TRAVEL

{Podcast} Rome's King of Carbonara Luciano Monosilio

Catching up with the King of Carbonara, Luciano Monosilio at his restaurant Luciano Cucina. Photo: Darius Arya

LOOK, MA, I’VE LAUNCHED A PODCAST!

My mom has always told me I’m a fabulous talker, but really I am an incredibly curious listener who loves a good story. And I’m lucky- part of my job is meeting people and listening to what they have to say. Over the past 15 years, I’ve met incredible people doing incredible things that are changing Italy’s cultural landscape and updating the trite travel stereotypes of quaint trattorias and lots of mamma mias into something more realistic, cool and contemporary. Sometimes these conversations become great articles, other times they are edited to a sound bite and more often, they don’t make their way anywhere except to my dinner table. I’ve decided to remedy that by launching Ciao Bella, my intrepid travel and cultural podcast.

Me and Chef Luciano Monosilio, aka the only man who has ever made me cry…. for carbonara. Photo: Darius Arya

EPISODE ONE: THE KING OF CARBONARA

Luciano Monosilio is Italy’s reigning King of Carbonara and currently chef/owner of Luciano Cucina. From Albano Laziale to Michelin starred chef, in just a few years, Luciano put my favorite dish, carbonara, in the center of the table and in conversation all over Italy. And then he decided to step out of the box and literally turn the tables by going solo with his eponymous Luciano Cucina, a new gen trattoria subtly spreading the culinary renaissance all over Italy. I’m proud to have him as my first guest on Ciao Bella, and I’m even happier to know that his restaurant Luciano Cucina is just around the corner ffrom my home in Campo de’ Fiori. Join me as we talk carbonara, guanciale, Roma and Italy.

Chef Luciano Monosilio. Photo: Erica Firpo

Carbonara’s key ingredients. Photo: Erica Firpo

TUNE IN

…and keep listening as I sit down at the table with innovators, creators, artists, and more who are revolutionizing travel and culture in Italy and around the Mediterranean. New episodes drop every Monday with a light blog post and link to my Patreon page. What’s that? Patreon is a way for you to be a part of Ciao Bella, support the podcast and be surprised with behind-the-scenes, for-your-eyes-only content. Like I said, I love listening so if there is someone you think I should interview, let me know. No matter what, I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please rate, review and share Ciao Bella.

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Trattoria V.2: 4 New Rome Restaurants Turning the Tables

Tortellini. Credit: Retrobottega

While Rome will never relinquish the triple threat of carbonara, amatriciana and cacio e pepe, it’s ready to cast off the stereotype that the classic trattoria has to be no frills, no elbow room and absolutely no service. These four new spots are turning the tables on the way you think about the Eternal City’s restaurant scene.

Retrobottega

This budding restaurant has actually been on the block for a few years, but in 2018, a refresh revealed a larger dining space and a moody, minimalist design with a trademark open kitchen and two communal tables.  

Chefs Giuseppe Lo Iudice and Alessandro Miocchi can be found center stage assembling and plating their creations: evolved recipes featuring locally sourced and foraged produce. 

The dishes change so frequently, it’s best to check Retrobottega’s Instagram to see what’s on the menu — typically a five-course, prix fixe format with an à la carte option available, too. If it’s in season, be sure to order the tortelli pasta with Roman broccoli and anchovies, or the blueberry and veal shank risotto. 

Be on the lookout for Retrobottega’s newest addition: Retro Vino wine bar serving bottles as carefully curated as the dishes. 

If you don’t have time for a full meal, stop by Retropasta, the next-door boutique where you can pick up eight types of housemade pasta. Try the stuffed options with untraditional fillings.

Luciano Cucina  

If carbonara had a king, it would be Luciano Monosilio, the home-grown chef who exalted the beloved pasta dish from local recipe to coveted art form. After more than a decade commandeering the city’s fine-dining scene, Monosilio opened this Centro Storico spot to honor his roots in the local trattoria. 

His pioneering take evolves the casual concept from rustic bolthole to a modern, stylish dining room with an exposed pasta lab and open kitchen. Monosilio is emphatically Roman, and he shows it off throughout the entire menu. His antipasti include incredible fritti (fried dishes) like suppli al telefono(fried rice balls stuffed with meat, tomato sauce and basil) and unexpected not-so-Roman dishes such as vitello tonnato (veal with tuna sauce and capers).   

But carbs are the highlight. The pasta offerings are divided into themes: Contemporanee (contemporary), Romane (traditional Roman favorites) and Ripiene (stuffed), so you’ll be able to cash in on Monosilio’s epic carbonara, while trying some of his more unusual dishes, like fettuccella ajo, ojo e bottarga di muggine — a spin on the classic garlic, pepper and olive pasta topped with cured fish roe.  

Marigold

This trendy newcomer ups the ante on the typical trattoria, casting off yesteryear stereotypes in favor of clean lines and Scandinavian design — a little oasis of hygge (coziness) straight from the oven of pastry chef Sofie Wochner.  

Simplicity is the overall objective at this self-proclaimed “micro bakery.” Focusing on seasonal products and smaller, local producers, Wochner’s pastries and partner Domenico Calabrese’s plates are deliciously sustainable creations, with an ethos inspired by Calabrese’s time in the kitchen of the American Academy of Rome’s Sustainable Food Project. Here, leftovers become delectable, unique dishes.

Wochner’s cinnamon twists, housemade butter (from kefir) and rye bread alone are worth the trip, but you’ll want to stay for Calabrese’s savory lunches and dinners. Each day features a different sandwich dependent on his mood, with made-from-scratch mustard aioli and Wochner’s sourdough, while evening menus (only available on weekends) often feature dishes like stracciatella (a heavenly soft cheese) with grilled, marinated artichokes and marjoram, and slow-cooked Korean pork belly. 

After you dine, peruse the bakery and pick up at least one loaf of fresh-baked sourdough to bring home. 

Spazio  

This Rome eatery from acclaimed toque Niko Romito isn’t exactly your typical trattoria. Rather, the experimental space serves as a test kitchen where chefs from his renowned cooking school can experience the bustle of a real working restaurant.  

Bar, caffè, bistro and dining room, Spazio is many things, in a few different spaces that effortlessly flow into each other. The restaurant, with its contemporary industrial-meets-greenhouse feel, focuses on affordable gourmet with dishes like Rome-inspired cacio e pepe with mezze maniche pasta, and creamy pork belly with savoy cabbage and potatoes. 

Spazio Pane e Caffè is the casual café side, an open, all-day kitchen serving pastries, breads, sandwiches, soups, salads and pasta dishes.

Interview with Classical Archaeologist Darius Arya

Courtesy of Darius Arya

Courtesy of Darius Arya

This article first appeared in Traditional Building, March 2019.

There is nothing more new than looking at the past, or at least that’s how Rome-based archaeologist Darius Arya thinks. For Darius, Rome is more than ancient history, it’s living history and an ongoing story that Darius takes to the lecture halls, the field, and to the screens- big and small.

“Everyone dreamed of being Indiana Jones,” tells Darius, “I figured I’d just do it. I wanted to be knee-deep in ancient inscriptions and underground sites, so I started with Latin.” While studying Classical Studies at University of Pennsylvania, Darius was accepted to participate in a semester in Rome at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies, fondly known to alums and students as the Centro. While his focus was Greek and Latin, Darius was captivated by the active history all around him and continued on to a Masters and Masters/PhD in Classical Archaeology, at University of Texas Austin, and was awarded a Fullbright scholarship and fellowship at the American Academy in Rome.

What anchored and still anchors Darius to the Eternal City is the unique juxtaposition of past and present in its art, architecture, and culture. “I tend to look at Rome from the past, like 2,500 years ago, and constantly see these threads in contemporary life here as well as around the world.” His passion for Classical studies and architecture is unstoppable, and over the past two decades in Rome, he’s done everything to share it. As the director of American Institute for Roman Culture, a non-profit that fosters conversation on Rome’s extraordinary cultural legacy through education, outreach, and multi-platform storytelling, Darius created several education and new media initiatives, and as a documentary filmmaker, he hosts 2018’s Ancient Invisible Cities (PBS) and ongoing Italian television series “Under Italy” (RAI5).

Darius on location at the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul Turkey while shooting PBS’s Ancient Invisible Cities. Courtesy of Darius Arya

We sat down with Darius to find out what its like to live, work, and dig in Rome.

You’ve been coordinating excavations in Rome for 15 years. What are some of the surprises you’ve come across? What has been your most fulfilling project to date? No matter how much you plan and study, when you finally excavate you will inevitably find things you didn’t expect, never dreamed of. I’ve come across an undocumented imperial era cemetery, and uncovered an intact opus sectile floor. My personal favorite and probably most fulfilling came from our dig at the Park of the Aqueducts, a public park less than eight miles from the center of Rome. The park itself is amazing with its mile-long arcade of ancient Aqua Claudia aqueduct. We were in our third summer at excavations, already having uncovered a 50,000 square foot lavish bath complex—multiple stories and chambers and lots of in situ marble paneling. We were halfway through the day, already unearthing beautiful statue fragments (clear signs of late antique spoliation) when we uncovered a colored marble head. As we progressed, we realized we had an entire intact statue of the highest quality—a second century AD red marble statue depicting Marsyas tied to a tree, with beautiful detailed musculature and one remaining bronze inlaid eye. I was so paranoid when we found it, I decided to sleep in the trench with Marsyas that night for fear of looters (always a real threat for any excavation). We extracted the statue the next morning with a small crane and transported it to a superintendency warehouse for safekeeping. After a thorough restoration and cleaning, our Marsyas is on permanent public display at Capitoline Museums Montemartini gallery.

What are the biggest challenges? Archaeology is slow work. And the thrill of a season in the field is matched by a long study season in the warehouse and in the library, with a lot of specialists and technicians. Many years in the field are overshadowed by countless more hours of study, research, and documentation. It is tedious and methodical—all totally worth it, but also requires a lot of patience and funding. Maybe that’s why Indiana Jones kept sneaking out of the university during office hours?

Challenges can be bureaucratic and also topographical. Rome has some of the most complex stratigraphy in the world due to the fact that it’s been continuously occupied for over 3,000 years and thus so much was built and deposited on the same land by so many citizens, foreigners, pilgrims, governments, and empires.

Taking the larger view of the field of archaeology and heritage preservation as a whole, probably the biggest challenge today is not looting nor war, but accelerated urban development and growing need for arable land. Often archaeologists and heritage preservation experts are considered hindrances to progressive development, but they are essential stakeholders in preserving/documenting known and delineated sites as well as those yet to be uncovered, and viable sources in collaborative development.

Social media, especially live streaming, takes an active role in education storytelling and promoting cultural heritage, according to Arya, who recently won a Shorty Award for his live streaming reportage. His goal is bring his audience live to cultural heritage sites around the world. Courtesy of Darius Arya

I believe it is possible to bridge the gap between innate enthusiasm for the material and the actual academic discipline by utilizing new media to keep the material dynamic—from social media like YouTube and Instagram Stories, to better, interactive tech. — DARIUS ARYA

How do you navigate living in Rome, a contemporary city with nearly three thousand years of visible history and lot of baggage? Can one appreciate the history of the Eternal City and still enjoy its 21st century attributes and vice versa? With hundreds and hundreds of churches, monuments, and archaeological sites and museums, I’m never bored. Even after two decades of living in Rome every single day is a delight for me. There is always something to discover, explore, and rediscover, and my Rome experience flows into the palimpsest of the city. For example, my bus stop is at Largo Argentina, known for its cat sanctuary as well as the area sacra, an incredible open-air site with Republican temple abutted by the late Republican Senate hall where Julius Caesar was assassinated. My local gelateria is down the street and our children get their school supplies at the cartoleria next door. It’s a contemporary marketplace and probably the most historic bus stop in the world! My kids and I bike to school passing the best preserved temple in antiquity, the Pantheon, and then peddle past one of Rome’s most modern museums, Richard Meier’s Are Pacis Museum next to the 2000 year old Mausoleum of Augustus (currently under restoration, slated for a 2019 opening).

Are the upcoming generations interested in classical studies? How do you drive that interest? I’d say that the next gens are definitely interested in the classics but perhaps less conventionally. While less and less are majoring in Latin and Greek, they are absorbing classical studies directly and indirectly through film and television series like Gladiator, Game of Thrones, The Young Pope, as well as fashion, gaming and especially travel. All of this confirms to me that the classics, that history, the art and architecture, those characters and stories, are ever inspiring. Taking that into consideration, the field as a whole (from languages to art and archaeology) is definitely shrinking needs to reboot- reinvent itself, for wider appeal, at the same time staying true to its core objectives and values. I believe it is possible to bridge the gap between innate enthusiasm for the material and the actual academic discipline by utilizing new media to keep the material dynamic—from social media like YouTube and Instagram Stories, to better, interactive tech.

An excavation is a collaborative team effort as history. Arya works side by side with trained specialists and experts in their field such as forsensicsanthropologist Pier Paolo Petroni (shown) who helps put the pieces of history together. Courtesy of Darius Arya.

You were one of the first archaeologists to have an active voice on social media, and you won an award for it (2017 Periscoper of the Year). Will you share with us why social media is so important to archaeology, classical studies and architecture? Visual storytelling, an essential component of social media, is integral to archaeologist and historians. It brings the audience directly to the material culture. I’m lucky to be in Rome, hands down one of the most photogenic cities in the world. From the first time I signed up, it made sense and was easy to share images and live streams from the ancient world via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. It’s more than just a good photo—it’s an opportunity to expand and share knowledge and insights, and interact directly with a global audience that has questions and wants to learn. My hashtags #recycledhistory (a focus on the continual evolution and reuse of ancient materials) and #romeawayfromrome (modern and contemporary architecture with classical architectonic elements from a Palladian home to 1920s theatre or Wall Street architecture) may not trend but they create new discussions and connections of the various facets of classical studies. The results of my efforts on social media really show that the classics, in all its rich, interdisciplinary fields, is alive and well in a contemporary setting. History, art, architecture, and the people of the past that created it all, are engaging protagonists on a variety of platforms (Twitter, Instagram, Periscope, Facebook). As those sites evolved and change, I’ve adapted as well, having just now launched a new podcast Travel: In Situ. Delivery and engagement is bound to continue to change and evolve, and I intend to stay with or ahead of the curve in the discussion. 

Uncorked: Natural Wines and Where to Find Them in Rome

Drinking in Piazza Navona.

Lately everyone seems to be talking about natural wines, a term that has become more than common in wine parlance- natural wines have become a trend, a hashtag, a preference, a movement and more.  But a concrete definition?  The jury is still out.  The term natural wines confuses many,  enrages others, and inspires a continuously growing number of dedicated followers. 

Though there is no official definition,  there are a number of individuals and organizations who have forged forward with unofficial definitions that a majority of people - professionals, wine lovers, et all-  agree on. Natural wine is wine made with minimal intervention in the vineyard and the cellar.   It's about healthy grapes grown with no chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides using organic, biodynamic or permaculture methods. There is no use of additives, the spontaneous fermentation uses only ambient yeasts and no temperature manipulation, and minimal use of sulfur.

To me, natural wines are also a story, an experience and an expression of place, with the wine grower dedicated to stewardship of natural resources.  And every glass of natural wine speaks  speaks volumes about its producer and birthplace.  My natural wine journey began when I opened the pages Alice Feiring’s book, The Battle for Wine and Love: Or How I Saved the World from Parkerization I had no idea what natural wine was, but I knew who Robert Parker was and I couldn’t understand why the wines he gave such high points to were never to my liking. Alice’s book read more like prose than the boring, over-analytical wine writing I was used to.  Wine writing can sometimes be quite tedious.more like a game of words and narcissism rather than stories about wine and people who make them. Alice instead wrote stories about vineyards and the culture of wine, opening up a new world to me and introducing me to a movement of people with shared values and dedication to the earth, people making authentic wines with a sense of place. . The book changed my life and how I eat and drink. 

So, what was I drinking before? Honestly, I don’tknow.  Conventional wines found in supermarkets -even those labeled organic- can contain dozens of preservatives, engineered yeast strains, concentrates, artificial color, acidifiers, de-acidifiers, and many more additives that are not on the label.  Even if a bottle of wine is labeled ‘organic,’ it simply means the grapes were grown organically but doesn’t tell the consumer anything about what is happening during the wine making process. 

What I am drinking now? I am drinking homegrown stories and natural wines. Living in Italy, I am lucky to have access to some of the country's most dedicated producers.   And over the past past decade, natural wine producers have flourished like the craft beer movement- natural wines have dedicated sections in wine lists and natural wine bars are popping up all over the world.  How can you get to know natural wines?  The best ways are talking about it: heading to natural wine fairs to meet producers, asking sommeliers, and joining tastings. If you are in Rome, I have a go-to list of five wine shops and enotecas with great wine sold by friendly people.

Les Vignerons in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood.

Les Vignerons (Trastevere) the first enoteca in Rome completely dedicated to natural wine and craft beer.  Owners Antonio Marino and Marisa Glands are charming, friendly, and incredible listeners- one of the most important wine qualities, in my opinion. I’ve been their client for years and always walk out with new wines that are suited for my tastes. Keep in mind that Les Vignerons is not a wine bar, but a shop- one of the best - for both product range and prices - in Italy.

Enoteca L’Angolo Divino (Campo de’ Fiori): the corner wine bar. Owner Massimo Crippa has one of the most well curated wine lists in Rome and a bonus is that it is right in the heart of the historic city center. Not only are the wines fantastic, the ambience is perfectly charming and rustic, with low lights and lots of wood paneling. Massimo has always served wines from small, traditional producers, even before natural wines became trendy. Like me, he has a great passion for promoting Lazio producers. I also love the flow of local Romans who come in for a glass of wine or to buy a bottle- a great spot to brush up on Roman dialect and hear local gossip. 

Enoteca Vignaioli Naturali (Prati): bolt hole wine bar conveniently located around the corner from St. Peter’s Square. Owner Tiziana Gallo is not just one of the most important women in wine here in Rome, she also is the pioneer of the Eternal City’s natural wine movement, hosting annual wine fair Vignaioli Naturali a Roma. At least once a month, you can find me here for her wine tastings- thematic yet not guided, in other words a great place to catch up with friends and talk wine.

Da Cesare al Casaleto (Monteverde): a new style/old school trattoria in a residential neighborhood.. Owner Leonardo Vignoli took over ownership in 2009 and has done a fantastic job of maintaining a classic trattoria ambience with amazing food and a stellar wine list. There are fantastic naturals on their wine list, and if you don’t know how to order them, the waiters are happy to help you pick out the right wine at a great price point.

Barnaba Vino e Cecina (Testaccio) The first time I visited Barnaba, I immediately texted my wine bestie an urgent message that I found our new Rome hang-out. It’s exquisite. While snooty hipsters seem to have taken up a lot of space in the movement, there are still places out there that care about quality and service. The wine list is stellar and has a heavy emphasis on Champagne and French producers. So for a person like me who is steeped in Italian wine, having access to non-Italian wine is a fantastic change of pace. The Italians on the list are all well curated, clean, well made wines. The food is upscale wine bar fare that pairs perfectly with the wines. The staff is friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. This is my place for celebrating with great wine. 

Wine talk at Angolo Divino.

Wine talk at Angolo Divino.

Want to know more about Uncorked and Sarah May? Listen to Travel: In Situ with Darius Arya. Episode 4 is all about Sarah and Lazio wines.

5 Places To See Contemporary Art In Rome

Palazzo Merulana. Credit: Palazzo Merulana

Want to spend a weekend exploring Rome as a contemporary outpost? I’ve lined up where you need to go and stay in my latest update on contemporary art in Rome for Forbes Travel, December 2018.

Rome is where the art is, but these days it’s more than just colossal monuments, dusty archeological sites and beautifully decorated Baroque churches.

Contemporary art is finally making a significant mark on the Eternal City’s landscape. The destination is now replete with an itinerary of museums, galleries, concept spaces and creative hubs. We’ve plotted out five top places that bring this ancient city back to the future.

WHAT TO SEE

Palazzo Merulana
One of the newest galleries on the scene, this former municipal office building underwent a three-year renovation in preparation for the eclectic, 90-piece collection of Elena and Claudio Cerasi, prominent local patrons of the arts. Most of the museum’s works are Italian pieces created between World War I and II by artists such as Giacomo Balla, Giorgio de Chirico and Alighiero Boetti.   

Art aficionado or not, you’ll want to hang around at CafeCulture, the palazzo’s boutique and coffee shop. The menu features a variety of fare sourced from local purveyors, such as cheeses from ProLoco DOL, hamburgers from famed butcher Bottega Liberati and sweets from patisserie Cristalli di Zucchero.

Contemporary Cluster 
This avant-garde experience is the 21st-century manifestation of those iconic multidisciplinary performances of the 1960s and ’70s: a boutique/art gallery/event space housed in a decadent 17th-century palace on a side street off Campo de’ Fiori. 

The hybrid art and commercial venue hosts monthly exhibitions, weekly performances and DJ sets, while its grounds have permanent and pop-up shops and cafés.

In essence, Contemporary Cluster is a concept store with an artsy vibe that constantly draws an eclectic crowd with almost everything being for sale as a bonus.

Sarah Sze at Crypta Balbi
It’s not every day that one of the world’s most famous contemporary art galleries joins forces with an ancient archaeological site. Gagosian, whose imprint in Rome has upgraded the art scene over the past 10 years, has turned to the past for a site-specific, National Roman Museum-partnered installation at the Crypta Balbi ruins.

Through January 27, the first-century theater provides a rustic backdrop for contemporary sculpture Split Stone (7:34) by American artist Sarah Sze. Using an ultra-modern process by which thousands of tiny cavities etched into the rock are filled with pigment, Sze has created a captivating crystalized sunset scene on the stone’s mirror-like surface.  

Sant’Andrea de Scaphi. Credit: Erica Firpo

Gavin Brown’s Enterprise: Sant’Andrea de Scaphis
To find the pulse of the international art scene, head for British art dealer Gavin Brown’s Rome outpost — it’s everything and nothing you’d expect. Located in a nondescript, deconsecrated church on a side street of Trastevere, Sant’Andrea de Scaphis is a single, rustic room of hauntingly charming medieval architecture that usually features a single artist installation.

Exhibits rotate every few months, so it’s unlikely you’ll run into the same works twice. The historic space is hosting a politically charged display by American graphic designer Sam Pulitzer, “May The Last Nationalist Be Strangled With The Guts Of The Last Technocrat,” through December 8.

Palazzo Rhinoceros. Credit: Pino LePera

Palazzo Rhinoceros
The name Fendi is synonymous with Rome’s fashion scene, but the designers’ youngest sister, Alda, opts for a more innovative interpretation with Fondazione Alda Fendi — Esperimenti, her nonprofit arts foundation.  

The group’s latest experiment is Palazzo Rhinoceros, a new creative hub in the Velabro neighborhood that opened in October. Architect Jean Nouvel rebooted a centuries-old palazzo into a multi-level gallery, 24 luxury apartments and a rooftop restaurant, without altering the building’s historic bones.   

While the interiors are stunning, some of the venue’s highlights are actually found outside, including a can’t-miss portrait projection of Alda by Pierre et Gilles on the façade and a life-sized resin rhino that lurks in the front yard.   

Hotel Eden’s La Terrazza. Credit: Hotel Eden

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Eden
Rome’s undeniable harbinger of style and hospitality, this Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star stunner is dripping in fashionable touches — think art deco details, custom furniture and resplendent marble accents.

For a picture-perfect end to a day of gallery-hopping, dine at La Terrazza, the luxury hotel’s rooftop restaurant boasting some of the best views of the city.  

Gran Meliá Rome Villa Agrippina. Credit: Melia Hotels & Resorts


Gran Meliá Rome Villa Agrippina
Located on the bluffs of the famed Janiculum hill (between Trastevere and Vatican’s Borgo neighborhood) on the site of an imperial villa, this Four-Star retreat is a city-center oasis that comes complete with a 1920s-era pool and lush greenery.

Though its origins are ancient, Gran Meliá’s style is contemporary: sleek modern furnishings, wide-open spaces and the sophisticated My Blend by Clarins spa.

The Rooms of Rome
Stay in the heart of the action when you book into Palazzo Rhinoceros’s fully immersive-art experience on the edge of the Roman Forum. Each of its 24 rooms is minimalist chic, meticulously designed and curated by the aforementioned Jean Nouvel, the superstar architect behind the cutting-edge Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The stylish rooms are outfitted with luxe touches, too, like Bang & Olufsen TVs, fully equipped kitchens and L’Occitane amenities.

{ART}Sarah Sze recycles Time at Crypta Balbi

Split Stone (7:34), Sarah Sze at Crypta Balbi. Photo by Erica Firpo.

There are so many ways to experience Rome but there is nothing I like best than the time-bending contradiction of ancient and contemporary in the exact same moment. Rome isn’t simply ancient, or Baroque, or modern. It’s all of that at once, which is what makes visiting and living in Rome so thrilling and stressful. It’s knee-jerk to say Rome is chaotic- because it truly is. Hit pause for a second, you’ll see that the chaos is just all of the layers of time fighting for space.

Timeless. Timely. Time waster. Sentimental. Rome practically begs you to take a bigger bite of its personality. And lately, museums, cultural sites, monuments and galleries are serving it up in on a time-bending platter. Latest is Split Stone (7:34) by American artist Sarah Sze, a Gagosian Gallery/Museo Nazionale Romano collaboration appearing this month and through January.

Looking close for the pixels. Photo by Erica Firpo.

Rock of Ages

Head down to the subterranean of Cripta Balbi and you come face to face with a split boulder. It’s Sarah Sze's latest installation and counter-part to her self-titled gallery exhibition at Gagosian. Two halves of a monumental granite rock that sneakily resemble a geode sit in the travertine-lined remains of the 1st century BC theatre of Balbus- just one incarnation of Cripta Balbi, an archaeo-museum that is all about recycled space. Walk around the site and you’re stepping through millennia-spanning detritus from its incarnations as ancient theatre, medieval house, Renaissance convent and 19th century orphanage. Walk back to Split Stone, take a closer look. Sze permanently drilled a slick and pixelated image of sunset (that she snapped on her smartphone!) on the face of each stone.

This is not the Crypta Balbi show that Darius would dream of, but it’s the kind of show I have been waiting to see- recycling Rome through an incredible (yet barely visited) archaeo-museum and inserting the very contemporary into its historic context. Because that is Rome every day life- imperial leftovers while we wait for the bus, Baroque backdrops while we visit the dentist, unification monuments while we shop at H&M.

“Rome is a constant intersection of ancient and contemporary, all the time mixing together”, says Sze. It’s a never-ending conversation of permanent and ephemeral, analogue and dialogue, and old and new, aka Rome every day.

I want to see this show- How do I do it?

It’s pretty easy. Split Stone is in situ at Crypta Balbi, all you have to do enter the museum. Here’s a tip: Cripta Balbi is one of the four locations of the Museo Nazionale Romano- an incredible, four-venue ticket which at 15 euro for a 72-hour period is one of my favorite ways to explore the city- ancient and present day. Each of the four Museo Nazionale Romano venues focuses on Ancient Rome, with a large stress on sculpture, and each is a unique architectural experience- an ancient bath structure (Diocleziano), a Renaissance palace (Altemps), a late 19th century townhouse (Massimo) and an ancient Roman theatre/crypt/medieval residence/archaeological site (Balbi). All four museums hide in plain sight -Palazzo Massimo and Terme di Diocleziano by Termini Station, Palazzo Altemps by Piazza Navona and Crypta Balbi by Largo Argentina.

Tickets: 10 euro per site, or a 15 euro cumulative ticket which lasts 72 hours

Split Stone closes January 27, 2019.

A Secret New Hotel in the Center of Everything Great in Rome

The Adelaide Salotto at Hotel Vilòn. All photos courtesy of Hotel Vilòn.

A charming new hotel in the center of Rome embodies everything that contributing editor Erica Firpo loves about her home town — beauty, discretion, charm, and aesthetics. This article originally appeared in Fathom, October 2018.

ROME – One of my favorite things to do is muse about where I would have an affair in Rome. After a few years of testing out the possibilities — from an off-the-beaten-path bedroom nook to a corner suite in a posh hotel — I've realized I have some basic requirements. 

Whereas some people just need a room key, I need just a little bit more. First, location: The address must be in the absolute hub of the city center, but at the same time extremely unassuming, with no doorman, flags, or fanfare, so I can slip in and out of the crowd unnoticed. Second, luxurious: I need to feel the affair is worth it, not from its price tag but by its top quality, from sheets and showers to artwork and design. Third, view: I want a terrace where I can take in the city, but absolutely no way can it face anything public.

Easy, right?

Not at all, which is why I love Rome.

The Eternal City is the chaotic culmination of history, culture, and personalities that become an infernal nightmare when trying to hide an affair. True Romans have lived and breathed for at least sette generazioni(seven generations), so six degrees of separation takes on a logarithmic new dimension where everyone knows everyone else and nothing goes unnoticed.

Or so I thought until I stepped off via del Corso, aka the main thoroughfare for the all-ages scene, and onto via dell'Arancio, a nondescript side street with a row of doors. The doors were a side entrances to private apartments within Palazzo Borghese, a vast urban villa estate whose famous residents include papal families and Paulina Borghese, Napoleon Bonaparte's sister.

What makes the Borghese stand out among Rome's incredible palazzi are the gardens — an arcadia in the city with a courtyard with statues of ancient gods, 96 granite columns, a nympheum, and a beautiful garden with three allegorical fountains. Getting access to the gardens is all but impossible. You are lucky if you can take a peek during the few days the gardens are open to the public. 

Or you can book yourself into a garden-facing room at Hotel Vilòn, a rip-the-plastic-off new hotel in the very center of the Eternal City, part of the latest lineup of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. One of the discreet doors on via dell'Arancio, the former Borghese family property became a School for Maidens in 1841 and was until recently home to  Daughters of the Cross, an order of French nuns, who I presume weren't using the rooms for the affairs I was fantasizing about.

Just when I wasn't looking for a the perfect secret, I found it.

Rates

Rates start from €462.

Checking In

Location
In the very center of Rome's historic center, just off of via del Corso, conveniently on a side street away from the crowds and the noise, but close enough to walk straight into the thick of it.

Hotel Style
Sultry, from the minute you walk across the harlequin-tiled marble entrance floor. Rich hues, lavish marbles and woods, and lots of well-chosen contemporary and photography. The rooms chill down with neutral hues, mahogany floorboards, and accents of dark blues and violets. The vibe is intimate and private, and overall style is that very chic Italian best friend you've always dreamed of.

Just when I wasn't looking for a the perfect secret, I found it.

This Place Is Perfect For
Me. And anyone who likes a little sexy oasis in the city center.

But Not So Perfect For
Anyone who is looking for a full-service hotel, as there is no spa or gym. But honestly, you're in Rome. Just walk out the front door.

What's on Site
The gorgeous lounge bar and restaurant Adelaide, and the hidden open-air atrium lounge.

Food + Drink
If I could, I would park myself in Vilòn's Adelaide salotto every single afternoon. The lounge feels like a fabulous film still, and no wonder: Set designer Paolo Bonfini created the ambience with rich colors, patterns, and prints, playing off that gorgeous octane blue. Photographer Massimo Listri hand-selected all the artwork and included his monumental photos from the Uffizi museum, and architect Giampiero Panepinto added the whimsical design pieces. Oh, wait, did I mention the cocktails are incredible? Vilòn's barman/mixologist curates the menu with classics, forgotten classics, and Adelaide's own drinks. The Adelaide salotto flows into the Adelaide restaurant, a stately salon that serves a tasty buffet of treats all day long, as well as lunch and dinner with Roman cuisine inspired dishes. Everything is served on beautifully mismatched Richard Ginori porcelain.

Number of Rooms
18 guest rooms and suites. Room categories range, from smallest to largest, are: Double, Charming, Charming with Terrace, and Charming Deluxe. The three suites are Vilòn, Melangolo (named for via dell' Arancio's medieval nickname), and Borghese.

In-Room Amenities
My favorite amenity by far are the plush bath robes — by far, the most comfortable of any Rome hotel — and the octane blue slippers which general manager Giorgia Tozzi spent months sourcing. And I should mention that the all-white marble bathrooms are divine. Ladies, keep an eye out for the Saugella Detergente Intima next to the bidet, it is preferred intimate cleanser of signore italiane. Keeping up with 21st-century tech, rooms have large Sony televisions teched-out with Apple TV, WiFi with great connectivity, and the lighting system is the ultra-innovative Domot by MicroDevice. My pet peeve in any hotel is the outlet situation, and at Vilòn, they were on point, no need to move any furniture. The mini bar stocked with free drinks like Italian specialties Gazosa, Chinotto, and Aranciata, as well as international favorites and snacks, including my very favorite dark-chocolate covered toasted hazelnuts.

Drawbacks
Parking. Then again, if you're in Rome, you don't need a car.

Standout Detail
The garden-facing terraces. Yes, the signature suites are fabulous, but book me a Vilòn Charming room looking onto the Borghese Palace's private garden, and I'm happy.

Checking Out

What to Do Nearby
This neighborhood, Campo Marzio, is by far my favorite in Rome. Absolutely everything that encapsulates the Eternal City is here. Ancient monuments like Mausoleum of Augustus and Ara Pacis, a 1st-century temple in an ultra-mod Richard Meier-designed glass box. Also: fabulous piazzas for great coffee, ice cream, and people-watching at Caffe CiampiniLa Matricianella is my pick for a picture-perfect lunch. As for shopping, via del Corso is the teen beat gauntlet, and nearby Piazza di Spagna and Via del Babuino are for big spenders, but I prefer the side streets around Largo Goldoni including via della Frezza and via del Fontanella Borghese.

Or Go Explore the Rest of the Country
Rome is the perfect city to kick off or end any Italian vacation. She's got personality for days, so if you're in need of a respite, consider Rome the pre-party, and hop the train to any coastal town for a bit of R&R or to Milan for a fashion binge. For day trips and overnighters, Italy is at your disposal from Rome’s Termini train station. Naples for a pizza? Why not? Florence for a quick stop at Palazzo Strozzi? Sure! Add to the list a myriad small towns, and Italy is yours. If you are more interested in off-the-beaten paths like Sperlonga, Bomarzo and Cività di Bagnoregio and train connections are tight, your best bet is hiring a car. Or if you've spent all of your time traveling the peninsula, afterparty in the Eternal City. Nothing like a plate of carbonara to calm you down.

Good to Know
Rome is a contradiction. It's a crazy and chaotic city that needs at least a few hours of relax — like a long lunch in a pretty piazza — every day. High tourist season kicks off a few weeks before Easter and lasts through July. Romans vacate the city once the heats sets in (and after the July sales kick off around July 5), but the city is stifling hot. By August, the temperatures cool down and the city is empty of all residents. My favorite time for a visit is late October-November and early February.

Getting Around
Rome is a city for walking, but, for the more intrepid urban explorer, the ATAC public transport system of buses, trams, and metro is well connected. Rule of thumb: Buy your tickets in advance at the tabacchaio (small tobacco item stores) and date-stamp them as soon as you enter the metro or board the bus.

5 Boutique Rome Stays To Check Out This Summer

Grand Meliá Rome Villa Agrippina. Credit: Grand Meliá Rome Villa Agrippina

There isn’t a better time to visit Rome than in the summer, when the city illuminates with museum and site openings and incredible evening events. And the Italian capital is more than ready to accommodate with an incredible crop of small, but mighty high-end hotels that are helping to further evolve the city’s dynamic from eternal to iconic.

Here’s your room key to five of Rome’s most sumptuous stays.

Grand Meliá Rome Villa Agrippina
History plays a major role in contemporary Roman life, so it’s no wonder that this Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star stay masterfully combines both. A verdant enclave on the site of a first-century imperial villa, Grand Meliá provides an urban haven of relaxation with its sprawling greenery and state-of-the-art spa.

Beat the city heat by lounging around the picture-perfect 1920s-style swimming pool. Lined with cozy cabanas, plush loungers and secluded gardens, this elegant spot is an Instagrammer’s paradise.

When you need a bite (or a cocktail), simply stroll over to the buzzing poolside bar, Liquid Garden. Try a Spirtz & Fizz (gin, St. Germain, grapefruit juice, prosecco and smoked salt) and nibble on Italian bites.

You can also head to the terrace of Ossimoro to enjoy a flavorful Mediterranean meal from chef Carmine Buonanno — either way, you won’t be disappointed.

Portrait Roma’s Rooftop Terrace. Credit: Portrait Roma – Lungarno Collection

Portrait Roma — Lungarno Collection 
If you’re looking for a Five-Star pied-à-terre in the heart of town, you’ll find it here. The chic, 14-room property is a fashionista’s dream with Ferragamo-inspired interiors that look fresh off a magazine cover.

Open during the summer months, a rooftop terrace — serving light fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner — is equally as stunning, with cushy loungers, candles and a modern glass fireplace, perfect for cuddling or celebrating.

But some of the best features aren’t found inside — Portrait Roma boasts a prime locale on Via dei Condotti, Rome’s historic and exclusive fashion boulevard. The avenue is an excellent place to shop for haute couture during seasonal sales, which run through August.

And just in case you can’t decide what you want to do next, the hotel also has a team of six knowledgeable lifestyle assistants, ready to send you in the direction of the city’s hottest concert, exhibit or restaurant.

Villa Spalletti Trivelli. Credit: Villa Spalletti Trivelli

Villa Spalletti Trivelli
History buffs and luxury lovers alike will want to book into this Four-Star stay when heading to Rome. A historic home-turned-hotel, this refined retreat is decked out in period furniture and art, including tapestries, sculptures, paintings and an exquisite antique library recognized by Italy’s Ministry of National Heritage and Culture. Even the gardens are manicured to evoke an early 19th-century feel.

Hospitality goes above and beyond here. Expect to be greeted at the entrance and served breakfast and afternoon tea in lavish salons. Twelve bedrooms reside in the three-story home, while across the lawn are a large apartment and two spacious Garden Suites, which are highly recommended for a summer stay.  

But the real highlight is the remodeled rooftop terrace. Debuted this summer, the alfresco space has multiple whirlpools, a complimentary bar and a plush lounge. The hotel’s enviable position on Quirinale Hill — one of the seven hills of Rome — makes its rooftop a wonderful sunset spot.

The Pantheon Iconic Rome Hotel’s Divinity Rooftop Terrace. Credit: The Pantheon Iconic Rome Hotel

The Pantheon Iconic Rome Hotel
Debuted in April, this 79-room stunner occupies a prime perch in the magical and very central Pantheon neighborhood. The historic façade hides a complete interior rebuild by Milanese architect Marco Piva, who transformed the building into a veritable temple of design with glossy marbles, resplendent golds, warm woods and contemporary sculptures all inspired by the Pantheon itself. 

But the cherry on top of this sublime stay is the rooftop. Offering dome-level views of the iconic monument and Rome’s terracotta-dotted skyline, the Divinity Rooftop Terrace features a glass-enclosed wine cellar and a historically inspired cocktail menu, providing a scenic perch for summertime sundowners.

When the ground-floor restaurant Dionysus opens this fall, you can expect to enjoy Roman and regionally inspired flavors there along with a wine list of more than 400 labels.  

Hotel Vilón’s Adelaide. Credit: Stefano Scatà

Hotel Vilòn
Located in a 16th-century mansion that once belonged to one of Rome’s most formidable families, this brand-new boutique stay (it just opened in March) is this season’s best-kept secret.

Situated on a quiet side street just off the bustling historic city center, this 18-room darling was designed from floor to ceiling as a luxurious home. Rich colors, lavish marbles and woods, contemporary art and photography, and custom furniture create an ambiance that is both stylish and sultry. 

On the ground level is where you’ll find Adelaide, a gorgeous restaurant and bar that feels like you’ve just walked onto a film set, thanks to styling by production designer Paolo Bonfini. With its contemporary vibe and exclusive locale, this posh lounge is one of the hottest places in the city to sip — snag a stool during apertivo hour and order up a Principessa, a fragrant blend of citrusy Galliano L’Aperitivo, pomegranate juice, and thyme- and pink-pepper-infused soda.

This article first appeared in Forbes Travel July 2018.

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Styling up Rome's Sushi Scene with Bruno Barbieri {Review}

Chef Bruno Barbieri celebrates Daruma Seasons.

Bruno Barbieri.  If you live in Italy, you know Bruno.  He's been playing foil to chef Carlo Cracco since the very beginning of Masterchef Italia, and is a wolf in sheep's clothing. The seemingly harmless Emilia Romagna-born Barbieri is a culinary force, tallying up 40 years in the kitchen and 7 Michelin stars.  He's been all over the world, including a research sabbaticaI in Brazil.   Of all the places he appears, I never expected to see him at the neighborhood sushi joint in Rome.

Sushi in Rome has come a long way, baby. At the turn of the century, pre-made, tiny one room shops stocked with refrigerated California rolls populating the city as an economical answer to Hamasei, Rome's historic Japanese restaurant.  For a self-declared California girl like myself, these sushi nooks quenched some nostalgia cravings but not quite.  Even with the k-rab rolls, I still missed my cheap, strip mall sushi joints where fresh uni, red bean miso encrusted cod collar and cherry blossom moshi were mandatory on almost every white-board menu. 

Over the years, Rome grew into the sushi culture, and it evolved from novelty to locality.   Nippon-syled restaurants like Rokko opened in the center, while trendy mod boat sushi started appearing on the outer center neighborhoods like  Prati neighborhood, and a triangle of Ostiense (Via Ostiense -Via del Gazometro- Via del Porto Fluviale) became a neighborhood of Japanese restaurants.  Somewhere in this timeline was Daruma Sushi.

Daruma Parlamento. Photo credit: Daruma Sushi.

I like to consider myself Daruma's first client.  Alessio Tesciuba opened the original outpost (one of those tiny shops with  of rolls, Japanese soft drinks and bags of wasabe peas) somewhere around the time I moved into my Piazza Navona adjacent apartment in 2005.  From the moment I spied Daruma, I was front and center,  showing up once or twice a month for some rolls and a chitchat with Alessio. We talked about everything sushi, Japan and California.  Eventually, I moved out and Daruma moved on- opening new take out/delivery spots around the city and finally opening a sit-down restaurant (among others) in Rome's the historic center by Piazza del Parlamento.

Alessio and his brothers Daniele and and Dennis are overlords of an empire which includes delivery, take out and sit down restaurants, originally sushi and Japanese cuisine, and now Italian-Japanese fusion, thanks to a little help from Bruno, who coincidentally is a client like me- serendipitous finding the spot a few years back and befriending the owner.  Returning from a visit to Japan, Bruno and the Brothers Tesciuba brainstormed the idea Daruma Seasons,  the culinary mash up of Bruno's expertise with inspirations from Japanese cuisine.

The professional photo of Spaghetti alla chitarra (made with algae) con astice (lobster). Photo by Daruma.

"I like the philosophy behind [Japanese food], and the way they treat food with respect", says Barbieri.  "Food is a kind of deity and eating is a real ritual", with similarities to Italian cuisine in "its profound culture of food .... with deep, probing flavors".   Bruno's take is a seasonal experiment of flavors and techniques from both cultures, featuring two new dishes each season season.  My beloved spaghetti alla chitarra, is a crunchy, flavored spaghetti with dried seaweed powder, with lobster, fresh mixed algae and flavored with typically Mediterranean aromas like capers, bottarga and aromatic herbs, and winter's cartoccio di tonno is simply tuna cooked in paper bag and seasoned with peanuts, toasted sesame, vegetables and Teriyaki sauce.

Lately, I've noticed I am not always willing to suggest non-Roman, non-Italian restaurants, but it's time I've updated my mindset.  Barbieri's Daruma Seasons are well-crafted, delightfully tasty and easy pleasers.  Less Italianization (a style of watering down Asian cuisine to make it similarly "palatable" for an Italian audience) and more of a thoughtful plate evolution where Japanese flavors and techniques overlap with Italian counterparts.

Cartoccio tonno e verdure (tuna and vegetable). Photo by Daruma.

Cartoccio tonno e verdure (tuna and vegetable). Photo by Daruma.

LOCATION:  All over. Daruma has six sit-down restaurants across the city in areas including Daruma Parlamento in the historic center's Campo Marzio neighborhood and Daruma Sushi Kosher in the Ghetto. Other Japanese-inspired spots in my little black book: Sakana, a boat sushi spot suggested by my friend Sachiko as a kid-pleaser. Excellent soups.  Kiko for the cool factor. Doozo for its zen-garden inspired private terrace, and Zuma for the view and the cocktails.

 

Suite Life: Rome's Costaguti Experience

If Rome is living history, there is no better way to understand than to actually live in Rome, whether for a few days, years or lifetime. I've chosen the latter, and every day I still find surprisingly different ways of seeing the Eternal City, whether on the hunt for art- ancient or otherwise, or where I lay my head.  A few months back, I was invited to get out of my comfort zone and experience what it would be like to be a Roman nobile with a weekend stay at Costaguti Experience in the historic Palazzo Costaguti, what Renaissance artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari considered one of the best palaces in Rome.

Built in the early 16th century and acquired by the aristocratic Costaguti family in 1578, Palazzo Costaguti was a hub for the Baroque era’s most famous artists who were tasked with creating frescoes through the residence.   Nicolas Poussin, Cavalier d'Arpino and the Zuccari Brothers all spent time lavishing decorating the ceilings with scenes of putti, Aneid and the months of the year.  Today, the Marchese occupies the buildings private apartments, but the  piano nobile (main floor) is open to guests as the ultra-luxe Costaguti experience- a five-bedroom apartment with full-time concierge service.

Billiard room.

Cavalier d'Arpino was here - ceiling fresco in the Billiard room.

Let's be clear:  the apartment is  beautiful and tastefully styled to celebrate both its Baroque history and its contemporary incarnation.  The 50-square-meter salon is the jewel of the Costaguti family for its a richly detailed original wood ceiling and design border a fresco panel series of the Allegory of the Months and the Virtues painted by the Zuccari brothers, and it was our main hangout where we hosted two dinner parties, a lovely wine and cheese tasting organized by Costaguti and Beppe e Suoi Formaggi, one of the city's preeminent cheese makers, and just hung out watching Netflix.  When we needed to walk around, we played pool under my favorite painting, Cavalier d'Arpino's Aneid.

Deciding where to sleep would have been a challenge if we weren't the bosses.  On the first level, there are three rooms, two with wooden ceilings (at 30ft, matching the salon), and we chose the main bedroom with personal hammam. Room 2 was its next door with super king bed and smaller day bay.  Room 3 was charming (read: intimately tiny) with its Poussin putti fresco ceiling, and en suite bathroom, perfect for a godmother or best friend.  Bedrooms 4 and 5 were a short staircase to a mezzanine level where were eye-to-eye with gilded arch molding, an experience that prior to this weekend I have only had from far below.  Bedroom 4 was sultry, nestled in those gorgeous golden arches with a open marble bath area and hidden waterfall shower.  Bedroom 5 is the least interesting, a tastefully simple niche with two twin beds and view of inner courtyard.

Cleaning staff arrived promptly to our designated time each morning, and our kitchen was stocked daily with neighborhood and Roman favorites including Sant'Eustachio coffee and freshly made pastries from Caffe Roscioli.  There were so many more goodies that I don't remember, but I do fondly recall Grazia, our concierge, who was available at all times for all of our questions and incredibly polite when we accidentally shorted the electricity. Note: when staying in a Roman apartment, always discuss the limits of electrical usage and fuse box location.

Read my design review of Costaguti Experience on Pages 24-25 of Rhapsody, United's first class inflight magazine.

The golden arches.... original, gilded molding in the upstairs bathroom.

Zuccari fresco detail in the main salon (ceilings are 30 ft)

Location:  Historic Center, well positioned to public transportation and taxis, as well as easy to walk to all major monuments.  Palazzo Costaguti is my "almost home" landmark,  a great shortcut through Piazza Mattei, the borderline between the Campitelli neighborhood and Rome's Ghetto.  While most are taking photos of the Fontana delle Tartarughe, Giacomo della Porta's and Taddeo Landini's unmissable turtle fountain,  I always stop to look at the monument front entrance with Costaguti written on the lintel, and I think of Tom Ripley, envious friend from Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, who lived Palazzo Costaguti when he took on Dickie Greenleaf's identity in Rome.

Fontana delle Tartarughe with Palazzo Costaguti entrance in the background.