A statue of Giordano Bruno marks the center of Campo de’ Fiori – my favorite square in Rome. Back in the 16th century, Bruno challenged the Roman Church and was burned at the stake in 1600. With each visit I make a quiet little pilgrimage here, staring into the eyes of brooding Bruno, pondering the courage of those earliest heretics. Enamored by the value of history, I ponder also who, in our contemporary world, is the Roman Church and who are the Brunos.
When in Rome, I use Bruno as a meeting point. (I like to say “I’ll be sitting under Bruno.”) Tonight I’m waiting for Stefano and Paola, who run my favorite hotel in Rome. With each visit, they take me on a quest for restaurants to recommend in my guidebook. They’re taking me to a little restaurant they deem perfect. They arrive. I say, “Ciao, Bruno.” And we head down a tiny cobbled lane to a classic, crumpled little piazza filled with scooters. A grand but tiny Neoclassical white church is crammed into the corner. And, on the far side, a single business is lit and open. The sign above the door says “Filetti di Baccala.”
“Stefano, you’re right. This is perfect,” I say, walking ahead of my friends through the rabble of abandoned scooters to the restaurant. A long line of tables, covered with white paper tablecloths, crowded with locals, stretches to a neon-lit kitchen. In the back, two grease-splattered cooks are busy cranking out filetti di baccala ... fish sticks.
There’s one table open, near the back, past an old man in a black suit playing the violin. We limbo by the violinist and grab it. Above our table a weathered sign reads, “Specialita Filetti di Baccala 60 lire.” They peaked at 5,000 lire and are now 3 euros (under $5). The waiter drops a menu on our table. It’s very simple – listing a humble selection of appetizers and salads, but only one main course: Filetti di Baccala. The harried waiter, thumb hitchhiking into his mouth, asks, “Da bere?” (to drink?).
With a carafe of white wine, breaded and fried zucchini and a salad of greens I’d never before encountered, we enjoy our fillet of cod. While far better than fish sticks, it’s about what you’d expect at a top-notch London fish and chips joint. Still, buried deep in the medieval center, in a tarnished and varnished eatery, without a tourist in sight – the ambience is Roma-issimo.
The violinist plays Sinatra’s “My Way” to an appreciative crowd. Eventually he makes his way to our table, standing just beyond Paola’s plain but radiant face. It’s a classic Roman moment. Her dark eyes, framed by little black glasses, are locked on Stefano’s. Tiny rings of pearls set in gold swing from her ears; a gold necklace circles her collar.
Like a hungry camera, my eyes compose the scene: carafe of golden white wine shimmering in the foreground, Paola’s face looking lovingly at her husband in the middle, and the violinist – jaw tight on his instrument but still smiling – in the back. The happy chatter of people eating finishes off the scene.
As if only for Paola, the musician plays a Roman anthem to the night. Paola whispers to me, “This is Ponentino ... a special wind, a sweet ...,” brushing her hand gently along her cheek in search of the word, “caressing Roman wind.”
Then she and Stefano face the music, and with the entire room, sing the song:
Rome, don’t be foolish tonight.
Give me the sweet wind to let her say yes.
Turn on all the stars that you have ... the brightest ones.
Give me a small flash of the moon, only for us.
Let her feel that springtime is arriving.
Give me your very best crickets to sing to her.
Give me the Ponentino.
Be a partner with me.
Paola translates the rest of the song to me. In verse two, the woman answers: Rome, give me a helping hand to tell him no, and so on. But, in the final verse, of course, they get together, the love triangle: a man, a woman ... and Rome.
With the room still singing, the elegant older couple at the next table looks around. Seeming pleased that the three of us – a generation behind hers – are enjoying this traditional Roman moment, the woman says, “Bella.”
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows that can be seen locally on WNED-TV. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.