Roman Holiday

A week in Rome, what could be better? We had been so anxious to return to Rome once the Pandemic subsided, and I am happy to report it was everything I had been anticipating for these past two years. While we have been to Italy countless times, our last trip to Rome was over 25 years ago, so it was doubly as exciting. On our last visit we had stayed at The Hassler, and while it was iconic, we found it a bit disappointing. The location at the top of the Spanish Steps was convenient, but too chaotic. After some advice from our travel agent we decided on The Vilon for this trip, and we absolutely loved it. Tucked away from the hustle and bustle this renovated school for girls dates all the way back to the 16th century. Blessedly quiet yet walkable to absolutely everything the accommodations are sumptuous, the decor fabulous, and the staff exceedingly friendly. With just 19 rooms/suites, it feels intimate and luxurious.

Hopefully you can get a sense of our Suite from this video. The Hotel is new and everything is pristine. Included in our room was a Turkish Bath which did not get used but was very tempting, and a unique feature.

While we enjoyed a Vilon Suite, our son who was traveling with us enjoyed a less opulent aptly named “Charming” room.

The public spaces at The Vilon were also enchanting, bright, happy and filled with surprising details. The hotel has an outdoor space for drinks or breakfast that was inviting, but it was slightly too cold. The entire staff from the Front Desk to the Bartenders to the Housekeepers were absolutely friendly and professional.

Of Course the Hotel is always a top priority, but then there is the real star of the show…the food! Our first meal in Rome (and perhaps overall favorite of the trip) was at Roscioli, a veritable institution for food lovers. Located within a food and wine emporium in the historical center, we were quickly shown to our table in the very well stocked Cellar. The energy in Roscioli is palpable, and the informal setting combined with professional service and mouthwatering food makes for a really special experience.

I perused the long and appealing menu while enjoying an expertly crafted Negroni, which soon after I took my first sip slipped out of my hands all over the table. The waiter was swift in replacing it, apologizing as though it was his fault. He couldn’t have been nicer, perhaps because he sensed we were ravenous and would completely over-order. Roscioli is a primarily a Salumeria, which make the meat and cheese options so irresistible. This is actually not all that we ordered for the three of us, there were a few other courses that we found room for on the table. EVERYTHING we ate here was delicious. If I were to pick one weak spot it was the broccoli which was good, but not earth-shattering.

We arrived back to the hotel (walking- with hopes of burning extra calories) and went right to sleep. Our first meal the the Vilon was breakfast which was served à la carte and was as beautifully presented (and as tasty) as we expected. I opted for porridge in an attempt to start my day off on the right foot.

I arranged to have a tour guide (Daniele) for two days of our trip to give us a thorough overview of some of Rome’s many highlights. Our first day was spent exploring the Pantheon, the Palantine Hill, and the Colosseum along with numerous other fountains and landmarks. Daniele was able to drive us from spot to spot (he seems to have a magical ability to be able to find a parking space) so we were able to cover a lot of ground. We hit the jack-pot with him, he was the perfect combination of informative, entertaining, funny and efficient. If you are interested in contacting him, please let me know and I will share his information.

Daniele was just as concerned that we experience some authentic Roman cuisine, so he brought us to the Enoteca Corsi , an informal but delicious lunch-only spot. There were no other Americans dining while we were there, which is always a good sign. My son had been hankering for Tripe, and although it was not on the menu, they were able to accommodate. I can attest to the delicious-ness of the Cacio E Pepe. There was no issue finding gluten free options at any time during our trip.

Fortified by wine and carbs we continued our exploration. Likely you have seen zillions of photos of all the fabulous-ness of Rome, so I will remain focused primarily on the food

Our first day of touring was a big success and we were anxious for our dinner at Armando Al Pantheon which is conveniently located very close to the Pantheon. When we booked all of our reservations, this is one we had the hardest time with. While it was recommended to us via several sources, Armando al Pantheon was also featured on the Rome episode of Stanley Tucci’s CNN show Searching for Italy. There has clearly been a frenzy of travelers who want a taste of the quintessential Roman spot that Tucci loved so much. The restaurant is simple both inside and out, and has been family owned and operated since 1961. In theory this restaurant should have been stellar, but sadly it was now overrun with Americans (I know, I am an American too) which unfortunately ruins the vibe. While we were waiting to gain entry there were three separate parties who came to the door hoping for a reservation in the next few days and loudly expressing their frustration that it is perpetually booked.

Don’t get me wrong, the food was very good, it just wasn’t outstanding. I am sure it was a lot more authentic before CNN shined their light on it.

The following day we scheduled a marathon food tour led by an immensely knowledgable and fun Foodie who was a pleasure to spend the day with. Born in Australia to an Italian father and an English mother, Toni Brancatisano has lived in Italy since 1998 and can work with you to create the eating itinerary of your dreams. We gave her some guidelines as well as our (my) dietary restrictions and she crafted a full day of delicacies. After meeting up at our hotel we took a cab to the Mercato Trionfale, a historic and vast market close to the Vatican which dates back to the late 1800s. There are more than 200 mouth-watering stalls to tempt your fancy, featuring just about every Italian specialty under the sun.

After wandering through the market tasting cheeses and Salumi, and drooling over the magnificent produce we were on our way. Our first stop was Caffe Castroni, a dreamy Gourmet Food store in the desirable Prati neighborhood that has been in business since 1932. Because it was right before Easter, we were dazzled by the displays of Easter Eggs in every form. We seriously started googling apartments available to rent in Prati in order to imagine living in proximity to this treasure.

Next we headed to Roscioli Antico Forno (Roscioli’s bakery) where we enjoyed Roman Pizza while sitting in the sunshine on simple wooden tables set up outside. The potato pesto and tomato pies were the hands down favorites. We headed to Campo di Fiori to soak in the atmosphere (Mercato Trionfale was far better) and pay a visit to Norcineria Viola a pork lover’s emporium dating back to 1890. Along with the Liver Sausage, the guys nibbled on some ‘Coppiette’ (pork jerky). We timed our morning to be sure to enjoy a proper meal at Su’Ghetto in the Roman Ghetto. Sitting outside and feasting on both Carciofi Giudea (fried) and Romano (braised) along with Concia di Zucchini (lots and lots of Olive Oil makes this Zucchini dish irresistible). Washing these delicacies down with Prosecco while appreciating the historical significance of the setting made this an unforgettable stop on the tour.

In need of a sweet tidbit we headed to Biscottificio Innocenti , a bakery in the Trastevere that churns out delectable treats (including some that are gluten free ) on a daily basis, traveling down the conveyor belt of the oven which sits prominently in the middle of the shop and dates back to the 1950s. We had a chance to chat with the proprietress (third generation baker ) and sample Brutti Ma Buoni (literally ugly but good cookies) , Meringues and Crostatines (mini jam tarts). Biscottificio Innocenti is located off the beaten path in a residential neighborhood, but is well worth the effort to find it. We even got sent home with a goody bag which would come in handy when we got back to the hotel.

The cookies were not our dessert though, we had a few more stops to make, including Trapizzino a small Italian chain (with an outpost in NY) that features sublime Suppli, perfectly fried, stuffed rice balls. We sampled the Arrabiata, Asparagus & Provolone, and Beef & Slow Cooked Onion variations. They were perfectly crispy, golden and delicious. We were approaching full capacity but we had one more savory stop to make, and then finally- Gelato!

Rione 13 was next on the agenda, a pleasant restaurant located close to Trapizzino in Trastevere which specializes in Pasta and Pizza. Perhaps it was because we were so full, but this was the weak spot of the day. I tried the pasta with Sage, Provolone and Lemon (gluten-free) which was fine. The Gricia was deemed to be the best of the bunch.

The last stop with Toni was at Fatamorgana, a utilitarian looking Gelateria whose ordinary looks disguised the jewels of frozen treats hidden within. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Fatamorgana has two outposts in California, so I will be able to enjoy this Gelato again soon. It was a hardship deciding on flavors, but ultimately I settled on Gianduja and Almond & Orange. The flavors were clean and pure and the Gelato was the perfect end to a very indulgent day.

We parted ways with Toni soon after, and made a plan to see one another again the next time we visit Rome. She was terrific, and I would not hesitate to put your appetite in her hands.

Believe it or not, we did venture out after our day of eating to a spot located near the Vilon for a light bite. It was not worthy of a mention here, but when we returned to the hotel we ordered up a Digestif recommended by the Bartender, Jefferson Importante, and it seemed to help us settle our tummies.

We had set aside the next day to visit the Vatican Museum and Daniele had arranged for us to be in the first group of visitors. We were picked up at 8 am and were able to enjoy the good fortune of seeing the exhibits (and the Sistine Chapel) without the crowds. Setting aside any religiosity, the art contained within the Vatican is just awe-inspiring. The vibrancy of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, which has been restored since I last visited is just breathtaking. As a side note, we did need KN-95 masks and vaccination records in order to gain entry; there are people selling masks outside if you don’t have one. Photography is allowed in the Vatican everywhere except the Sistine Chapel, but I am confident you are familiar with the highlights of the collection. We exited the Vatican and paid a quick stop to an attraction that sees far fewer visitors, but is equally as fascinating, San Clemente Basilica.

The interior of the Basilica is impressive in the beauty of the intricate mosaic work, but even more fascinating is the excavation below the church which allows you to travel back to the year 520 BC. As it happens, multiple churches have been constructed on this very site, all one atop another. An ongoing archaeological dig allows visitors to explore history layer by layer. This is a fairly quick visit, but one that leaves a lasting impression.

Our final stop with Daniele was a visit to Castel Gandolfo, a town about 15 miles SE of Rome which is home to the Pope’s summer residence. The town is situated on the shores of Lake Albano, and is accessed by driving along the Apian Way. Daniele wanted to take us to a special spot for lunch which has tremendous views of the Lake, one that has been in the same family for 4 generations, Antico Ristorante Pagnanelli dal 1882. I am a sucker for family- run restaurants, especially ones where the ownership goes back to the 1800s. This is a “fancy” meal, but you are made to feel completely at home. The service is friendly and the dishes are presented with pride. The food was delicious (my gluten free pasta with citrus and shrimp served in a grapefruit was excellent) as was the baked radicchio with cheese and an incredible chocolate gelato. We never would have trekked out to Castel Gandalfo for this meal, but were so glad we did. A tour of the very impressive wine cellar after lunch was icing on the cake.

What we didn’t realize was that Castel Gandalfo and the surrounding towns are famous as being the best place in Italy to find Porchetta. Once we learned this fact, my husband and son insisted we go to the most renowned Porchetta spot for a sandwich, Falucioli , which has been delighting Gourmands since 1917.

Located just across the road from Pagnanelli , Falucioli is a tidy brightly colored shop that focuses on making the best Porchetta you can imagine. The Porchetta was deemed to be absolutely perfect, and was a highlight of the trip (honestly).

We all fell asleep on the ride back to Rome (Except Daniele luckily) as we were all stuffed to the gills. We bid him farewell with promises to see him again one day soon. He was a terrific guide, and we really enjoyed our time with him. Again, please message me if you would like his information. The only remedy to our excessive indulgences was more walking. We set out from the Vilon and went to the Trevi Fountain which never ceases to impress, as well as to do some early evening shopping.

Dinner on our final night in Rome was booked at Colline Emiliane, another family run Michelin recognized restaurant dating back to 1931. The focus here is not on traditional Roman recipes, but rather food from the Emilia region, with their fresh pasta being in the spotlight. This restaurant was close to perfect- casual, friendly, obsessive about ingredients and tradition, and filled with Italians. The location is a little off the beaten path, but it is worth the effort. We washed everything down with some local Lambrusco, and were happy as can be. The desserts in particular were outstanding. They do not feature any gluten free pasta options here, but I made due with some fabulous aged Parmigiana and perfectly roasted garlicky vegetables. I also scooped out all the filling and topping of the Lemon Meringue Tart.

We availed ourselves to one more leisurely breakfast at The Vilon, and took the opportunity to sample their wide array of gluten free treats (the Jam Tart was fab), and the Cacio E Pepe scrambled eggs were especially satisfying. We packed up after breakfast and headed to the airport for our next stop, Lisbon.

We LOVED our time in Rome. Thankfully we were able to walk about 40 miles during our 5 day stay so we didn’t feel too guilty about enjoying everything in sight. Our guides were superb, and the food was sublime with special mention going to Roscioli, Falucioli, Colline Emilia, Ristorante Pagnanelli, Fatamorgana Gelato, and Su’Ghetto. Five Stars as well to the Hotel Vilon. Stay tuned for the latest on Lisbon.

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