Ask any Roman who’s lived abroad for a while what they most miss about their city and you’ll get a list that, usually, will feature at least one of the following: aperitivo, possibly with an Aperol Spritz, and ideally in Trastevere. Strolling along the Tiber at dusk, and eating cornetti at dawn after a night out, just as the capital starts waking up. Caffe al bar, bitter and strong, to start the day right — even better if paired with another cornetto, because you can never have too many of those. Browsing the stalls at Porta Portese. Pizza in Testaccio and gelato by the Pantheon. A game of football with friends and Sunday lunch at home with their nonnas. The people.
Since I moved back to Rome earlier last December, after 15 years away, my personal inventory has come to include a few other elements however — things I had forgotten about, but that make Rome’s inner fabric, essence, and spirit.
I rediscovered them walking around my neighborhood and the centro storico, as I played tourist and learned to fall back in love with local life in all its facets.
Quintessentially Italian, eminently Roman, they’re a reminder of how distinctive this country and city of mine are. Were I to move away again, they’d make the top of my list of what I’d miss — after all the cornetti, of course.
‘Nasoni’ (big noses), as we Romans call them, are deeply embedded in the city’s landscape (there are over 2,000 across Rome), and yet, for a long time, I almost stopped noticing them.
Which is odd, considering how central they were to my childhood, when they’d quench my thirst after a day spent playing in the park, serve as a quick-fix to clean my scratched up knees after a fall, or wipe gelato stains off my clothes.
As ubiquitous as the next bar, these public drinking fountains were first introduced in 1874 by the then mayor Luigi Pianciani, to provide city’s residents with free, cool water — a rather welcome offering during the hottest months of the year.
Built in cast iron and just over a meter tall, they were initially fitted with three dragon-shaped spouts, later replaced by a single one (hence the ‘nasone’ nickname) with a small hole on top. That’s actually the bit any Roman worth their names drink from: all you need to do is stop the flow from the main spout with your thumb, so that the water spurts upwards instead. It makes drinking easier and offers plenty of opportunities to splash your companion if you feel so inclined.
Fontanelle might not be precious or ornate, but they decorate the capital in a quiet way, their gushing water resembling the fast, frenetic gab of the Romans. To me, they’re a symbol of home, of memories, of summer.
Next time you’re passing through a vicolo in Trastevere, look up and pay attention to the building closest to you. Chances are it’ll feature an edicola sacra, or ‘Madonella’ — a sacred shrine, encased within its walls, housing a painting, or a tiny sculpture of a saint (most often the Virgin Mary), a mosaic or a print.
Edicole are almost everywhere in the city center, dotting piazzas and alleyways, majestic palazzi and crumbling ones, though they’re often so richly ostentatious (‘just another beautiful decoration,’ we think to ourselves) or hidden away we fail to pay them any real attention. Their best part? Each one tells a different story, reminding you of how deeply layered Rome’s past was, how rich its architecture and artistic traditions.
An expression of popular faith, these shrines were built as a symbol of grace after some miraculous event — an averted calamity, a ceased epidemic, an unexpected healing — back in the 17th and 18th centuries, though new ones kept popping up in the post-war years in areas like Garbatella and Testaccio. Devout Romans would place ex-votos (votive offerings) around them, and a flame at their center that would burn through the night, offering light at a time when no public lighting existed.
Today, those flames are no longer on, but I still love stopping by the Madonelle to observe their details, the testimonies they carry and the craftsmanship of the artists that made them — usually anonymous, although there is no shortage of illustrious names: Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane, Perin del Vaga, Moderati.
If fontanelle and edicole are everywhere in Rome, stenditoi (clotheslines) are the preserve of a very specific part of the city: Garbatella, the neighborhood I moved to. Here, compounds dating back to the 1920s still feature courtyards filled with hanging clothes out to dry — a tradition that dates back to a time when people did their laundry outside, and washing machines were yet to become a household staple. Sometimes, the stenditoi are on the rooftops, which are shared and communal, and used just as much.
I like to think of them as a glorified, open-air drying rack, and something you really can’t find elsewhere — not anymore at least.
There’s an unspoken agreement among the residents to leave the sheets and garments undisturbed — you don’t have to worry about anyone taking them — and that sense of camaraderie, of community, moves me. It’s a reminder that the neighborhood (and so many others, in their own ways) still functions like a tightly knit village rather than just a cluster of buildings and people. When you tire of hoofing from famous site to famous site, spending a day sitting by one of Garbatella’s stenditoi is the best way to absorb the rhythm of Rome’s slow living.
Mercati rionali (local markets) deserve their own essay — they’re a quintessential part of the capital — but a small tribute will do for now.
Most Romans will have their personal favorite, depending on where they live or grew up. Prod them a little, and they might even tell you what stalls to go to, and which ones to avoid.
And you should listen to them. I did, upon my return, and it was a joy. Browsing the Mercato di Testaccio on a sleepy weekday, it was hard not to marvel at the bounty of vegetables and fruits on display, the meat counters and fishmongers peddling their daily catch — but also, increasingly, the delicious street food stalls you can try on the go, for a truly unpretentious gastronomic tour of Roman cuisine.
I took pictures as if I were a tourist, and not someone who was born here, mesmerized by the colors, the voices, the constant chattering of elderly ladies exchanging recipes and cooking tips. To spend a morning in a mercato rionale (and there’s a whopping 70 to discover) is to get a real glimpse of what daily life in the capital looks like. To me, it felt like coming home.