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It's barely after eight in the morning and the fresh fruit and vegetable market in the pedestrian-only strip of Pigneto is doing a brisk trade against a backdrop of closed shops and brick walls plastered with street posters and graffiti. Old grannies with shopping trolleys mix with the iPod generation to buy the freshest produce from vendors who sip takeaway espresso delivered from a corner bar.
Selling well on this cloudy winter day is puntarelle, a leafy green famed in the Lazio region (of which Rome is the capital), served in restaurants as a raw salad, its bitter, curly stems dressed with lemon juice, anchovies, garlic, vinegar and olive oil.
The buzz in Pigneto - a 10-minute, $19 taxi fare from Rome's central railway station - comes not only from the morning's trade; Romans are flocking to Pigneto's ever-multiplying number of ristoranti and enoteche peppered along the isola pedonale (pedestrian thoroughfare) and tucked away in the triangular grid of residential, tree-lined streets, also home to groovy night spots with live music, poetry readings and more.
The historically working-class Communist neighbourhood is not postcard pretty like Rome's historic centre, but it has shrugged off its reputation as a refuge for hoods and pushers to become the city's latest alternative hot spot, a haven for young professionals - artists, directors and architects - who are fast outnumbering the older residents.
For now, tourists haven't cottoned on to Pigneto, but that could change soon when work finishes on Rome's new Metro Line C, which will connect it to the city centre. In the meantime, a tide of foreigners already calls Pigneto home, drawn to its dynamic but low-key vibe. One of them is Ben Hirst, the London-born chef at Bar Necci, nestled in a residential backstreet. Founded in 1924, the bar has always been a magnet for intellectuals; the revered author and director Pier Paolo Pasolini once rented a room above the bar and filmed Accattone using it as a backdrop, while Roberto Rossellini filmed his celebrated Roma, Città Aperta in the area. Sophia Loren, Vittorio Gassman and Claudia Cardinale worked here too.
The Necci family still owns the building that houses Bar Necci, but in June 2007 Hirst and his Italian business partner, Massimo Innocenti, revamped the place, opening a café-restaurant with fun retro décor. The old bar's pool room is now a snazzy dining area, and there are outdoor tables and a huge tepee for children to play in. Bar Necci's clientele still includes the pensioners who play cards at outdoor tables in the winter sun, as was the custom in the old establishment, but today the café is largely a hub for trendy types who sip coffee and smoke hand-rolled cigarettes as they tap on their laptops, using the bar's WiFi network.
"In Italy, bars are very specific. People tend to go to a certain bar in the morning which is too bright and busy, and you drink your coffee and can't wait to leave. Then there are bars at night, where you go for a drink. We wanted to create an all-day bar where people can come whenever they want. I think that's why it's been a success," says Hirst, whose résumé includes stints in London's three-starred La Tante Claire and Rome's award-winning Enoteca Ferrara, along with two cookbooks.
Using ingredients sourced mainly from Lazio and central Italy, Bar Necci bakes its own cornetti (breakfast pastries), pizza and bread, and whips up its own gelati. The menu, changed daily, has four antipasti, primi, secondi and dolci. The first antipasto on Hirst's menu today features arzilla fish with, what do you know, a puntarelle salad with anchovy salsa. The prices are reasonable (primi cost about $15.50, secondi about $27) and the style is casareccia, home-cooked.
Unlike most Roman bars, Necci doesn't charge you twice as much for a cappuccino if you sit at a table rather than stand at the bar. The blackboard lists regional wines by the glass, but patrons can bring their own. Hirst says that while there is more money to be made in restaurants in London, he thrives in Rome because Italians place a higher value on food than the English. Neither he nor his wife and two children miss being in the inner city. "Most tourists see a Rome the locals don't live in; a centre which is more and more ostracised from normal life, where everything is costly," he says. "Pigneto has a very strong community. It's yuppified but also multicultural, with residents from Senegal, Colombia, Bangladesh, as well as southern Italian immigrants. My neighbour, from Puglia, still kills chickens in his backyard."
It's only midday - early by Italian standards - but I'm peckish. Chestnut pappardelle with rabbit, walnuts and rosemary is tempting, but I choose the lighter option (it's going to be a long day of grazing) of roast chicken and vegetables with crusty bread. Spiced with garlic and parsley, it's a winning winter treat.
The next stop is Tandoori Tiger, just around the corner, in which Hirst has invested. I catch its friendly Bangla-deshi owner, Alta B Hossain, on his day off and he shows me the small kitchen's two huge terracotta ovens imported from southern India. On the menu - apart from some funky images, including Peter Sellers dressed as an Indian in the cult film The Party - are puri, or fried bread, with dhal, crunchy lentil balls with yoghurt and a range of curries and tandoori dishes.
Most of Pigneto's groovier wine bars don't open until 6pm, but as I roam down a sidestreet I find the bustling Antica Enoteca di Sero, run by father and son Domenico and Stefano. At 1pm the regulars begin to roll in to buy fresh panini and glasses of wine. The ambience is far from chic, but there is comfort in being surrounded by '70s pine walls and stacks of wine bottles, pasta packets and olive oil tins. Next door, another wine bar, Punto G (G Spot), is still shut, but I peek in the window and admire its lush red velvet-covered furniture, violet walls and movie postcards.
Back on the pedestrian strip, two bright-blue French doors with lace frills catch my eye. Inside Chiccen, the floor space is dominated by a wide kitchen counter complete with a '50s sink, leaving space for only three tables. Thirty-something owners Francesca, a lawyer, and her sister Maria, a director, are busy in their day jobs, leaving two female staff members, both wearing huge smiles and white chef's hats, to run their cute café. For less than $6 one can have either a glass of wine or a homemade panino with a smorgasbord of fillings, from succulent lardo di Colonnata (spiced, cured lard) to roast vegetables and frittata. The café also hosts small musical and literary events.
Further up the road is Pizzeria Pigneto, whose Egyptian owner, Amedeo, offers both pizza and kebab and mixes the two: his Margherita topped with kebab meat has been an unlikely hit with locals such as Gabriele Grandoni, the owner of Il Tiaso wine bar four doors away. It's too early to open, but Grandoni rolls up the shutter to reveal a small bar filled with eclectic vintage furniture and an impressive array of wines. Grandoni, a former wine distributor and sommelier, sells books and stages music sessions and film screenings.
I follow Grandoni's tip to find Antichi Sapori, a nearby restaurant specialising in Roman cuisine. Husband and wife owners Umberto and Celeste, both in their seventies, are sitting at a table, having just eaten after the lunchtime rush. Umberto, the chef of this dynamic duo, offers homemade fettuccine, gnocchi and cannelloni alongside meatballs, involtini and roast lamb. "He cooks come una volta [like once upon a time]," Celeste says proudly.
In need of a sugar fix, I stumble upon Lo Yeti, a café-cum-bookshop around the corner. Its Calabrian owner, Maurizio, offers a small menu including organic cheeses and salumi, many from his southern home region, and vegetables sott'olio (literally "beneath oil"), again in Calabrian style. All products are sourced from small, certified organic farms. The entire premises, including the kitchen, is designed for access to the disabled, and Maurizio regularly employs helpers in wheelchairs. The organic Sachertorte looks good, but I want something gooier.
Back on the main strip I find Pasticceria & Pizzeria Giacomelli e Giovannoni. Its elderly proprietors, Paola and Giancarlo, are fourth-generation owners of the family business that opened in 1923. Paola says her work is her life's passion. "Dolci are anti-depressants," she says, adding that, while her husband makes the range of classic biscuits and tarts, and the pizza he is presently shoving into a woodfired oven, she is the official taste tester. I follow her lead and try the occhi di bue (ox's eyes), two buttery round biscuits joined with apricot jam.
At 6pm, Pigneto starts to come alive and, despite the winter chill, Romans cram the wine bars' outdoor tables. The cheapest place to drink is Vini e Olii, a no-frills, hole-in-the-wall joint that opened 70 years ago to sell wine and oil on tap to customers who bought as much or as little as they needed.
Its affable owner, Massimiliano Sini, offers white and red wine (oil isn't a money-spinner these days), served in plastic cups from the original '50s bar, for $2.90 to $5.80. "The prices are low because we're not chic; we're more lounge," he says with a grin. Sini says the Pigneto pedestrian strip overflows in summer, with the area's typically small houses and traffic-free zone creating the "vibe of a happy island; a place to go and mix and have fun".
Next door, Cargo wine bar is packed. The interiors are as dark as the black floor stones - actually fused san pietrini, Rome's famous tiny cobblestones. The vintage furniture on the premises can be bought from architect-owner Gabriele. The bar serves two local beers and 20 varieties of rum and whiskey. Like many wine bars on the strip, it opens for brunch when the once-monthly flea market is held.
On my way to meet friends for dinner, I make a quick stop at Pigneto Quarantuno, a recently opened restaurant with a stylish and intimate dining space featuring contemporary artworks.
Chef Dando Natali complements the extensive wine list with a compact menu - classic Roman pasta such as carbonara and amatriciana are served alongside regional dishes like aspolenta with a beef fillet ragù, a staple in northern Italy. Puntarelle (this time pan-fried with olive oil, garlic and chilli) is on the menu too.
Just before I reach my destination I notice Hobo, another wine-bar-cum-bookshop. It specialises in music books, which line the floor-to-ceiling shelves. Its American-Italian owner, Francesco Accolla, is about to open a small restaurant serving fresh organic products from a farm in Umbria, in central Italy. Hobo hosts live music, TV streaming, DJ sets and book readings until late at night. "Pigneto only really wakes up around 10.30pm," says Accolla, a night-owl.
Finally it's time for dinner, and my two Roman friends, Daniela and Viviana, take me to the Pigneto restaurant they rate the best. Opened in 2006 by three Roman friends, Primo is definitely a hard act to beat. The service is breezy and the menu as extensive as it is innovative.
Chef Marco Gallotta's antipasti include a cod carpaccio with a green tomato, apple and onion salad, and a Sicilian broccoli and anchovy flan. Primi piatti, averaging about $24 each, include a leek and potato purée with fried calamari, and tonnarelli pasta with bottarga and marjoram-infused artichokes.
The pricier mains ($35 to $50) include roast chicken with field chicory and fried potatoes, and sliced roast beef from Piedmont served with a potato millefoglie. I choose lamb stuffed with artichokes and a purée of violet potatoes, a hearty meal that leaves me no room for the likes of the dark chocolate pudding with milk chocolate gelato, or the vanilla, mandarin and balsamic vinegar semifreddo.
There is no extra charge for bread or for service, and the wine list changes daily, with about 350 staple wines and at least 900 tasted annually. Primo has already won national and international accolades, and Gallotta says its success is based on its traditional but quirky dishes and the freshest ingredients, most of them Italian.
"Add to that the informality of the service and that means we have young and old coming here… we created a place that we would like to hang out in," he says enthusiastically. A bit like Pigneto itself, but next time I'll arrive much later.