Mr. and Mrs. Penfire Stop for Lunch

When we first contemplated traveling to Italy, we thought we simply didn’t know enough to be do-it-ourselves travelers. Looking back now at the itinerary, I see that the tour we nearly booked would have been a big disappointment. The tour offered only a thirty-minute “orientation walk” on the day of arrival in Rome, with the note: “for specific or in-depth information, an official guided tour is recommended.” Next came the tour’s one-and-only full day in Rome—a free day to go exploring—with the note that in order to be certain of seeing the most popular sites, reservations should be made (by us) well before our arrival. An enticing list of a dozen options was provided. But just as Rome was not built in a day, it certainly cannot be seen in a day!

Mr. Penfire and I had allowed three full days. The second of those we had reserved for the Vatican. Our trusty Michelin Green Guide had recommended we allow a full day for the Vatican Museums plus two additional hours for Saint Peter’s Basilica. But we had gotten off to a late start with our Vatican tour (11 a.m.; when we made our reservations, we were worried about not being able to get there in time!). And the truth is, after a 3-hour tour, and more time spent afterwards, chatting with our guide, nipping into the Vatican Post Office, wandering across Saint Peter’s Square…and marveling at its magnificence… we were ready for a late lunch!

Maria Teresa, our feisty, knowledgeable,* and no-nonsense tour guide recommended Arlu, a place only a couple of blocks away. But negotiating a couple of blocks of simple directions can be tricky in a city where roads curve, swerve, and seem to split or merge. Mr. Penfire and I disagreed about whether the directions we had been given to go straight out of the Piazza and take a left onto the first street meant, take the street that abuts the plaza where there are no cars (Largo del Colonnato) or take the next street over, across the white hatch marks painted on the pavement (Piazza Papa Pio XII). We opted for the former, which proved to be the right choice when it led us “under the bridge.” From there we just had to walk a block, go right ,walk two more blocks. And there it was. A pretty place with outdoor seating shaded by large umbrellas. We always opted for outdoor seating.**

I now regret that I did not take pictures of our food, as then I would be able to remember what we ordered. Looking now, at Arlu’s online menu, I like to think we ordered one of the “First Dishes” (pasta) though I don’t think we would have chosen one with Norcia (salted pig’s) cheek, or heart of cod and scorzone (though if I had known that meant summer truffle) I might have! I hope Mr. Penfire picked fettucine with fresh tomato sauce, aubergine cream, salted “ricotta” and toasted aubergine because he does love eggplant, and raciolaccio (bundle of pasta rather than a simple ravioli) with spinach and buffalo “riccota” in a saffron sauce with crispy ham. Most likely, though (sigh), Mr. Penfire had his usual , always good but not adventurous: eggplant parmigiana and I, my usual caprese salad with buffalo mozzarella.

The day was lovely; the restaurant couldn’t have been nicer. But… the outdoor tables were grouped in three rows, three tables for two in each row. In the middle row, three very jolly and congenial couples all engaged in lively conversation. As they were speaking English, quite loudly, we soon realized they were happy vacationers, traveling together and having the time of their lives. We were in an outer row, at the center table; the table to our left was empty; to our right: a grim-faced couple, who were eating quickly, their few words to each other, clipped and delivered without smiles. They said enough so I could recognize the language: French! Were they tourists like us, or locals, discussing the terms of their divorce?

No matter. We pretty much ignored them. Plus, there was entertainment nearby. We observed during the time we were enjoying our lunch, a sporadic stream of priests and nuns, young and old, singly and in small groups, who kept arriving at the door of a shop directly across the street. A glance at the windows confirmed our guess: Religious Goods! The windows were crammed with Presipi (the legendary nativity figurines that must Italian-made for true authenticity), vestments, chalices, icons and holy images in all shapes and sizes; no doubt inside an incredible selection of rosary beads, and the all the mysterious specialized items necessary to the functioning of a church, or nunnery, or monastery. We watched as these hopeful holy shoppers arrived, tried the door. Found it locked. Then peered inside, noses pressed to the glass, shoulders arched in a pose of incredulous puzzlement. Finally, someone from inside would appear on the other side of the glass door, explain with vehement pointing gestures and inaudible mouthings that they should go to a different door halfway back up the block. The quizzical visitors would dutifully backtrack, then disappear into the door indicated. This scene was repeated over and over again for at least half an hour until, finally, someone emerged from the open door, walked down the sidewalk to the locked door, and posted a large piece of paper on which had been marked a large arrow and a few words—no doubt “per favore usa l’altra porta” (please use other door). With that the cavalcade of devout seekers of holy-everything-under-the-sun ended.

Meanwhile, the jolly British six-some, had settled their bill and strolled way, still chatting and chuckling. The French still couple sat staring at each other; if they were not really smoking cigarettes and blowing the smoke angrily in each other’s faces, they might as well have been.  We finished our very good lunch, a bit wistful that we couldn’t have joined the conversation of the jolly Brits, paid, and left.

During lunch I had pointed out to Mr. Penfire that we were only a short walk from Castel Sant’ Angelo, which was on our “see if we can list.” He good-naturedly agreed to accompany me there (knowing that in reality he had very little choice). We consulted our trusty National Geographic map, and set off down via Borgo Pio, turned right then left the right then left. And there we were.

Only later did I realize we should have instead cut across to the side street beside the religious good store, then gone right and made our way to via Della Conciliazione, the broad, dramatic avenue that links Saint Peter’s Piazza and the Castel and even serves as an extension of the Piazza at times when the vast Piazza is overflowing with visitors to major events. Designed as a symbol of the Vatican’s unique relationship with the city of Rome, this historic roadway’s construction was stalled for literally centuries as a series of Popes and potentates dillydallied and squabbled about how, when and whether to raze the dense warren of ancient and medieval structures that blocked its pathway.
Well, we had missed it! And that is the reality of travel and life. Just as I have finally come to accept the fact that I will never read all the books in the library, I have also realized that no matter where we go, we will never be able to see it all… (Mr. Penfire is incredibly grateful that I have finally figured this out!)


P.S. Upon arriving back home, I was thrilled to see that a magazine clipping I had saved recommended Arlu as an outstanding restaurant near the Vatican which was not a purveyor of tourist food.

*Maria Teresa, toward the end of our tour, told us that her son, a Deacon of the Church had sung Masses at the Basilica during the papacy of Benedict XVI. She offered to play an excerpt for those of us who wish to stay after the end of the Tour. Of course, Mr. Penfire and I opted to do so. Maria Teresa was visibly proud, and understandably so. No doubt, with a son who actually lived and worked at the Vatican, she had every reason to know the place well.

**As we were to learn, being naïve Californians from a town where all smoking in public places is banned, rules are very different in Italy. Here, smoking is frowned upon inside restaurants, but not outside. The trade-off: al fresco (in the open air) dining must often be enjoyed (or perhaps not enjoyed) in a cloud of cigarette, or cigar… or other… smoke!