* A brief disclaimer on Hong Kong to Europe travel
A short trip from Hong Kong to Rome may seem aggressive to less-zealous travelers. You are, after all, wasting nearly 24-hours in air travel alone. The trick is to optimize your flight times. Cathay has a daily flight to Rome from Hong Kong that leaves close to 1 am and has you landing in Fiumicino around 7 am. Which means you can leave Hong Kong on a Friday night and be sipping espresso in your hotel’s breakfast nook by 9 am Saturday morning. After a leisurely weekend plus an extra day (or two) of nibbling, sipping and loitering, you hop on Cathay’s early afternoon flight back to Hong Kong, and will be arriving just past sun up and in time for a full work day.
Roman Holiday: Eat Your Heart Out
My boyfriend and I are, as it turns out, creatures of habit. If we spend one Christmas in Niseko, Japan it’s likely we’ll spend the next three. We make a beeline to GHM’s plushy Legian boutique hotel the moment we arrive in Denpasar, generally in September, just like we have for last five years. And so this spring, the same as last, we did not think twice about jetting to Rome for a short holiday.
I’d like to say that we went to Rome to behold the magnificence of her architecture, to gaze in awed wonderment at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, to whisper sweet nothings to each other on the Spanish Steps at sunset, but none of this was on the agenda. There was one purpose and one purpose only on our second pilgrimage to Rome, and that was to deeply and indulgently connect with the city’s food and wine. The type of cultural experience we were after involves a glass of smooth and spicy Barbaresco in one hand and a slice of slightly charred, wafer-thin crusted pizza in the other, sitting in a stream of perfect spring sunshine in the Piazza Navona, eyes shielded by chic Italian Persols.
Call us Plebs, call us gluttons, although we’d prefer “shameless foodies,” we came for the thousand year old vines and cuisine, Rome’s iconic purple artichokes, her deep-fried stuffed zucchini flowers, prosciutto and parmesan that brings a tear to your eye, etc. etc. You get where I’m going here. We came to behold, touch, taste, revel and deeply inhale; to queue for pizza with the locals, at revered institutions like Pizzeria Remo (Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice 44, +3906-5746270) and Dar Poeta (Vicole del Bologna 45, +39065880516); to hunt down the city’s “best” trattorias, if there is such a thing; and to while away evenings at cozy wine bars—like the 1000-bottle strong Enoteca Ferrara—a vino lover’s oasis tucked away in the winding cobblestone lanes of the raucous Trastevere.
The New York Times boldly claimed in 2009 that if a title for best trattoria must be bequeathed then it should go to Felice a Testaccio (Via Mastro Giorgio 29, +3906-5746800), a no doubt strong contender. The food is ridiculously good. The roast lamb falls, neigh, melts, off the bone. The cacio al pepe—a handmade square-shaped spaghetti tossed with perverse amounts of powder light and sharp pecorino, a bold coating of fresh ground pepper and emulsified with a bit of pasta water and olive oil until creamy and provocative to the taste—is reason enough to keel over upon completion, confident you have died fulfilled and impossibly satisfied. And that’s before you try their infamous tiramisu.
But food aside, there’s something missing here, and for me it’s the gray-haired and ebullient waiters in bow ties, who scoff at your poor pronunciations and have made an art, and career, of service. Call me old-fashioned but I really love these guys, and my favorites this year just happen to be at a fantastic Tuscan-style restaurant called Girarrosto Toscano (Via Campania 29, +3906-42013045). Everything wows—not least of which is the perfectly soft and sweet cantaloupe wrapped in strong Parma ham. But the simple Spaghetti Vongole that came heaped with delicate clams, loads of spicy thin-sliced garlic and buttery olive oil stole the show.
Places like Girarrosto Toscano make it hard to convince yourself to leave Rome and risk missing out on another go at food glory. But we decided to be adventurous this year and head to the hills of nearby Castelli Romani, easily accessible from the city by bus or car. Castelli Romani is a collection of quaint towns and home to the hotel-sized summer residence of the pope, but more importantly a hotbed of local wine and porchetta, a deeply salted and slow spit-roasted pig that is deconstructed and put back together with layers of Rosemary, garlic and other herbs stuffed between meat, fat and skin.
In the picturesque town of Frascati we had the great fortune of stumbling upon the very relaxed Cantina Bucciarelli (Via Regina Margherita, 27, 06-94010871), which serves an outstanding porchetta, perfectly tempered by thick slices of crusty white bread and a carafe of their house red. Life admittedly does not get much better than sitting alfresco on a picnic bench in the Roman countryside, reveling in herby fatty pork and a pleasant wine buzz. In the midst of our deep bliss, the rich and spicy Rigatoni all’Amatriciana that followed felt almost sinful, but given that we had yet to tour the Vatican more in that delightful bacchanalian than guilty catholic way.
No foodie tour of Rome would be complete without a few turns around Testaccio’s daily fresh outdoor market and a stop at the world-renowned Volpetti gourmet food market. And so on our last morning in the city we loosed our belts and strolled down the hill from the San Anselmo boutique hotel in Aventino to Testaccio. What I love about Testaccio is that, unlike a lot of the city, it’s a real neighborhood, with few tourists, a handful of phenomenal restaurants, and a lot of working-class Romans, who, on that crisp and sunny Monday morning were doing what most of us do, grabbing espressos and hurrying to work.
We may have looked like tourists but it was nice not to feel like a tourist. We perused fresh produce and meats in the outdoor market, alongside mothers pushing strollers and little old ladies, bought some strawberries for breakfast and washed them down with our last square of thick-cut, slightly sweet and just sour enough mozzarella pizza. And then we headed to Volpetti, a gastronome’s cornucopia of cheeses and cured meats, fresh sausages, handmade pastas, olive oils, syrupy aged balsamic and jar-after-jar of handcrafted culinary wonderment.
They must have seen us coming from a mile away, oversized camera in hand, eyes like saucers. We had reached the promise land. Our rotund and smiling new friends behind the counter lavished us with samples, after which would follow enthusiastic nods, cries of “va bene!” the ring of a cash register, and then more samples. Hands were shook, pictures were taken and, flight departure pressing, we left the shop vacuum-packed, arms heavy with goods and bellies satisfied, dreaming of the Roman fare we would whip up in our kitchen, thousands of miles away in Hong Kong.