Friday, June 3, 2011

Roman Around: The Pre-Inaugural of the Seabourn Quest - Part I

I arrived in Rome in anticipation of boarding the brand new Seabourn Quest for its Pre-Inaugural cruise. As I have been on the Inaugural cruise of the Seabourn Odyssey in Venice and the Inaugural and Maiden Voyage of the Seabourn Sojourn in London, I am not anticipating any great changes on the newest of Seabourn’s big sisters.

But what I am very interested in is how the new Seabourn management, from President Rick Meadows right on down, handles things and whether those differences, if any, are good, bad or indifferent.

However, before I board the ship I have some things to do in Rome! I mean you can’t come to Rome and do nothing. I arrived on an Alitalia flight from Sardinia and, in true Alitalia fashion, the time it took for me to retrieve my luggage (thankfully, though, it arrived with me) was longer than the flight. The Hotel Forty Seven had arranged a car for me at a very fair 50€ and I arrived mid-afternoon to this newer modern boutique hotel. Initially I wasn’t sure that it was such a great place, but in just a few hours I found it is a truly wonderful hotel that I strongly recommend.

It is located in Central Rome, but away from the tourists and traffic near the back end of the Forum, actually across the street from the Temple of Hercules, which I can see from my large window, and around the corner from Circus Maximus. The room is large with hardwood floors, a large LCD television, great bed, two chairs and a mini Nespresso machine with a very functional desk that disappears into the television/refrigerator unit. The bathroom is very large with a great shower and all the amenities. (Note: The one problem is the lack of a proper hair dryer. There is only a wall unit. For me, though, hair dryers are not an issue.) While the lobby is small and modernistically sparse, there is a large inner courtyard with comfortable seating, where you take your breakfast in nice weather, as well as a bar and sitting area. There is also a beautiful, but understated, al fresco dining area on the roof. While Hotel 47 is nice, it is the staff that makes the difference. They are warm, charming, very accommodating and efficient!

As I had the afternoon and evening to myself, as my wife would be arriving in the morning to join me on the Seabourn Quest, I took the afternoon to simply wander Rome. My first stop was the Jewish Ghetto; a place of both pride and deep wounds…but that is not to be discussed here. I wanted to visit the synagogue, but my delay prevented me from securing the necessary guide. That was fine, actually, as I was more focused on having a good Roman Jewish meal in this tight-knit community. I had a fantastic lunch at Nonna Betta including, of course, fried artichokes, followed by an excellent (and hugely portioned) gnocchi with gooey mozzarella, followed by baccala (cod) baked in a tomato and onion sauce. All simple and all simply delicious. A nice kosher pinot grigio rounded out my meal…which I had wanted to be light, but simply could not help myself.

After lunch, and a look around the ghetto, it was off on a sort of circular tour past the Monumento Vittorio, around the Forum (dodging all the preparations for tomorrow’s Republic Day parade), around the Coliseum, around the other side of the Forum, down to the Temple of Hercules, along the Tigres River and back to the hotel. Then, after getting some work done, and having a bit of a rest of my legs, it was right back out there…but not for a sightseeing walk, but to drink some wine in a very local Roman venue.

I walked over to Isola, which is oddly enough, is an island in the middle of the Tiber River, and took its marble bridge turned right and headed to Piazza Trilussa where Enoteca Ferrara is located. This tiny wine bar is nothing fancy and, I frustratingly found out, doesn’t even have a sign over its door. (It does have a beautiful restaurant attached to it, but I most certainly was not there to eat!). What it does have is a fantastic variety of great wines by the glass…which are no bargain, but they are available by the glass; and it has some nice snacks to nosh on. I had a very nice Amarone della Vapolicella, Allegrini followed by an excellent Barolo Albe. The fullness and richness of the wines, along with the generous pours, were just enough for me.

But as I sat outside in an old wicker chair watching what seemed like hundreds of Roman youths eating, drinking, talking and wandering, my eye kept looking over at the street food and, more particularly, a pizza place. So after I finished my wine I headed right over and purchased a slice (which you purchase by weight, not the slice) for my walk back to the hotel. I am not really sure what was in that pizza, but it was excellent with a great thin, but chewy, crust fresh tomato and cheese flavors and a bit of spicy heat. A perfect end to my day.

My wife arrived in the morning and I then left her for a sleep after her long flight. I strolled over to Piazza Cavalieri di Malta for a short beautiful walk to a most peculiar “attraction”. If you look through one particular keyhole you have a perfectly framed view of St. Peter’s Basilica. It was great when I got there as the piazza was empty, but there must be some sort of timing thing because five minutes later there was a traffic jam of vans with tourists of every nationality there to see this famous keyhole. I, instead, wandered the gardens and enjoyed all the flowers, architecture and views. Back to Hotel 47 for a light lunch on its roof before heading out on a three hour culinary tour of Rome.

Our tour, guided by Eleonora Baldwin (no, she is not Italian, but does live here) started at a gelato joint that was not on our tour (huh?), but after meeting up with her and one other couple, we headed back to the Jewish Ghetto. First stop was a little hole-in-the-wall place that I almost went into the day before, for a few savory tastes (fresh anchovies with fried escarole was one) and then two doors down for some kosher baked goods which smelled and tasted like my grandmother’s home.

From there we headed just out of the ghetto to Beppe ei suoi Fromaggi (Beppe and his Cheeses) and I was in heaven. Dozens of different cheeses, artesian cheeses, stinky, gooey, ashy, hard, soft, you name it. They had a small restaurant attached to the shop and since the girl at the counter was so nice and the cheeses were so good (and I was still full, so the big dinner I had planned wasn’t going to happen) I made and executive decision: Dinner at Beppe’s.

But before that we had to continue our afternoon eating our way through Rome! The next stop was Roscioli’s Bakery; apparently voted the best bread bakery in Rome. It was impressive…but so was the roasted pork they had in the little restaurant attached to the shop. (Seeing a trend here?). Then it was off to the other Roscioli’s; the gourmet shop. There we had a small feast of some excellent prosciutto, fresh bufala mozzarella, semi-sun dried tomatoes in olive oil, a nice crisp white wine (that I did not get the name of) and, of course, some nice bread. About to burst, we had to head off to the chocolate shop, but that really was kind of a letdown; feeling more like a sucker play to buy chocolate than part of a foodie experience. (Seriously, we walked in, were given four small samples to share and that was that.) We finished up at what is supposed to be another award winning venue, a gelateria (gelato shop). I have not been able to find anything awarding it any such accolade, but I have to say I had the best gelato I have ever eaten. The flavor: Crème de Maiz (Cream Corn). Sounds terrible, but it was fantastic.

After a short walk back to the hotel, it was time for a rest, shower and…eating again! Back to Beppe’s.

In the evening Beppe's restaurant didn’t look as inviting with harsh florescent lights (typical of many small restaurants in Rome). But looks can be deceiving. Asked for the wine list and the same charming girl waived her arms essentially saying, “Pick anything in the shop.” So I had a wander and found a nice Barbaresco; knowing cheese was going to be the main dish. After a small starter of anchovies with butter on some great bread, it was time for cheese. What an experience! I believe there were 15 or 16 cheeses presented beautifully on a huge wooden board in an incredible variety and, to be sure, impossible for two people to finish. (In fact, we invited the people next to us – whom we had been chatting with – to assist…and there was still cheese left.) The flavors ranged from mild and grassy to something akin to “There has to be a dead body in there”. Of course, despite its description, that gooey, stinky, cheese was just impossible to stop eating. However, that was not the highlight. There was a cheese from Switzerland that is scraped into a beautiful, light, rosette called Tête de Moine (Monk’s Head). That cheese they offered a second portion of.

Only one more day until we board the Seabourn Quest.