Rome in summer

Were it not for the subtropical heat and the bright colours blaring in the sunlight, Rome in summer reminds you of the sea in winter. It’s “just a black-and-white film seen on TV”: a film from the Fifties, say, with Aldo Fabrizi riding around on his bicycle, or a young Alberto Sordi making his leisurely way to the Bocca della Verità, through streets bare of people and vehicles. In the summer, you can drive from the EUR district to Portonaccio in a mere twenty minutes, taking Via Cristoforo Colombo at a cruising pace, and enjoying a view that is, for once, not filled with red-hot car roofs. Rome in summer is like a different city. Really, it’s like the body of a sculpted goddess, long forgotten in some dingy corner, suddenly brought to light amid clouds of dust. Rome in summer is a collage of things, things randomly piled up in a mishmash of all the good and the bad that the city has to offer. It shows you everything; it’s embarrassed of nothing. Even more so than usual, it is the hair’s breadth between wonder and horror; it is immensity on the edge of the abyss.

But that goddess’ body has been violated by her own priests and her own worshippers. Rome has long been exploited by an administration that has rendered her uninhabitable, impractical, badly signposted, a general urban malaise. As for the Romans, they feed – perforce – on Rome’s lifeblood, while feeding her in her turn with grime and filth, kicking her into the weeds, the waste, scrap metal and assorted junk. Think of the mouldy cardboard boxes that some people call home; think of the walls lavished with graffiti – some good, some bad. Think of the unimaginable constructions, the unfathomable designs. Only in Rome – maybe also in Dehli, or Mexico City, or Naples – could you find a building like the Corviale. Only in Rome can you find Massenzio or Caracalla next to cardboard shanty towns, built without permission and abused without mercy; corroded metal wires, and crumpled plywood tables. Roads cloven in the middle by nonsensical traffic-partitions, as artificial as botoxed cheekbones, and barriers long forgotten by who knows what urban planning committee.

But Rome is a green city, greener than most others in Italy. In its huge swathes of land, you find plants for all seasons. But again, there’s the immensity and the abyss between people and things. We carry our cameras, the ubiquitous chronicler of the present, through the inner streets of Tor Marancia, baking in the midday heat. These box-shaped council houses have been propelled into popular consciousness by their immense mural paintings, which snake between groaning ventilators and excrescences in zinc-plated aluminium, covering what would have been a few unmarked square metres. A woman leans out of the window to regard the guy who has the spray gun in hand, or the other guy with the huge photo lens. The dark shadows loom perpendicular to the buildings; the light rolls over the face and hands; the shrubs and burnished grills demarcate the open ground. The cobbles were long ago pulled up; manhole covers bathe in the light. Yet those egregious paintings somehow mirror the sky: they pull your gaze upward, inexorably, until your neck doesn’t bend any further.

A few minutes in the car and you’ll have your strength back, not to mention your vision and your appetite. It’s time to look for somewhere to eat, and you could do far worse than the Tuscolano Appio Latino quarter. This is where the Velodrome was built just over a century ago, a raised 400-metre circuit designed for “cycling, motorcycling and motorbike football”. To give you an idea of the latter you need to look at some period footage, where you’ll find good-looking dudes, always with a cigarette dangling from their lips, tussling for the ball from the saddle of a scooter. Rome at the time was expanding, and in 1960 it received an added boost from the arrival of the Olympics. Thus, a new velodrome was built in EUR and the old Motovelodromo Appio was abandoned, then demolished to make way for other cuboid apartment blocks. All that remains of it today is the resonantly-named street "via del Velodromo", which follows what was the long side of the circuit. Everything else is gone, except for the Osteria del Velodromo Vecchiowhich, with a nice homely touch and a good dollop of flavour, brings the real Rome straight to your table, without frills or compromise. Their cacio e pepe is to die for, and you can rest assured that the ingredients are of impeccable quality. You’ll remember the tripe for the discernable hint of mint, and the last word in the meal should be the homemade tenerina cake. A glass of sweet wine, made from the grapes grown on the Latium hillsides, and don’t pass up a drop of Amaro Mazzetti as you say your farewells.

If, however, you would rather spend lunchtime touring the palazzi and the afternoon resting in your air-conditioned hotel room, you can wait until the evening to commence the desperate hunt for a parking space – and if you do find one, it’ll only be because it’s August. But then you sit down at one of the tables of Mamma Angelina, between the northerly districts of Parioli and Montesacro, which include some manicured residential areas and the Circonvallazione Salaria ringroad. The restaurant is always packed with locals, who love it for its substance as much as for its formality. There’s something theatrical about this rather upper-class place: the staff usually greet you with the title "dottore", and all their mannerisms are so old-world that they perversely seem timeless. The courtesy, however, is entirely sincere. The habitués might be seasoned old locals who have never lived anywhere else, or tyros who just grab a quick plate and a glass of something. There are a few minor celebrities, and a general feeling of well-heeledness without ostentation. It’s all about history and location, as they say in Milan; and here, both are translated into mostly fish-based Roman dishes with a few inspired bursts of creativity. The mussels and pecorino, in the butteriest gnocchi; the fried fish platters; the meatballs, not with the predictable tomato sauce but with mashed potato instead. Then the definitive oven-baked baccalà...

But in the Roman summer nights, the heat abates, and the Ponentino stirs. We hopeful outsiders like to imagine that a pleasant breeze flutters through the city as well; we can dream. We stroll purposefully yet slowly, always careful that we don’t get hit by vans, taxis, scooters, motorbikes, cars, buses, fat sedans, even – perish the thought – the odd pedestrian.

You can’t put summertime Rome into words. You drink it, drop by drop.