For dramatic purposes, let’s blame the whole thing on Lorcan O’Neill.
The Irish gallerist—who’d cut his teeth working with the fabled London dealer Anthony d’Offay in the 1980s and 1990s—came to Trastevere in 2003, opening a space that soon attracted Britart heavies like Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread. Galleria Lorcan O’Neill was, as one observer put it (referring to the Brooklyn-y London district), “Hackney in the middle of Rome.”
Comparisons with Hackney are apt. Like the East London borough, Trastevere had once been a run-down area with a thriving criminal class. And, like Hackney, this small, lung-shaped rione on the west bank of the Tiber had nudged its delinquents aside to make way for an influx of starving artists, followed by affluent artists, followed by speculative entrepreneurs.
To get a sense of where the neighborhood stands today, you need only look at your feet: On the more well-traveled lanes, wedged between the pretty cobblestones, are thousands of wine corks, discarded by the multitudes of tourists who frequent the “traditional” Roman eateries that occur every few yards.
O’Neill can recall a time when an art show here might have had Wes Anderson mingling with Willem Dafoe. “There were more galleries then. It was an exciting place to be.” When asked about his use of the word “was,” he shrugs. “Some people died, some retired, some moved on.” O’Neill falls into the latter category: Since 2014, his Rome gallery has occupied a renovated 17th-century stable across the river in Regola.
The gentrification of the neighborhood actually predates O’Neill by a decade or so, but it was the Hackney-hipster thing that provided the coup de grâce. Today, the starving artists head for Pigneto, Testaccio, Ostiense. Indeed, when I told a Rome-loving colleague of mine I’d be exploring Trastevere for this story, she scoffed. This ancient warren, she told me—an immigrant enclave centuries before Christ, a historically insular community of artisans and crooks—had become “a tourist trap.”
Yes, well: Call me superficial, but I made my final decision based on looks. In Trastevere, even the mundane is absurdly beautiful. Near my leased apartment on Via Dandolo, there’s a medical center housed in an 11th-century monastery (Ospedale Nuovo Regina Margherita); not far from here, in a tiny square beyond a 14th-century arch (Arco dei Tolomei), sits an auto repair shop. It is a neighborhood of gilded frescos and marauding cherubs, burnt orange walls and peeling shutters, flowing vines and alleys criss-crossed by strands of laundry. How could you not fall in love with it?
If you want the full-on tourist experience here, sit on the steps of the fountain in Piazza di Santa Maria, overlooked by a quartet of gesticulating marble bishops and a 12th-century bell tower. I take a step beside a guitarist singing “Drive” by The Cars. All around, hordes of camera-toting visitors mingle with preppy kids (Trastevere is thick with American universities). At night, these people will be joined by throngs of young Romans threading their way among the area’s trendy bars.
“I remember in the 1960s, Trastevere was like a village,” says shoe designer Joseph Debach. “It will be hard to turn things around.” You hear this sort of thing a lot: The area has lost its soul; all the interesting people have moved away. The irony is, the majority of those who say this to me are very interesting people working on very interesting projects, not least of them Debach.“My parents had a bottega here, making sandals. I’d come back from school and work on the shoes—I loved the smell of leather and suede,” he says. “At 20, I opened my own workshop and made them completely different.” This is true. Debach’s whimsical creations are more like wearable sculptures. The fork-heeled pump in the poster for The Devil Wears Prada is his.
The heart of Trastevere is bisected by a wide road—Viale di Trastevere—which runs in a northeasterly diagonal toward the Tiber. The left side of the street has a higher density of photogenic alleys, and so a higher density of tourists, whereas the right side is known for its creative flair—its authenticity. “It’s dirty, but I love the dirt,” says fashion designer Livia Risi, who has a self-named boutique on Via dei Vascellari. “I visited Austria and it was too perfect. I wanted to smash a bottle.”
Risi’s grandfather was the famous comedic film director Dino Risi, and she frisks around her funky shop describing how each piece was inspired by a movie star. “These are Greta Garbo,” she says, holding up a pair of black pants. “This [red dress] is Marilyn Monroe.” She opened her atelier 11 years ago with one sewing machine, and now does business around the world. Even so, she isn’t sure she found her true calling. “I love film, I love fantasy,” she says with a laugh. “I always hated to shop. I don’t know why I opened a shop.”
The area around Risi’s boutique does have an edge to it. Nearby is the chaotically colorful ceramics workshop Studio Forme, and the inordinately cool Mexican restaurant and bar Agaveria La Punta (recently opened by the folks behind the Freni e Frizioni bar and The Jerry Thomas Speakeasy). Then there’s the offshoot of the Lower Manhattan gallery Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, which opened a couple of years ago in an 8th-century church—a space whose mottled and pitted interior is every bit as alluring as the art. On Via di Santa Cecilia, I pop my head into La Punta to check out the décor—fairy lights overhead, patterned terracotta tiles on the floor, a Robert Smithson-style neon on the wall—and am greeted by the chef Sarah Bugiada, whose handshake is so strong I yelp. “Sorry,” she says. “I am a Sicilian woman.”
Just around the corner is Alembic, a cocktail bar/gallery space that opened last September. If you were looking for a sign that the quirky-arty spirit endures in Trastevere, Alembic might be it. The interior resembles the living room of a slightly unsettled madame—a jumble of wonky columns, velveteen chairs, avant-garde artworks and “flying plants.” I get a cocktail served in a sugar bowl and another in a pewter goblet. “We only have three of those,” says co-owner Maria Soldatova. “We buy everything from vintage markets—the whole place is filled with history.” A half block away, meanwhile, is Hybris, a sleek gallery/bar that also opened in September.
Not every cool enterprise is on the cool side of Viale di Trastevere. I cross the street and head down Via di San Francesco a Ripa, where I wedge myself into a mass of locals to get a slice at I Supplì Pizzeria, then gaze stupefied at a pair of jeans with built-in leather chaps in the smart fashion outlet The Butcher Shop. In Twice Vintage, I meet Mariacristina Benvenuti, who owns the clothing store with her sister. Their great-grandfather Bruto (“like the guy who killed Caesar”) used to run the local tourism board. “It’s always been here,” she says, nodding at the flow of humanity. “The life of the area hasn’t changed.”
A few minutes to the north, on Via Benedetta, I find Checco er Carettiere, a family osteria that has been in business since the mid-1930s. I pop in and owner-chef Stefania Porcelli leads me around, pointing at black-and-white shots of the eatery’s illustrious clientele: Robert Mitchum, Gina Lollobrigida, Woody Allen, Brigitte Bardot, Federico Fellini, Maria Callas. “Sergio [Leone] sat at this table and wrote his films,” she says, referring to the Italian film director famous for his spaghetti westerns. “All day, all day, all day.”
Even on the lanes that spider out from Piazza di Santa Maria, you’ll find outposts of creativity. Polvere di Tempo, a tiny bottega on Via del Moro, is cluttered with globes, sundials and compasses made out back by the owner. A few doors down, at Galleria il Laboratorio, an artist named Stefano Restivo stands amid life-size photographic cut-outs of himself, overlaid with X-ray images. “This,” he says gesturing at a hip bone, “is the real me.”
I also stop at Sweet Mamba Tattoo, on Vicolo del Bologna. My plan is to interview the owner, but I end up getting my first ever tattoo: my daughter’s name on my wrist. As I wait for the procedure, a guy named Frankie points at an exposed brick wall. “That’s probably 400 years old,” he says, “maybe older” (it looks older). “That’s what I love about Trastevere: It’s artistic and multicultural, but you still get a taste of ancient Rome.” He goes on to describe the area as “a mess,” adding, “but it’s my mess.”
I spend the rest of the afternoon taking pictures on the lanes—terraces frothing with greenery, the incremental color schemes and variegated textures of the timeworn houses, the snoozing dogs and looming bell towers. The cobblestones eventually take their toll, so I join the kids sprawled on the steps in Piazza Trilussa, beside the 15th-century Ponte Sisto. And then—deep breath—I embark on the 20-minute upward trudge to Terrazza del Gianicolo, an elegant plateau offering splendid views of Rome, along with a few convenient spots to collapse in an exhausted heap.
A short stagger from here is Antico Arco, which is considered to be one of the best places to eat in Trastevere. I skip the sleek interior for a table outside, next to Porta San Pancrazio, a 19th-century triumphal arch built on the site of an ancient Roman gate. The menu here adds a contemporary twist to classic Italian fare—I have creamy pea soup with seared squid and dried tomato, followed by steak tartare with smoked foie gras and champignon mushrooms. I also polish off the bread rolls baked in olive oil. Fantastic.
My last stop of the night is Freni e Frizioni, the enduringly fashionable bar that opened in 2005 in an old garage (the name means Brakes & Clutches), and whose décor incorporates touches like oil drums and metal lockers. I stand on the packed patio and watch the people passing by. A young hippie-ish guy swishes along wearing a hooded white monk’s robe, set to the soundtrack of a busker’s bip-bopping bongos. I’m not sure how much quirky, creative life the people of Trastevere feel they’ve lost, but this is more than enough for me.
Some of the most intriguing spots in Trastevere are below ground—Roman streets and piazzas were built over in the Middle Ages, and now form a warren of tunnels and chambers. On Via della VII Coorte there’s a locked doorway (check online for tours) leading to an underground Roman firehouse. Buried beneath the San Crisogono church are the ruins of its ancient predecessor.
But then every old building here seems to have its own subterranean grotto. Below the family-run Spirito DiVino restaurant is a square (now a wine cellar) dating back to 80 B.C., according to co-owner Romeo Catalani (diners can ask to take a look). Even the hip Mexican restaurant Agaveria La Punta has a crypt-like space in its basement, which is set to become a private tasting area this fall.
Known for its surfeit of tacky-traditional eateries, there are some top-notch kitchens in Trastevere, the best run by women
At this friendly family osteria, Eliana Catalani rules the kitchen while her comedic husband and son work the dining area. A former biologist, Catalani opened Spirito in 1998 with no formal training. Asked if she learned to cook from her mother, she says, “No, my mother was phht. I learned from my father.” Though she has no interest in the theatrics of molecular gastronomy, her scientific background, she says, allows her to experiment with traditional cooking, to “see again with different eyes.” She serves me a rich casarecce pasta with borlotti bean, mussels and Marzolina cheese, which is nothing like her mother used to make.
Checco er Carettiere
“My grandfather, my father, me,” Stefania Porcelli says, then points at a small boy passing by: “He is the next generation.” She sees herself as a bulwark against the “fake Roman cuisine” surrounding her. “I am fighting to keep tradition alive.” Little has changed during the eatery’s 80-odd-year run. “All the recipes come from my grandmother,” she says. “Even the seats are the same.” I get a succession of “poor kitchen” dishes: bombolotti amatriciana, cacio e pepe, saltimbocca. It’s delicious—and filling. “This is the most Roman thing you can eat,” Porcelli says when she spots me flagging, the emphasis on eat.
Michelin-starred chef Cristina Bowerman recently launched a hot new restaurant in Testaccio, but her small chic eatery in Trastevere, opened in 2004, made her a star. “I like to experiment,” she says of her food, which balances refinement and imagination. She also gets a kick out of taking risks. “You’re going to be the first person to taste this,” she says while serving me a new menu item: a delightful dish of button pasta stuffed with lampascioni onion, served in a honey pecorino broth with toasted hazelnut and marrow. “I came here thinking I’d screw up and leave,” she says later. “But that hasn’t happened.”