One of the best parts of travel is certainly shopping. But, where do you go? And where do you go in Rome? Sure, I could go on and on about Via Condotti lined with Gucci, Prada, Bulgari, you name it. That is one of my favorite spots, not for shopping, for people watching. I can’t tell you the number of times I have run into celebrities like Nicole Kidman or then President Bill Clinton when walking by the Spanish Steps. But, let’s get back to reality. When I take a day to shop I want to find decently priced items without compromising quality. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t spend all my days prancing through Rome on shopping sprees or I would be broke, deal or not. This is why I enjoy when people visit because I can take them to my favorite spots and help them to find what they are looking for (and sometimes find some goodies myself).
THE PERFECT OPPORTUNITY
Now that I live in Rome it seems that more friends and family are visiting than ever. The most recent visit was my dad who came over from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. This gave me the perfect opportunity to take him shopping for everything on his list (and a few things that were not). For this shopping expedition, we headed over to Prati, a neighbourhood located just next to the Vatican. This is a perfect location to shop either before or after soaking up all that the Vatican Museum and St. Peters Basilica has to offer. Also, with the Risorgimento bus stop strategically placed, this area is easy to get to without a car.
Enough of all of this hullabaloo, let’s get shopping! First on my dad’s list was dried pasta and chocolate. Easy, right? Sure, you can probably find these at any little quickie supermarket, but this gave me the opportunity to introduce him to the legendary Castroni. This store may not be as cheap as the general grocer, but just think, they have had over 80 years to decide what makes the final cut and ends up on their shelves. This is real quality.
Upon entering this shop, you can feel the throwback in time to 1932 when this chain first opened. There are multiple locations throughout Rome (some even have a caffe). The shelves are filled with all sorts of classic Italian goodies such as chocolate, candies, coffee, spices, truffle oil, wine, and dried pasta. We sorted through the selection of pasta and decided on tricolore farfalle (tricolore means three colours and farfalle means butterflies). These three colours symbolise the Italian flag. Spinach is used in the green pasta, beet-rootor tomato for the red pasta, and durum wheat flour is used to produce the white pasta. With pasta in hand we headed over to the chocolate isle. Now, when I say chocolates I mean this is the spot where you go when you understand and appreciate the different percentages of cocoa. The sheer variety of chocolates is rather daunting including; orange, raspberry, strawberry, and pistachio just to name a few. Venchi has been making fine chocolates since 1878. Their dark hazelnut fondente seemed like a great (and delicious) choice.
I enjoy pasta and chocolate like the best of them, but for me Castroni has a whole different purpose. As a transplant here from the US (and a chef), I really appreciate this store for some of those hard to find spices and other ingredients for cooking. When taco Tuesday rolls around this is my one stop shop for taco shells, refried beans and salsa located in their international foods section. But, enough about me — this is supposed to be a day for my dad.
Leaving Castroni we walked down Via Ottaviano where a knight in a suit of armour catches my eye. It is so out of place and I’m sure many people have mistaken it for an entrance into a museum. Hidden away between store fronts, tucked neatly down a small corridor is a magical experience. This is the Negozio Storico Fantastico. It’s one of the coolest stores in Rome! The shelves are filled with anything and everything having to do with fantasy. Have any interest in: The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, medieval swords, fairies, and trolls? This is your store. I don’t even particularly like these movies/books, but I love this store because it feels like a ride at Disney Land.
When I entered the fairy room I felt transported into a new dimension, It’s almost like an attack on my senses. Farries peek from behind vines which appear to be growing out of the walls and ceilings. A live macaw chattered away as I came face to face with a giant troll. I felt like a kid again! The adult in me was drawn to the chess board section. Here they have chess sets which would please even the most discerning connoisseur. You can choose pieces beautifully carved in themes for example: ancient Egypt, Roman knights, and pirates. This is the go-to place if you know anyone who appreciates chess as I do. Turn the corner and the sheer volume of fantasy memorabilia is daunting. I did not realize that there were so many different types of magic wands to choose from! And don’t even get me started on the Lord of the Rings jewelry section! The curiosities in this store are unending, and my father found a beautifully leather-bound notebook as a souvenir. Personally, I just want to grab a cape and a magic wand and take on the day, but we have no time for such nonsense we must move onward!
We head out for our next items on the check list which are men’s summer shirts. Kind of boring, right? Not boring if you are shopping in Rome! The clothes here are so unique, with such craftsmanship, that simple summer shirts are like works of art. I brought him over to Asole & Bottoni. They break the shirt down into pieces. We get to choose: style, collar, cuff, and fabric. It’s the small details like designed stitching on the collar that highlight the expertise and imagination of the designer. My dad needed a different size than what was on display. So, the saleslady got right on it, calling down to their stockroom where they brought up the perfect size. Their deal of 3 for $119 couldn’t be beat when purchasing shirts of this high quality, so three it is!
All of this shopping made us hungry for a snack and luckly Asole & Bottoni is right next door to one of the most fantastic indoor markets in Rome!
With hunger as our motivator, we entered the Unità market only to be assaulted by our senses. The first wave of came from the fresh blooms of a variety of flowers, their scent like a chorus to my nose, the colours so vibrant. But we were on a mission, no time for flowers, we need to find a snack. Weaving towards the fruit we pass the fish vendor where the absence of scent pleased my nose. Now, usually I don’t particularly enjoy passing by fish markets as there is an underlying stink that won’t go away. This was not the case at this market. As a chef, I noticed all the right things: bright red gills, clear eyes, and the scent of the ocean. There was even an entire swordfish head on the cutting board that was just portioned for sale! Too bad that I did not need to pick up any pesce for dinner because it sure looked good.
Just past the fish were the chatzky sellers, as I call them. No doubt you’ve seen these guys around town. They sell just about anything you can think of from jewelry and belts to batteries and electronics. Actually, I’m glad I ran into them because I needed a new set of earbuds, and was able to barter them down to just 5 euros! Bartering is the key to any market in Rome.
Finally entering the center isle, we find what we came for. The smell of fresh fruit, vegetables, and herbs is unbelievable. Where do we begin? There is such subtle activity going on within the isles of produce. I noticed the ease of an older woman as she finished peeling an artichoke and gently plopped it into a container where fresh lemons were bobbing away. Two men were seated chatting away about the day’s business while gently snapping fresh fava beans in preparation for sale. Then, the strawberries catch my eye. Their color so bright and as I brought them closer for a smell, I was sold! We took our gorgeous snack and left the hustle and bustle of the market.
The Day’s End
As we left the market and took a seat on the benches outside, the day of shopping had caught up with us. Shopping bags scattered around our tired feet marked the end to a very successful day in Prati. Reflecting on our day, we did not just buy stuff, but rather shared an experience together. Sitting side by side with my father quietly eating strawberries was a moment I will cherish forever. I hope that you will visit Prati and create some new memories of your own. I would love to hear about your favorites in Prati. You can share them in the comments section below.