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Like natives...

...do every day, we wanted to stroll and shop and see the neighborhood, live in and dine out, while trying to blur our tourist profile

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / August 21, 2011

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Carla Conti greeted us at her Trastevere apartment with a freshly baked cake and showed us the cozy rooms carved out of the ground level of a 13th-century building on via dei Salumi. Then she got down to business - demonstrating how to sort bottles, cardboard, and organic matter for recycling.

For a weeklong visit to Rome, we were determined to put the adage “When in Rome . . . ’’ to the test. And, apparently, when in Rome you are supposed to sort your trash.

We had decided to forgo the conveniences (and costs) of a hotel in favor of a place where we could rub elbows with Romans. The medieval neighborhood of Trastevere (pronounced traws-TEV-uh-ray) worked perfectly. “It’s like a small village,’’ said Conti, a stylishly dressed redhead originally from Parma. “Everybody knows each other: ‘Ciao, ciao, ciao!’ ’’

Conti and her family have lived in the neighborhood for nearly a dozen years, and her architect husband designed the interior of her rental apartment in contemporary style. From the living-dining area, it was five steps up to the kitchen, two steps down to the bedroom. “Our apartment is the same way,’’ she explained. Multiple levels help squeeze the maximum living space out of the old buildings. Conti handed us a massive skeleton key - “Turn it four times to the right to lock, to the left to unlock,’’ she said - and pointed us to her favorite bakery and the outdoor fresh food market in Piazza di San Cosimato.

We usually started each morning at the market to make breakfast of fresh local strawberries and red-streaked oranges from Sicily, and to watch the neighborhood wake up. Women with shopping bags and folding pushcarts - including nuns in white habits - would carefully scrutinize the cut artichokes, the deeply ribbed tomatoes, and the freshly trimmed puntarella (a bitter green) before stopping at the butcher, fish monger, and cheese shop.

But we weren’t recluses from tourist Rome. We did cross a picturesque bridge over the Tiber to explore the ruins around the Forum and tour the massive, crumbling Colosseum. We hopped a tram at the other end of our street to check out the fresh food and souvenirs at the Campo de’ Fiori market and explore the great domed mass of the Pantheon. And we rode a bus to Vatican City to shuffle along in the lines at St. Peter’s Basilica, march the infinite hallways of the Vatican Museums, and huddle with the masses beneath the illuminated ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We tramped the streets to be splattered by the Trevi Fountain, ran ourselves breathless up the Spanish Steps, and ate chocolate tartufo at Tre Scalini. In short, we got our requisite culture fix and saw the sights everyone sees.

After a few hours amid the throngs we longed for the less crowded, slower pace of Trastevere. By afternoon we were usually “home’’ taking a break, petting the cats stretched out on parked motorcycles, and walking down the street with our laptop to join our neighbors checking e-mail courtesy of the public Wi-Fi signal outside the elementary school.

Our apartment sat across the street from a convent and midway between two ancient churches. Call it neighborhood pride, but these parochial sights resonated more deeply with us than the famous landmarks - maybe because they were somehow “ours.’’

Trastevere’s own martyr, Santa Cecilia, is actually popular throughout Rome. Tradition says she sang when Roman soldiers tried to suffocate her and became the patron saint of music after she died of ax wounds to her neck. When her tomb was opened in 1599, her body was uncorrupted - a phenomenon depicted by the white marble sculpture at the foot of the altar of the ninth-century basilica on the site of her house. We were more captivated by the Byzantine mosaics of wide-eyed saints in the apse. But the church is best known for the 13th-century frescoes of the Last Judgment painted by Pietro Cavallini (1259-1330) in the choir. After paying the nuns to enter through their cloister, we studied his columns of delicately feathered angels as a sister watched us to make sure we didn’t take photos. The dusty silence was broken only by our footsteps and the slow clacking of her rosary beads. Alas, our timing was bad -we missed hearing the nuns sing their prayers.

The neighborhood’s other basilica, Santa Maria in Trastevere, is popular for weddings, and we were disappointed that we didn’t encounter nuptials in all their finery. But when we visited late one afternoon an a capella group was rehearsing. Their sweet harmonies filled the billowing volume of the ancient church as light streaming in the western windows set the gold leaf of the mosaics aglow. The original church on the site is so old that parts of it burned in the sack of Rome in 410; the current edifice is a mishmash of construction across more than a millennium. Like Santa Cecilia, its walls are covered with extraordinary art: 12th-century Byzantine mosaics, and a sequence of late 13th-century mosaics by Cavallini. But everyone notices the mosaics on the church’s exterior: The Virgin Mary breast-feeds the Christ child as she looks down impassively on Trastevere’s busiest piazza.

It’s fair to say that the piazza named for the church is the neighborhood’s true tourist attraction. At its center stands a famous, if overwrought, fountain, a perfect lounging spot for European backpackers and flirtatious young Romans. Cafes, restaurants, and gelaterias dot the piazza, guaranteeing that no one (least of all the pigeons) goes hungry.

It turns out that Trastevere is something of a dining destination. We had good intentions to shop and cook at least some of our meals in our tiny kitchen, but we lost our resolve and decided to do as wealthy Romans would do and dine out every night. In our defense, we only ate at restaurants recommended by locals, the more out of the way the better. A jewelry designer sent us to Antica Osteria Ponte Sisto for “the best carbonara in Rome,’’ she insisted. We ate outdoors at the little restaurant next to the Sisto bridge, and the pasta was definitely a contender. For lunches, we often grabbed squares of pizza covered with fresh vegetables from a tavola calda, or “hot table,’’ near our apartment.

Our best meal, though, was recommended by a pair of glassblowers, who operate a studio near Santa Cecilia. They pointed out a literal hole in the wall that turned out to be Trattoria da Teo, a thoroughly Roman joint where chefs at fancy restaurants eat on their nights off and the owners hang their children’s art work on the walls. When we stopped before lunch to make a reservation for dinner, the amused staff showed us how they stuff zucchini flowers with a tuna and anchovy mix, and invited us into the kitchen where they were deep-frying whole artichokes and trimming tuna from the fishmonger at Piazza di San Cosimato.

When we returned that evening, a few groups of tourists were being turned away. But the waiter recognized us and ushered us to a little table in the packed dining room. The meal was delicious - and we felt like we were Romans, if only for the night.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

If You Go

to stay
We found our Trastevere apartment through Worldwide Accommodations (italy.worldwide-accom.com) and were extremely satisfied with selection, price range, and service.
Hotel Antico Borgo di Trastevere
Vicolo del Buco 7
011-39-06-588-3924
www.hotelanticoborgo.it
With a price approaching the cost of an apartment, this friendly hotel with tiny rooms has a top location on the quieter side of Trastevere. Doubles $95-$218, including breakfast served in the room.
Where to eat
Antica Osteria Ponte Sisto
Via di Ponte Sisto 80
011-39-06-588-3411
www.osteriapontesisto.com
Classic working-class dishes of Rome make this delightful small restaurant at the end of the Sisto bridge a favorite of Romans and budget-minded tourists alike. Main courses $14-$23. Open Thu-Tue.
Trattoria da Teo
Piazza Ponziani 7A
011-39-338-700-4615 (cellphone)
This real family trattoria - right down to the kids’ school drawings on the walls - is jammed at lunch and dinner alike for distinctive Roman cooking. Main courses $13-$23. Open Mon-Sat.
Panetteria Romana e Spaccio di Paste
Via della Lungaretta 28-31
011-39-06-5831-0598
This tavola calda just steps from the tram stop on the Trastevere side of the Garibaldi bridge makes superb rectangular Roman pizzas topped with fresh vegetables. Mon-Fri 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and 4:30-7:30 p.m., Sat 9-3.
What to do
Basilica di Santa Cecilia
Piazza di Santa Cecilia
011-39-06-589-9289
Church open Mon-Sat 9:30 a.m.- 12:30 p.m. and 4-6:30 p.m., Sun 4-6:30. Free. Cavallini frescoes can be viewed Mon-Sat 10 a.m.- 12:30 p.m., $3.65. Ring bell on porch left of main entrance to church.
Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere
Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere
011-39-06-581-4802
Daily 7:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Free.