Europe diary, day 10: Trionfale market and Italian home cooking

Monday 13 November

We went to bed a little early last night and got up this morning around sunrise at 07:00. It was muesli for breakfast again. It’s good to have something with some fibre in it and not so much sugar. The Italian breakfast of a sweet pastry filled with jam or Nutella is nice for a day or two, but gets too much very quickly. We didn’t have solid plans for the day, so figured out what to do.

First up we decided to catch the metro from Spagna to San Giovanni to take a look at two things: the Mercato di Via Sannio flea market, and the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano. We’ve seen these before last time we were in Rome in 2014, but M. wanted to have another look to reinforce the memories and also check out the market to see if there was anything food there. We tried the market first, but it was a little empty and not busy, as though half the stalls were still yet to set up, despite it being an hour after the market opening time. Maybe some of them take Monday off. Overall it was a bit disappointing and not as interesting as M. remembered from last time. M. stopped to have a cappuccino in the same coffee bar that she’d had one last time.

The Basilica on the other hand was impressive all over again. It’s a huge church, spacious and with a very high ceiling, and splendid marble floors in intricate designs and multiple colours. We arrived early enough that it was virtually empty. We had to pass through a security check to get in, but the x-ray machine wasn’t even switched on and the lady police officer there just lazily waved us through the metal detector without giving us a second look. As we wandered around inside for some time, a few more people arrived, and we left just as a large tour group arrived, so our timing was perfect.

We quickly looked in at the market again on the way back to the metro station, in case more stalls had opened up, but it was only a few if any, with several still closed up. So we hopped on a train and rode north again, this time across the Tiber River to the Ottaviano stop in Prati, north of the Vatican. Here we explored the neighbourhood briefly as we made our way towards the Mercato Trionfale. But on the way I had to stop to use a toilet and so we stood in a coffee bar and had drinks and a small bite to eat: cappuccino and a bite-size occhio di bue with apricot jam topped with cereal grains for M. and a spremuta orange juice and occhio with blueberry jam for me. Then after using the toilet we headed to the market.

The Mercato Trionfale is a large covered market with about 200 stalls selling fresh produce, meats, fish, cheese, bread, pastries and cakes, pasta, spices, honey, and other foodstuffs, as well as a few businesses like tailors, shoemakers, pharmacists, hairdressers, and so on. It was really good, with lots of interesting and delicious looking things to see. We tried several types of pecorino at one stall, with truffle, pepper, chilli, and so on.

We bought several things to eat! We got a small bag of toasted almonds and a bag of vegetable chips. We tried these back at our apartment later and the chips were delicious – dried slices of potato, pumpkin, carrot, square fingers of sweet potato, and dried green beans, all very crispy. We also bought a couple of apples for later too. But then there were the things we bought to eat right away! We got a few little biscuits and sweets: shortbread biscuits with jam or Nutella, bite-sized pastries, a pastry filled with mozzarella and chicory for M., and little pizzette topped with tomato paste or potato, and I had one topped with caramelised onion and pulled pork which was really delicious. And after we’d browsed around to see everything the market had to offer, we stopped at a bakery for some pizza al taglio. We selected a slice topped with potato, which the woman warmed up in a mini oven for us. We sat and shared it on stools against the wall, as a queue formed and the place bustled with people ordering slices non-stop. There were a few other places in the market selling pizza but this one was clearly the busiest, so presumably it was a good one. The potato pizza was really delicious.

From the market we began walking back to our apartment. We chose a different route, passing through St Peter’s Square at the Vatican again, since it was close and my walking tracker app hadn’t registered that I’d been in the Vatican City last time. I wanted to make sure it did so, because that unlocks a traveller achievement for another whole country! What a reason to make a detour.

We rested back in the apartment for a couple of hours before heading out for our dinner booking. I’d organised a surprise for M. by booking a dining evening with a local host, who would cook dinner for us in her own home. The address was in the Prati area, just north of Cipro metro station, not too far from where we’d been this morning at the Trionfale market. We walked towards it by a different, shorter route, through more of the Prati shopping area. At the Ponte Umberto I across the Tiber, we picked up a large group of young people, early 20s, maybe university students, all walking together in the same direction as us. We were stuck in the middle of this cloud of students for several blocks, and wondered where they were all going. I said they must be going to a rave, and M. said I sounded like an old person!

The main street of Prati looked like a very nice shopping area for fashion and things like that. M. stopped in at a place called Be Curious and bought a sparkly dress with a geometric pattern in shades of brown. Everything here in the fashion stores is brown at the moment. Clearly the fashionistas have decided that this season’s colours are brown, brown, and more brown. We had left with plenty of time to get to our dinner destination, so we dawdled a bit and browsed in shops, yet still found ourselves near the area around Cipro with almost half an hour to spare. So we added a few extra blocks to our meandering.

M. noticed that the area was getting distinctly less commercial and more residential, with apartment blocks everywhere. She started to get concerned about where I was taking her for dinner and asked me to spit the surprise. I told her about the dinner with a local host and she was excited. We showed up at the address a few minutes early, and didn’t want to commit an Italian faux pas by buzzing the door any earlier than the appointed time, so we waited a few minutes. Then as we approached the door, another couple walked up and asked if we were doing the EatWith dining, and we said yes. The booking said it could be up to ten people dining, so I expected we might have some others joining us. It turned out they were the only ones and there were four of us plus our host.

We went up to the fourth floor of the apartment building in a tiny lift that barely fit the four of us inside. Debora, our host for the evening, welcomed us at the door and took our coats, then we had introductions. The other couple were Chester and Mary from Korea, on their honeymoon. They’d arrived in Rome at midnight less than 24 hours before, were fighting jet lag, and tomorrow they had to be up and at Termini station by 06:20 for a gruelling day trip to the Amalfi Coast! We said that one our first trip to Italy we did crazy stuff like that, but now we were a lot more relaxed.

Debora’s home was beautiful inside, very spacious, with a large kitchen along a wall facing a large dining table which was laid at one end for the four of us. But first she asked us to sit in the lounge area, and brought nibbles of focaccia with tomato sauce and offered white or red wine. After a bit of an introductory chat we moved to the dining table, where Debora alternately chatted and turned to the kitchen bench to prepare the food for us.

The first dish was eggplant caponata, chopped with olives, lemon, and perhaps something else, left to develop flavours overnight, and topped with a sprinkle of chopped almonds to serve. Next was ravioli, filled with a pecorino stuffing, and served with pepper and diced pears – a fresh twist on the classic Roman cacio e pepe pasta. The main dish was a swordfish terrine, made with capers, raising, and breadcrumbs, topped with a spicy sauce made mostly of red capsicum, with romanesco broccoli on the side. For M. Debora made a vegetarian zucchini flan instead. And to finish, there was tiramisu for dessert, except for me she made a lemon cream topped with pistachio for me as I don’t do coffee at all.

During the meal we learnt that Debora had worked as a chef for a few years before giving up on working in a restaurant and moving to this home dinner hosting thing. All of the food she made was very good. She made the ravioli herself, with a mix of half flour and half semolina. She said it didn’t need a sauce on it because ravioli is all about the stuffing, and she didn’t like it when people put loads of tomato sauce on ravioli. She was an excellent host, serving the for, explaining the ingredients and how she made it, and why she chose those dishes, using seasonal ingredients and her own twist on classic Italian cooking styles from various regions of the Italy, and topping up our wine glasses. And she talked about the differences in food culture between countries, and was very fascinated with insights on Korean cuisine that Chester talked about. Debora said that breakfast was very different in Italy: people stand at the counter in a coffee bar and have a coffee and a cornetto and it costs 3.50 euro and it’s very quick: “Italians have breakfast in four minutes! Maybe three!”

The dinner was leisurely and enjoyable, but that meant it went fairly late. Debora’s adult son came home later in the evening and said hello to us. He apologised that he hadn’t been able to join us for dinner because he’d been playing a soccer match. It was approaching 23:00 when Chester said that they needed to leave so they could get up for their day trip in the morning. We said our goodbyes and M. presented Debora with a little toy koala that we’d brought from home.

We had earlier thought we’d have the option of hopping on the metro from Cipro to Spagna and having a shorter walk home, but the metro is stopping at 21:00 every night at the moment because of maintenance. So we walked all the way, choosing the most direct route. We got home and it was almost midnight by the time we were ready to sleep.

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