As I walk out of my house, dozens of wailing green parakeets flash above me, dashing from one tree to the next among the elegant Art Nouveau buildings of my neighbourhood, Quartiere Trieste, a residential area only a half-hour walk north from Rome’s city centre.
With rising temperatures, a number of historic villas and three major natural parks, the parrots found a perfect habitat in this hillside neighbourhood. Their squawks were among the few sounds I heard during Italy’s seven-week lockdown.
Their vivid green feathers add to the beauty and enchantment of the liberty, gothic, and medieval buildings centred around Corso Trieste, the main road that gives the area its name. At street level are old cafés run by fifth-generation Romans, noisy and colourful markets, and a few shy hints of modernity.
If you do this walk from start to finish without stopping it will take less than an hour — but you can easily expand it to occupy the better part of a day, making time to look around, take photos and eat and drink your way through the neighbourhood.
I usually start my walk early in Piazza Caprera, with a coffee, naturally. A tip for visitors to Rome: decide in advance which type of espresso you plan to order — the list of options is too long to figure out on the spot.
Unlike other Italian cities such as Naples, where serving espresso in a small hot porcelain cup with absolutely no milk is sacred, or northern Italy, where it’s more common to have a caffè al volo (a coffee “on the fly” enjoyed quickly at a bar), Romans are more tolerant of variations and offer plenty of choice — but if you hesitate when ordering, you will be scowled at.
Al vetro, schiumato caldo, schiumato freddo, tazza grande, tazza piccola — these are just a handful of possible combinations. As a northern Italian, it took me a while to master a Roman coffee menu. Even now, after more than three years in the city, I still end up just ordering the same type of coffee: a cappuccino con cacao — cappuccino with chocolate, no sugar — it’s simple, neat and fulfilling, and has always been my favourite.
Sitting outside at Bar Caprera, a modern bistro, I sip my first caffeine of the day, enjoying the view offered by the elegant residential buildings overlooking the square. Many were built in the early 1900s to accommodate the influx of workers to the city, after the capital was moved from Florence in 1871.
Someone at a nearby table sneezes. “It’s just allergies, don’t worry, I’m not contagious,” says a man in his forties with a thick Roman accent. Being out after so long feels strange, and many still worry about the outbreak that has ravaged the country for several weeks. Bars, restaurants and other shops have reopened, but with strict social distancing measures in place. (People must remain one or two metres apart if they are not from the same family.)
I pay for my cappuccino and start walking up Via Appennini. The colours here are inimitable: the bright red, yellow and orange villas shine under the hot Roman sun and rich blue sky — with a splash of green from their gardens. Many residents planted cacti, palm and banana trees, which make me feel like I’m on holiday somewhere exotic every time I walk by.
Along this road, I spot a structure unique to Rome: a classic drinking fountain called a nasone, which literally means “big nose” because of the metal spout that protrudes at mid-height, that looks like, well, a nose.
At the end of the street I turn on to Viale Gorizia to stop by one of my favourite restaurants in the area: Pepe Verde, a semitraditional Italian restaurant where you can sample perfectly executed Roman dishes in a relaxed atmosphere. Among their masterpieces: Carbonara, made with egg, pecorino cheese, pork jowl and black pepper, and Cacio e Pepe, a dish made with only three ingredients: Pecorino cheese, black pepper and pasta — plus a hit of the starchy cooking water — combined to form a creamy sauce that is as tasty as it is difficult to perfect. (I have never truly succeeded.)
Fifty-nine-year-old Simona Chicarelli, who runs the restaurant with two other partners, welcomes me with a big smile, although she says it’s been a tough three months. “Starting to work again is not easy. We’ve had to furlough most of our employees and we had to keep paying rent and suppliers throughout the pandemic,” she says. “But we’re doing our best to try and stand up again on our feet.”
I stay for lunch and have something I have never tried before: fettuccine with swordfish, aubergine, and a sprinkle of cinnamon — not a traditional Roman dish, but a perfect balance of flavour: rich and with a little heat that merges superbly with the silky texture of the fish.
Feeling sated, I continue my walk down Viale Gorizia towards Corso Trieste. Here the architecture begins to expand: the relatively small villas are replaced by magnificent palazzi, each of them with an internal courtyard, a typical feature of residential buildings in Rome that were built before the economic boom of the 1970s. Some of the occupants are former aristocrats who still have these gigantic buildings to themselves, though many have been divided into apartments. It’s still quite common to find members of the same family living in separate apartments in the same block, after inheriting the palazzo from parents or grandparents.
I head towards Via Topino, crossing Corso Trieste, and take a little detour for the area’s best all-day pizza al taglio, or pizza by the slice. Da Agostino is named after its portly and playful owner, who not only sells pizza but also delicious suppli — fried balls of rice with tomato sauce, a typical Roman snack.
At the tables outside among other customers, a lady in her fifties is biting into a slice of pizza with Gorgonzola, and wearing a leopard print face mask around her neck. “Not many other places to put it when you’re eating”, she says to me. Despite being quite diligent in closed spaces, when out or eating, Italians put their face masks pretty much anywhere: around their neck, their elbow, or left hanging in the car from the rear-view mirror, where they once hung a rosary.
If you feel like having something sweet instead, you can cross the street and swing by Marinari, a traditional Italian pastry shop, and taste some of their bigne.
As I continue along Via Sebino, I pass shops selling fresh pasta, cafés that haven’t changed since they first opened a few decades ago, and a 1960s Italian icon: Piper nightclub. Here some of the most famous Italian singers such as Rita Pavone, Caterina Caselli and the band Ricchi e Poveri played back in the day — even Pink Floyd performed at the club twice in 1968. But the real treasure of the neighbourhood is behind me: Coppedè, Rome’s so-called fantasy district, nestled between Piazza Buenos Aires and Via Tagliamento.
Named after Gino Coppedè, the architect who designed this bizarre little alcove, the buildings here are adorned with fairies and other imaginary creatures. Walking through the great arch, the main entrance to this whimsical development, feels as though you’ve entered another dimension. By the time you reach Piazza Mincio, the real heart of Coppedè, you’ve seen a jumble of different architectural styles, odd shapes and eccentricities.
Among the most fascinating buildings here is the Villino delle Fate, the fairy house, that features some of the symbols of major Italian cities, such as Rome’s Romulus and Remus, the poet Dante for Florence and a lion with a sailing ship for Venice. The nearby Palazzetto del Ragno, the Spider Palace, is of Babylonian Assyrian inspiration — but is named after the huge spider on its facade.
I like losing myself in the carved walls of each building, observing them from different angles. They seem to reveal new details with every glance. Coppedè is a particularly quiet residential area, and despite the lifting of the lockdown, streets here remain tranquil. I enjoy the silence around me for a few minutes before heading home.
On my way back, walking along via Ticino and crossing over Corso Trieste, I pass a modern white residential building — a sharp contrast with the softer lines of the surrounding houses. I have always had mixed feelings about ultra-modern buildings in historic areas, but I don’t mind this one. As I picture myself living in the penthouse for a moment, I return to Piazza Caprera, where I started the tour. Waiting for me there: a well-deserved Aperol Spritz.
Map by Liz Faunce
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With life under lockdown or heavily restricted, our focus has sharpened on the neighbourhoods we live in. See more stories like this at ft.com/globetrotter
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