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Hidden Rome

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Photo: Ruven Afanador

Someone call il medico. In Rome, Stendhal syndrome is real. I’m talking about the numbness, fatigue, anxiety of seeing one more Caravaggio swaddled in a church’s cheap electric light, of one more oculus beaming the brilliant Roman sun into your eyes, of one more imperial aqueduct commanding you to snap your neck back and admire, of one more set of sculptured B.C. buttocks practically begging you to lean in for a squeeze. Native Romans take these things in stride, but when I recently spent a year in Rome along with some other wide-eyed foreigners, I got the feeling that every day and in every way Rome conspired to make fools out of all of us.

I left Rome thinking that perhaps beauty should have its limits, that a kind of visual poverty often yields unexpected riches, like the sight of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona rising amid a sea of ugly modern apartment buildings. The two Roman neighborhoods I love the most, Esquilino and Testaccio, will never blister your camera finger. You will not be escorted to the nearest mental health facility babbling about baldacchinos and nymphaea. But these neighborhoods—the first an immigrant enclave, the second a working-class wonderland—will make you appreciate contemporary Rome at its most interesting, at its most global, at its most youthful, and, when it comes to two (perhaps three) of the city’s best restaurants, at its most satisfying.

"There’s something decadent about Esquilino," my friend Anna, a filmmaker, tells me between exhales of sexy cigarette smoke (in Italy, even watching women ruin their health is alluring). If you’ve ever stayed in a cheap hotel near Termini station then you might disagree with her. But the past few years have seen an influx of new energy into this once most tired of Rome’s seven hills. On Piazza Vittorio, Esquilino’s enormous green heart, the late-19th-century apartments are not the most beautiful in Rome, but they do have sunny views of the Alban hills in the distance and ceilings that seem to rise nearly as high. These once second-rate flats have been snapped up by some of the city’s most interesting residents—I once found myself at a dinner party with an Italian television actor, an economist, and a Hungarian porn star, where the conversation flowed as easily as the inky Sicilian wine, and the porn star’s 12-year-old daughter was molto simpatica.

After my girlfriend and I check in to the futuristic-looking (and atrociously designed) Radisson SAS Es Hotel in Esquilino, we quickly immerse ourselves in the gossip, which seems—along with tourism and the Italian government—to be an important Roman industry. The stereotype is true: everyone in Rome looks good, as if the ugly people have been exiled to Elba, and the talk at our first party is about who’s doing what to whom, along with tales of unplanned pregnancies, inauthentic-looking breast jobs, and the latest excesses of the hated Silvio Berlusconi ("He looks like an ­orange ball, no?"). But as much as we love the gossip, we crave food, and Esquilino quickly delivers.

We head past the gate of Porta Maggiore (where an ancient Roman baker built himself a commemorative oven the size of a town house) to Osteria degli Artisti, a restaurant celebrating the cuisine of the southern Campagna region. The appetizers alone are enough to jolt me out of my antiseptic North American life and into a world of fresh escarole mixed with golden raisins, pine nuts, and capers, all soaked in a deep-yellow pool of olive oil. The grouchy owner slaps his hands, says, "Allora, signori," then launches into the pastas of the day. We decide to take a detour from carbohydrates and go for the tender anchovies, lightly battered, just asking for a pinch of lemon or two, fish with bones so fine they melt away. The freshness of the ingredients and that vaunted Southern Italian simplicity settle my stomach and make me content. That night I dream I have died and been admitted to the farthest reaches of heaven, where Hungarian porn stars and alluringly dressed Cinecittà actresses form an impromptu ladies’ choir, and Berlusconi himself humbly serves us Campari and soda, his orange head bobbing above a cheap rented tuxedo. When I lived in Esquilino a few years ago, I ate at Osteria degli Artisti nearly every week, and half my diary was composed of dreams like this.

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