Elswick Envoy

Remember J.F. Sebastian’s little car in Blade Runner? The one not unlike a mini airport-shuttle van conversion, which Syd Mead had remodeled and re-shaped with his trademark rhomboid angles?

I did a double-take last week, certain that I’d spotted the thing jammed into a tight Trastevere parking spot. Now, any auto buff will tell you Rome’s streets sport many a moto-carriage cute and strange, this town being the nexus of All Roads and whatnot, but this particular futu-rustic transport looked to have surreptitiously rolled out of Epcot Center back in ‘78, and been on the ‘lam since.

Actually, turns out it’s British – an ’Elswick Envoy’, to be exact. Of note, it’s accessibility-designed from the chassis up: devoid of seats and pedals, the hatchback trunk pops open for a wheelchair, while arm-height accellerator and brake controls protrude from the dash. Just load, lock, and drive – plus, you can park almost anywhere.


Vatican railway

The other night, walking around the Vatican’s walled borders, we came across an overpass I’d noticed before, but never given any thought. There’s a flight of stairs leading to the top, which we climbed – to discover the most delightful, perfectly-manicured stretch of railroad this side of Anaheim, California. It was, of course, the last hundred meters of Vatican City’s private railway; shiny, shrubbery-lined tracks which exit from a batcave-like opening set high into a thick brick wall, sealed with a massive iron gate. It’s cool.

Climb the dome of St. Peter’s and you can see the rest of the rail line out back, a Disneyesque station and train collection, all the cuter from that vantage point, seemingly sized to a perfect H.O. scale.


Restaurant touts vs. fresh peas

Walking back from the outdoor market at Andrea Doria, Azure and I were accosted by a restaurant tout. With folded red napkins over one arm, and laminated English-language picture menus tucked into the other, these smooth-talking ‘waiters’ are more like seasoned cattle-drivers, their long days spent roundin’ up and herding tourists into the (not-particularly) ‘Italian Ristorante’ joints around Vatican City.

This time around, the tout hadn’t finished the opening bars of “Hello Mister, Good Pizza For You…” before spotting stalks of fresh asparagus peeping from our bags – also heavy with roman artichokes, fennel bulbs, sage, shallots, garlic, carrots, fresh peas, and Sicilian pachino tomatoes, to boot – whereupon he completely dropped his spiel and instead began to jealously ogle the produce.

Meanwhile, a second tout ambled over, at first wildly waving some menus of his own, then stopping, abruptly, to also admire the inventory of our plastic-bag cornucopias.

“Man, you guys really eat well at your place!”, the one tells us, with the other nodding rapidly in agreement, putting the menus away, and adding, quite seriously, “I think it’s always better, eating at home, anyways.”

Damn straight. Happy Easter!

photo of vatican easter mass, 2003

umbrellas out at the vatican easter mass, 2003


Vespa conversations

Watching vespas jockey for position as they barrel down the Lungotevere, one realizes these fearless riders are indeed the cultural (if not genetic) inheritants of the whole Ben-Hur business of chariot racing.

Equally striking are the sharp yells and shouts piercing the din of scooter-noise: Some of it is just two chatty riders on the same bike, of course, but I’ve also seen solitary riders screaming monologues as they zoomed past.

Now, drop me into that Italian two-stroke Circus Maximus, and I’d no doubt wail like the lot of ‘em – in fear – but even then I could never match the emotional intensity of the Romans. The riders I’ve seen shouting aloud remind me more of ‘colorful’ old Berkeley, where large portions of the sidewalk citizenry engage in similarly loud dialogues with parties neither present nor real.

All of which i just discovered to be just half-true here: Turns out it’s de riguer for motorino pilots to squeeze, wiggle, and jam their teensy cellphones beneath their helmets, so they’re barely visible, but flush-up against the ear.

This, you see, lets them yap away on the cell tel. all the way to work (just like any other commuter), while it’s the ambient noise, of course, which necessitates the strange and dopplered yelling that I, odd pedestrian out, kept hearing on my morning stroll.


Emelyn Story

The most beautiful spot in Rome that I know is the Protestant Cemetary, a curiously silent and shaded place that’s kept hidden by the looming Cestius Pyramid, some crumbling remnants of the Aurelian wall, and a foreboding alleyway of shuttered nightclubs bordering the blue-collar Testaccio district.

The few visitors here generally arrive to see the grave of John Keats, buried, per his instructions, under the epitaph “here lies one whose name was writ in water”. Shelley, too, lies nearby; he had earlier toured Keats’ tomb and exclaimed, “it might make one in love with death to know that one should be buried in so sweet a place”.


Azure and I mostly visit to pet the resident cats, and to see, just once more again, the gravestone of Emelyn Story; a grieving marble angel that was carved by the hand of her husband, American sculptor William Story, whose own grave lies next to hers, and that of their young child, Joseph.

emelyn story sculpture by william wetmore story

emelyn story’s grave, 2003


Da Cesare roma

Hostaria ‘da Cesare’ is Rome’s equivalent to SF’s ‘Tadich Grill’ – a restaurant oddly immune to time, monumental certainly, but too slammed with customers to bother acting chic. The waiters here are all older gentlemen, who wear off-white tuxedo jackets, black bow ties, and a fair dash of hair pomade.

No, these guys are not in the business of smiles, chit-chat, or proffering Sir some “fresh ground pepper?”, but, that said, they’ll wordlessly de-bone a fish tableside in seconds, or grab a couple of inversed spoons to politely dish out a platter of veggies in an eyeblink.

Meat (veal, actually) is really what se mangia bene at da Cesare, but the seafood also ranks among the best in town. There’s only one serious veggie item – fettucini with fresh porcini mushrooms – but it sits prominently in the middle of the menu, distanced by a respectful amount of whitespace from the rest, and all for good reason: it’s very, very good fettucini.


Pasticceria Valzani chocolate eggs

We picked up a big chocolate egg today, from my favorite candy shop in town, cioccolateria Valzani, a slightly-worn mom-and-pop affair (well, grandmom-and-pop, these days) tucked away on Via del Moro, in the Trastevere quarter.

Chocolate eggs are kinda their specialty: they’re only sold around easter, but Valzani stocks sun-faded Eggs-Of-Yore photos on the walls all year long. Plus, they’ve currently got a housemade four-foot-tall chocolate egg squatting stately by the cash register, a fine testament to how serious they are about this egg business, I’d say.

valzani eggs, easter 2003

They’ve got competition, of course: every market in town is hawking choco-eggs of various sorts at the moment, the most intriguing being the only-for-easter, deluxe-sized version of Ferrero’s ‘Kinder Egg’ which weighs in 400% bigger than the sold-all-year-round variety, and with better surprises inside, to boot.

Still, I’ll stick with my humbler Valzani egg, if nothing but for the fact that they produce the meanest and baddest Diavoletti al Peperoncini this side of the Tiber – them’s dark chocolate and crushed red pepper truffles. Double-plus good!

valzani pasticceria sign