But just above Trastevere, sat Monteverde Vecchio, a lush area reached by winding streets or broad staircases that still bear the faded red and yellow A.S. Roma colors from when the soccer team won the Italian championship, and Francesco Totti, the 40-year-old captain who just played his last game with the team, was still called “the golden boy.”
The neighborhood is also home to Villa Doria Pamphili, arguably Rome’s most beautiful park. After a day of apartment hunting, I wanted to refuel in Litro, a favorite of the foodie set for its natural wines and inventive menu. But with two children in tow, we opted for Vivi Bistrot. Nestled in the park amid joggers, kite fliers and picnicking families, the outdoor restaurant is an oasis of healthy sandwiches and smoothies.
Monteverde has long been preferred by foreign reporters for its proximity to the Vatican, while celebrities come for the sweeping views and verdant gardens. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes may have had their rehearsal dinner in the Villa Aurelia, but we looked at midcentury apartment buildings with round terraces, hanging gardens and balconies that give the neighborhood the appearance of midgame Jenga towers. But none of them were right.
I cleared my head of the agency listings that clogged my inbox by running around the Circus Maximus, once the site of Roman chariot races, now a green and gravel trench between the Aventine and Palatine Hills. Romulus, the city’s mythical founder, preferred the Palatine. So did Rome’s emperors, barbarians and clerical nobility. More recently, so did my wife, who in her early 20s used to jump the fence with her friends to smoke cigarettes and drink wine among the ruins. For a veteran of drinking-in-the-park-after-dark summonses back in Cunningham Park in Queens, this was the definition of sophistication.
But unfortunately the Palatine, the source of enough raw beauty and history and buried mystery to restore the rosy tint of Rome to any jaundiced eye, has nothing for rent. So we focused more on the Aventine Hill, the preferred perch of Romulus’s less fortunate and slain twin, Remus. The hill is home to the intoxicating Orange Garden, where the children asked to eat the oranges puddled around the trees. (No.) Atop the hill, we found a quiet paradise where fragrant and violet Judus tree petals fluttered down and grouted between the cobbled stones.
In my earlier Roman residency, I rarely stepped foot on the Aventine. I often walked its perimeter, visiting the Protestant Cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried, walking by the Eastern Europeans who set up barber shops on the stone benches on my way to send letters at the modernist Fascist-era post office. The restaurants then had an old-school vibe. Now, the new Romeo Chef & Baker looks like a flagship for the era of food fanaticism: Snowflake sculptures hang from the ceiling; a guy shaves prosciutto at a gorgeous in-house deli; Mason jars, wine crates and tomato cans decorate the area around a sleek bar. Testaccio had become fashionable.
But for me, Aventine held more appeal. There seemed something quiet and irreproachable about this neighborhood above it all. Its exclusivity wasn’t an act. We had a hard time getting anywhere near it. We crossed the Viale Aventino, reinvigorated with new Brazilian sushi restaurants, organic gelaterias, beer bars and modern cafes like Casa Manfredi, and tried our luck in San Saba, another neighborhood on a smaller hill with more life, restaurants and children playing in the streets.
But hardly anything suitable became available. Frustrated, we considered the once unimaginable: my wife’s parents’ Pinciano neighborhood, which I had once considered stuffy and dull. Now I found its 19th-century Liberty-style buildings elegant, the promise of strolling with my children in Villa Borghese park civilized, and its expensive haberdashers, including the excellently named Gentleman, deeply satisfying. (Little known fact: Many Italian men aspire to dress like imaginary British gentlemen, so when British men think they are dressing like Italians, they are often copying an Italian idea of themselves.) My old Roman friends quipped that I had become bourgeois in my old age. But I was happy getting my morning cappuccino and ordering two espresso cups of frothy milk for Elena and Luca at Natalizi’s crowded counter with the elderly tie-and-sweater-vest set.
And despite all of the mocking from the Trasteverini, the neighborhood had undergone rejuvenation. While the city center seemed covered in Peroni bottles, the Macro contemporary art museum had arisen from a converted Peroni factory. A vibrant restaurant scene had popped up around it. At Pro Loco, everything, from the pecorino to the guanciale on the once unthinkable amatriciana pizza, came from the often overlooked region of Lazio. The much feted and now expanded Marzapane remains one of the hardest reservations in town. One morning, I stopped into Faro, or lighthouse, a new coffee shop in the subway-tile style where the baristas explained the origin of the coffee and its flavor notes.
My wife and children went back to the United States to finish the school year, and I looked for apartments between reporting assignments. In Turin and Milan and Tuscany, where talking down about Roman incivility is a tradition going back at least to the Etruscans, the disgust with the capital’s reduced state was expected. But I heard similar complaints in Sicily, and even in Naples, hardly the Copenhagen of the Mediterranean, where the mayor delighted in suggesting to me ways Rome could resolve their refuse issues.
These conversations, and the general despair of Romans about the state of their city, got me down. I kept thinking of my old apartment in Trastevere, and that feeling I had when I first came back. It seemed the degradation contained there had spread through the city, and as I walked around, I began to wonder if Rome’s answer to its garbage emergency wasn’t to conceal the trash under unkempt fields of tall grass.
But then, I remembered something else. Walking with my wife and children through Villa Pamphili, as I complained about the Serengeti state of the lawns, my 4-year-old son paused from kicking his Roma soccer ball through the high grass to note a stalk that stood taller than him.
“It’s up to here!” he said, pointing above his head, his eyes full of contagious wonder. It was new to him, and he liked what he saw. I looked around at the stately villa, the murmuring fountains and, yes, even at the overgrown grass. Rome had its issues. The degradation was real. But the thing about a great beauty is that no matter its age or condition, it could still turn and give you that look and send the heart aflutter.