Take Me Back
Woolworths TASTE|July/August 2021
When international travel opens up again, make Italy your dream destination, says Michelle Coburn, who stockpiled enough incredible food experiences when in Rome, Florence and Venice to keep her spirit satisfied for over a year
Michelle Coburn

September 2020. I have been working from home in Cape Town for almost six months and the cabin fever is real when those Facebook memories start appearing. It is exactly a year since my Italian holiday. It feels like a lifetime ago.

Through my old posts, I relive what feels like every step, bite, drink and sight of that amazing trip. A favourite shot of my Plus One, a.k.a. The Carb Hunter, gazing fondly at the cone of crunchy, cheesy suppli classico he has bought from a market stall in Rome; the night we shared bistecca alla Fiorentina and a bottle of Chianti in Florence; our daily caffe and cornetti at Torrefazione Cannaregio in Venice. No social distancing. No masks. No COVID-19. No way could we have imagined how different all this would be just five months later. Deserted piazzas, shuttered osterias, hospitals overwhelmed.

I wonder if the places where we ate our hearts out still exist. Whether mamma Giovanna and babbo Rolando’s trattoria in Florence, and the Mori brothers’ osteria in Rome, have survived Italy’s hard, hard lockdown. It’s a heartbreaking thought. But an online search reveals that many of these family-run eateries are once again serving their signature dishes. Like restaurants in SA and all over the world, they are offering home deliveries, opening their outdoor dining areas and selling house-made pantry items. I start sharing their hope-filled posts with The Carb Hunter. Because we have our own pandemic challenges to deal with, and escaping to another time, if only for a moment every day, is what we need right now.

“Imagine if…”; “Maybe one day…”; “Remember when…”

I am bone-tired after a sleepless flight to Rome via Dubai, and grumpy at the chirpy WhatsApps I’m getting from The Carb Hunter. He is on the high-speed train from Milan after a week-long Italian Grand Prix jaunt, which included an impromptu pilgrimage to Tavullia to visit Valentino Rossi’s pizzeria. (I’m told that the pizza alla diavola was “bellisimo”.)

I, on the other hand, have spent three hours in the queue at passport control, my luggage has vanished from the carousel, and I’m not impressed by reports of how many kilometres per hour his train is travelling. (As a late-pandemic aside: I promise I will never be cranky after a long-haul flight again – 2019’s “problems” were so minor.)

After reuniting at our hotel, we set off on foot for an afternoon of exploring the city centre. Fortified by a quick slice of pizza bianca and an ice-cold Moretti beer at a sidewalk café, we stroll to the Colosseum and Roman Forum, then on to the Trevi Fountain and throng of selfie-snapping tourists.

After climbing the Spanish Steps – all 135 of them – more drinks are required, and Google Maps comes to the rescue. The Rinascente Tritone rooftop bar, which has a menu created by the executive chef of Michelin-starred Ristorante All’Orro, Riccardo Di Giacinto, is just a three-minute walk away. With views of the city’s red rooftops from the terrace, this is the perfect spot for a refreshing aperitivo before heading to the Testaccio District, the food neighbourhood that has been on my mind since we first started planning this trip.

Built at the turn of the 20th century to accommodate Rome’s industrial and slaughterhouse workers, it gets its name from Monte Testaccio, a 20 000 square-metre, 53-metre high artificial mountain of broken terracotta amphorae (or testae), discarded during Roman times. Amazingly, many bars and eateries are nestled right into the terracotta hillside.

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