Popular Culture  •  February 1, 2001

When in Rome

I believe that the best way to learn a different culture is through a specific field of interest. Rather than trying to see anything and everything, I like focusing on one thing, whether music, art, architecture, or literature. I am more interested in depth of things than I am in a variety. In general, when you dig deep into anything, you find the same wisdom. As a tourist, I find that the most effective and convenient way to learn a culture is through food. You have to eat three times a day anyway. (It is not practically possible to see three operas in a day.) Unlike other types of business, you can find a place to eat and drink most hours of day and night. With other forms of art, you can see and hear reproductions of them at home, which are, for all intents and purposes, good enough unless you know every piece of Michelangelo by heart and your intention is to better acquaint yourself with finer points. Food being one of the most difficult forms of art to reproduce, there is a good reason to experience it first hand locally.

The Romans’ focus on the past is reflected in their culinary scene. You find nothing but Italian food there with the exception of Chinese food. If they do have anything else, it would be one restaurant for each type in the entire Rome whose perceived exoticness would be roughly equivalent to an Eskimo restaurant in New York. Not that they hate everything non-Italian; they probably don’t care for anything else.

I must say their food is eccellente. Where they really set themselves apart from New York is in their low-to-mid range restaurants. We went to a top-end restaurant which has the reputation of being unarguably the best seafood restaurant in Rome, La Rosetta. It was no doubt one of the best seafood experiences I had had in my whole life, but for the same price, you could find restaurants that are just as good in New York. Also, the culture of the place was very international. The upper-class culture tends to be homogeneous everywhere since they pride themselves on their worldly knowledge. In this sense, top-end restaurants aren’t such an interesting cultural experience. If you want to experience a piece of American culture, you are better off going to a pizzeria in Bensonhurst than to Lombardi’s in Little Italy.

In the category of savory food, the major stars are Panini and Pizza. You find them everywhere. Paninis are sold at what they call “bars” which are essentially cafes. A panini by definition is a roll, but it also means a sandwich. There were two different kinds of panini: one made with rolls, the other made with slices of white bread. Technically the latter isn’t panini, but I like to call it panini since it’s catchy. They trim the crust off of the slices of white bread and cut them diagonally into perfect triangles. It is virtually identical to a Japanese-style sandwiche. Instead of hams, prosciuttos are more common. They are, to my delight, all pre-made. I’ve always hated the fact that most sandwiches in New York are custom made. Many things tend to be custom made in New York in order to accommodate the residents who are from many different cultural backgrounds. New Yorkers do not trust deli chefs to make a decent sandwich. The chefs in New York are, in many ways, not artists, but mere laborers, or even machines that execute the order exactly as they are told to. I do not like to tell them what to do. I want them to tell me what they think is good. I want them to present a piece of creativity with confidence to me. Every Roman chef is an artist who presents his or her creation with pride. I like that.

The reason why every panini was so tasteful was probably because the produce in general is superior to that in the States. They are, for example, big on spinach and it tastes very different from the spinach you get in New York. Paninis are kept relatively simple; a slice of prosciutto and a slice of cheese, for instance. It is certainly not like a sandwich you get from Carnegie Deli. As with most things, Europeans certainly do understand subtleties. Although the ingredients you get in paninis are nothing unexpected, they are designed to bring out the beauty of each ingredient, much like the way sushi is created. New York sandwiches tend to make up for the lack of flavorful produce by drenching it in various condiments and sauces.

A cafe bar in Rome is usually very small, with a bar counter taking up most of the space. Most people drink their caffe standing by the bar. (”Caffe” in Italy means espresso. What we call coffee is called “caffe Americano” in Italy.) Many cafes have outside seating. In New York, outside seating supplements the main space during the summer time. In Rome, outside seating is in fact the main seating area all year around. Indoor seating is provided only for rainy days. For this reason, outdoor heaters are very popular for chilly days. For a city so outdoor-oriented, it is surprising that air pollution is so terrible. After walking around for a few hours, my lungs were literally hurting. It wasn’t so pleasant to be sitting outdoor when a bunch of mopeds with virtually no mufflers were buzzing by every five seconds. Europe in general seems to have a bad air pollution problem due to lack of regulation on auto emission. Compared to Rome or London, New York’s air feels like that of Swiss Alps. It puzzles me that the people who are so paranoid about hormone injected American beef, are so apathetic to something that is so obviously bad for health.

Many dinner-oriented restaurants in Rome do not open until 8PM, which is very late by the New York standard. So, there is no such thing as early bird special. People start to pour into restaurants around 9PM. Because of this timing, each table probably serves one customer for the whole night, especially since Italian dinners tend to consist of many courses: typically, bread and wine, antipasto, pasta, main dish, desert, grappa, and caffe. Also, there seems to be no bar (alcohol bar) culture in Italy. In New York, we typically go to a bar, then to a restaurant, and then to another bar. I didn’t find many bars, i.e., a place where all you do is to drink. What we call “bars” in the US are called “Irish Pub” in Rome. I suppose the concept of doing nothing but drinking is fairly unique to Irish culture. It is almost impossible to find a place in Japan that only serves drinks. Italians are similar in that late night socializing centers around eating. I personally think it’s better and healthier.

The entire city of Rome can be seen as a gigantic Disneyland. If Disneyland has a bridge, it’s not because it needs a bridge; rather, it’s because you want to see a bridge there. There is no true cause of anything being there in a fantasyland. The city of Rome is always ready to show you what you expect to see there. The cause and effect are reversed. The true cause of something being there is replaced by the effect, or the image the tourists bring with them to Rome. In other words, the Coliseum isn’t really there because Romans built it many centuries ago. It’s there because tourists want to see it there. If for some reason the Coliseum entirely collapsed, they would probably re-build it, and make it look like the way it was just before it collapsed. In the end, what difference would it make? It’s all about providing what tourists want to see. The pizzerias are not there because the Italians have always loved pizzas for many generations. It’s there because pizzas became a cultural symbol of Italy abroad. Rome is a fantasyland. It’s hard for me to enjoy something being there whose reason for being there is because I expect to see it there.

If Tokyo is a city that lives in the future, Rome is a city that lives in the past. The current generation of Romans lives like a child born into a royal family, living under the shadow of the greatness of the past, not allowed to fully express what she is now. The ancient architecture is everywhere. You cannot get away from it. Even the soil they stand on is a mixture of mud and crumbled pieces of ancient buildings. In a way, it was lucky for Tokyo that the earthquake and the World War II destroyed most of the city, allowing them to leave the past behind and to move ahead into the future without feeling guilty. I feel sorry for the Romans who, in order to make any progress, must work around the symbols of the past that stubbornly sit there like a rent-controlled tenant.

On the way to the big church, a man in a car stopped me to ask for a direction in Italian. I am so curious now what he saw in me. One would think that if you see an Asian guy in Rome, the chances are, he is a tourist. If he actually thought that I was Roman, his mind must be entirely free of any preconceptions. In a way, that is what Rome needs more of, people who see Michelangelo as just another artist, the Coliseum just another building, the Pope just another Christian, so Rome could be what it wants to be, rather than what the rest of the world wants it to be.