Secrets of Rome revealed

Special to the Los Angeles Times

After living in Rome for almost three years, I moved back to the U.S. at the beginning of the summer. I packed up my apartment, gave my books to friends and left my potted plants for the next tenant.

Now someone else is standing at the window overlooking Via Baccina, its west end butted against the Roman Forum, its east end opening onto the little Piazza della Madonna dei Monti. The florist on Via dei Serpenti is teaching someone else the Italian words for “daisy” and “lily,” and the woman who sleeps on the stoop next door is getting spare change from another pocketbook.

Outside my window now is an easy bend of the Housatonic River framed by goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace, as fine a view as any in New England. But sometimes I look out and see Via Baccina — an image that will stay with me always because it is drawn in my heart.

My memory is less reliable, alas. For fear of forgetting some of the secrets I learned while living in Rome, I’m passing them along.

San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Piazza San Lorenzo, is perhaps the least well-known of Rome’s seven great pilgrimage churches. Small, cozy, off the beaten track, on the southeast side of the city beside Campo Verano cemetery, it was built by Emperor Constantine I where San Lorenzo was grilled on a gridiron in AD 258. (His purported last words: “This side’s done, turn me over and have a bite.”) Among the church’s treasures are a 12th century Romanesque campanile, six ancient Ionic columns incorporated into the narthex and resplendent Cosmatesque tile.

Alle Carrette, 95 Via Madonna dei Monti, 06 6792770. Just east of the Forum is one of the best pizza places in town, with alfresco seating on the Via Cavour side. Open for dinner only; starting about 7:30, it gets jammed as the evening wears on, partly because prices are easy on the wallet (about $15-$20 a person). Have the fried zucchini flowers and excellent house red wine, then a basic Margherita pizza. It’s about as perfect as it gets north of Naples.

Foro Italico, beyond the Ponte Duca d’Aosta north of the historic center, is one of Rome’s stranger places, a sports center built at the behest of Benito Mussolini by Fascist-era architects Enrico del Debbio and Luigi Moretti. You know you’re there when you see the 50-foot obelisk with the Latin inscription Mussolini Dux. Soccer fans crowd into the 100,000-seat Olympic Stadium, but Foro Italico is most atmospheric when no one is around, except for the dozens of colossal statues of nude Roman athletes surrounding the Stadio dei Marmi, built in 1928.

Gelateria del Teatro, 70 Via di San Simone, tucked in an alley halfway between Piazza Navona and Ponte Sant’Angelo, has overtaken old favorites Ciampini and Giolitti in the Roman gelato sweepstakes. Opened a few years agoby an Italian-Peruvian couple, the place uses only fresh, natural ingredients and specializes in out-of-the-ordinary flavors such as sesame, caramel with pear and 80% cacao cioccolato puro. Plus, there are windows between the shop and kitchen so people can see how Del Teatro makes its manna from heaven.

Galleria Colonna, 66 Piazza SS. Apostoli, 06-678-4350,, houses the mostly Baroque art and memorabilia of one of Rome’s grandest aristocratic families, the Colonna, whose single-column emblem appears on stone crests throughout the city. The gallery is in the southeast corner of the family palazzo, begun around 1300 by Giordano Colonna (brother of Oddone, later Pope Martin V) and inhabited since then by 23 generations of Colonnas. To prepare, read Anthony Majanlahti’s marvelous “The Families Who Made Rome: A History and a Guide.” Open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays only.

Real foodies prefer the market in Testaccio, Rome’s old meat district south of the Aventine Hill, open Monday to Saturday mornings. Along with extraordinary fresh, local produce, gorgeous meat, seafood, flowers and housewares are for sale. Around the corner, check out Gastronomia Volpetti, 47 Via Marmorata, 06-574-2352, considered Rome’s best specialty food shop (with an adjacent tavola calda for quick meals).

I love St. Paul’s Within the Walls, 58 Via Napoli (at the corner of via Nazionale), 06-488-3339, the first non-Catholic church built in Rome’s historic center in 1873, just after religious freedom was proclaimed by the newly united Italian state. Though young compared with the rest of Rome’s churches, Anglican-Episcopalian St. Paul’s has its own glories, including marvelous mosaics by the English pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. The church hosts concerts, celebrates Eucharist at 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Sundays and welcomes political refugees from Africa and the Middle East at a drop-in center.

You have to be in Rome in the spring to enjoy the Aventine rose garden, home of the prestigious Premio Roma, an internationally renowned rose competition held annually in May. The 2.5-acre municipal garden is the progeny of Pennsylvania-born Countess Mary Gayley Senni, who donated her rose collection to the city in 1924. It occupies a flank of the Aventine Hill overlooking the Circus Maximus that served as the city’s Jewish cemetery from about 1650 to 1900 — commemorated by the menorah-shaped landscaping of the garden’s upper section. It now has 1,000 varieties of roses, including one with green blossoms from China and Condesa de Sástago, Spanish winner of the first Premio Roma in 1933.

Context, (800) 691-6036,, offers sophisticated walking seminars in Rome led by scholars and specialists. For example, a three-hour practicum on St. Peter’s, a visit to Ostia Antica and popular culinary seminars led by Italian food writer Maureen Fant. Groups are limited to six; special visits to generally closed sites such as the Pyramid of Caius Cestius can be arranged. The company also offers in-depth walking tours in Florence, Venice and Naples.

Although Rome’s budget hotels are far from exhilarating, one cozy, reliable old chestnut stands out: Hotel Navona, 8 Via dei Sediari, 06-683-01252, in the medieval heart of the city near the Pantheon and Sant’Eustachio, everybody’s favorite cappuccino spot. Simply decorated rooms with private baths are in a palazzo built on the site of the Baths of Agrippa, renovated by owner Corry Natale, a friendly Roman aristocrat with five names. He also owns the nearby Residenza Zanardelli, which is fancier. Doubles at the Navona start at about $110, including breakfast.