Gli Stranieri

A Foreigner in Rome

Category: Culture

A Tiramisù Pilgrimage [Pompi]

I’ve been hankering after tiramisù for ages, before realising (should’ve guessed, really) there is a place famous for the dessert. Tiramisù means ‘pick me up’, coming from the need for men to boost their sexual performance in Venetian brothels. I seem to remember that putanesca sauce has a similar history, for women in brothels: anyone sensing a recurring theme here?

Pompi has been making tiramisù since 1960 and they’re bloody good. It’s on Via Albalonga for those who know (or want to know), nearest metro is Re di Roma.

You can tell from the fancy sign [The King of Tiramisù] that it takes its tiramisù seriously. An individual portion (pretty big) costs 3.50 and comes in: classic, strawberry, forest fruits, pistachio, banana & nutella or hazelnut. I think that’s all of them. This is a bad place for indecision, I ended up buying two.

On the left is banana & nutella, classic tiramisù on the right. I should’ve waited until after I’d photographed them to start eating, but couldn’t. I’m sorry. Banana & nutella was a bit of let down to be honest, like a failed banoffee pie. I should have been happy with the original, but that’s one of the many perils we gluttons face. Maybe I’ll go back to get pistachio…



Tarantism is a phenomenon that was particularly prevalent in the south of Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. Supposedly bitten by a venomous spider (a tarantula), women would enter a manic state that was only curable by dancing continuously. With no evidence of spider bites, speculation about the practice is rife. Whether or not it was born of venom, or societal issues, it is fascinating. It begot the Tarantella dance and style of music which, if you listen to, still maintains the percussive feel of a purging exorcism.

Women dressing up as brides of St. Paul (and rolling around on the floor of the church to rid themselves of their dancing demons), sounds a lot like a Brighton Halloween party. But, though Tarantism seems a tad outdated, my housemate has relatives that can recall seeing these women (Tarantulees): not as distant a practice as you might think.

As much as I’d like to claim expertise, I just watched a documentary about it. You should watch it too:

[N.B the video explores Tarantism from a musical healing perspective – not necessarily my bag – but the footage is excellent]

Off to the Lake – Bracciano

Lying traffic lights, insane people and a penchant for corruption can make Rome a bit of a headache. After two months of city stress, I was more than a little happy to find solace in the beauty of Bracciano. Mountainous backdrops, winding streets in the hills, castles and lakes, just an hour’s train journey from the centre of Rome.

The first noticeable thing is the Castle [Castello Orsini-Odescalchi], a fifteen-century, military-renaissance beast. Also the place where Katie Holmes made a pretty bad decision and married Tom Cruise (I suspect a few days in the dungeon were behind this).

The shops are in-keeping with the medieval vibe of the town, in both attitude and produce. In one, very rustic, delicatessen (still with the odd bit of tinsel knocking around – in April), the owner told me that being a vegetarian was a swear word, my two female companions were beautiful, and that it was stupid Italian women considered foreigners attractive. I don’t get the feeling I was very popular. Charming as he was, his rolls were quite nice.

Anyway, all was well when I got a good look at the lake. Apologies for photo quality, it was misty and I am rubbish at taking photographs.

Another life lesson was learned, after listening to directions from strangers that led us in completely the wrong direction. But I did see my first olive trees and I found swan lake.

Bellissimo. Except for the Eastern European dance music playing in the background of the above photo; not quite the Tchaikovsky I had envisioned.

The Pantheon

It took me a while to finally see the Pantheon: bad weather and unknown opening times conspired to keep us apart. Bad weather would normally be the perfect time to see things inside, but the Pantheon has a massive hole in its ceiling. An oculus for those in the know. The world’s largest, in fact.

When the sun is visible through the oculus [as above], it is easy to understand the potency the building must have had as a temple for the ancient Roman gods. This is one of the best-preserved and oldest buildings in Rome, and still continues to be used as a Catholic church. I’m not sure how I feel about it being used in this way. Yes, it’s great that such an ancient building is still operating so successfully, but I also feel that it slightly spoils the decidedly pagan feel of the building.

Despite this, I am really tempted to be Catholic for a day during the Pentecost. The fire brigade throw rose petals through the hole in the ceiling, which must be an awesome sight in the very traditional sense of the word.

What I also like about the building is (apparently) if the domed roof was removed and turned upside-down, it would fit perfectly into the circular room. Bearing in mind this was built almost two-thousand years ago, it is a numerical feat that makes me feel a bit peculiar. There is definitely something innately perfect about its design that can be physically felt when inside.

It also looks like it shouldn’t be circular:

Compare the very rectangular front:

To the very curved side:

Though it does seem faintly apocalyptic, I desperately want to see an eclipse from inside. Not sure what the probability of that ever happening is, but I’m holding out for surprise eclipse so I can celebrate in the Pantheon like a pagan.

Getting Ruined [Ostia Antica]

The Isle of Wight [L’Isola di Wight]

Coming from an island that is not always known in the UK results in many cases of: ‘do you need a passport to get there?’, ‘do I need to change currency?’ or even, ‘do you have roads/schools/houses?’. Then there’s the ‘I’ve heard of the Isle of Wight’ brigade, who proceed to state facts ad infinitum about the Isle of Man instead, ‘it’s the place with its own government, and the cats… the cats without tails’. For clarity’s sake, the Isle of Wight is part of England (and its government) and therefore does not need a passport – or a trip to the bureau de change – to visit. Our cats also have tails.

Regularly hearing such oversights, much to an Islander’s chagrin, I was therefore surprised to find that  a lot of Italians have actually heard of it, ‘There’s a song!, There’s a song!’. I was wondering for quite a while how Derek Sandy’s iconic song about the Island reached Italy, but I was (pleasantly) surprised when I started to have this song sung to me; accompanied by enthusiastic swaying.


Thanks to this Italian hit from the early 70s, the Isle of Wight is still celebrating a subdued sense of fame on the continent, forty years on.

As translating the lyrics word-for-word is beyond my current level of Italian, I’ll do my best to give an overview:

  • Man comes to the Isle of Wight, because it’s for young people, with blue eyes, who sing ‘hippie hippie’.
  • Man goes to the market to buy a long coat and gold lamé.
  • He spots a woman, surely a mirage, in white.
  • They go somewhere (to the Isle of Wight festival?) on a Thursday, without a suitcase.
  • They are surrounded by a shower of butterflies, share their youth and become unstoppable.

It should be no surprise it’s such a hit, with a story-line like that. Gone are the days when a chance encounter at a gold lamé market stall would lead to an unstoppable romance, powered by a shower of butterflies. That is except for during the Bestival, of course. The most Isle of Wight time of the year, where gold lamé and butterfly showers are not the exception, but the rule.

Italian Gestures [I Gesti Italiani]

Do as the Kurdish do?

Proactive investigator of other cultures that I am (read: encouraged to do things by housemate), I went to the Città dell’Utopia (Utopian City) last weekend to see some Kurdish dancing.

Looking pretty much like a dilapidated village hall, I am not quite sure they are at Utopia-level yet in appearance. There was a 3D model of how it would look after being refurbished, which looked great but was also surrounded by tall (currently non-existent) trees. Perhaps they are just being realistic about the time it will take them to finish it.

Talking of trees: are trees adorned with hanging kitchenware the pinnacle of far-left aesthetics? There was one decorating the entrance, and this was certainly not the first sad-looking saucepan tree I have seen in similar surroundings. Maybe it is meant to be edenic in a modern way – mother nature providing not only the vegetables, but the pot to cook them with too. Regardless, rushing to untie a colander from a tree in the middle of cooking does not seem that paradisal to me.

Digression over, when I arrived there was a solemn-sounding Q&A going on (in Italian) so I milled about for a while until some singing started. All was well, until I saw a growing line of dancers in front of me; grabbing embarrassed arrhythmic observers as they danced in increasingly-fast circles around the room. Obviously, I speedily slunk away to a safe corner, so I could watch them free from the horror of having to join in. Party-pooper and all that, but dancing a dance I didn’t know with people I didn’t know was way too much for me on a Sunday afternoon (i.e. post-Saturday night).

It was amazing to watch a serpentine trail of dancers in perfect, complex synchronisation. I liked the scarf-waving too. Still, here is what my cumbersome rigidity was up against:

Watching them did make me wish that there was a dance that everyone knew in the UK that would pop up at social occasions. I suppose the drunken uniform movements of the past-middle-aged guests at weddings could fill that gap. Unless anyone else is up for a Morris dance revival?

The Cemetery of Strangers [Cimiteri Acatollico]

Word of the Day: Scarpetta

The literal meaning of una scarpetta is nothing special – a little shoe.

All well and good, but what is better is fare la scarpetta (do the little shoe). In this sense it means to clean your plate with a bit of bread: sinking it into leftover sauce – presumably like a little shoe disappearing in the mud.

Not the most saliva-inducing imagery, nor is bread what I immediately think of having after a massive pasta dinner. But the sauce is always worth bloating a bit more for and it feels criminal to waste even a dribble.

It is fun, too, to traipse around one’s plate with child-like abandon. Like jumping in puddles, but at the comfort of the dining table.