Hello! My name is Rebecca May Johnson, I am a writer and cook and this is my Substack. This is the second of three newsletters from Rome and this week I present an incomplete list of things I have seen, felt and eaten, adding to the partial list of Rome I wrote in January 2020.
I send out the newsletter with text and images to paid subscribers every Monday (apart from this week due to a public holiday!) and the audio version on Wednesdays; paid subs also have access to the archive. Free subscribers receive one newsletter per month and the audio version every Wednesday. Substack have also created a free trial option.
Walking on a road that winds round Monte Testaccio there is a garage burrowed into the hill and a woman talks to a mechanic about her car repair. Across the road, two cockerels. One that we cannot see is crowing loudly. The other walks around a faded red Fiat van amongst earth, cobbles and discarded plastic bags. Behind him is a wall with endless wisteria tumbling downwards, smelling very sweet.
The manager at a chic and expensive café is unpleasant to his staff in front of us and then unpleasant to us in the half hour in which almost all ATMs and bank cards are not working in Rome. He tells a smartly dressed couple ‘You look like good people, you can come back and pay tomorrow’, having sent out S to get cash from ATMs, none of which are working.
In the English cemetery a lizard takes in the sun on top of a box hedge and does not mind being looked at, or photographed (at least, does not move when I come close). A strip of lime green runs down his back.
Standing among the graves, a man opens a small tin of tuna and speaks to a cat about its lunch. Pale pink meat is wet in the sunshine and the cat curls round towards the man from a few meters away, relaxed and not uninterested.
I take a photo of philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s grave which is surrounded by luminous scarlet cyclamen, and post a photo of it on Twitter for Nigella Lawson.
Wisteria again, covering the wall next to the grave of poet whose name is ‘writ in Water’.
In the ruins of the ancient Baths of Caracalla I am struck by fatigue and wish they were restored to full functioning order in a flash so I can become revived by water (as I have seen in the anime series about a Roman bath architect, Termae). That is not possible, so we take a taxi instead of walking to our friend’s flat.
In Marconi district breakfast at a café with a bakery attached, visible through a glass window. We have a ciamballo – a sugared ring doughnut with a faint scent of citrus, and a pastry. The cappuccino has a fine foam. As there was at the Tavola Calda from our first night here, there is an older woman at a cash desk which is, in terms of the room’s layout, an island. This one is raised up on a platform too, and she speaks over my head to the younger woman at the pastry counter about what we have ordered. When I am at the bar getting the coffees the man at my left elbow shakes a sugar packet at the man behind the bar. The man behind the bar takes the sugar packet and shakes it too, then opens it and tips the contents into the man’s coffee. Then in a smooth movement immediately following this, passes a glass of water past my right shoulder to a man behind me. In the doorway two men, one young, one old, kiss a ginger-haired puppy.
A tiny white plastic cup of espresso covered with tinfoil, with a sugar sachet and a stirrer on top. It sits unattended on a chair outside a car wash where two men are soaping the sides of a Smart car.
The fourth time that we sit outside and have beers and snacks at the Sicilian bar we are not asked to pay as soon as we order, and are permitted to pay when we leave.
A young goth couple snog passionately in the afternoon outside a tobacconist, in the early evening outside a jeweller, and late in the evening on a bench outside a bakery.
A cactus on a roadside growing up against a metal fence with rocks at its feet and pieces of rubbish around it (crumpled paper and a piece of clear plastic wrapping). Four large discs of rusted metal behind the cactus that begin to look arranged in a pattern. Suddenly the scene takes on the appearance of a shrine. I think it is a shrine.
In the Marconi neighbourhood there are lots of auto repair shops in very small spaces amongst the cafes, takeaway pizza shops, corner shops and toy shops. Most people’s cars are very small so I suppose garages can be small too. I enjoy the smell of car tyres and engine oil, which is slightly sweet.
In the apartment building the bell to our flat rings repeatedly; it is very loud. At first we think it is a delivery person ringing the trade bell as we do not know anyone nearby, but it keeps ringing and S opens the door. It is the woman in the flat next to ours. She asks for tissue. S gives her a roll of toilet paper. A few days later she rings the bell again and asks for tissue again, we give her another roll of toilet paper, and S opens a tin of passata that she holds up to him.
A small boy gives S a fright as he jumps out to surprise an old man coming out of the lift.
In bed, three pieces of Melba toast with Nutella on a plate, a carton of apricot nectar, and espresso let down with hot water.
A shared bowl of snacks with half Fonzies, which is a snack that looks like niknaks and tastes like Wotsits but better, and half an Italian supermarket own brand version of Wotsits, with a small pre-mixed Campari and soda.
Cicoria reheated in the pan with a fried egg, eaten with fresh tomato and walnut bread from the bakery below our apartment for late breakfast on Easter Sunday.
Along the Tiber, a fluffy cat sits at the edge of long grass, eyes closed.
Two tabby cats climbing down the bank to the river path amongst the brambles, eyes open, looking at us.
Two lizards dart around madly, one chasing another snapping at its tail and trying to bite it, which I look up and find out is a courtship ritual not a fight.
In Testaccio, dinner at La Toricella with a friend who is also visiting Rome. Near us there is a man who keeps his tweed cap on as he eats and focuses intently on his own dish, refusing his wife’s offer to taste of hers. A large group with children playing games on an iPad with the sound turned on, making for a jolly atmosphere. Over the next few days we talk about the apparent tolerance of children and their noises in public spaces and in restaurants here, in contrast to what we perceive in the UK. I notice that there are a lot of toy shops in Rome as I walk around.
The dinner is a meal that sends me. At several points I clutch my chest and look upwards. We share everything:
polpette di seppie e carciofi (cuttlefish and artichoke cakes); polpettine di baccala e patate (salt cod and potato cakes); and seafood salad from the specials trolley.
scottata di spigola con patate (seabass grilled on top of oven cooked slices of potato); stracetti di tonno con i carciofi (‘rags’ or slivers of tuna in an artichoke purée-sauce); spaghetti con zucchine e gamberi (spaghetti with courgettes and prawns)
cicoria non coltiva (wild cicoria); vignarola (braised broad beans and peas with a few slivers guanciale)
fragoline con lo zabaione caldo (a bowl of tiny strawberries with warm zabaione over the top),
There was nothing spare or useless on any plate, and nor was any dish so intense so that you had to stop eating it, or that drowned anything else out. While I loved each plate, highlights were vignarola, the sweet spring stew of broad beans and peas with a little sweet-salty guanciale; the ‘rags’ of tuna cooked in artichoke sauce which was deeply savoury and almost meaty; and the tiny strawberries with a blanket of warm zabaione, which made my heart flutter.
Drinking Campari and soda sitting on the steps to Pietro Lombardi’s Fontane della Anfore in the centre of Piazza Testaccio with two friends. Kids play and kick footballs around the square and adults drink and talk on benches at the edge.
In Rachel’s flat, anchovies and butter on halved small white soft rolls and wine on the table when we walk in. What welcome! A jar of sundried tomatoes in oil that Luca suggests I have with the anchovy bread. I fish one out of the oil with a fork and put it on top of the anchovy and it is spicy, garlicky, good. A large bowl of broad beans and a board with a younger and an older pecorino cheese and a knife. Eat some broad beans, eat some cheese, eat some broad beans, eat some cheese. Then podding peas and broad beans for Rachel’s vignarola pasta. A large pot with vegetable stock simmers on the hob; R says the woman in the shop told her to do this for making the vignarola. Rachel cooks broad beans, peas and artichokes with a little onion until soft and then blitzes a little of it with some of the vegetable stock and tosses it all through the pasta. It is sweet, vegetal, spring! And served with parmesan and creamy and sharp robiola soft cheese which is like a better Philadelphia. There may be more steps to the recipe, but I do not quiz Rachel and am preoccupied making a salad with chicories that I was lucky to get late at the market. I soak heads of pale-yellow burgundy flecked Castelfranco and Treviso with its deep purple leaves and stark white backbone in cold water. I leave them for a few minutes then pull them apart and inspect each leaf for mud and put them in the salad spinner. I make a dressing by mixing a 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper, and a heaped teaspoon of mustard together in a bowl with a fork until it emulsifies (I gleefully show the room my emulsion) and then add a little red wine vinegar and a squeeze of lemon. Just as we think the meal has ended Rachel takes down a large bowl from a shelf and uncovers it to reveal strawberries macerated in sugar. We eat them out of water glasses with teaspoons.
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