During the 2020 Corona Virus/Covid lockdown I was asked to write about my experiences for several publications including The Washington Post, BBC News and The Guardian. I shared my stories and others In this article, I explored my neighborhood Regola, in the centro storico, to hear the voices of my neighbors.
Residents and business owners told me how they were feeling, and I remember when writing this that I was really sad because in May 2020, Rome had an undercurrent of hopeless from some businesses who rely on tourism. But there was also hope from those who invested in community and wanted to bring back a sense of it to the historic center, an area that is stereotyped as a ghost town.
This article and video originally appeared in Washington Post, June 2020. It’s hard for me to read it because I remember forcing myself to be positive.
A new kind of Rome
I know you can’t wait to come back to Rome, and I know it’s unfair that you can’t, but right now, we Romans are loving the city and having the piazzas, museums and monuments all to ourselves. More importantly, we love finally being able to see our own quartieri (neighbourhoods) of the centro storico (Rome’s historic centre) for what they are and should be-niche enclaves and then some where everyone knows your name and your business. Over the years, the quartieri have hidden under frenetic layers of commuters, tourists, businesses and more, but right now, we – residents and those lucky enough to come visit – are living #quartierelife where Rome feels like the tiny town it really is. It is beautiful but there is also some heart ache.
As Italy and Europe gradually open to the rest of the world (here’s the latest on who’s in and who’s out), businesses are trying to figure out how to navigate an Eternal City without its normal daily traffic. The centro storico has long relied on tourism to support many of its restaurant and food services. Opening doors again isn’t easy; restaurants are experiencing a new atmosphere thanks to changed personalities and limited tourism. Some are investing in invigorating the local community, while others are simply trying to move forward. While Rome slowly re-acquaints itself with the city’s new landscape, I visited stalwarts of the center- restaurants, cafes and markets – to find out how they are evolving in the city’s new landscape.
RetroBottega one of the city’s innovators for its focus on materie prime (locally sourced, raw and organic fruit and vegetables), closed its restaurant, wine bar and pasta lab along with the rest of the country on March 8. Owners Giuseppe Lo Iudice and Alessandro Miocchi quickly pivoted to support the team that supports them, i.e. its staff and its farmers, and to support the historic center’s community.
“We reached out to the community that wasn’t able [or didn’t want] to shop in the supermarket, that wanted quality,” says RetroBottega’s Lo Iudice. Reconfiguring into RetroDelivery, a CSA-structured produce delivery service, RetroBottega reached out to local residents to offer fresh produce delivery via WhatsApp.
It wasn’t easy at first, but the neighborhood quickly caught on and loved the personalized grocery service with the RetroBottega vibe. Miocchi, the pasta brain, expanded the repertoire to include fresh bread, and now RetroDelivery delivers gourmet products, meat, fish, and freshly made pasta and breads thanks to a collaboration with Roscioli, as well as a local butcher and local fish vendor.
The Roscioli family, four generations of bakers, is one of the cornerstone’s of the Campo de’ Fiori neighborhood. Roscioli is now a local empire with a coffee shop, bakery and restaurant/gourmet delicatessen.
During the lockdown, while the closed-to-public cafe organized coffee deliveries, the bakery kept its doors open and provided home deliveries of such items as homemade yeast and pizza dough.
“Bread has a social weight; we have to provide it,” explains baker PierLuigi Roscioli. In fact, he personally delivered bread to his patrons, which inspired the community and showed that there was some normalcy in a surreal situation.
Aligning with RetroBottega was a natural fit for Roscioli, as both are dedicated to providing top-quality products and investing and supporting the local community by continuing to cater, in all senses of the word, to its needs.
“We are rooted in this neighborhood; we can’t abandon it. We grew up here. It was unfathomable to think that we wouldn’t stay open. For us, it’s not about economics, but it’s a duty to our community,” says PierLuigi.
A return to dining
All’aperto (alfresco dining) is one of every Romans favorite expressions. We love eating outside, but not every restaurant has that possibility, and the new social distancing regulations and personal hesitations make indoor dining an afterthought, at best.
RetroBottega reopened its restaurant, wine bar and pasta lab but not quite as it was before. Lo Iudice and Miocchi refocused their menu by creating pizzas — inventive and made with prime materie and antipasti. Roscioli Salumeria, the brothers’ tiny restaurant, restructured its tables and, like everyone else, requires advance reservations.
It’s not an ideal situation, and not helped by the fact that Romans are not as active as tourists in dining out. To some, this is the perfect time to experience restaurants whose wait lists are weeks long, but to restaurant owners, the next few months are a precarious tight rope. One establishment that intensely feels the effects of the pandemic’s full stop is Pizzeria Remo a Testaccio, an inexpensive, cult-favorite pizzeria in the Testaccio neighborhood. Right now, the usually busy pizzeria is quiet. Regular clients are not interested in sitting inside, whether scared of being too close or offset by the summer heat, and for those that potentially want to return, they are dissuaded by social distancing settings that make dining a lot less fun.
“Unfortunately, most people come to the pizzeria as a group of friends and family, and now would have to sit distanced from each other. Are they going to tell jokes using WhatsApp?” asks partner Antonio Amato.
Rome is not Rome without gelato, and during the lockdown, many gelaterie teamed up with delivery services to provide the treat to homes all over the city. Giolitti, the 120-year-old gelateria best known for its 57 flavors as well as its crowds, was this journalist’s go-to delivery for cioccolato fondente (dark chocolate) during the lockdown.
Closing its doors completely was not an option, describes Nazareno Giolitti.
“Giolitti has only been closed only a half-day when my grandfather passed away and another half-day when my father passed away. Why? Because my grandparents always said we are public service. Our feelings come second to that of the people,” he says. Giolitti maintained its staff by alternately hours, and immediately focused on at home gelato delivery.
When Italy slowly opened, Giolitti was prepared with take away coffee drinks, pastries and gelato.
“We are a tradition. A line will return and it’s our responsibility to keep it organized,” Giolitti says. But Giolitti notes that as a heritage establishment that owns its space, the gelateria is luckier than most other businesses that are struggling to pay rents and salaries. Giolitti is now fully reopened, and the line has returned.
Traditional cafes are the staple of any Italian city. They are where we meet and greet in the morning for a quick chat and fast counter service. Although bars and cafes have been open for nearly two months, the normal routine is nothing like before. Along with social distancing protocols, which reduce the amount of people at the counter, Rome updated business hours to three time slots during May and June, where non-food-related shops (like clothing) open at 11 a.m., which means less morning traffic from incoming staff.
Bar del Cappuccino, a beloved hole-in-the wall on Via Arenula, is waiting for the foot traffic to return, like every other bar in the city center.
“Our faithful clientele has returned. And since tourists aren’t traveling, we are reaching out to local businesses,” says owner Adriano Santoro, who keeps in touch with the local community with Facebook posts and offering home delivery as well as takeaway service. “We’re all waiting to see how this moves forward.”