The first place I set foot in Italy, was Rome.
I remember smelling freshly pulled espresso when my plane touched down in Ciampino Airport after dark. At lunch, wine was often cheaper than bottled water. A whole pizza could be devoured for 5 euros. I walked and took photographs, connected dots on maps to visit the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel.
Rome was the first stop on what became a six-week exploration of Italy. It was also the first stop of my June honeymoon. Before we headed south to Puglia, we would sip negronis before dinner and seek out-of-the-way gelato shops and encounter more blazer/skinny tie/jeans/sneakers combos than a gal could count (despite the heat, those Romans wouldn’t be caught dead in shorts and a t-shirt). We saw a pig on a leash, a man playing cello in a small square at sunset. We began each day by strolling over to Campo de’Fiori and buying a perfect peach from a cranky septuagenarian and washing it down with a glass of fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. Having seen all of Rome’s major sights on my first trip, we were free to just wander, to walk out the door of our bed-and-breakfast and see what the day would bring.
If our quest during this trip was to get to know Rome beyond the sights, we would have to meet some Romans. I had heard great feedback about a site called EatWith.com, that connects dinner party hosts around the globe with hungry travelers. Before our trip to Rome, I perused the website for local dinner parties, reading reviews and menus and scouting locations. On the third night of our honeymoon, we crossed the Tiber River into the charming Trastevere neighborhood, and after our daily pre-dinner negroni, rang the bell of an apartment on a quiet, narrow road.
Before we were even buzzed inside to the artistic, welcoming home of Barbara, our host, this was a satisfying experience. How many times have we traveled, passing doors of lovely apartment buildings, wondering who lived inside, and what they were cooking? Instead of just strolling through a local neighborhood and smelling the aromas wafting out of kitchen windows, we now had an invitation inside.
With a buzz, the door opened, and we climbed a flight of stairs to Barbara’s lovely home. The candles were lit, the Italian music played in the background. We were welcomed with drinks and small bites as we sat on the couch and introduced ourselves to our hosts and fellow dining companions, a couple traveling from Canada. Soon Barbara and a cooking-helper-friend, Paola, were in the kitchen again, the apartment filling with the scent of garlic hitting a pan.
Before we sat down at the table, there was a final buzz at the door. Barbara’s neighbor, a stylish gentleman named Stefano, was joining us for dinner. Native Roman, master of gesticulation, and enthusiastic eater, Stefano was exactly the dining companion you would want at a Roman dinner party. In a mix of Italian and English we talked about local language quirks, the best places to eat in the neighborhood, and what daily life in Trastevere is like. As we devoured plates of lasagna, Stefano asked us about New York, and where else we were traveling in Italy. Soon we were all sharing stories of our families, taking out our phones to share pictures. If you were walking by on the street below, you would have heard bursts of laughter and lots of clinking plates and forks. You would have wondered who was inside, and wanted to join in.
Barbara welcomes guests into her home most nights for an epic meal of traditional Roman cuisine. I imagine it must be immensely satisfying to meet curious world travelers each day, adventurous enough to sign up for a meal in a random home, and watch the evenings unfold. She has mastered the art of making people feel welcome, and creating an environment for discussion and fun. It was undoubtedly a highlight of our trip to Rome, and I can’t wait to sign up for another dinner party during future travels. Who knows, maybe I’ll even host a meal or two in Harlem?
At the end of the meal, Stefano got up to go home. He thanked Barbara, and after several kisses and shouts of good night, stood by the door. Before leaving, he called out to Barbara, asking if they were meeting at their regular spot for breakfast and coffee in the morning. She replied, certo, of course, and with the final blow of a kiss, he was gone. This glimpse into community was what I hoped to find during this trip to Rome.
If I hadn’t slept in the following morning, I may just have gone and met my new friends for breakfast.