A lone turtle hangs back from the group on a marble slab at one end of the pool while her two-dozen co-inhabitants jostle with one another at the other end. I know how she feels.
After a day of pounding Rome’s hot, black cobblestones, weaving through thick, airless crowds in the stifling summer heat, I’m relishing my temporary escape from the City of Eternal Tourists.
Concealed behind a lush green wall near the top of the Spanish Steps, Caffe Ciampini is a verdant oasis overlooking the city’s rooftops. A welcome breeze offers temporary respite from the still air below, and the noises of Italy’s most frenetic city are imperceptible, save for the glorious chorus of church bells at dusk. This lovely terrace restaurant is near the action yet out of the fray and, surprisingly, is largely undiscovered by tourists. Leave your spruiker repellent in your hotel room.
Over several trips to Rome since 1998, I’ve seen Caffe Ciampini undergo renovations and extensions under the management of third-generation Roman restaurateur Marco Ciampini, who took over Cafe du Jardin, as it was then called, in 1989.
Today, the centrepiece of the restaurant is a tiled pool that features a goat head fountain and is filled with red-eared sliders. These turtles have surely moved up the real estate ladder from 15 years ago when their humble abode was a plastic bucket in a shady corner of the terrace.
All day I’ve had a yen for meat and three veg – Caffe Ciampini’s lamb chops, to be precise – but for a moment I worry that I’m being lazy for wanting comfort food that isn’t exactly adventurous or exotic.
In my defence, I’ve just spent seven weeks in Britain, where I’ve had my fill of black pudding sausages for breakfast, potatoes three ways (on the one plate!) and a forkful of haggis that will linger long in the memory. Not a leafy salad or coloured vegetable in sight. (Jamie, I feel your pain.)
Though I’ve been in Italy for only a week, already I need to wean myself off the three Ps: pasta, pizza and panini. I fear I’ll burst at the seams if I have another plate of spaghetti con vogole (spaghetti with clams), no matter how delicious.
Call me a precious principessa, but I’ve had a gutful of eating like a tourist. Meat and Three Veg, where the bloody hell are you?
To my delight, agnello (lamb) is still on Caffe Ciampini’s menu. It shouldn’t come as a surprise – the Romans love their lamb. On a past daytrip to the outskirts of the city, I recall seeing lambs grazing on the pastures directly above the catacombs, blissfully unaware of their history and fate as a traditional Roman dish.
Scanning the rest of the menu, I savour every sip of my first glass of wine as though it could be my last. Really, it could be. Italian women don’t drink much, and the same is expected of their foreign sisters. When in Rome, I must go with the flow (or lack thereof), knowing the truth in wine won’t get in the way of a good travel story.
Without any prompting, a plate of prawn and salmon aperativi (appetisers) appears. I choose the prosciutto di Parma e melone (Parma ham and rockmelon) from the antipasti options on the menu, knowing I’ll have to pace myself to save space for the restaurant’s famous dessert.
There was a time when I felt obliged to order all five courses on the Italian menu, but not any more. I skip the primi piatti (first course, namely risotto and pasta) and home in on the first entry under secondi piatti: traditional lamb ribs. It translates to the table as succulent grilled lamb chops with a balsamic reduction, served on a bed of vegetables and sculpted rice. The sun sets over Rome’s skyline and a meal fit to revive a world-weary traveller.
Though Caffe Ciampini’s generous dessert menu ranges from homemade gelati to chestnut mousse, it almost seems compulsory to part with a few extra euros for a slice of local culinary history. I order the renowned Tartufo Ciampini chocolate gelato invented by Marco’s grandfather, Giuseppe Ciampini, in 1945, the recipe for which remains a closely guarded family secret. Roman intrigue in every mouthful.
While I polish off dessert (and a second glass of wine, yay!) the lone turtle rouses, comes down from her marble ‘pedestal’ and settles in for the night with the others. Like me, she just needed time-out.
Meet the residents of Caffe Ciampini and see what I ate in my Gallery.