Eat. Play. Run.

My quest to live in Rome, a bite and a step at a time.


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Romana

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The final weeks of my marathon training went really well. I managed to hit the peak of my training with a 20-mile run, and then enjoyed three weeks of tapering. The mileage gradually decreased each week, while my carbohydrate intake gradually increased. And there are no shortage of carbs here in Rome! Everything felt pretty good, with a few aches and pains here and there, but nothing serious.

Last Thursday, I headed to Palazzo dei Congressi to pick up my race number, as it was the first day of the expo, and it’s best not to wait until the last minute in order to avoid the crowds.

IMG_0583There’s great energy at an expo, and I was swelling with pride, thinking about showing up as a tourist two years ago to pick up my race number. But not this year. As I went down to pick up my race number, greeting the volunteer in Italian, he handed me my race packet, which was stamped with Italian flag. I was a bit confused by that. When I opened my packet and pulled out my race number, it also had an Italian flag on it! I guess the flag doesn’t signify your nationality, but rather your country of residence. I was thrilled. There it is – I’m a resident of Italy, and I get to represent my new country on Sunday.

IMG_0596I took it very easy the final few days, going to bed early, drinking a lot of water, and eating until I was no longer hungry (very fun). On Friday evening I watched the documentary Spirit of the Marathon, which profiles seven runners and their journey to run the 2012 Rome Marathon. I had seen this documentary in San Francisco with my running club right after I returned from running the 2013 Rome Marathon, and I figured it was worth watching again to get myself in the mood. You need to watch the movie trailer here. Seriously. It plays into the story as you continue to read. Trust me on this one.

The day before the marathon I went for a 2-mile run to check on how things were feeling. My feet had some sore spots, which was a bit concerning. I did a lot of stretching and hydrating, did a quick trip to the farmer’s market, and then went to check out the start/finish line. Despite sore feet, I felt ready. I had trained well, completed a lot of long runs, and felt confident I would achieve my goal: “You’re ready to finally break 5 hours in the marathon” I told myself. It was going to happen. I could feel it. My best time was 5:02:29, the last time I ran Rome.

I have two pre-marathon traditions, which I fulfilled on Saturday. First, I always watch Rocky. I know it’s silly, but it just works. And secondly, I call my Dad, my favorite marathoner, for advice. He always says the same thing which makes me laugh: “Start slow and finish slower. And have fun!” I prepared my bag and laid out my clothes before falling asleep.

I knew the race day forecast was rain, but it was downright miserable. After a bowl of oatmeal and some coffee, I got ready and left the apartment at 7:30am to head to the subway, and it was already raining. When I got off at the Circo Massimo stop and walked toward the Coliseum to drop off my bag, it was starting to come down even harder. The bag drop-off area was full of umbrellas and runners wearing plastic bags. I even brought one myself. Here’s a photo before I donned the trash bag.

IMG_0609The start of the race was an unorganized mess. They had us packed in next to the Coliseum and wouldn’t let the runners into the starting area on Via dei Fori Imperiali until the last minute. Once they opened the gates I headed for the porta potties and was relieved to find that the lines were extremely short. Within five minutes I was done and back in my starting corral, with just minutes before the gun went off and I crossed the start line.

I’ve never run a race in the rain, so this was new territory. Cold muscles and body, but also Roman streets are not designed well for wet conditions. I spent the first 5k dodging puddles and trying to keep my feet dry for as long as possible. But Italian runners are not intimidated by weather; everyone’s spirits were really high, and there was a lot of cheering and singing, which really helped. Romans are LOUD! Where do they get that kind of energy at the start of a 26.2 mile race?!

Despite the rain, I was thrilled to be running past so many familiar sights, like Circo Massimo, Pyramide, and my own neighborhood of Garbatella. My heart swelled with pride as we ran over the modern Garbatella bridge and onto Via Ostiense and down through San Paolo. My friend Duane was waiting there at Mile 6, a welcome sight. I threw off my arm warmers and asked him to hold onto them for me. I could have used them for the next hour, but knew I would eventually be too hot to wear them. We headed into Testaccio and onto the Lungotevere towards Centro Storico. I was finally starting to warm up a little bit and the rain had finally stopped.  My pace and breathing were solid and I felt comfortable, although my muscles were already tight from the cold. While I was confidently running my goal pace, those tight muscles told me that the second half was not going to be pretty.

At around 11:00 we ran past St. Peter’s Basilica (a highlight) and into Prati. My first neighborhood. I arrived in June 2014 with no job and no idea how this was going to work out. But Prati put me at ease and made me feel at home, so it holds a special place in my heart – not to mention my favorite gelateria (Gelateria dei Gracchi). It was like running a part of my past and I had a good time reliving a lot of memories, reflecting on how far I had come, the ability to make my dream of living in Italy a reality. I passed the halfway point and felt strong. At this pace, I would finish in under 4 hours 50 minutes. So I had built a bit of a cushion for when things got tough in the second half.

There were water stations every 5 kilometers, and I made sure to drink a bit at each one. I had waves of nausea, but just tried to think about other things until they subsided. There were sponging stations too, but I really didn’t need them, thanks to the rain.

At the 18 mile mark, I started to look at my watch more often and look anxiously for kilometer marker signs. This was were my muscles really began to tighten and the pain became a distraction. At the 32km mark (around 20 miles), I checked my watch. My pace was still pretty good, but I was so stiff that I had difficulty running. I was able to make it to the water station at the 35km point, and then the walk breaks began. I knew I was still okay on time, but these last 7km would be the real test. I had a feeling I would be cutting it very close.

Fortunately, I had the honor of running next to Simone, a physically disabled runner who was being pushed in a chair by a group of friends. They all wore shirts that said “Simone 42,195” (the marathon distance in kilometers). Simone was the most enthusiastic runner I’ve ever seen, singing and shouting throughout the race. When we arrived at Piazza Navona at the 37km mark, I was running behind them and the whole place just erupted in cheers for Simone. An amazing moment. He was such an inspiration.

We turned onto Via del Corso and I put on some music to try and distract me from the pain. It didn’t really work, but I was grateful to reach Piazza del Popolo (km 39) in one piece. At that point, I was passing another runner when I realized, “hey, I know that man!”. He was Domenico, one of the runners in the “Spirit of the Marathon” documentary! I couldn’t help myself. This was too good to be true! I slowed down so that he could catch up and in Italian I called out, “Hey, are you Domenico from Spirit of the Marathon?” He enthusiastically replied, “Yes, it’s me!” and gave me a hug. Che fortuna! I stopped at the 40k mark for water and he waited for me. We chatted in Italian a bit in which he told me that he has run EVERY ROME MARATHON. All 21 of them. He is one of 42 senatori, the term the race organizers give to runners who have run every Rome Marathon. And he’s 75. His cousin Mimmo, a pizzaiolo, was also in the documentary. I asked about him and whether he was running today, but he wasn’t. Domenico invited me to come to the pizzeria and asked if I was on Facebook. Ah, technology.

We ran the remaining 2 kilometers together and he really helped keep my mind off of my sore back and legs. He commented on how much his knee hurt, to which I replied, “forza, amico”. Which is like saying, “you can do it, friend”. We passed the sign indicating the last kilometer when he said, “we need to hold hands when we cross the finish line!”, and I agreed. After all, I was running with a celebrity and a Rome Marathon legend – how could I not?! The course on Via Nazionale started to look rather celebratory, and once we approached Piazza Venezia and turned towards, the finish line, Domenico grabbed my hand. I started to laugh, dazed at my luck. I was about to finish the Rome Marathon with one of its greats. And finish we did, with hands clasped, arms raised, the Coliseum in full view and “Roma Roma Roma”, the official song of the AS Roma football team playing over the loudspeaker.

It was like an initiation ceremony. The music, the Coliseum, the finish line, and my new friend and Rome Marathon veteran.

“Kerry, benvenuta a Roma. Sei Romana ora.”

I was now a Roman. I shouted out the words to the song as the volunteer put the medal around my neck. It was this Roman’s time to be loud, too.

I thought of Simone and his incredible friends, whose joy and love for a person was so great that they pushed him for 42 kilometers in celebration. If only I could find them and thank them. They lifted the spirits of all of us.

Domenico and I grabbed snacks and some tea and talked for a bit. I promised him I would come and have pizza with him and Mimmo, and connect with him on Facebook. I collected my bag, retrieved my iPhone, and asked Domenico for a photo together. He was jubilant. “I can’t believe I finished my 21st Rome Marathon. And I got to finish it with a beautiful girl!” he exclaimed before we parted ways.

IMG_0613Oh, and my time?

IMG_0614Just like my goal of living in Italy, I met my goal of smashing the 5-hour mark. But I’ll be honest: it felt like more of a perk than a highlight. I was too grateful and elated from running alongside Simone and finishing with Domenico, il senatore della Maratona di Roma and my new friend.

Thank you, Rome. I feel so welcome.


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Domenica

 

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Il Ciociaro, Prati

A Sunday, or Domenica, in Rome definitely has a different feel than the other days of the week. Many restaurants and stores are closed, and if places are open, the hours may be reduced. The grocery store on my street is closed, but another one nearby is at least open until early afternoon. But thanks to the booming tourist market, you can be sure to find a variety of museums and historical sites open on Sundays. Last weekend, I decided to visit the Santa Maria Maggiore church and the Capitoline Museums, but before that, I was in need of a serious Sunday dinner.

Growing up, one of my fondest memories was having Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house. My mother was one of seven children from a Catholic family, and every Sunday she attended mass with the family, followed by a large meal in the afternoon. Even after her children moved out of the house and my grandfather passed away, my grandmother still carried on the tradition. I can still remember the smell of pot roast or a baked ham upon entering the house, and my grandmother’s high-pitched, cheerful laugh as she hugged and kissed me and my sisters. My grandmother was an excellent cook, despite my father’s teasing that “next time, Mary Eleene, you should add more meat to the salt.” Some of the side dishes I remember fondly are scalloped potatoes, cucumbers in vinegar, and the ubiquitous relish tray full of pickles and olives. While I have more of a savory palate, my grandmother had a sweet tooth, and you could always count on a cake or pie for dessert. Her peach pie is a beloved favorite in my family, and I have yet to find another that is more sublime.

My grandmother loved cooking for others, and throughout the dinner, she never sat down at the table, as she was too preoccupied with serving the rest of us. After everyone exited the table, you could be sure to find my grandmother there, pouring herself a cup of coffee and enjoying her dinner alone. I always felt bad about this; she worked so hard to feed all of us, yet wound up eating alone. But she never seemed to mind.

I, on the other hand, do not like eating alone. I do it often here in Italy, but I feel incredibly out of place, surrounded by families and friends eating and laughing together. But we foodies do what we must, so after some extensive online researching, I managed to find a restaurant in my neighborhood that was open for lunch on Sunday: Il Ciociaro, on Via Barletta.

It was an extremely hot afternoon and the outside tables were empty, so I asked the waiter if I could sit outside. When I told him it was just me, he laughed and made a comment about being alone that I didn’t quite understand. But I caught the word “bad,” which is cattivo. Wait,” I asked him in Italian. “Are you saying that eating alone is a bad thing?” He looked a little concerned, afraid that I was offended (which I wasn’t). After some additional questioning and some assistance from Google Translate, I laughed and assured him that I understood:

“It is better to be alone than to be in bad company.”

I greatly appreciated his warmth. What a great start to a meal.

Speaking of, I decided to start off the meal with an appetizer of octopus carpaccio-style, raw and thinly sliced, with arugula and drizzled in olive oil. The octopus could have been more flavorful, but overall it was light and refreshing. Rome is not known for their seafood, but I just love octopus. Plus, it’s Sunday, and I wanted something special.

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For a main course, I stuck to the seafood theme and ordered their spaghetti alle vongole, or pasta with clams. This place is actually known for their bucatini all’amatriciana, which comes served in a hollowed wheel of pecorino cheese, but I just didn’t want a heavy pasta. Plus, this dish went perfectly with a 1/4 liter of white wine. The waiter brought me a plate for the clam shells, and I got to work, carefully twirling the pasta around my fork, piercing a clam, and tossing the shell onto the empty plate. Soon I was in a zone, twirling, tossing, chewing, sipping. It was as if the background faded from view. All of my attention and focus were on my interactions with this plate.

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I was pleasantly surprised that the dish was spicy, and as I discarded the clams I found the culprit: a little red pepper. Best of all, once I finished the pasta, I was left with a delicious garlic and oil sauce, which I sopped up with huge chunks of bread. There was not one speck of food on that plate by the time I was finished with it.

The waiter checked on me. “Is it good? Are you happy with it?” he cheerfully asked in Italian.

“Am I happy? Look at my plate!” I replied, laughing.

I didn’t have room for dessert. I may have reconsidered if there was peach pie on the menu. But I did finish my meal with coffee – a nice strong cup of espresso.

Since I arrived here seven weeks ago, one thing I have come to expect and eagerly anticipate each day is a change of perspective. And on this day, I now had a new perspective on solitary dining.

You are never truly alone at a table for one, because food speaks to us. Each bite is a sentence to which we respond with surprise, agreement, amusement, maybe even anger. Plates are whole conversations, some more engaging than others. And when the food is excellent, a meal is full of stories, connecting us with loved ones and cherished memories. You leave the table, nourished and grateful for the ability to focus on such an intimate encounter. You will never have this experience in front of the TV or at a table of six.

Maybe my grandmother wanted to eat alone after all of those Sunday dinners. She definitely wasn’t one for socializing during dinners, and she sure loved to eat. Was she having a conversation with her food? I’ll never know.

When I reflect back on some very memorable meals, a lot of them were when I dined alone. The beet salad, spaghetti and meatballs, and ginger cake at Park Chow in my old San Francisco neighborhood. A lunch of steaming hot bread, tangy cheese, rich hummus and other mezze at a Lebanese restaurant in Cairo. The first time I tried pasta alla norma in Palermo, with its meaty eggplant, rich tomato sauce and salty cheese. I was dining alone every time, and the details are so clear, so vivid. Yet I had a wonderful dinner with friends a few nights ago and can’t remember much about the food, other than that it was good, because I was too focused on the fantastic company.

So I encourage you to try this. Go to your favorite restaurant, and order your favorite dishes.  Or make your favorite meal at home, send the kids outside to play, and turn off the television. Listen to what your food is saying, and take the time to respond. I guarantee you’ll have a memorable conversation.

I dedicate this post to my grandmother, who taught me more than I realized about how to talk to food.

Grazie, nonna.

 


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Pizzarium

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You’ve been waiting for this post, haven’t you?

Well, let’s get to it. Let’s talk pizza.

On my prior trip to Italy, I had outstanding pizza in Florence (Firenze) and Naples (Napoli). In fact, one of my main reasons for selecting Rome as a place to live is that it’s close to Napoli and the best pizza I’ve ever had in my life. But I’ll write about that later.

Roman pizza differs greatly from the well-known pizza Napolitana and doesn’t get the fanfare it deserves. Some of the best Roman pizza is al taglio, or “by the slice”, with a crunchy, foccacia-like crust. On my first trip to Rome, I saw this pizza everywhere, particularly around the main tourist sites, but I never tried it. I have traveled enough to know if a restaurant is near a major tourist attraction and the signage is in English, it’s best to keep moving.

Now that I’m in Rome for three months, I was determined to have a mind-blowing Roman pizza experience. And I found it in Pizzarium, a tiny stall-like pizza shop tucked away behind the Vatican on Via della Meloria.

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I arrived at around 3:30 yesterday afternoon, a good time to go as it’s between the lunch and dinner rush, and I was rewarded with a rather short line. The counter was brimming with colorful pizzas, and the chalkboard behind the counter displayed a long list of that day’s suppli – fried rice balls containing a variety of ingredients. As I approached the line, I asked which pizza was the most popular, and the friendly, multi-lingual staffer pointed out a white potato pizza. I was crestfallen. It looked so bland, sitting next to a slice decorated with what appeared to be edible flowers. But when an Italian gives you a food recommendation, you don’t question it. I selected that one, along with a pizza covered in fresh tomatoes. Flavors here can get pretty exotic (think foie gras), but for a Pizzarium virgin, I opted for basic on my first try.

Pizzas are priced by both type and weight. Each pizza is baked in a rectangular tray, and then you specify the size of slice that you want, and they cut it with scissors, weigh it, add it up, and give you a receipt, which you take to the register to pay. They then heat your slices and call you when ready. They have a pretty eclectic beer selection too. This is not a sit-down place, so the entryway is full of customers sitting on the curb or at one of two tiny counters, munching away. I lucked out and found some counter space to enjoy my tray of pizza.

The potato pizza was the star of my meal. Holy *#&%. The crust was think and crunchy, yet light and airy. The potato was a smooth puree, the top a thin crisp layer of cheese, deliciously charred in a few spots. Crunchy, smooth, crunchy. Every layer of flavor blending into the next. As with so many other Italian food experiences, it blew my mind how something so simple could be so extraordinary.

The tomatoes on the other pizza were so deliciously sweet and refreshing. I relished biting into the crust and seeing a handful of these little gems fall back onto the tray, where I could scoop them up with my fingers.

Mission accomplished. Mind blown. I just might go back today.

And if you don’t believe me, here’s what Anthony Bourdain had to say during his Rome episode of his show The Layover.

http://www.travelchannel.com/video/not-your-average-pizzeria

Hungry yet?