It's one of the most amazing structures on the planet, in my opinion: the Pantheon. It's regal, majestic. It's still the largest dome in Rome, because even the greatest architectural minds of the Renaissance couldn't figure out how to create a dome for St. Peter's that bested the Pantheon's -- a milennium and a half later. And don't even get me
on the gorgeous marble surrounding you upon entering. The strange thing about the dome here? The oculus, or "eye" in the center. That's right, to put it simply: there's a hole in the roof! This helped the dome remain structurally sound for so many centuries, but that means that when it rains, it indeed pours -- right inside the Pantheon itself. There are drains built into the floors for this, of course, but the Pantheon caretakers put up velvet ropes around the perimeter of the slippery marble area that gets wet below the 8-meter-wide oculus.
I lived down the street from the Pantheon for 7 years. So when I hear the sound of rain hitting pavement, my thoughts veer towards the piazza del Pantheon, the public echo chamber of cobblestones and scurrying tourists with umbrellas under the cover of darkness. Rome is magically lit at night, and the Pantheon becomes a towering structure of columns and dome that seems to glow from within, especially when viewed through waterlogged-weary eyes. And the sound of water pouring through that oculus.
It makes me think of one cozy place at the corner of one edge of the piazza, away from the hustle of McDonald's (sadly, yes, this piazza has one) and the overpriced formality of La Rosetta. Armando al Pantheon, a restaurant that's been around for eons, has the lived-in warmth of the best kind of old-school Italian trattoria. I've ducked in here many times, closing and shaking my umbrella, breathing in the heady scent of truffles in-season, or the Italian 'trifecta' aroma of garlic and tomatoes cooking in olive oil.
The menu doesn't disappoint, featuring all kinds of Roman staples (artichokes, puntarelle, bruschette, and soups) to start, as well as traditional primi -- tomato-based (amatriciana, arrabbiata) and cheese-spiked (carbonara, cacio e pepe, alla gricia). The main courses are Roman comfort food: veal roast and baked chicken and roasted lamb, stewed oxtail and Roman tripe and sauteed lamb "bits and bops" (as my Brit friends would say) with artichokes -- classic
An older signore who owns a nearby antiques shop told my friend he's been going to Armando several days a week for lunch for the last 25 years. Local Romans have been coming here since it opened in 1961. And I remember a wonderful lunch I shared here with my parents and older brother one rainy early October afternoon. There was an older gentleman seated at a table near us, smartly dressed in a 3-piece tailored wool suit, the kind that strikes a balance between classic Italian tailored and tweedy professorial. He couldn't have been taller than my 5'6" mother, and just as slight. He ate by himself, and every server knew him by name. My father was transfixed by this Italian gentleman quietly consuming plate after plate of homestyle Roman wonderfulness. He went through various
with bread, a plate of Roman artichokes, a main course of baby lamb with vegetables and potatoes. Red wine,
. Every time another course came out, my Dad kept exclaiming, "Wow! Where does he
it all?!?" Then a mixed salad. Then the server made the mistake of bringing him an espresso. "Ma non mi ha portato il dolce!" the gentleman said --
but you haven't brought me my dessert!
The server was all apologies and swiftly served him a plate of profiteroles, cream-filled choux pastry bathed in chocolate sauce. Now that's what you call a lunch, a
. At the foot of a structure built in 27 BC. Rain be damned.
: In life, there are few coincidences. I lived down the street from the original Pantheon for 7 years, and for 4 years, I lived down the street from Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda, at The University of Virginia. Long an admirer of classical architecture and Palladian design, Jefferson built the Rotunda to honor the Pantheon and the Palladian design principles that were based on this classic structure. They're separated by more than 1800 years, but both boast their own classical beauty. I love them both.