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Roman Holiday: The Good, the Bad and the Meatball
October 27, 2016 -- I'm out of practice with vacations, not having had an honest-to-goodness, no-work, strictly chill holiday for around a decade.
So it was with an odd mix of skepticism, hope, hunger and trepidation that I decamped for a few days in Rome. Even, as you know, shutting down JoeSentMe last week.
My Roman Holiday didn't go quite to plan--a family crisis erupted back home--but I came away with the good, the bad and the meatball of it all. Allow me to explain.
THE GOOD: Delta Air Lines runs SkyMiles as a shell game. It's not so much that it has hidden the plan's award chart, it's that Delta feels empowered to change prices whenever it feels like it. Award prices--especially on premium class seats--skyrocket and plummet based on Delta's reading of the market or, perhaps, the whim of some particularly sadistic middle manager. Still, I pounced when Delta offered business class seats to Rome for 105,000 miles last spring. I happily moved some American Express Membership Rewards points to take advantage of the "sale."
THE BAD: Delta's only SkyClub at JFK Terminal 4, where most of its international flights depart, is overwhelmed with passengers most times of the day. It's a nice enough club for what it is, but insufficient to the task at hand. Walks from the ticketing and baggage check to boarding gates are insanely long. The boarding process is chaotic and never adequately separates business class flyers from SkyPriority customers. That leads to a scrum, even among the elites in the boarding pecking order.
THE MEATBALL: I planned this journey so my wife and I could spend some time in Rome with Mister Meatball and his associate, a highly regarded food writer in her own right. I've been schooling them on the intricacies of frequency programs in recent years specifically so they could fly in business class when they travel overseas. I objected on principle to their decision to fly from Boston/Logan in coach, but cash fares were so ridiculously low that I understood their choice.
THE GOOD: Delta's IFE is just fine. I caught the new Star Trek movie and a documentary on Leonard Nimoy and Mr. Spock put together by Nimoy's son. And since I have three T-mobile phone numbers, I had three free hours of Delta's Gogo WiFi. I can't get T-mobile service to work properly in my office, but, damn, it offers plenty of nice perks and works a charm around the world.
THE BAD: Delta's business class, especially on its Airbus A330s, is poor. The seats are narrow, the fold-down beds short, and the foot wells insanely cramped for anyone with feet larger than Cinderella. And while I never judge any airline's in-flight service based on food, Delta is really off the rails. The dishes were bizarre. One example: Who at Delta thought it was a good idea to pile an oddly sauced chicken breast (skin on) atop mashed potatoes dumped on a bed of green beans? The only thing I can say about breakfast is that I got to see uova strapazzate con formaggio spalmabile (scrambled eggs and cream cheese) written on an Italian menu.
THE MEATBALL: As god is his witness, Mister Meatball promises never to fly coach again. Seduced last year by comfy seats in the upper deck of an aging Air France Boeing 747 to Paris, he expected similarly commodious accommodations on Alitalia's Airbus A330 to Rome Fiumicino Airport. Not so much. The legroom was awful, of course. Even securing an empty middle row of four on the return flight was no real help since the armrests didn't fully retract. "Premium economy from now on," he says. Okay, I thought, we're making progress.
THE GOOD: After fire ravaged much of Rome Airport's main international terminal, the arrival hall for flights from the United States has been refurbished. It's nothing special, but it's cleaner and less chaotic than in previous years. Another bonus: The most annoying currency exchange booths (and their overpriced ATMs) have been banished. A bank-operated ATM (bancomat in Italian) with reasonable exchange rates for taking euros from your checking or savings account is in full view. Best of all, Italian ATMs do not charge for withdrawals.
THE BAD: U.S. departures from Rome operated by American, Delta and United airlines continue to use Terminal 5, an annoying facility that requires a bus connection to the departure gates. (Flights departing to Israel operated by Israeli flag carriers also use T5.) The arrangement is purportedly for security requirements, but security is oddly Italian. For example: All passengers are required to put electronic gear (even cables and chargers) in one clear plastic bag that they give you at check-in. But no one said anything when I inadvertently left one of my phones (and its charger) in my carry-on bag.
THE MEATBALL: Mister Meatball and his associate arrived in Rome a week before me. They were headed to Bologna. Thanks to relatively new Frecciargento service from Italy's state-owned rail system, they no longer needed to take the Leonardo Express train to Rome's grungy Termini station and connect there. The Frecciargento now offers direct service to and from Fiumicino and Florence, Bologna, Rovigo, Padova and Venice.
THE GOOD: Rome may not be eternal, but many of its great dining rooms seem to be. Looking for a sophisticated take on modern Italian cuisine? Antico Arco on the Janiculum Hill is always superb. Cul de Sac, right behind the Piazza Navona, virtually invented the concept of a Roman enoteca. Pesci Fritti just behind the Campo dei Fiore is a fun, affordable fish joint. Nonna Betta still rules the roost in the old Ghetto, which is alive with new twists on Kosher Roman cuisine. And Armando al Pantheon, a street away from where Gregory Peck and Eddie Albert first entertained Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, admirably upholds the traditions of a classic Roman trattoria.
THE BAD: Ar Galetto, which commands a fabulous position on the Piazza Farnese, is no longer worth your time. Ignore the continued positive reviews.
THE MEATBALL: Mister Meatball and his associate had fond memories of a previous meal at Trattoria Perilli in the Testaccio neighborhood. A return visit did not disappoint. The menu hasn't changed in decades and the locals like it that way. And Mister Meatball's associate literally stumbled upon the year-old Osteria dei Cappellari. I remembered the location, just off the busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele, as a famous pizzeria. This new place is Perilli transported 100 years into the present. The dishes are essentially the same, but the culinary twists are modern. The design is fresh and bright. And the locals are equally grateful to have it.
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