Rome Travel Guide

Rome Architecture, History, Art, Museums, Galleries, Fashion, Music, Photos, Walking and Hiking Itineraries, Neighborhoods, News and Social Commentary, Politics, Things to Do in Rome and Environs. Over 800 posts

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Finding "Our" Coffee Bar in Rome: the Story of Two Searches

If you're in Rome more than a week, nothing is more important than choosing your coffee bar. The coffee bar is central to Roman--and Italian--life. Mornings begin with coffee and a cornetto (a Danish); then there's the late-morning break for coffee--either at the bar or delivered from the bar on one of those ubiquitous round trays. And so on. 

On a recent trip, we were lucky to stay in two Rome neighborhoods; we got to choose two coffee bars rather than just one.

Our first neighborhood (quartiere) was Aurelia South, a busy, pleasant, middle-class enclave tucked in between the Vatican on one side and the long shoulder of Monte Mario on the other. The area is full of coffee bars. We tried ten! The one closest to the Vatican was nice enough, but the prices were too high--the tourists had reached the area, if only barely. Others were men's bars (the tables outside invariably occupied by long-term, older Roman guys), or the coffee wasn't good enough, or the outside space was limited, or whatever.  

Here's one reject: 

And another reject, a bar called MilkCoffeBurger. Despite the name, we tried this one a couple of times.  

Another was too fancy, although, as you can see in the photo below, the police stopped in for coffee late one day. This was our late-afternoon wine bar. 

We finally settled on Venere Caffe' (Bar Bistrot) a place with a nice outside space, stuck out into the street--and covered, shielded from the sun. Good coffee. The label "bistrot" is widely used these days. We've even seen "ristrot," a combination of bistrot and ristorante. 

After about two weeks in Aurelia South, we moved to an apartment just a short block from Piazza dei Re di Roma.  We tried Pompi, the largest and most famous bar in the area, known for its tiramisu. We found the coffee ordinary at best and the staff impersonal. No. And we tried Cannoleria, a bar that features cannoli. No seating inside, a nice outside space [see photo below, with Piazza dei Re di Roma in the distance] (you carry your coffee and stuff out the door on a tray, and walk around the flower shop). Coffee was good, cornetti excellent. Too expensive. Slow service from a too-busy staff, but good enough that it was our favorite on Sundays and holidays when our otherwise favorite one was closed.

We tried a small corner bar on Via Aosta--too small inside, rather ordinary tables, uncovered, outside. No comfortable space in which to reader the morning paper. And lousy coffee.

Then we found "our" bar. On via Pinerolo, just steps from our apartment. The name is Antica Caffetteria, and on the awning it says "Wine Bar Gastronomia," half of which is true. This is definitely not a wine bar, in the sense in which that term ought to be used, although they serve an afternoon "spritz." But there is a kitchen, which serves a daily lunch that attracts quite a crowd, and the cook is the wife of the owner/manager.

Here's the bar from down the sidewalk. When the sun is shining, as it usually is, the tables on the right, beyond the awning (and nearer the street), are not favored.

Across from the bar there's an old phone booth, now an informal library, decorated with embroidery. We saw lots of folks looking at the books and taking one or two.  

The bar has good outside seating, some of it uncovered (not good) and some of it covered sufficiently to ward off the morning sun. 

Befitting a place where food is served, there were a number of tables inside in back, where we often sat and read the paper. The price was right: E1 for coffee (no additional cost for an Americano), E1 for a cornetto, total E4 for both of us (about $4.20). The cornetti were Roma standard, the coffee uniformly excellent. 

Like many establishments in these days of Covid-19--especially those not in a tourist area--there's no extra charge for sitting at a table, inside or outside. Rather than table service, customers are encouraged to take their coffee and cornetti to their table, on one of those round trays. When finished, we always disposed of our napkins and took the cups back to the bar--not required, but a courtesy. Our bar usually gave us small glasses of tap water with our our coffee (see the glasses on the tray, below). 

Late in our visit we learned that the bar is a family operation. Dad runs the cassa (the cash register), cleans up here and there and buses tables. In the photo below, he shows surprise at being photographed (I didn't expect him to come into the frame).

His two sons are baristi, making coffee and serving customers their cornetti. As noted, their mother is the cook. A young woman, who often made our coffee, was apparently the only non-family member working at the bar. Her head can be seen in the 2nd photo, below. 

Like all good Roma coffee bars, the baristas at "our" bar knew our order by the third day. That's not only a nice touch, it's a form of community that you won't get at Starbucks. 

If you're in the vicinity of Piazza dei Re di Roma, save a few minutes for a stop at Antica Caffeteria, on via Pinerolo. One of our favorites. 



Monday, July 11, 2022

Rome's Industrial Heritage: A Valley's Name, its Remaining Relics


"La Fornace" - the remains today of a 20th-century industrial site, in this case the Veschi Foundry, which operated from the 1920s to 1960, taken from just below the Rome-Viterbo rail line arches - see next photo.

From this simple smokestack that we had seen on earlier treks to this area, and that now was a couple blocks from our apartment, we discovered so many stories - and theories - that it's impossible to relay them all in a blog post. The stories cover wars, names, workers' rights, vistas, government intervention, you name it.

A photo from 1890, when the Rome-Viterbo rail line was being built.

Taken from Monte Vaticano, during the construction of the bridge of the old Rome-Viterbo railroad. Clay quarries and brick-kilns are visible in the background.

Let's just start with the long-time name of the valley in which this relic stands - just behind the Vatican: "Valle dell'Inferno." - Okay, it's the "Valley of Hell" - a name the government would like to erase from memory (current official name "Valle Aurelia") Did that come from the smokestacks?  Local lore would say "yes," because once this valley (this smokestack is at the southern end of it - closest to the Vatican) was home to about 20 foundries, each with at least one smokestack.  (And, unrelated to the name, the bronze for Bernini's Baldacchino in St. Peter's may have been smelted in this area.) The best old photos I could find are the one above and here:

Two smokestacks are easily visible in this 1938 photo. Look closely and you'll see several more behind, in the greyness that no doubt was constant here, and, according to some, gave the valley its name.

Another theory is that the valley was named for the 1527 sack of Rome by German mercenaries, who massacred the Papal troops "with a ferocity to evoke the pains of hell" in this very valley. 

A third theory is that it was here that those who fell ill with the Spanish flu in 1918-1920 were sent to a hospital to die, then buried in a common grave. (A friend recently told us his great-great-grandfather's remains are in that common grave. We could find no confirming historical information on the hospital or the common grave.) Apparently the Valle dell'Inferno name was on a 1548 map, which gives credence to the sack-of-Rome origins.

What is clear is that the Valley was home to the foundries and, closer in, near where the remaining smokestack stands, it was home as well to the foundry workers and those in related professions: makers of bricks and ceramics. They lived near their workplaces, but they also lived outside of the city and outside of the Vatican, apparently (we've learned from more than one source) because the Popes, who ruled the city until 1870, did not want the working class inside the city walls, finding them too radical, having learned lessons from the French Revolution. The area was at one time known as "little Russia" because of its leftist leanings.

The smokestack above, and the walls of the foundry beneath it, were preserved as part of the development of a new shopping mall, called "Aura," that opened in 2018. The developers restored what they could of the foundry, and when we first visited it, it was pristine, at least on the outside (nothing remains inside), but in a few short years, has fallen into disrepair yet again.

The name "La Fornace" is on a number of establishments in the area, including a good, classic Italian restaurant we enjoyed twice while staying in the area. Its symbol is of the smokestack and furnace, and a painting of those is on its walls (photo above).

Above, the foundry - now surrounded by the
ubiquitous (in Rome) orange fencing and graffiti.
There were some plans (dreams, visions)
 of instructing people about this
 continuous cycle "Hoffman" furnace.

The mall, with grand visions of being a new meeting place for the locals, a new "agora," seems to have survived the worst of the Covid years if not in great shape, at least not completely degraded. Below, a wall of signage at the mall.

The steps of the mall also are the scene of a 2021 painting (it's hard to call it "wall art" or "murales" when it's on stairs, not a wall) by the well-known 

Diavù- whom we interviewed at another mall (the Trionfale Market) not too far away. 

Diavù chose as his subject an 18th-century puppet-maker who lived in the Trionfale area nearby, but not exactly a fixture of the Valle dell'Inferno.

Diavù's steps "painting" at the Aura mall of Ghetanaccio,

the nickname of puppet maker Gaetano Santangel (note his puppets to the left and right).

Outside of the Veschi foundry, the hamlet of the foundry workers and brickmakers has only a few remaining markers of its prior existence, mainly street names: Via dei Laterizi, Via dei Mattoni, Via delle Ceramiche, Via degli Embrici - all names of the professions, basically words for bricks, ceramics, and rooftiles. These are similar to the charming streets of Rome's center - via dei Coronari (makers of rosary beads), dei Chiavari (locks and keys), etc., but the Valley's streets are not quite as charming these days as those in the center.

Even less charming is the public housing that sprung up after the last of the small houses inhabited by the descendants of the foundry and brick workers were demolished. Built (poorly, of poor materials, according to some) in the 1980s, the buildings are some of the tallest in Rome, but still compliant with the law that nothing can be higher than the "Cupolone" ("Big Dome" - of St. Peter's). These have as many stories as they do because they were built down in the valley itself. Some locals prize the buildings, with their red trim, and the wall paintings and library - all of which we found, but we also found these locales not exactly prizes. What may be a prize is the view from the top floor apartments, as one friend told us.  We couldn't get those views, but they no doubt are similar to the views from Monte Ciocci - from which we took the photos of the smokestack. (Photos below.)


Public housing, replacing the hamlet of workers' structures.

Wall paintings in the public spaces created as part of 
the public housing; the "prized" library is in here too. It 
was closed when we visited (hours are limited). So the young
people just hang out around here.

The view from Monte Ciocci - the views from the top floors of the public housing in Valle dell'Inferno would be similar.
The writing says: "How many times have you seen the sky over Rome?"
and on the horizon is the radio tower for "Radio Maria," the Vatican radio station, and 
Michelangelo's "Cupolone" - or "Big Dome" of St. Peter's basilica.

Another view from Monte Ciocci - the housing below is upscale, not public housing.
That's the Cupolone and the crenelated Vatican walls, in back of which the workers lived, not being welcome too close to the Vatican (because the Pope did not want workers they perceived as anti-Papacy unionists too near those Papal walls).

Monday, June 27, 2022

Eating and Drinking on Rome's Sidewalks and Streets: Changes to Come


Pompi is a fancy coffee bar in the Piazza Re di Roma area, known for its tiramisu. Here is its enormous
in-the-street addition. The coffee is lousy, the staff too busy to be friendly. Get your coffee at Antica 
Caffetteria, a family-run place, on nearby via Pinerolo. 

Complaints about restaurants and bars that put tables on the sidewalk and into the street are nothing new in Rome. But the story is a bit different this time. In May, Rome's city government passed some new regulations, designed to restrict the amount of public space that restaurants can occupy. 

The city is grappling with a substantial increase in the amount of appropriated public space that came about two years ago, when Covid-19 drove the clients of restaurants and bars into the open air. Because of the Covid emergency, the city allowed establishments to appropriate space without paying extra fees and to self-certify the additional space, rather than go through a more complex, more bureaucratic procedure that would involve hiring professionals to measure and perhaps design the exterior extensions. The new rules will require paying fees and hiring either an architect or a "geometra"--which might be translated as a project engineer--and submitting requests to the Superintendent in charge of such matters.

The new regulations are scheduled to go into effect on July 1 of this year (2022), though there's some interest in delaying the regulations so that the requirements for "furnishings" (tables, chairs, etc.) can be made uniform in the area. 

Via dei Falischi, in the San Lorenzo quarter.
The street closure and most of these street tables are new since 2019, before Covid

The concern is primarily focused on the Centro Storico, the historical center of Rome, where tourists congregate and the streets are generally narrower. Somewhat less restrictive measures would be applied to other parts of the city as well, allowing those outside the Centro Storico to appropriate more public space than those in the Center. Residents in every locale are upset at the loss of parking spaces, although they also enjoy the expanded outdoor eating and drinking opportunities.

"Off License," a wine bar in the San Giovanni neighborhood. Sidewalk tables
and an in-the-street area, taking up parking spaces. Good wine
list, and quite hip, but crowded.

Restaurateurs and bar owners--at least 3,000 of them--took advantage of the lack of fees and Covid self-certification process. Some added tables to the sidewalk area, others built onto city streets, sometimes constructing large platforms so that patrons didn't have to step down to enter. Often the new spaces were quite elaborate, with umbrellas or awnings, metal railings, plants, and light fixtures. 

An elaborate, in-the-street Japanese restaurant on via Taranto. 
Lots of money went into building this addition. 

Another large, expensive, in-the-street platform

Owners of these establishments are now concerned that the new fees and regulations will be costly and will reduce their business and their profits, already hammered by Covid and an increase in prices due to the war in Ukraine. Some proprietors, they say, have gone into debt during the Covid crunch and the new rules will make it more difficult to pay off these debts. Another argument they make is that Covid, and the de-regulation that took place two years ago, has changed the social life of the city, allowing tourists and residents to rediscover city streets, to see Rome in a new way. They also think that the July 1 date--coinciding with a substantial increase in tourism--is simply bad timing. And they argue that Covid not only remains a problem, but that the pandemic has changed dining habits, so that patrons now want to drink and dine in the open air.

The municipal government is considering delaying implementation until the end of September. 

More photos below.


Young people's bar, sidewalk and street, San Lorenzo. Good--and economical--drinks and food in this area populated by many university students.

Appropriating space, next to Porta San Pancrazio, on the Gianicolo

Thursday, June 16, 2022

GECO in Rome: Art or Egotism?


The building in the photo is a public market on Via Magna Grecia (we wrote 10 years ago about the market and Morandi), not from the the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano. It was designed by Riccardo Morandi, a well-known and admired engineer in his day, whose reputation has since been tarnished by the collapse in 2018 of the "Morandi" bridge in Genoa, which Morandi also designed. The circular parking ramp at the far end of the building--not visible in the photo--is nothing short of lovely. But in light of the Genoa debacle, it has been closed.

The letters at the top/end of the building are not part of Morandi's design. They are work of Lorenzo Perris, a 32-year-old Roman who until 18 months ago was anonymous, known only for the letters GECO--Perris's "tag." Over the last few years, Perris has done his GECO thing on hundreds of buildings, most of them in Rome and some in Lisbon. Sometimes with paint, but more often with paste-ups. The letters on Morandi's building are most likely large paste-ups. He also uses smaller stickers on signs--and anything else he can find to affix them to.  

A GECO sticker on a motor scooter, outside our apartment on  via Tuscolana

Perris, who resides in the Via Prenestina area of Rome, has recently been accused of damaging many of Rome's buildings with his tags. Just how many buildings have been "damaged" is not clear, nor is the extent of the damage, but the legal complaint filed against Perris charges that his work has appeared on the Central State Archive building, on the benches along the Tevere near Porta Portese, on the Arch of Quattro Venti, in Villa Pamphili, in Via Ardeatine, and at the Parco degli Acquedotti (Park of the Aqueducts -- #2 on RST's Top 40), among many others. Authorities claim to have confiscated some 13,000 of his works. 

In the San Lorenzo quarter

The authorities, and the folks at the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero, not only believe Perris's GECOs to be damaging, but they are convinced that his "bombing" is entirely lacking in artistic merit. 

Perris seems to agree with the critics. In 2018, when interviewed during a sojourn in Lisbon--Rome having become too "hot," a place where he was more likely to be caught (and identified), even though he works only at night or at dawn--Perris admitted to being a "bombardier," whose style did not differ from city to city. 

"I want to spread my name," he added, more than to develop and sharpen an aesthetic sensibility. "The prime objective of the aggressor [that is, him] is quantity....My objective is to be everywhere and be seen and known by everyone. I see graffiti as a sport--an illegal one. It's as if I were a superhero; the more one is exposed, the more one must be anonymous. The world of graffiti is pure egocentrism, in my case a veritable megalomania. I want to attract the attention of everyone and to provoke feelings, whether of love or hate."


Graffiti GECO, 2020

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Bill Viola brought to you by an insurance company

A newly restored space in Rome. Palazzo Bonaparte (not to be confused, as we almost did, with the Napoleonic Museum) is in a palazzo where at least some of the Bonaparte family lived, on Piazza Venezia, at the beginning of via del Corso (tucked in a corner behind which wraps the Palazzo Pamphilj).

Above, the poster for the Viola exhibit, a video
still from his "Martyrs" series, this one "Water."

The current shows are two: the renowned US video artist, Bill Viola, and the Italian sculptor known as Jago, who is described as a "rock star" for his popularity.  Jago will have to wait another day for our visit. We went for Viola, whose work we've admired for years. 

Above, from "The Path (Going Forward by Day)"

The Viola exhibit includes 15 works, and therefore is one of the larger collections of his work in one place. It was curated by his wife. Kira Perov. It's hard to get photos of videos in the darkened rooms, though Bill was successful with a couple. (A good description and review of the exhibit is here: )

The Viola videos in this show have one characteristic in common: they are slow-moving in the extreme. One can watch for five minutes and nothing appears to happen. And then it does. 

Although we have not yet seen the Jago exhibit, his work seems to share with Viola's a concentration on the body.

Because of the darkened rooms for the Viola show, one cannot get a good look at the restored palazzo. We could see the floors are glass - designed so one can see (if the rooms weren't so dark) the elaborate painted and inlaid floors without tromping on them. The Palazzo Bonaparte Web site has some 360 degree views of the rooms.

A view of the Palazzo
Bonaparte's ground floor

The Web site also has an informative timeline (in Italian and in English) of what this palazzo "saw" over its two centuries on this famous piazza - from 1657 when it was first being built - through the creation of the Italian state, the beginning of gas lighting (it was the first palazzo so lit in Rome), World War I,  the building of the monument to King Vittorio Emanuele II, Fascism, World War II, and the post-war epoch. 

As in other art spaces in Rome, capitalism is at work here. The owner of the building - and the restorer - is Generali Group, an Italian insurance conglomerate, the largest in Italy and among the top ten largest insurance companies in the world. They've teamed up with a cultural behemoth that knows how to mount and run shows: Arthemisia.  The Palazzo's gallery space opened in October 2019 with an exhibit of Impressionist work, which closed in June 2020. The current shows, which opened in March, are the ones to follow, after a period of quiescence caused by Covid.

Cutbacks in government funding for the arts, the lack of a history of individual contributions to not-for-profits, and Covid--all have contributed to a shrinking of the Rome contemporary art world. The capitalists are to be applauded for filling in some of the gaps, much as I think their doing so creates a host of issues, including the obvious demonstration of inequality of income, and their control over what is shown. The Fondazione Sorgente and the Palazzo Merulana are two Rome examples. A Los Angeles example is a gallery opened by the Marciano brothers who made their money with Guess Jeans. It closed when the workers tried to unionize, to underscore my point about control.

Above and below right, two stills from the "Fire" video in the "Martyrs" series.

In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy the art that the capitalists are bringing to us, even if they are making us pay for it. Tickets for each of the Viola and Jago shows are 15 Euro, 20 Euro for both shows at the same time (with a host of "reductions"). From our experience, you do not need to book in advance.  Ticket, days and hours (open every day, for many hours) information here.