ROME, the Eternal City – and how to make a classic Spaghetti Carbonara!

Rome, the Eternal City – so named because the ancient Romans believed that the city would go on forever regardless of what happened in the world surrounding it.

I have been to Rome twice in my lifetime and on both occasions I was captivated by the city. We all know of its impressive history – empires and armies and gladiatorial conquests. The fact that any remnant of this ancient civilisation still remains today is something to marvel at.

For some bizarre reason my husband and I have never had a great deal of luck travelling to and arriving in Rome. On the first occasion we caught a taxi from the train station to our hotel, a ride that took about fifteen minutes. Later that day we left our hotel and stood on the pavement, mouths gaping when we spotted the train station a couple of blocks away.

On the second occasion we caught a train from Naples to Rome. We had been travelling for some time and had a lot of luggage. A man dressed as an employee of the train offered to help us load it onto the train. When he asked for five euros we gave him a ten-euro note, as it was all we had. We turned around a moment later and he was nowhere to be found, leaving us ten euros worse off and alone to struggle with our luggage. Oh, well, live and learn. (Tip: when touring Italy travel light! Heavy luggage and large cases are a nightmare.) My husband was furious at being duped and so when we arrived in Rome and climbed into a taxi he brought up the route to our hotel on his phone and tracked every lane change and street turn our taxi driver made. Fortunately we arrived at our hotel via a route my husband was satisfied with.

On our first trip to Rome we visited all the hotspots – the Colosseum and Roman Forum, the Pantheon, the Vatican, the Spanish Steps.

You’ve no doubt heard numerous stories about the eerie wonder of walking through the corridors of the Colosseum where those epic battles took place for the gruesome delight of Rome’s citizens. But you won’t actually know how it feels until you do it for yourself. Unfortunately when we were there the dungeons were not open to the public but they are now. Imagine walking in the steps of the gladiators, through the tunnels and dungeons where they would await their next battle – and very possibly their fate. It is an awesome tour and a visit to Rome wouldn’t be complete without it.

My next tip is in relation to the Vatican. I had always imagined – possibly foolishly – that when I visited the Vatican I would be able to stand in the Sistine Chapel, look up at that splendid ceiling and have a ‘moment’. You know, one of those moments in your life when you experience something truly wondrous. The first sign to suggest that the experience may not unfold as I’d imagined it was the seemingly endless queue we joined when we arrived. I can’t remember exactly how long we queued simply to enter the Vatican but it was lengthy. When my moment finally arrived and we made it to the Sistine Chapel it was so deflating I almost wanted to cry. There were so many people and it was so noisy that I could barely hear myself think. Yes, the ceiling was wondrous and yes, it was a beautiful place and I’m glad that we went. But it was so far removed from how I had imagined it.

So, here’s the tip. Before you visit do a little research and find out when is the best time to go at the particular time of year you’re in Rome to ensure crowds are at a minimum. Or pre-book a guided tour that will allow you to ‘skip the queues’. For my part the experience was diminished because it was too crowded.

I’ll move on to our recent visit to Rome, which was only last year. In an earlier blog I talked about our time on the Amalfi Coast (a stunning, fabulous part of Italy). After leaving the Amalfi Coast we had two nights in Rome before flying home. This only gave us one full day.

It was perhaps unfortunate that Rome was the last stop on what had been a lengthy trip. This meant that by the time we finally arrived (after being duped on the train!) we were both feeling a bit exhausted, a bit jaded, and looking forward to getting home. My husband especially was over it to the point that he considered spending our ‘one full day’ chilling out at the hotel. “We’ve been to Rome before,” he said. I tried not to let my excitement show when he made this announcement. Immediately I started to plan in my head a solitary day exploring Rome. Handbag shopping, strolling the pavements, soaking up the atmosphere of every cobbled lane and incredible piece of architecture, stopping for coffee and perhaps a spot of pasta. In short, my perfect day. I’ll come back to that.

We mustered enough energy after checking into the hotel to go out for lunch. This was the first of two incredible eating experiences we had on our short visit to Rome. I ordered pasta and a glass of wine. Is there a more perfect lunch? I’d like to mention at this point that one of the fabulous things about eating out in Italy is that the first thing they always do once you’ve ordered is bring bread for the table. And the bread! It is so delicious. My pasta when it arrived looked scrumptious but simple – tomatoes, pancetta, pecorino. But as I started to eat it my tastebuds marvelled at just how delicious it was, so much more delicious than its individual parts would suggest. I gave my husband a taste and he was just as wide-eyed as myself. How do the Italians do it? How do they take three or four ingredients and turn it into one of the most wonderful things you’ve ever eaten? It’s truly remarkable.

Fortunately, after a rest at the hotel that afternoon and a refreshing shower we were geared up to go out for dinner that night. My husband and I wandered the streets sizing up the restaurants and perusing the menus until we came to one that we both loved the look of. It was a warm evening and we were shown to a table outside. I had always wanted to eat a traditional Osso Buco whilst in Italy and this one was everything I had imagined and hoped it would be. Beautifully tender meat and bursting with flavour. I can’t tell you how blessed I felt to have eaten two such incredible meals in just one day. Then again, I was in Rome.

Now I come back to our ‘one full day’. At breakfast my husband informed me that he had changed his mind about chilling out at the hotel and decided that we should get out and about. Okay, not the solitary day I’d planned but I was nevertheless excited about having my husband’s company for the day.

The day got off to a good start. My husband planned out a route on the map that would take us on a good tour of the city. As we walked he noticed several open-top buses pass. “What do you think?” he asked.

Frankly, it was the last thing I wanted to do but my husband was clearly keen on the idea. “You are such a tourist,” I teased him but relented and went along with the idea. Marriage is about compromise after all. So we bought tickets from a vendor and then made our way to the closest stop where we could pick up the bus. We couldn’t work out at first why the queue barely moved despite numerous buses stopping. We soon realised it was because most of the buses passing were already full.

After about ten or fifteen minutes I was getting seriously annoyed. Hang on a minute, I thought. How did my day of handbag shopping and soaking up the streets of Rome turn into queuing for an open-top bus? Fortunately we managed to get on one soon after and took the stairs so we could sit up the top. Perhaps the experience would have been more enjoyable if it hadn’t been a stinking hot day in Rome. It felt like it was about fifty degrees Celsius up there. Once again, I sighed and imagined how my day could have been.

However, despite everything it didn’t escape my notice what a great view of the city we had as we were driven through the streets. And one very excellent thing happened that pulled the whole experience back from the brink. We had decided to get off at the Colosseum and walk back from there. As we rounded a bend in the road suddenly the Colosseum came into sight ahead of us and because we were elevated we had the most incredible viewpoint. It was such a powerful moment. “Look at that,” I gasped. My husband agreed. “It really is an impressive structure,” he said. That moment made it all worthwhile.

So here’s another tip. Despite my less than perfect experience of the open-top bus I will grudgingly admit that it’s a great way to give you an overview of the city, especially if it is your first time in Rome. I suggest doing the bus tour first, marking all the places that stand out on your map and then returning to them.

I’d like to finish this post by telling you about my personal favourite when it comes to the sights of Rome. I believe that I am in the minority here but that tends to happen a lot with me. On our first trip to Rome one of the first things we came upon was the Trevi Fountain. We approached it from a side view initially but once we’d walked around to have a front-on view we then saw it in all its magnificence. I was completely mesmerised. I believe it to be one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. You’ve no doubt seen numerous pictures of it on postcards and in travel books. You’ve probably even seen it on television. But they all pale in comparison to seeing the fountain with your own eyes. The sheer size and majesty of it can never be conveyed in a photograph. A visit to Rome would now not be complete for me without spending some time gazing at it.

And there you have it. My thoughts on Rome and a few tips that I hope may enhance your experience. Rome has been one of the world’s great cities for millennia and I believe it will remain so. It is, after all, the Eternal City.

For my recipe this week I decided to do my husband’s favourite pasta dish. It also happens to be a classic Roman dish and so feels very appropriate.

I like to use real pancetta for this dish but I realise it’s not always easy to get a hold of so feel free to use streaky bacon in its stead. Likewise with the shallots, if you don’t have any I would substitute with red onion chopped very finely.

When it comes to Carbonara the most important tip is in relation to the tricky stage when you are adding the eggs and cream. Make sure the pasta is drained well, but most importantly, don’t put the pan back on the heat when you add the eggs and cream. There is enough residual heat from the pasta and the pan to very softly cook the eggs and thicken the sauce at which point it turns deliciously silky. If the pan goes back on the hob and too much heat is applied you may just end up with pasta and scrambled eggs – not quite what we’re going for here!

One last tip – have the eggs at room temperature before they go into the pasta.

Spaghetti Carbonara

Serves 4

375g spaghetti

Dash of olive oil

200g pancetta, cut into pieces or cubes

3 shallots, chopped finely

2 cloves garlic, chopped finely

3 x large eggs

125ml cream

75g Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

Salt, freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pan of water to the boil and add a teaspoon of salt. Add the spaghetti and stir well with a pasta spoon until the strands have softened and separated to ensure they don’t stick together as they cook. Spaghetti usually takes 9-10 minutes to cook but check the instructions on your packet. I always like to take out a strand after about eight minutes to check.

Bring a frying pan to a medium-high heat, add a small dash of olive oil and then add the pancetta. Fry the pieces until they’re golden and crispy. When they start to colour add the shallots and garlic. The reason I add the pancetta first is because it tends to take a bit longer to get to that golden and crispy stage and you don’t want the shallots and garlic to burn.

While this is cooking crack the eggs into a measuring jug and give them a good whisk. Add the cream and Parmesan and a healthy does of freshly ground black pepper. You can add a little salt as well but remember that the pasta water is seasoned and the pancetta and Parmesan are both quite salty. I personally don’t add extra salt.

When the spaghetti is ready drain it well, return it to the pan (keep off the heat!) and add the pancetta, shallots and garlic and stir well through the pasta. I like to grind over some extra black pepper at this stage. Then add the eggs, cream and Parmesan mixture. Keep tossing the mixture through the spaghetti until it starts to thicken and turns into a lovely glossy sauce. You will see when this starts to happen. It’s a wonderful moment.

Now serve up into pasta bowls and grate some fresh Parmesan over before serving.

This dish encapsulates everything I love about food – the wonderful contrast of flavours and textures but also the indulgence and comfort it provides. If you’ve had a bad day eat this and things will seem just that little bit better.

Buon appetito!

Carbonara 1


  1. Ross Cuff says:

    I’m so proud of my beautiful daughter Tracey. Tracey’s Mum and I have been to Rome on two occasions as well and Tracey described it to a tee and with appropriate passion. I am also proud of Tracey for the wonderful novels she has been writing, wee worth a read.


  2. Pingback: Favourite posts of 2016 – and my love affair with Italy – Tracey O'Brien

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: