Every day on my way to studio, I

Every day on my way to studio, I pass a little hole in the wall workshop that is full of really old chairs and chandeliers and armoires for as far as I can see.  One day on the way home with my friend Minh, we decided to go in just to see what was there (correction: I decided, he came with because he’s awesome).  We were looking around, to the bewilderment of the people inside, just to see what was there; the front room was just as packed with antique furnishings as it looked and the back room held piles of hand tools and a small scroll saw.  After introducing themselves as Valentino and Romolo (a father and son team), they told us how they make reproductions of antiques for people and restore antique originals that people bring in.  After explaining that we are architecture students, they took us to their warehouse to show us all of the original pieces of furniture that they have.  And by “warehouse,” I really mean a double apartment a next to Hotel Arenula a couple blocks away that has stacks and stacks of carefully placed chairs and tables and shelves and all sorts of stuff that literally goes up to the double height ceiling.  ImageAll of these furnishings are originals from over the past four centuries; most of them are incredibly elaborate with ornate carvings, detailed marquetry-work, and gilding.  At the warehouse, several drawings were laying on tables, all of them designs for different pieces hand drawn by Valentino.  His designs range from entire built-in wall units to switch plates that he hand carves and gilds and from divans and tables to art frames, which are pieces of art in themselves. Image

After seeing lots of intriguing things that first night, I knew I had to return to explore more.  Since then, I’ve been back multiple times and he has started showing and teaching me things.  He has a photo album showing some of his favorite projects over the last fifty years or so.  He has several stacks of furniture books, divided by style and location and after flipping through these for a while, we go around the shop and he makes me identify different period pieces; most of them are what I call Luigis, the Italian version of Louis, referring to the French monarchs Louis XIV to Louis XVI.  He saw me diagramming some pieces one day and made me actually draw some of the things there.  I sat on the stairs for probably two hours sketching a putto (little cherub statue), a column capital, and part of an altarpiece (I think… He speaks exclusively in Italian so sometimes I don’t fully understand what he’s saying to me).  ImageThose three drawings are probably the best I’ve ever made.  Amidst all of this history and furniture, we take gelato breaks, which are much needed (Incidentally, I have a new favorite gelato place).  ImageAfter our refreshment breaks, we go back and I continue to poke around all of these fantastic old pieces of furniture.

The ones that capture my attention the most are those that are adjustable and can change depending on the exact task at hand and actually become part of the aesthetics of the piece rather than just a functional element.  One of the simpler examples is an armoire with adjustable shelves.  The supports for adjusting the shelves aren’t hidden or temporary but are a permanent design feature.  My favorite piece is a desk that at first glance looks like a dresser.  After pulling out the supports on the side, you can fold the top down to create a desk with room for your legs.  Within the desk are the various typical drawers and cubbies along with a less typical arched door in the center flanked by tiny columns.  The columns seemed like an odd stylistic element that takes up usable storage space, but it’s Italy, so maybe they think about that stuff differently… I was wrong.  The columns are actually ingenious secret vertical drawers.  If that wasn’t enough, there is a secret locking system so even if you did know the columns hid drawers, you couldn’t open them.  Another desk that captured my attention was much simpler in its design, but reminded me of something I had seen at Monticello.  It had a panel that slid out like a drawer that became an extended tabletop that had another inset panel which could tilt up to different angles for reading.

Looking at the items in Valentino’s shop and how they were so detailed yet fairly flexible, I made a mental connection to a lecture we had recently for our Sites of Contest class. We had a speaker, Professor Kay Bea Jones, who talked about the works of Franco Albini.  Although she focused primarily on his architecture and lack of an encompassing style, she mentioned how he also designed furniture and installations that were adjustable.

image from depositoa.com

She stated that Albini looked at his projects from a craftsman’s point of view, focusing on the details of how pieces were put together and how they could be quickly and easily changed depending on the desired result or use.  He was also of a generation of designers who could make (and did make) everything from silverware to cities.

Although Albini was about 30 years earlier, he and Valentino have marked similarities in their work and designs.  Both have pieces that focus on the details of how a piece is built, rather than solely aesthetics.  Many of their signature pieces are meant to be changed and adapted depending on when and how they will be used.  While Albini worked mostly on a larger scale, his work encompasses everything from department stores to lighting.  On a slightly smaller scale, Valentino’s work includes a similar range, from built in furniture suites to switch plates.

Regions of Rome

When you first arrive in Rome, it all seems like one big mess of monuments and little winding streets.  Once you’ve explored a little bit, you realize that the city is divided into many different areas and layers of neighborhoods.  Most easily noticeable, in a formal way, are the rioni, a set of 22 districts of the city, defined by Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, and adapted during the middle ages and the Renaissance.  The boundaries of the rioni are marked by plaques on nearly every street corner, marking the name of the road along with Roman numerals, denoting the rione.  At the beginning of our semester in Rome, we did a project where we each researched a particular rione and created a walking tour, highlighting the sights and character of each area.  Since the first century AD, Rome has grown and evolved, rendering the official rioni somewhat useless, aside from historical and cartographical significance.  Today, the city is divided into regions and areas based more upon modern landmarks and thoroughfares and characterized by the people who live and work there.   For example, the Via del Corso is the main shopping in Rome.  It, along with some of the surrounding streets, has become its own district, simply for the fact that it caters to a single activity.  Although technically sliced into parts of 4 rioni, modern Romans and visitors understand the area better as simply “Corso.”  This type of designation created by contemporary divisions has become the new, informal rione system.

Throughout Rome there has also been a history of unplanned or informal colonization.  The unofficial colonizing, in the traditional sense of the word, mainly happened due to immigrants settling in the same area or specific people occupying a certain space as an extension of past boundaries.  These informal colonies have developed their own flavor and character in Rome; for example, the Esquiline hill has become the new home for immigrants from all over the world.  The lower section of the hill, south of Stazione Termini, was home to a grand spice market for at least the last century.   This market has turned into a large market offering nearly everything, with people from Morocco, China, India, and Northern Africa setting up shop and selling their wares or serving up food (other than pasta and pizza!).  On the north side of the hill is a small area where many Russians and Eastern Europeans now reside.  In contrast, another group of people living in a concentrated area are the Jews of Rome.  Many Jews have chosen to stay within the area formerly enclosed by the walls of the Ghetto from World War II.

In contrast to all of these organic divisions and colonizations, some areas of Rome have been masterplanned.  Most apparent are Mussolini’s “colonies,” particularly the EUR.  Although it is a relatively small area near the city center, Mia Fuller regards it as a colony because it has no real historical background, which incidentally allowed Mussolini to create propaganda as a story of its past.  Also important for being considered a colony is that it will be filled with new inhabitants, since no one really lived there before[1].   After and between the world wars, public housing agencies built several masterplanned neighborhoods throughout Italy, including Garbatella and Tiburtino in Rome.  Garbatella was built to provide housing for the working class of Rome near the existing area of Ostiense[2].  Because most of the people who lived there were of the same social class and participated in similar activities and work, this neighborhood became a little colony unto itself.  Even when it was overfilled and expanded due to Mussolini’s building projects, it maintained its original character and sense of community.

After you’ve been in Rome and the even Italy in general for a while, it will become easy to pick out these new areas of the city.  Each region has its own flavor, whether defined by the old rioni, current neighborhoods, or distinct colonies.  And the best areas are the ones that you find for yourself, just wandering through the crazy fantastic streets of Rome.

[1] Fuller, Mia. “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Fascist Plans for the Colonial City of Addis Ababa and the Colonizing Suburb of EUR ’42.” Journal of Contemporary History31.2 (1996): 397-418. JSTOR. Web.

[2] De Michelis, Antonella. “The Garden Suburb of the Garbatella, 1920-1929: Defining Community and Identity through Planning in Post-war Rome.” Planning Perspectives 24.4 (2009): 509-20. Print.

For the love of il Campo

Today I get to tell you about one of my favorite food experiences in Rome: the market at Campo dei Fiori!  Named for the field of flowers that was originally here, this piazza has an open air market from Monday to Saturday.  Going to the market from Via Arenula (the way we always go coming from studio), you go down this little street lined with shops and arrive at a piazza.  Bypassing the people hawking sunglasses and iPhone cases, you are greeted with the sight of dozens of tents shading tables full of fresh produce and Italian delicacies.

One of the things that surprised me the most about Rome, and probably all over Italy, is how good the fruit is, especially that at the market (fondly called just “Campo” by many of the students).  It is all super fresh and grown regionally, or at least on the same continent.  Among the best things you can get at the market, and in Italy in general really, are blood oranges.  They are absolutely phenomenal!  These little oranges look completely normal, but when you peel them, they are bright red inside, thus their name in Italian: rosso arancia.  I’ve never had a bad one, but the less delicious ones still taste like a really good American orange.  And along the lines of blood oranges, everyone should try spremuta at least once; it’s freshly squeezed orange juice, made with blood oranges when they are in season (which has been our entire time over here so far).



My favorite part of the market, though, is the people.  Walking through to get our fresh fruit and veggies with the “real” locals, many of us have found favorite food stands and shopkeepers who we are getting to know.  About halfway down the left side when coming from Arenula, my best friend at the market, Emanuele, sells dried fruits and nuts, most of which are rare in America, such as kumquats and little sweet tomatoes that I eat like candy.  Nearly all of the nuts are regionally grown and around a third of the fruit is from Italy.  Every time I go there, we talk exclusively in Italian, even though he speaks English rather well, forcing me to learn the language, which is fantastic and is usually really fun.  Working with Emanuele is Johnny (pretty sure that’s not his real name…) who offers candy and cookies, which are also super yummy (if you get the chance to go there, grab some biscotti al limone – I’m munching on them as I write this).



Next to Emanuele and Johnny is a family run produce stand.  At this small cluster of tables, Lilo and Daniele have some of the freshest fruit in the market, especially their many varieties of pears.  Talking to Daniele (in Italian, of course), who has worked here for 18 years, I learned that they get all of their fruits and vegetables every morning at the mercato generale, a giant farmers market where farmers from the surrounding areas bring the freshest and ripest of their crops to sell in the city.

Another really great thing about the market (I’m not sure if I could tell you a bad thing) is the prices.  Only slightly higher than the grocery stores in Rome and in America, the food at Campo dei Fiori is very reasonably priced.  Unlike American farmers’ markets, the one’s I’ve been to anyway, the prices are about double a normal grocery store and taste marginally better.  In Rome, compared to what is available at the supermercato, the produce at the market is infinitely fresher and tastier.

Now that I’ve waxed on about my love for the market, I’m getting hungry for oranges.  Vado al Campo, Ciao!

Walking around Rome, one of the first things I noticed is the lack of a clearly defined order.  I wander the crooked streets and alleys for hours, getting wonderfully lost in the process.  Within Rome proper, aside from the very major streets, nothing is perfectly straight or aligned, there are few right angles, and almost nothing is parallel.  While this is frustrating at first and confusing to our minds with our American need for order, it quickly becomes one of the most charming qualities of the city.  And there happens to be a reason to the madness!  The streets actually are ordered, we just can’t see it.  Most of the streets in Rome are based upon ancient roads, medieval lanes, and Renaissance boulevards.  All of these street systems connected various important points of the city in their respective time periods.  With all three major systems (along with some less important ones) overlapping, not always directly, we are left with a modern jumble of what roads the city and the people decided was important.  Confusing the issue further, modern roads have been built connecting important contemporary sites, resulting in a streetscape that is an indecipherable mess.

Crowding the sides of these twisted avenues are the glorious, and sometimes slightly less glorious, buildings of Rome.  Similar to the streets of the city, a few buildings are traditionally ordered with a regular bay structure and vertical alignment.  For the most part though, as with the streets, most of the buildings are made up of an organic jumble, built up through time according to the needs of the current population.  The shops and restaurants are topped with offices, which, in turn, support apartments above; and below all of it are parking garages, pharmacies, or grocery stores.  These mixed structures also happen to have an underlying order; many have been converted from previous uses, such as palazzi or ministries.  As the buildings were converted or built, they respond to their original form and to their neighbors, building up and out and over their surroundings to create a new urban space.

While most of the city is comprised of this organic system of additions and adaptations, some parts of the city display a distinct sense of order and regularity.  Upon entering the EUR, an orderly twentieth-century quarter on the edge of Rome, the first thing that struck me was the straight lines.  All of the streets are parallel and perpendicular; I was able to look down one road and see all the way to the end, where it ends with a building that is also made up of straight lines.  Another element that caught me was the open space.  Walking through the neighborhood, I saw expanses of wide roads, parking lots (versus garages or street parking), and just simple areas of grass.  It’s strange, but the EUR almost reminds me of the suburbs of America… kind of a scary thought that something so familiar can exist in such a foreign place as Italy.

Along with the EUR, another place that has an overriding sense of alignment is the area around the Mausoleum of Augustus and the Ara Pacis.  Bordered on one side by the river and another side by a pair of churches, the remaining two sides are fronted by office buildings.  The interesting connection between the EUR and the Mausoleum is the cause for this similarity in regularity: both were designed by the Fascists for propaganda purposes.  The EUR was intended to be the location for the Esposizione Universale di Roma, which didn’t take place due to World War II.  Originally a completely open area, Mussolini chose this site because of its lack of history, which allowed him to “represent [the ‘new Italy’] through public buildings and modern zoning;” the “new Italy” being Fascist Italy[1] (Fuller 408).  Around the Mausoleum of Augustus, the connection to Fascism is slightly more understandable.  The mausoleum had been used for many things over the past millennium, including a “circus, hanging gardens, a bullring, and … one of Rome’s largest concert halls”[2] (Pilat 17).  Mussolini returned the tomb to a ruinous state, allowing people to see the imperial monument.  By doing this, moving the Ara Pacis to the site, and surrounding it with Fascist government buildings, he created a metaphorical connection between the great empire of ancient Rome and his prospective empire of Fascism[3] (Pilat 21).

[1] Fuller, Mia, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Fascist Plans for the Colonial City of Addis Ababa and the Colonizing Suburb of EUR ’42  p. 408

[2] Pilat, Stephanie. La Parola Al Piccone: Demonstrations of Fascism at the Imperial Fora and the Mausoleum of Augustus  p. 17

[3] Ibid. p. 21

Pizza beyond Measure (and by beyond, I mean without)

Italy at Home

What’s more Italian than making pizza in Rome?  Actually, making pizza in Naples probably is, but seeing as we aren’t living in Naples… Anyway, this weekend I decided to make pizza.  I make them all the time at home and I practically have the recipe memorized.  So I go downstairs to the grocery story (which is terribly convenient) to get all the necessary ingredients for the crust: flour, sugar, olive oil, yeast.  All that is pretty much the same as it is in America except for the yeast.  It comes in little bricks about the consistency of margarine – kind of gross.

So I try and find a recipe for pizza dough that uses this weird type of yeast.  I end up using the recipe from the website listed on the side of the yeast.  Which is in Italian, of course.  I could wade my way through that fine if I knew approximately how much 700 grams of flour was.  So I start cross-referencing it with about 3 other recipes to come up with something I can work with.  So after getting to the point where I know approximately how much of everything I need in cups and teaspoons, I hit another, slightly bigger issue: our apartment has no measuring cups.  In fact, nothing in our kitchen has numbers on it.  Think about it – that’s a big deal if you cook and like to be precise, like me.


Ready to go! Notice my bowl and measuring cups in the background.

So I grab a mug and a glass cup and start guesstimating.  Oh by the way, I was mixing this in a square bowl… definitely odd.  After mixing it up and letting it rise, I start spinning it, or trying to – it’s a tad too dense.  I blame it on the yeast.  I spread it out on the pan (rather in the baking dish), top it with sauce, and head for the cheese.  In Italy, authentic buffalo mozzarella doesn’t come shredded in a Ziploc bag.  It’s a semi-solid mass packaged in water.  So tearing off chunks of cheese and putting them on top of the sauce, it’s ready to bake.

And the oven… I can figure out Celsius to degrees Fahrenheit just fine, but that doesn’t help me much when the oven doesn’t have numbers – just off and an icon of a flame.  Told you numbers were a big deal.  Anyway, turning the oven all the way up (the recipe, or one of them at least, said 250 C) I put the pan in and waited.  I didn’t even bother with a time (on my phone) since who knows how hot the oven was.  After 30 minutes of peeking constantly, I took it from the hot-ish oven, whether it was baked all the way through or not.  I was famished.  I cut it with a knife (you’d think pizza cutters would be common here – I haven’t seen one yet), threw it on a plate, and nommed.  And you know what, that pizza was pretty good.  Image

The chunks of cheese got all gooey and the crust puffed up nice and thick, I blame that on the yeast too.  It was delicious; I just wish it didn’t take so much effort and brain power.  All right, rant’s over.

Cooking here usually isn’t this difficult and our kitchen is really kind of charming in an outdated sort of way.  I just miss my kitchen at home with its giant double oven, burners that self-ignite, integrated thermometers, timers all over, at least 3 sets of measuring cups, half a dozen round mixing bowls, yeast that comes in little packets, and a microwave (geez, I miss that thing).  Ok, now it’s really over.  At least I can say I made pizza in Italy.  Once.

Flavors of Florence (or Tastes of Tuscany)

Headline: Florence

Ahh, Tuscany!  The region everyone instantly thinks of when they hear the phrase “Italian cuisine.”  If you’re like me, you only think of it because everyone says the food there is delicious, not because you know what Tuscan food actually entails.  Well, last week we took a jaunt to Florence for four days, so we were able to check it out and see what the hype is.

Most of the food in Tuscany has its roots in peasant food from the middle ages along with some French influence from when a Medici married into French royalty.  That being said, most of the food is simple in terms of ingredients, but each dish is carefully prepared according to recipes that have been perfected over centuries.  One of the main things you’ll notice about Florentine cooking is its earthiness.  The main flavors of Tuscan dishes revolve around foods from the ground: mushrooms, herbs, root vegetables, and truffles; the main meats used here are wild animals, specifically boar, hare, and duck.  Accompanying these strong earthy flavors is the typical Tuscan bread, which has absolutely no flavor.  I made the mistake of having a piece of plain bread, expecting it to have the essences of oils and herbs, or at least salt, as in Rome.  Instead, I had something that tasted vaguely and faintly of flour… barely.  After a couple bites of nothingness, I drizzled the next piece with the olive oil on the table.  Then I understood why the bread was so incredibly plain: to showcase the flavor of what goes with it, namely the oil that was so incredibly full-flavored.  In fact, Tuscany is famous for its extra virgin olive oil, supposedly the best in Italy (and thus, the world).  Along with their olive oil, the region is also known for its cured meats (such as salami and prosciutto) and cheeses made from sheep’s milk.  Cannellini is a common side dish, obviously displaying Tuscan food’s origin from peasant fare.  These white beans typical of the region are either served fresh or from a bottle where they have been soaked with oil and spices.

And, of course, the world famous gastronomic attraction of Florence: Bistecca alla Fiorentina.  It is essentially a giant porterhouse but only from the Chianina breed of cattle that are raised only in the Val Chiana (a small valley in central Italy).  These steaks are 2-3 inches thick and served rare.  They are carefully prepared over a span of at least 5 days, which culminates with a quick grilling over a wood burning fire.  A warning for all of you who like your steaks well-done: these are meant to be eaten rare and will only be served that way. Although I didn’t have one while I was there, I hear from very reliable sources that they were extraordinary!  And here is the address of where they got their steaks from (and where I intend go when I return to Florence and don’t have to pay for it myself!):


Via Santo Spirito, 16

50125 Firenze, Italia

Be sure to order from the specific Florentine menu rather than the general Italian one.


-Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine steak)

-Gnocchi gratinata ai formaggi morbidi al profumo tartufo (gnocchi with truffle oil)

-Budino di panna con salsa alla pesca (cream pudding with peach sauce)

Buon Appetito!

Source: Italy: Dish by Dish by Monica Sartoni Cesari

Fettuccine alla Papalina

Italy at Home

I got a book for Christmas: Italy: Dish by Dish.  It tells you all about the different types of deliciousness that each region of Italy serves and what you must absolutely try when you are there.  Since we’re in Rome, I thought our first attempt at real Italian cooking should be from Lazio (and, no, dumping a box of pasta into a pot of boiling water doesn’t constitute real Italian cooking).  Going through the book, I found tons of stuff that sounded wonderful and some that did not, for example, coratella, which is the entrails and trachea of a suckling lamb.  I decided some kind of pasta was fairly safe… I decided upon fettuccine alla papalina: skullcap fettuccine.  The story goes that in the 1930s, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII) asked the chef at a restaurant in Trastevere (the neighborhood where we live) to create a dish that reflected typical Roman culinary traditions.  He used the base for spaghetti carbonara, refining it by replacing the bacon with prosciutto and spaghetti with fettuccine and adding cream, parmesan, and onions.

Last Tuesday, Kymber and I (and some lovely people who decided to help us out) cooked Fettuccine alla Papalina for 20 people.  Although it was kind of challenging in our tiny kitchen, we managed to pull it off with great success!  And here’s the recipe for all of you who would like to try your hand at real Italian cooking (and you can multiply easily it if you’re cooking for a crowd, like we were!)


Cooking for a crowd… This is what pasta and beginnings of a sauce for 20 people looks like

Fettuccine alla Papalina

For 2 people

125 grams of egg fettuccine                                       30 grams of parmesan cheese
60 grams of ham                                                         2 eggs
40 grams of butter                                                       salt
1/4 onion                                                                     pepper
100 ml heavy cream


Finely chop the onions and ham (keep separate).  In a pot (not a pan!) sauté the onions in butter, then add ham.  Whisk eggs and cheese together, add cream.  Cook fettuccine al dente and drain.  Pour fettuccine into pot with onion and ham, letting it cook for a few minutes.  Turn off heat; pour egg mixture over the pasta.  Mix well and quickly so that eggs set.  Top with freshly ground pepper and serve.

Source: http://www.lacuochinasopraffina.com/cosa-cucino/le-fettuccine-alla-papalina-ricetta-romana-originale/5904

Grilled Cheese: Italian Style

WHAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU WANTED (and things you really didn’t)


Photo Courtesy of Minh Tran

A few weekends ago, we had some sketching assignments, one of which was set atop the Palatine Hill.  Typical of our first two weeks of Rome, it was cold and windy and rainy.  After an hour or two, we were all ready to get out of the weather and get something delicious and warm in our bellies.  In particular, I was feeling ready to curl up in a blanket with a book and eat something warm and familiar.  Seeing as most of those options were impossible given the very obvious facts that I was in a restaurant and in a foreign country, I aimed for the last one: warm food.  Then by chance, I saw grilled cheese on the menu.  Perfect, I thought, among the collection of words that I vaguely recognized was an item that I am very familiar with: Grilled Cheese.  That wonderful toasty, buttery sandwich filled with gooey goodness.

But apparently “grilled cheese” in Italy means something very different than it does in America.  I was presented with a dish full of cheese that had simply been grilled.  Taken slightly aback by this new gastronomical development, I tore away a forkful.  And by “tore,” I mean awkwardly cut a little piece from the mass with my fork and brought it to my mouth, trying to break the string connecting the fork and the dish along the way.  Incidentally, that stretchy string of melted cheese grew to a foot and a half at one point.  That first bite was the absolute best cheese that I have ever had!  Warm and chewy with a slightly toasted top, it truly melted in my mouth.  After getting over the strangeness of eating an entire bowl of nothing but cheese, I devoured it.  It was still too foreign to just eat cheese, so I ordered a bowl of bread, not necessarily for taste, just to have something else.  At that point, I didn’t think that anything could taste better than that cheese, not that bread in Italy has the possibility of being anything less than delicious.  I was right, but the bread did make it easier to eat.  I ate that entire bowl of cheese; if you know me, that is quite an accomplishment… it was that fantastic.  So even though it sounds really strange and isn’t typical Italian fare, grilled cheese is now on the list of foods that everyone should try.  Seriously, go get some… and take me with you!