Culture / Travel

A Real-Life Guide to Italy’s Don’t-Miss Restaurants, Churches and Experiences: Live Like a Local

BY Mary Margaret Hansen // 08.12.16

This is the ninth and final installment of photographer and activist Mary Margaret Hansens travel diary, written as she and fellow artist Earl Staley enjoyed an Italian sojourn. Read some of the previous dispatches hereherehere, and here. (And be sure to scroll through the slideshow above to see some wonderful photographs of their journeys.)

On our last afternoon in Florence, Earl and I ordered plates of linguine alle vongole. It was the perfect dish to savor at the end of our month-long Italian sojourn. It would also fortify us for a 3 a.m. wake-up call and flights to Amsterdam and Houston. Vongole is classic Italian, its briny clams are always fresh, the pasta homemade, and the garlic sauce heavenly.

We stopped to eat at a tourist spot in the Piazza della Signoria, a place that overlooks the replica of Michelangelo’s David standing tall in front of Palazzo Vecchio, which, to this day, is the Florentine town hall. As we lingered over those plates of vongole, we reminisced about what we enjoyed most in Firenze, Bologna, Napoli, and Roma, four cities that satisfied all of our senses.

A busy Intersection in Rome.
Rome is for walkers.

Each city exudes its own energy, and we could fall into the flow once we recognized it. Eleanor Clark describes Rome’s energy in her book “Rome and a Villa” thusly:  “You walk close to your dreams. Sometimes it seems that these pulsing crowds with their daily rhythms (were) established so long ago none of it has to be decided any more….”

The process of finding the flow is a bit like playing jump rope. You must learn when to jump in. We learned how to greet shop owners in the morning and in the afternoon; we intuitively felt the best times to stop for an afternoon espresso. We indulged in an early evening respite so that we could head out with gusto for dinner between 8:30 and 9:00. We followed Romans and Neapolitans, closely, very closely, when crossing multiple lines of traffic. We noted that churches opened early in the morning and were closed from noon until 4 p.m.

There are churches in every city, hundreds, perhaps thousands of churches. There are churches under churches, and ruins of Roman temples beneath churches. And there are the churches Earl designated as “important, not to be missed” because of a unique altarpiece or a fresco that changed the course of art history. I discovered that churches, more than the streets and markets and public buildings, hold the history of Italian cities. Churches show us centuries of interrelationships between politics and religion, the provide illustrations of cultural values and vices and document the growth of trade, art and design. The stories are there in the frescoes, the tombs, the family chapels. All can be read, much as we peruse the morning’s news. I was lucky enough to wander through churches with a man who — fine guidebook in hand and possessed of a fountain of knowledge about Renaissance painting — translated the stories these churches tell.

In Florence’s Santa Maria de Novella, a church built by the Dominicans in the 13th century, Domenico Ghirlandaio created his masterpiece, a series of frescoes detailing scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, and on an opposite wall scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist. Amazingly, the biblical cast of characters are portrayed as citizens of 15th-century Florence, often against backdrops of Florentine street scenes. Portraits of the family commissioning the work and the artist’s contemporaries appear in the frescoes.

Ghirlandaio was among the first artists to paint real people in a hierarchy with the saints and the Holy Spirit. He also played with the new intricacies of perspective. If one knows a bit about the history of commerce and trade in Florence, one knows that the ladies of the patron’s family are depicted wearing couture Florentine clothing, made with fabrics woven within the city limits. Ghirlandaio’s frescoes offered a luxury fashion spread of Florentine citizens witnessing the life of the Virgin Mary.

Earl and his granddaughter Arianne survey the high altar at The Gesu.
Earl and his granddaughter Arianne survey the high altar at The Gesu.

And then, there is The Gesù in Rome. This Jesuit church stands out for its grandeur, its display of wealth and pomp. There is the sumptuous style for which the Jesuits are known and, as the Blue Guide Rome tells us, “The architecture perfectly serves the ideas of the Counter-Reformation: while Protestant Europe was destroying images and stripping churches, Rome was responding with ceremony as theatre … ”

On either side of The Gesù’s high altar are two others that hold the tombs of St. Ignatius and Francis Xavier. Standing before these jaw-dropping altars, I began to comprehend the incredible power of the order. The altars are ornamented with the most varied of marbles, bronze cupids, and with what seems a final over-the-top touch: insets of lapis lazuli. When one finally looks upward, well, there is a masterpiece by Baciccia (his real name was Giovanni Battista Gaulli), a 17th-century Baroque fresco titled Triumph of the Name of Jesus.

It is indeed triumphant. The entire cathedral is triumphant. I return for another look at the lapis. In how many ways has it been used to ornament the already splendid altar? The Gesù put me on overwhelm. It was time for espresso.

And it is high time to talk about food and trattorias, both of which we remember with great longing every single day. Italian food IS different. It’s absolutely fresh. When we rode the trains from city to city, we passed fields with rows of crops just twenty minutes from city centers. The menus in Roma, Napoli, Bologna, and Florence each highlight their city’s specialties. Vongole is a constant on every menu.

Ragu alla Bolognese, is most divine when eaten in Bologna.
Ragu alla Bolognese is most divine when eaten in Bologna.

It’s best not to eat in the big trattorias that line the tourist piazzas, though we did on occasion, because we wanted a front row seat near the Pantheon or the Palazzo Vecchio. We found the best food in small establishments on side streets, the kinds of places that may have been there for generations.

In Naples, we walked into a tiny place off Spaccanapoli with a half dozen tables and ate the most divine fresh mozzarella cheese I have ever tasted, followed by a platter of fried anchovies so good we just grinned at each another. In Florence, we found our way to the same restaurant three nights in a row. Couldn’t help ourselves. The seafood was spectacular — cold octopus salad and deep-fried fish, shrimp, clams, and mussels.

And then there is pasta. Portions are not huge, because pasta is primo piatto, the second dish in an often three-course meal. I am remembering a plate of gnocchi in Bologna, so light it could have been fed to angels. And I will always have memories of fettuccine al funghi with garlic and olive oil. Pasta is homemade, sturdy, subtly flavored. It’s a very good idea to eat pasta every day.

One final thing to love in these four Italian cities are the ancient cobblestone streets. Cobblestones last for centuries. Forever. When repairs must be made underground, the stones are dug out and stacked, and then set back in place when the work is done. I like foreverness. And, Italian woman do walk on these cobblestones with ease in the highest of heels … good to keep in mind when packing for an Italian sojourn.

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