When in Rome

Pizza. I want it again tonight. What is it about pizza that calls to my growling stomach? Maybe it’s a kid thing – my rebellion against ever growing up. Maybe it’s the new pizza stone my son and his wife gave me for Christmas. It’s amazing how much better the crusts are with a really hot pizza stone. No more limp pizza that you have to hold with two hands and hope the toppings don’t slide off into your lap. Maybe I love pizza because I’m lazy and the simplicity of the idea is overwhelming. One slice has everything you need, right there in plain sight – carbs, protein, fruit, veggies — and you can eat it with your hands.

Years ago, I used to make what could only be called “piled pizzas.” You’ve had one – everything you can think of stacked up on the round disk of dough.  Then I went to Rome and discovered this is not how the Italians do pizza.

Rome – what a gift. It was teaching at Skidmore that landed me in Rome. In the summer of 2006, Skidmore offered me a chance to use funds from a government grant program to go to Beijing for three weeks to learn Chinese. No joke – that was the idea, Chinese in three weeks. Given that I had no experience in Chinese and am not particularly gifted visually, the thought of learning any Chinese in three weeks seemed like a joke. But it was one of those jokes where people wink and nod and say, “Go. This is the chance of a lifetime. Of course they know you won’t really learn Chinese.” I could see their point.  But Beijing was a cloud of pollution enveloping a crowd of humanity. I was a runner, the kind of runner who cannot just stop running for three weeks because I can’t see the cars in the street or the buses at the corner. I am also tall – just sort of tall among American women. But in Beijing I would have been a giant in the clouds (of pollution). I also am not fond of crowds and couldn’t imagine trying to elbow my way onto a bus. I had read the stories, seen the pictures. I said, “No thanks.” Not that I didn’t think about it. I did. But I just couldn’t see myself on the streets of Beijing doing anything but crying. Maybe it was a mistake. I will never get to China and probably won’t learn how to write even one Chinese character. And I am a narrower person for that.  But I think it all worked out, because the next summer I got a better offer.

In 2007, Skidmore said, “How about Rome and Italian?” If I had gone to Beijing, this offer of Rome would have gone to someone else. Again, I had to think about it. I had read some scary stuff about Americans in Rome. And I knew even though I would learn more Italian than Chinese, I still could not learn Italian in three weeks. I’m really not good at languages, even those with the same alphabet. But I had a student whose thesis I was supervising who had spent a semester in Rome. She convinced me that this really was the chance of a lifetime. And I had a feeling this was probably my last offer.  I couldn’t see them going over the whole planet, picking a new city each year and offering me these really amazing deals, patiently waiting until they landed on my first choice city and language. I went.

Rome is a lot about eating … and drinking. I went to Italian classes every morning. It was tough. I was spared being the class dunce by one student who found it even more difficult than I did. I learned to say a few things, but while the other students were taking private lessons in the afternoons, I was out exploring and eating my way across the city with my sister. The food is what I remember vividly, not how to ask the bus driver which bus goes to the Coliseum.  I love to eat, and have only one answer to the question, “Are you hungry?” I’m always hungry. Right now my stomach is growling as I think about making the pizza dough that has to rise for an hour and a half before I can even think about what to put on it. I should have started earlier.

In Rome, it was easy to find pizza. On every block it seemed there was at least one deep, narrow shop with a big long griddle strewn with pizza pieces stretching out for yards. This made it easy to point to whichever piece looked good – didn’t need that morning Italian class to get exactly what I wanted. At first I wasn’t sure about this Roman pizza. It looked so anemic, underfed, so not the obesely generous American variety which I loved before I ever went to Rome. Wimpy pizza rectangles, really? But how could someone who lives to eat possibly go to Rome and not eat pizza. I tried it – one slice with a few very thin green pepper crescents. That’s all it took. I began to eat pizza at every opportunity. Every slice had a delightfully thin, crisp crust, the distinctive sweet and spicy reddish-orange tomato smear, a bit of cheese, not the thick slug that I find here at home, and usually just one more delectable ingredient. Pizza in Rome was thin, flat, hot, fresh, light, and eventually addictive. You could almost eat the whole piece in one bite. No surfeit of unnecessary additions slid across your chin and onto your shirt while you stood on the street and grinned the big orangish smile created by a simple edible delight, Roman pizza.

Then, almost invariably next door to the pizza hallway, there would be a gelato shop. I landed in Rome a committed pizza eater, but gelato, eh, take it or leave it. Again, I thought I would just pass.  This time it was not because the gelato didn’t look right, didn’t look like the gelato at home, but gelato is just not my thing. And it didn’t seem as obvious to me that anyone who went to Rome should at least try some gelato. Looking back I owe thanks for my gelato romance to my sister Christine. She ordered the gelato and gave me a taste. Immediately, I realized that Roman gelato was nothing like anything I had eaten at home. Again, same name, different food. My sister had chosen lemon. It was the simplicity of the taste, pure fresh lemon with very little sugar. No confusing this clean taste with cones or sprinkles or whipped cream. The simple frozen essence of lemon was dazzling.

Other than food, what most tourists share about Rome is getting lost. It is not an exaggeration to say that the streets are like spaghetti – mixed up and hard to follow. All over the city, tourists are standing at corners, looking down at maps, looking up the streets one way, and then down the streets the other way, gesturing this way and that –one person gesturing right, while another gestures left, and another points straight ahead. My sister and I shared this confusion, mostly, I would say, because she has no idea how to read a map and is stubborn as hell. But finally I stopped gesturing, left the directions to her, and we wandered. And that’s what I recommend. If you find yourself lost in Rome, just walk in any direction. You can’t help but come upon some pizza and gelato. Point at the slice that looks good and pick a gelato by its color. Eat and enjoy, you’ll eventually find your way home.

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