries BC, are just incredible!

We said goodbye to Isabella, around the site where Julius Caesar’s body was burned; I stepped away to take some photos, and Aron pulled out the leftover pizza bianca for Skyler. I heard crying and turned around only to see a crowd of people and a mob of seagulls gathering. Apparently one of the gulls had swooped down to grab the bread and had slashed Skyler’s finger with its beak in the process. Aron shooed the birds away, swept Skyler up in his arms, and started walking toward me. I could hardly believe it when I saw the seagull heading straight for them—like a scene in Birds. It appeared to attack Aron’s shoulder and he swung his arm around knocking it to the ground, and then kicking toward it to get it away. I grabbed Skyler and called to Hudson and we sped for a fountain to rinse off the cut. The whole thing was wild!

It was quite an impactful part of the trip, so everyone dictated their version of the story to me when we returned to California. Hudson called the collective story, “The Brave Daddy and the Ugly Seagulls.”

I particularly like Skyler’s telling: “One day there was a little girl named Balloon. And she liked seagulls. And one day one of her seagull friends bited her. And she loved dresses, too. I love you. I love my mom. The end.”

The view looking back down on the forum from Capitoline Hill is my favorite, so we walked back that way, stopping to see the bronze replica of a second-century statue of Marcus Aurelius atop his horse in Piazza del Campidoglio up top. There, one can visit the Capitoline museums, filled with classical art (including the real equestrian statue), or simply head up to the museum cafe for magnificent views over the city. Just be sure to get there before it closes—unlike us.

For dinner that evening, we had reservations at Ar Galletto, in Piazza Farnese, facing the French Embassy. It was particularly wonderful because of its position on the piazza with a fountain, where the kids could play and run about before or after the meal (taking care to watch for the occasional car). Otherwise, meals do tend to be on the long side for our little ones. Aron ordered a pasta with clams and the kids kept stealing the bivalves off his plate.

Afterward, we treated ourselves to a second gelato tasting—this time at Frigidarium—before calling it a night.

Everyone slept-in the following morning—which became the pattern for the rest of the trip. (It was not lost on me that the only day everyone was up early was the day on which we scheduled an afternoon tour.)

They say you should really get to the Vatican early to beat the crowds, and I do recall that being the case from years ago when Aron and I went and found ourselves in an empty St. Peter’s, watching them change a lightbulb. Whether that’s still true or not, I couldn’t say—only that it was packed when we arrived mid-morning. The line stretching around St. Peter’s square is intimidating to say the least, but it does move pretty steadily. I held our place while Aron and the kids went looking for details featured in their Mission Rome book and hid from the sun (stopping occasionally to do the floss dance), and was glad we’d all remembered to cover our knees and shoulders as we watched the “immodest” be turned away.

One of the things that made visiting Rome with the kids a bit easier for us was that Aron and I had been before, and didn’t mind skipping over a few things. In this case, we opted to head directly for the duomo—where Hudson and Skyler will proudly recount climbing 551 steps—and skip a visit to the Vatican museums. I think I may have had a harder time missing the Sistine Chapel and Michaelangelo’s frescoes had it not been for that, but instead we enjoyed the simplicity of seeing views from up high, mailing postcards from Vatican City, and walking through St. Peter’s basilica—pointing to some highlights (like “how many daddies tall” the letters running along the ceiling are, and the soft-looking face of Mary in the Pieta).

Afterward, we enjoyed one of my favorite lunches at Il Sorpasso. There’a a charcuterie room and a bar with a daily menu as you enter—telltale signs of a good meal to be had. We fought over the focaccia in the bread basket and had wonderful wine and cocktails alongside fettuccine with squash blossoms  and a bowl of burrata. We both especially liked a drink called Tormentone made of Cynar and Spuma Nera. I think it was also the first time anyone offered to make our kids a simple spaghetti portion off menu and we realized we could request this any time thereafter.

We caught a ride to Via Condotti, a shopping street that leads up to the Spanish Steps. There we paused for espresso and lemon cake at the bar of Antico Caffè Greco, the oldest in Rome. Since its opening in 1760, it has served the likes of Stendhal, Goethe, Byron, and Keats—and surely countless other famous folk. It’s a beautiful salon-style cafe. The shopping around it is high end—Fendi, Prada, etcetera—which, in my opinion, is fun for a quick look but not much more, as each has a large presence in more accessible cities, like New York and San Francisco, as well. I would have liked to spend some time browsing more niche and local shops while we were in Rome, but I can’t say I did much shopping on this trip at all.

The Spanish Steps are at the heart of the tourist district and can be absolutely mobbed. They were in direct sun when we arrived, however, and so the kids had a chance to run up and down them and enjoyed that tremendously. And we figured they’d put in enough work for us all to stop in at Il Gelato di San Crispino after, which I enjoyed tremendously.

Likewise, the Trevi Fountain was surrounded by people, but it did not diminish the impressive scale of the statues. We all took our turns tossing our coins in the fountain. And I loved that when we left Rome a day later, and we told the kids to say “goodbye, Rome,” Skyler said “but we’ll be back because we threw the pennies.”

I was sorry that we arrived at the Pantheon too late to go inside this time. It’s magnificent and we should have made it more of a priority. Still, we stopped for an aperitivo with a view of the former temple (dating back to the reign of Augustus), and were pleasantly surprised by all of the street performances going on around us. Our kids were absolutely enthralled by a mime—and we got to just sit and watch while sipping new favorites, like Americanos (Campari, vermouth, and soda).

In fact, it was such a lovely experience that we changed dinner plans and opted to go back to Obika (a mozzarella bar we had enjoyed on our last visit) on Campo di Fiori—we knew we would love the food, but almost as importantly, we knew that our kids could get up from the table and find entertainment in the square.

We finished with gelato at Grom, and with that we’d reached the end of our time in Rome—all too soon. One of these days, we’ll stay longer and explore more of the city. The Monocle guide I’d picked up whetted my appetite for seeing more of the city’s modern side, and I’d love to come back to do so one day.

The next morning we packed up our bags, caught a taxi to Termini, the Roman train station, to pick up a rental car for the next two weeks.

Next up: Herculaneum, Matera, the hill towns of Puglia, and the Salento.

Previously from Italy: Sardinia, Tuscany, Positano and the Amalfi Coast, Rome, where to shop in Venice, and our first trip together to Italy, with stops in Venice, Cinque Terre, and Florence. Also, some thoughts on travel (in Italy and beyond) with kids.


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