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Thursday, September 9, 2010
RST Top 40. #16: Garbatella
While loathe to admit errors of judgment in assembling Rome the Second Time, our latest stay in Rome, in San Paolo, to the south of Rome's center, has made it clear that the first edition contained one rather serious omission: an extraordinary community called Garbatella. [Dianne doesn't see it as an error; rather, we didn't know enough to include it in RST; we write only about what we know well.]
Our San Paolo apartment was located just a few hundred yards to the south of Garbatella--our approach often took us by the enormous sign on via della Villa di Lucina (photo right)--so it became the obvious first stop for visiting guests and earned a place in the RST Top 40. [For San Paolo (St. Paul) see Dianne's post http://romethesecondtime.blogspot.com/2010/05/on-st-pauls-path.html.]
Even so, Garbatella isn't for everyone: it isn't for shoppers (most of the stores are on its northern border, the business-like boulevard, Circonvallazione Ostiense), and it isn't for those seeking a high-level dining or wine-bar experience (though we did find a comfortable wine bar and several good restaurants--recommendations below). Garbatella is for those with an interest in 20th-century architectural and design history; those with an interest in the politics and aesthetics of Italian Fascism; those who savor the mystery created by hills, curving streets, and enchanting stairways; and those seeking a glimpse of the historical experience of Rome's working class.
Piazza Brin, ca. 1922
Where to start: Although Garbatella is a wonderful place for ambling and discovery, we have arranged something resembling an itinerary. We suggest you arrive (presumably from the center) on the Metro B at the Basilica San Paolo (not the earlier Garbatella) stop. As you come down the stairs from the Metro, exit left to via Ostiense and walk north, past the basilica on your left to via delle Sette Chiese, an historic street that curves right up the hill into Garbatella. Walk up the hill, around the bend, over the Metro tracks and take the 2nd street on the left, via Guglielmotti, which curves upward toward Piazza Benedetto Brin. Stop here and read on.
Mi Garba Caffe
Getting its name. The place was first called Concordia, apparently to suggest the ideal or goal of diverse social classes existing in harmony. But that name was fleeting, and Garbatella soon took hold, the new name said to have originated with a well-mannered ("garbato") innkeeper serving food in an osteria on via delle Sette Chiese (right, the Mi Garba Caffe). Those who claim to know think it more likely that Garbatella derives from a method of grape cultivation ("a garbata") used in the area.
The idea for an industrial/commercial area. The idea for Garbatella was hatched in the early 20th-century, when Paolo Orlando, a creative technocrat, broached a plan for forging a 2-mile swath south of Rome's pyramid into an industrial and commercial area, served by a new river port to be located on the Tevere near the basilica of San Paolo fuori le mura. The port was to be made possible by the construction of a canal across one of the great bends in the river--and that never happened, nor did Ostiense become quite the factory hub that Orlando and others envisioned. Nonetheless, there was enough new activity, as well as demand for housing to serve the families removed from the neighborhoods around the Campidoglio (Rome's government heart) and in Borgo Pio (abutting the Vatican), to suggest the need for a new community on the hills south of Ostiense, soon to be Garbatella.
The English garden. When the first building blocks were laid in 1920 in Piazza Brin, planners envisioned a neighborhood that resembled the English garden cities of the era (influenced by the socialist Robert Owen), including common vegetable and decorative gardens and featuring small villas (villini) with open gates in a rustic "barochetto" style (little baroque) derived from the medieval and philosophically drawn from the anti-capitalist, anti-industrial ideas of William Morris, John Ruskin, and the larger Arts and Crafts movement. Thousands of apartments were built along those lines by the Instituto Case Popolari (ICP, Institute for Public Housing) and an Ente autonomo (an autonomous entity).
The Lotti. The apartments and buildings were gathered into Lotti ("blocks" would be the best translation), each with a number, beginning with the first one, Lotto #1 and numbered chronologically as they were built. The early Lotto in Piazza Brin is #5. For a few years in the early 1920s it housed a consumer cooperative, eliminated after the Fascists seized power with the March on Rome in 1922. Today, the left side of the building features Dar Moschino (Moschino's Place) [thanks, Mick P], an excellent and inexpensive restaurant featuring authentic Roman cuisine, including tripe and rabbit (reservations recommended). Below the buildings is a small park with a fountain and a beautifully designed stairway leading to the street below, now degraded by graffiti and the occasional drug deal. Avoid this area after dark.
Mario De Renzi's Villino
Barochetto architecture.Retrace your steps to via delle Sette Chiese and continue eastward (left). On the left you'll see more examples of the barochetto style and, as the street changes into something resembling a paved pedestrian way (nonetheless, with cars), an apartment building on the left (photo above, left) whose facade features the Fascist dating system [see the sidebar on p. 85 of Rome the Second Time on the Fascist numbering system], although here the numeric and Roman numerals systems are, oddly, not in synch. Moving on, make your way through the long piazza (containing one of our candidates for worst public sculpture) and, bearing slightly left, continue on via delle Sette Chiese. There isn't much to see in the first block after the piazza, but take heart in the fact that the street itself is very old and, by the 1500s, famous for the stream of pilgrims who used it to make a circuit of 7 Rome churches, in order to acquire indulgences. In the second block, note the villino (above) designed by Mario De Renzi and, just beyond it, also by De Renzi, a complex known as Lotto #24 (here, and elsewhere, you can enter the grounds and look around). Just beyond is Piazza Sant'Eurosia, now updated (a good place for a coffee) and, on the piazza, one of the grand, modernist "entrances" to Garbatella. Just beyond the piazza is a fine piece of ironwork, a gate by the famed 19th-century architect, Valadier. You may want to backtrack at this point to move through the just-mentioned entrance to Garbatella.
Lunchtime! But if it's lunchtime, we suggest you continue on via delle Sette Chiese, through the next piazza, and onto the final section of the street. There, on your right at #188, you'll find the charming L'Incontro (The Encounter). Ask for a table outside (una tavola fuori) and enjoy an inexpensive and tasty lunch under one of several umbrellas in the giardino d'estate (summer garden). Tel. 06/5134801.
The hotels. Retrace your steps to the nearest piazza--Piazza Oderico da Pordenone--and from it follow viale G. Massaia northwest. On this street, and at Piazza E. Biffi, where the viale ends at Circonvallazione Ostiense, you'll find another kind of Garbatella housing. In 1923, under pressure to house thousands of additional people, housing authorities dropped the original garden-city plan and built simpler, more basic "case rapide" (literally, rapid houses) and, in addition, "alberghi suburbani" (literally, suburban hotels). Altogether, 4 "hotels" (really apartment houses), with almost 1,000 very small apartments or rooms, were built between 1927 and 1929, each with a common bathroom on each floor. One of the hotels is on viale Guglielmo Massaia (see photo below) and another on Piazza Biffi.
One of the Garbatella "Hotels," on viale Guglielmo Massaia
During the 1920s and 1930s, the hotels were centers of anti-Facist activity, including one organization that numbered 270 militants and had members not only in Garbatella but in other working-class, anti-Fascist enclaves, including Ostiense, Testaccio, and San Saba. Nonetheless, on some occasions, as when Hitler visited Rome in 1938, the hotels were used as temporary detention centers for potential troublemakers. One of the hotels--known as the White Hotel--was the victim of an inaccurate American bombing raid in March, 1944, in which 50 people died.
More landmarks. Piazza Biffi is formed by two diagonals. Take the one on the west, via Lasagna. Cross via Persico and continue up via Mannucci, then right on the first cross street (via R. da Cesinale) to Piazza Longobardi. Here you'll find a children's school (1931) and, across from it Lotto #55 (photo left), decorated in red and yellow to celebrate AS Roma, the city soccer team most identified with the working class. With your back to the school, head left one block to the famous Fontana di Carlotta, the symbol of the neighborhood. The fountain lies at the foot of the Scalinata degli Innamorati (stairway of those in love), which leads upward to the evocative Piazza Giuseppe Sapeto, officially opened by Mussolini in 1925.
If you're exhausted at this point, don't despair! We're headed for a glass of wine in one of Garbatella's most fascinating piazzas. To get there from Piazza Sapeto, go south (to the right if you were coming up the stairway, onto via A. Rubino) one block to via Cabrini and turn right. Ahead, on your left, is Piazza Damiano Sauli, the social heart of Garbatella and the site of many community events, including concerts and small fairs. (Taking the second right, before Piazza Sauli, will bring you quickly to Piazza G. da Triora. At its apex [near the stairway] is Bar dei Cesaroni, a famous AS Roma Sports bar and the bar for whom the Italian TV series i Cesaroni was named. It's cool and all that, and well worth entering for its display of sports memorabilia, but we were dismayed that, when the US was playing in the World Cup, the bar was showing an old movie). At the far end of Piazza D. Sauli (where the bands play) and across the street is the Scuola Elementare Cesare Battisti (1929), with its remarkable steeple, and on the left, the church of San Francesco Saverio; both are significant Fascist-era constructions.
The heart of the Left. Continuing along the street that skirts the piazza, via Cabrini becomes via Passino and descends into the radical heart of the quarter, as the buildings on the left attest. The first one, on the corner with the courtyard, is known as La Villetta (the little villa). One of the oldest buildings in Garbatella,this villa was once home to the Ostiense/Garbatella section of the Fascist party; then, ironically, the Communist Party. When the Communist Party in recent years devolved into smaller parties, there was a dispute over who should control La Villetta. The dispute was settled by two leftist political organizations occupying separate floors. The courtyard is often used for (rather boring) political meetings and sometimes music and food (to go with the boring meetings). If there's something going on you can walk in and buy yourself a bottle of beer and findi an uncomfortable, proletarian folding chair. The building on the other side of the corner, covered with graffiti celebrating the struggles of the global working class, houses some radical youth organization (poke your head in and have a look)--a sociable one. And just beyond that (part of the same building) is the area's old public market, now undergoing restoration while displaying the anti-Fascist slogans of the left.
Garbatella's public baths, under construction, ca. 1930
End with wine and thoughts of Pasolini. Via Passino flows downward into Piazza Bartolomeo Romano, the end of our journey. Across the piazza and to the left you can't miss the patio at Bar Foschi, a favorite hangout of young artistic and academic types. There's usually no table service, so step inside and order a beer, a coffee, or a glass of wine and take it out to the table (no extra charge). Novelist and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini now and then enjoyed a drink at Bar Foschi, perhaps while scouting the area for actors for his films and stories for his novels. Some of the young men described in Pasolini's Una Vita Violenta (A Violent Life) were from Garbatella. The famed actor Alberto Sordi grew up in Garbatella (on via Vettor Fausto), and the young protagonist of the social-realists classic Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief ) was living in Garbatella (Lotto #9) when he was discovered by Vittorio De Sica. Director Nanni Moretti scootered through in Caro Diario (Dear Diary). And Gandhi--yes, Gandhi--stopped in Garbatella--specifically, at the White Hotel--during his 2-day stay in Rome in December, 1931.
Look across the piazza. The impressive building to the right is the Teatro Palladium, restored and now owned by the Third University of Rome and site of regular talks and cultural programs (music, dance, theater). Designed by Innocenzo Sabbatini and constructed in 1929-30, it was then a theater and cinema, and the only cultural attraction in the area. In the 1930s, the rooms above the Palladium (then known as Cinema Garbatella) were occupied by artists. Across the street to the left is the ex-Bagni Pubblici (public baths), a building made necessary by the scarce bathing facilities in the public housing projects (see photo of the era above). Indeed, many of the buildings lacked regular indoor plumbing and utilized rain water. It's now a furniture store, but the interior still evokes the public-bathing era and the store's owner, who gave us a few minutes of his time, is well-versed in the building's history (see photo above). On the far left of the piazza from Bar Foschi is Lotto #8 (#s 8 and 9 are obviously early ones), in the barachetto style. Although some of the apartment units in Garbatella remain under the control of the ICP (the public housing authority), in the 1990s some 2360 apartments were sold into private hands--most, apparently, to residents. Although most of the buildings look in need of work, apartments here apparently are very expensive (think of Greenwich Village as it gentrified).
Finally, on the corner just down from the bar is the newstand where we bought Gianni Rivolta's Garbatella: Tra Storia e Leggenda [Between History and Legend] (2010), where we learned much of what we've presented in this post. If you read Italian, we highly recommend it. But you'll need a map. Recommendations for food and drink follow below Bill's sign-off.
Restaurants (trattorie): L'Incontro - cited above in the itinerary; a real find. You'll sit with lots of university professors from the private university across the street. Lunch and dinner, but not Sundays. Good lunch specials. Trattoria Zampagna - this seems to have changed management a few times, producing varying reviews, but it's a great Roman cuisine restaurant; even named as one of her favorites by Katie Parla on her http://www.parlafood.com/ website (http://www.parlafood.com/a-few-of-my-favorite-restaurants-in-rome/). Small, across the street from the park in front of the Basilica di San Paolo. We recommend it. 12:30-3 and 7-11, via Osstiense, 179; 06.574.2306, or 333.373.3548. Ristoro dei Angeli - definitely a great location, in a former Fascist-era food coop, but gets middling reviews. A nice place to have an outdoor table, under the arches, in the summer. Perhaps a bit overpriced. via L. Orlando, 2, actually practically in Piazza B. Romano, and 2 steps from Bar Foschi. Tel. 06.51.43.60.20, Cell. 3184.108.40.206. Closed for renovation the last time we were there - always dangerous. Il Grottino del Traslocatore (Largo delle sette chiese, 2) One web site summed it up: "is best in the summer when tables spill out on the sidewalk. Otherwise, it’s a steamy basement setting serving huge portions of la cucina romanesca… which does include guts of all varieties in addition to the sumptuous spaghetti alla carbonara, matriciana, and gricia. This is not for the weak at heart." Yet we (who are not too strong of heart when it comes to Roman cuisine), liked it. At the East end of the Largo (delle Sette Chiese). Tel. 06.514.1261.
These are not plentiful in Garbatella; the area isn't that hip (yet). But one new-ish establishment trying to make a go of it, and doing a decent job, is Otium Club, via R. de Nobili 3B (a 2-minute walk from Piazza Sauli), opens around 5. Nice snacks free with wine. They were playing the US soccer games (but didn't open at 4 when some of the games started). Nice ambience - old-fashioned, but new. In one of the classic lotti. Tel. 333.3643072.