I adore Trastevere. I’m absolutely obsessed and totally infatuated with my neighborhood, la vera Roma. Trastevere is one of Rome’s oldest neighborhoods – people have lived “across the Tiber” since Etruscan times – and it remains one of the city’s most authentically Roman locales. It’s a place characterized by clotheslines between windows, flowerboxes on rooftops, and cobbled streets so curvy and small that many cab drivers refuse to venture into the heart of the neighborhood.
In Trastevere, the trade is alive and well. A straight-razor shave at the barbiere will cost you five euro, and it’ll probably take an hour and a half because the barber will get distracted chatting with seven of his friends who stopped in for a visit. The cobbler’s shop next door is dim. If you peer through the hazy window, sill piled high with discarded boot heels, you might be able to see a hunched-over man stitching a shoe at a table with an insufficient-looking desk lamp. A few shops down is a silversmith – an argentiere – just like Paul Revere.
It is amazing to me that people still work in small, family-operated trade businesses like these, but what is perhaps more amazing is that these tiny shops and stores seem to be moderately successful. During my semester in Rome, I’ve discovered a few of these sorts of places that truly represent the charming authenticity of Trastevere.
There is a very particular noise that emanates from the corner bar. At the Nardecchia Snack Bar, Alessandro slams porcelain cups and saucers on the marble countertop. Tiny spoons clink roughly when they hit the saucers. He is physical with the dishes, but he has lots of customers to serve. Younger brother Francesco sends hot, damp espresso grounds from the filter and in to the trash bin with heavy thwacks.
No matter when I stop by – morning, noon, or night – they know I’m hankering for a teensy cup of rich Italian caffé. I don’t mess around with macchiato or cappuccino. I drink the real stuff. One packet of sugar, just like the Italians.
Alessandro and Francesco work all day, every day at their family store, so it has been easy to get to know them. Francesco is probably 24 years old, but his gangly skinniness and oversized (and ever-present) Nardecchia Snack Bar baseball cap lend him the look of a young teenager. Alessandro, who’s probably around 30 years old, is my go-to guy. He always has a good suggestion for dolci to accompany my caffé on the afternoons when I crave something sweet. He’s particularly enthusiastic about the truffles and chocolate-covered cornflake balls that appear in the glass case every few days – his wife makes them.
Luigi, the Nardecchia patriarch, works the cash register in the mornings but tends to disappear by mid-afternoon. While he isn’t around as much as the others, Luigi is notable for as an ardent supporter of the A.S. Roma soccer team. He wears a pin in the shape of la lupa, Roma’s mascot, the mythical she-wolf who raised Romulus and Remus. The week after Roma won the inter-city soccer rivalry game against Lazio, Luigi taped a signed photograph of his favorite Roma player to the door of the bar. Next to the picture he posted a hand turkey, crayoned in Roma colors (maroon and gold) and inscribed with the words “Sangue Giallorosso,” roughly akin to “We bleed red and yellow.”
Luigi and Alessandro, the older son, are listed as co-owners on the store’s license, but Mamma Nardecchia really runs the show. She has no qualms about ordering her sons around the bar and chastising them for every eye-roll. Mamma’s the boss. She’s also the social queen bee of the bar, greeting each patron and chatting animatedly with her friends. It’s not uncommon to see her walk from behind the counter, pull up a chair next to someone, and settle in for a long conversation. Alessandro and Francesco both know some English, but we speak in Italian for the sake of convenience. Mamma, on the other hand, speaks only in Italian – quickly, loudly, and with the assumption that I completely understand everything she is saying.
This morning, Mamma was talking with some customers when I walked in. She broke her monologue as she turned to me, saying, “Ciao cara, caffe?” “Si, certo,” I replied. Mamma yelled my order at Francesco, who was standing about four feet away, and returned to her jabbering. She was lamenting the fact that so many French tourists complain about the graffiti in Rome. “As long as the streets are clean, who cares if people write all over the buildings?” she said. “This isn’t Paris, this isn’t France, it’s Rome!” she said, gesticulating all the while.
It’s physically impossible to walk past La Renella without stopping for a sniff. I’ll be heading to class when the dusty, crusty smell of baking bread stops me in my tracks. More often than not, a guy in an apron is loading paper bags filled with arm-length loaves of fresh bread into the back of a white conversion van. Most of the restaurants in the neighborhood use La Renella bread at their tables, so the bakery delivers it fresh each day. When I regain control of my legs and press onwards, I negotiate the sidewalk space with any number of pigeons greedily pecking at the crumbs and flour near the bakery’s back door.
I love La Renella not because I’ve developed a friendly relationship with the proprietors, but because the bread is, simply put, the best bread I have ever tasted. Ordering at La Renella takes guts. I have to stand around and observe the other customers each time I visit because the order-taking system is unpredictable. Sometimes an (orderly) number system is used – like any deli or butcher shop in America, but most of the time, it’s a shove-push-and-brawl your way to the counter system.
La Renella offers pizza by the square and various types of biscotti, but the real draw is the filone, a loaf roughly the girth (breadth?) of an adult thigh. La Renella produces filone by the bushel, and the burly baker hauls carts of bread to the front of the store using a big metal hook.
I typically purchase a mezzo filone, which requires the surly breadslinger to hack a full loaf in half on a breadboard. He weighs the bread, bags it, and prints out a receipt, handing it to me with a grunt, “Alla ragazza qui.” I pay the tired-looking baker’s wife, and I’m on my way out to Trastevere’s meandering streets, warm loaf in hand (and usually in mouth too).