Leopardessa, a fashion label created by longtime Rome expat Jessica Harris, already had a hole-in-the-wall location on Monti's Via Panisperna. But two months ago, it was turned into something else: a workshop for Harris' designs and a vintage store.
I happened upon the "new" Leopardessa a couple of days ago. As soon as I walked in, I felt like I'd entered a very cool grandma's closet. The classic chic (a white Izod tennis skirt, a silk red military blazer) hung next to the fun (a sunflower-yellow sleeveless onesie) and frankly outrageous (hello, gold lamé bustier!).
But from the bold pieces to the classic, the ladies have curated their "closet" with a designer's eye for detail.
Mariaelena Zannini, Jessica's partner-in-crime, took me to the back room to show me what else the ladies were up to. And, yes: Jessica is still designing. And the designs look great.
Walking into Le Talpe for the first time, I wasn’t immediately sure what the place was. An art gallery? (Paintings hung on the walls). A jewelry store? (Bracelets, earrings and necklaces in different media, including bronze, lace, and silicon, were arranged here and there). A clothing shop? (Racks of trendy clothing lined the store’s side).
The answer, of course, is that Le Talpe is all three. And then some—Le Talpe also hosts events, including readings and aperitivi.
Le Talpe opened about a year ago on Via Panisperna in Monti, and it’s yet another example of just how hip and contemporary Rome can be. Every month, Giovanna Dughera, one of the two owners, told me, they completely switch out everything in the store, showcasing different designers, jewelers, and artists. And because it’s always a mix of artists—all of whom make creative, beautifully-crafted goods—no matter the month, the store itself is fantastic to explore.
Just check out the variety of colors and designs you can find in there right now:
Currently, artists whose work is on display (and for sale) include Francesca Caltabiano, Alessandra Fiordaliso, and Simone Bath. But if you want to get your hands on one of their headbands or jackets or purses or paintings, go now, because in a month, everything will look different.
Extra tip: If the items in the front room are a little out of your price range, head to the back room on the left, where Giovanna has items left over from the last “exhibit”—at discounts of up to 50 percent off.
Le Talpe is located at Via Panisperna 222/a. Phone: +39 064871249.
I've set a new goal: For the next year, when shopping for clothing or accessories in Rome, I'm only buying handmade or preworn.
And I'll be sharing what I discover with you. That means that, over the next few months, I'm going to be writing about artisanal stores around Rome—including what streets to hit up for Rome's best (unique, great-value, and no-chain) shopping, and blog posts on some of my favorite artisans.
If this sounds niche, or like a topic only for those of us who live in Rome, I don't mean it to be. Travelers to Rome often ask me what they should buy as a souvenir or gift; I can't think of a more priceless memento than, say, a handmade leather passport holder, or a handcrafted ring reminiscent of ancient Rome. Even if it costs more than a made-in-China "Rome, Italy" T-shirt, it'll last longer, feel more special, and bring you into contact with a Roman artisan, perhaps even letting you see how it was made. (Plus, these handcrafted goods aren't always pricier than the factory-made stuff. But more on that later).
Still curious why I've made the decision to avoid chain store shopping in Rome?
I want to support Rome's artisans—not the stores I can see in Any Other City, U.S.A./Canada/Europe
One of my favorite things about Rome is its artisans (above: Anna Preziosi at Silice, an artisanal glassmaker).I love seeing sewing machines in clothing shops. I love that there are still picture-frame makers and basket weavers here. It adds a sense of diversity within, and uniqueness to, Rome that simply wouldn't exist if H&M and Zara replaced every atelier and Pier One took over every picture-frame shop. It makes walking around—and shopping—fun.
Plus, when I grab something off a rack in a big store, I always feel like I'm simply "acquiring." Keeping up with the trends. Purchasing a necessity. You know—consuming. But getting something handmade? Picking it out with the help of the person who crafted it? Getting to see the smile on their face at you being so happy with the product? Well, call me a sucker, but that's ideal. Not to mention…
Right now, Italy can use my dollars more than a multinational corporation
My relationship with big chain stores is one-sided
So, in general, I've tried to avoid chain stores in Rome. Except for one: Zara. Open my closet, and you'll still see so many clothes from the Spanish label's line, I could practically open my own branch. (Not that Rome needs another one—there are three on Via del Corso alone!). When their Italian flagship opened on Via del Corso, I was thrilled. And then, this winter, I stopped by—an all-too-frequent habit—and, as I browsed, accidentally knocked down a hanger from a pole overstuffed with clothing. I picked it up and, rather than replace it and recreate the problem for someone else, set it on a table. One of the shop workers beelined over. "Oh," he said in Italian, "so you knock things down for me to pick up, do you? Is that how it goes?" I looked at him, speechless. "Right," he continued. "Yep, I see. I just clean up after you. Oh, that's great! That's really great! Thanks so much!".
That's when I realized. My addiction to chain-shopping? It wasn't just bad for my wallet. It was bad for my emotional health. I was giving my complete loyalty to… a corporation that didn't care less.
If I wouldn't do that in a relationship, why would I do it with my hard-earned money?
And so is their relationship with everyone else
Of course, a quick Google search can show that many of these big, beloved brands don't only not care about you (they have so many other millions of shoppers!)—they also don't care about the people they employ. Zara recently was penalized for the terrible conditions of one of its factories in Brazil. It's no secret that Forever 21 is one shady business, running sweatshops both at home and overseas, and, by blatantly ripping off designers and artists, breaking so many copyright laws it's faced more than 50 copyright lawsuits… all while proselytizing Christianity to its employees and printing Bible verses on their shopping bags! Even Urban Outfitters—which, from their clothing's urban trendiness, you'd think would be all about planet-saving hipster ideals—has no labor guidelines; the International Labor Rights Forum accuses the store of using child labor in Uzbekistan.
I don't care what label is sewn into a factory-made good when it's finished. It's still factory-made (read: not high-quality)
Big-theme issues aside, there's another good reason to get away from factory-made goods: the quality. I don't just mean for the cheapie stores, like H&M. I mean for the upmarket stores, too. I recently purchased an expensive bag from Baldinini, an upscale Italian store, that promptly lost its dye. The store sent it back to the factory to be repaired; it was returned to me and the same thing happened again. When they let me trade that bag for another, within a month, the strap of the new bag had started tearing off. They repaired the bag again. And three months later? The outside pocket started ripping right off the bag.
Turns out, when you're paying €300 for a bag, you're still paying for assembly-line production and factory-level quality. Just more for it.
So there you have it. Ciao, chain stores. I'll see you around
Of course, I know the whole issue is complicated. I know that all of these issues have to do with globalization, and the modern economy, and outsourcing, as well as the particular decisions made by these particular brands. And I don't mean to romanticize an artisan-filled past: Obviously, factories and machines have made life much easier and cheaper for everyone First-World consumers.
But, just as I think we lack a crucial understanding and awareness of what we're eating when we consume food that's traveled thousands of miles from its origins, been repackaged, marketed, and sold out of season… so do we all lose something when we only buy products delivered far away from their source of creation.
We lose the awareness that, for the product to be so cheap, very cheap labor was involved. We lose knowing how many hands it passed through to get to us (and how many of those people touching it were involved with the black market and the Mafia—just read Saviano's Gomorra if you're curious). We lose a sense of responsibility for how it was manufactured, why, and what it took to get it to us (i.e. thousands of miles of petroleum-heavy shipping and trucking).
What do you think? Those in Rome, have any artisans for me to try? And anyone want to join me on my year-long effort?
It’s the perfect gift from Italy: a handmade leather wallet. Or purse. Or passport-holder. But in Rome, figuring out where to go for an artisanal leather souvenir can be tough. There’s not even a leather market here, like there is in Florence (not that most of the leather there even seems to, ahem, be from Italy).
Enter Armando Rioda.
Although it’s in the heart of the Spanish Steps neighborhood, Armando Rioda is a molto local secret. It’s hidden on the second floor of a residential palazzo, and you have to ring the buzzer to enter; its name doesn’t even hang outside the building’s door. But it’s where leather-lovers in the know go.
Since 1949, the workshop (above… and below) has been turning out handmade leather goods by request. As proof of Armando Rioda’s craftsmanship, well-heeled Romans come here to get their Gucci purses and Prada jackets repaired (talk about trust!).
For 50 euros and up, you can get a wallet handmade here; for 100 euros and up, a purse. They also do luggage, tote bags, even jackets. Pricey, perhaps—but for a unique, handmade leather gift, hardly unfair.
I first ventured there last year, looking for a Christmas gift for my father: a leather passport holder. I wasn’t satisfied with the machine-made ones I’d seen in stores, so decided to give an artisanal shop a try.
I can’t remember how I found out about this place. But I was glad I did. The guys inside, including the owner, were friendly and passionate about their work. (I’m not sure, however, how much English they spoke, so if your Italian is zilch, you might want to call first to ask).
Although there were some already-(hand)made passport-holders, wallets and purses for sale, I decided to have one made from scratch. I got to pick the leather (smooth or pebbled, brown or black—and, for that matter, leather or something zanier, like snakeskin) and the monogram (I went for a gold stamp). As well as being on a money budget, I was on a time constraint: I was leaving for the U.S. at the end of the week.
In three days, I came back to pick up a beautiful, handmade passport-holder. The cost? Fifty euros.
Needless to say, my dad loved it.
Armando Rioda is located at Via Belsiana 90. Like lots of traditional shops, they have traditional hours: from 9am-1pm and 4pm-8pm. Call +39 0669924406 for more.
Update, April 2017: The artisans behind Armando Rioda have parted ways, meaning that Armando Rioda is now basically two locations.
One location is at Via delle Carrozze n.16, on the second floor; ring number 6 on the bell “Pelletteria Nives”. Call Nives (one of the owners) at +39 3385370233 or Vinicio (the other owner) at +39 3333370831 to double-check their hours before stopping by.
The other location, which is called Rioda, is at Via del Cancello 14/15. To double-check their hours, you can call them at +39 066784942 or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nothing says “holiday season” in Italy like some good ol’ Christmas cribs. Find out where to see the best and most creative—including nativity scenes made out of pearls, marzipan, even eggs—at my newest post for the New York Times. (Photo courtesy of the “100 Presepi” exhibit).
Sometimes, I feel like I'm slaggingoffon Rome's restaurants more than anything else.
However. There is fantastic food in this city, and honest people serving it. You just have to know where to go.
When I need a no-fail, top-notch, not-too-expensive Italian meal (like when guests are in town), these are the three restaurants I now turn to. The food is fantastic, the service good, the atmosphere untouristy, the prices moderate. And I haven't found something surprising added to my bill. (Yet).
My top picks to eat in Rome…:
With a group of friends or family: Flavio al Velavevodetto
I was a little late to the Flavio al Velavevodetto lovefest, having been preceded by, among others, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini. But I'm so glad I arrived.
Tucked into Monte Testaccio (if you don't believe that the hill comes from an enormous pile of Roman amphorae, thanks to being a dump in ancient times, just check out the restaurant's glass wall, above), Flavio al Velavevodetto serves up all the traditional Roman dishes, but in a way that makes even your 100th amatriciana taste almost, well, new. Don't miss their fritti, vegetables so lightly fried they remind me of tempura.
The other bonus of Flavio is the ambience. It's elegant and understated, and the interior is much roomier than at crammed little trattorie in the center. In the summer, you can dine out at the lovely terrace upstairs, a particularly good bet if your crowd is on the loud side. Plus, the serving staff is unfailingly polite and pretty fast—rare things for Rome.
Flavio al Velavevodetto is located at Via Monte Testaccio 97, a short walk from the Piramide metro stop. Or you can, of course, take the ever-present number 3 "foodie" bus to get there. Call +39 06 5744194 for reservations.
On a date: Da Danilo
I first stumbled into Da Danilo because it was just around the corner from my first apartment. Until the newspaper articles on the walls tipped me off, I had no idea that the place was a local legend. Even now, two years later, it remains legendarily good. And surprisingly local. If a bit on the expensive (and, at night, crammed-together-tables) side.
The small, so-intimate-you're-bound-to-knock-knees trattoria serves up Roman dishes, but with such fresh ingredients, they hardly compare. Don't miss the carbonara (top of post), with one of the most delicious, smoky-crispy-perfect pieces of guanciale I've ever encountered. Not to mention this carpaccio, dressed with puntarelle or truffle shavings.
Da Danilo is located at Via Petrarca 3, a stone's throw from Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and its metro stop. Call +39 06 77200111 for reservations.
Here's where to go when the idea of more cucina romana, or of checkered tablecloths, makes you want to get on the next plane to anywhere. Yes, the food is Italian—but it's Umbrian. With a twist. No amatriciana on the menu here; instead, look for deliciousness like stewed wild boar in a sweet wine sauce.The atmosphere is sleek and modern, the staff professional, and the prices good. If you're pinching your pennies, you also can't beat the 3-course €12 tasting menu at lunch.
L'Asino d'Oro is located at Via del Boschetto 73 in the heart of Monti, a short walk from the Forum or Colosseum. Call +39 06 48913832 for reservations.
The pasticceria opened less than two weeks ago in Testaccio, making the foodie-friendly neighborhood that much more of a must on any committed eater's itinerary. It's run by a Sicilian owner who, if his discussion with me about the finer points of cannoli shows anything, definitely knows his stuff.
But even if you're not in the mood for pastries (something I and my sweet tooth couldn't possibly understand, but I hear that it happens), pop your head in just to gawk. Because these pastries, from marzipan in stunningly-realistic fruit shapes to elegant cakes and pastel cassate siciliane, are simply beautiful.
Luckily, though, the taste lived up to the looks.
Sicilia e Duci is located on Via Marmorata 87/89, a stone's throw from that other (if overpriced) foodie haven, Volpetti.
If you live in Rome, then you know: It can be expensive. Especially for those converting from another currency. But believe it or not, there are ways to save money while living in Italy.
And so, for expats, students, and others who are here for the long (or long-ish) term, here are ten money-saving tips. Note that some of these tips, like how to save on airfare, are also pretty useful for short-term travelers to Italy!
Have any other tips for how to live in Italy on a budget? Please share in the comments!
1. Take advantage of points schemes for your cell phone, grocery store, and more
Sign up for Vodafone One, for example, and you can earn points and get free minutes. (In the past, I’ve participated in a summer promotion that matched whatever ricarica I added to my phone, and another one where I was allowed to always call one phone number for free). Ask about loyalty cards at your grocery store. Even sign up for a loyalty card at stores like Sephora, if you shop there. It all adds up.
2. Make friends with your local grocer, pizzeria-owner… and everyone else besides
Yes, being a loyal customer can help you save money in the States, especially when it comes to things like airlines. (More on that later!). But it helps you even more in Italy. Why? Because everything here is based on who you know. And because, unlike in the U.S. or England, even (and especially) the smallest family-run establishments tend to, ahem, adjust their prices depending on whether they consider you a friend. Make one local pizzeria, restaurant, fruit and vegetable stand, or shoe cobbler your favorite, and you juuuust might notice that, by the third or fourth time you return, little charges will be knocked off your bill, the total will be rounded down, or you’ll get free items thrown in for free.
3. Sign up for Groupon
When it comes to a lot of things online, Italy’s a bit behind. Not so with Groupon. Groupon.it, the (duh) Italian version of the site, is pretty sweet. There are different deals every day (with usually five to ten daily in Rome), often 50-80 percent off of the normal price. You have 24 hours to grab it before it goes.
What’s available to buy, you ask? Everything from computer hard disks, to weekend breaks in Italy, to haircuts, to medical examinations. There are also lots of dinner deals, great for the expat who wants to try lots of different restaurants in Italy but doesn’t want to burn through all their cash. (Just always cross-check the restaurant with a site like DueSpaghi to make sure it doesn’t suck). The medical stuff (everything from dental cleaning to breast exam to laser surgery) can be a great way to save on necessary procedures.
One of my fave Groupon purchases: two nights at this castle, with lunch, dinner and a tour, for €200… for two people
And I don’t think I’m alone when I say that my friends in New York make me particularly jealous when they brag that they can get a great $25 mani and pedi, or a $30 hour-long massage, in the heart of town. In Rome, the prices are twice that—and with a euro symbol, not a dollar sign, in front of them. But with Groupon, I’ve gotten everything from 3 hour-long massages for just €39 total to a manicure, pedicure and facial for €19.
The one hitch is that to sign up for Italian Groupon, you need an Italian address (of course) and a way to pay that’s linked to that Italian address. If your credit card is linked to a U.S. account, though, don’t worry: Just sign up for PayPal and use that when you buy something. Even if PayPal’s got a U.S. address on it, Groupon can use it to pay for your purchases.
4. If you’re eligible, get a student card
Italy is big on youth and student discounts. Often, you need to be an E.U. citizen to take advantage—but not always. The Vatican museums, for example, cost €8 instead of €15 for all students who have an I.D. And you can get a pass for all of Rome’s public transport for €18 per month, not €30, with an I.D. if you’re under 26, as long as you’re a “resident” in Rome. (This means, though, that if you get checked, the checker could ask for your permesso di soggiorno as proof, although no one has asked me for mine yet).
To prove your “youth,” you need an ISIC card. Getting one is so easy, I kicked myself for not having done it earlier: All you need is a passport picture and €10. Obviously, you’re also supposed to be a student (I was taking language classes at the time), and you have to tell ISIC where you’re studying. Not that they seemed to check… or particularly care! You can do this at the CTS at Corso Vittorio Emanuele 297.
5. Know what to buy outside of Italy
Some things are cheaper in Rome than back home (public transport, Italian wine, ubiquitous ruins free for the gazing). Some are more expensive (basic pharmaceuticals like Tylenol, contact lens solution, certain beauty products and moisturizers, peanut butter, cans of Coke). Figure out what you can live without (I haven’t ordered a Diet Coke with a meal since moving to Italy, for example, and as a bonus, I’ve found I’ve completely lost the taste for it), and for what you can’t—like lens solution—consider bringing some from home.
Don’t want to give this up in Rome? It’ll cost you
But that doesn’t mean you should have friends or family send you the cheaper goods by mail. Lots of things have a tendency to get hung up in customs (if they make it at all!), and you’ll have to fill out a bunch of paperwork and then pay a lot of money to claim your package. (One friend of mine had to spend about $50 to retrieve an Easter basket of candy her mother sent her). If you can’t buy it while you’re in the States and bring it over yourself, in general, don’t have anyone send it to you.
6. Be careful with your credit cards in Italy
…and no, I don’t mean in terms of the usual, “always pay them off as you go” advice. First of all, remember that few places in Italy accept credit cards. And that even if a restaurant does, technically, accept them, that means the transaction is fully registered and taxed—so you have a higher chance of getting a “break” on your bill, and of making friends with the owner (see tip #2!), if you pay in cash.
Secondly, know that most credit cards charge you an “international transaction fee” for using your card abroad. One of the only ones I know of that doesn’t is Capital One. So when I have to use a card in Italy, that’s the card I reach for. (Although I’d love if Capital One had some competition in this regard!).
7. Save on all those airfares back and forth from Italy
One of the expenses that stings the most is going back and forth to your home country. First, forget the old method of just using a couple of U.S.-run sites, like Expedia, to do your booking. Sure, look at Expedia—but also look at Vayama and Mobissimo, where I’ve found some of my best luck yet on fares.
Secondly, sign up for any loyalty programs you can. If you’re planning on spending some time in Italy, those fares back and forth will add up.
Third, carefully choose what credit card you buy your airfare with. Thanks to its international transaction fees, I would never, for example, use my Citicard to buy anything from an Italian vendor. But I do use it frequently for online purchases from U.S. companies (like Amazon to buy for books for my Kindle) even when I’m abroad. And right now, through September, Citicard gives me 5% cash back on any travel or airline purchases. So you can guess how I’ll be buying my Christmas plane tickets home.
Fourth, keep watching your fare even after you’ve bought it. Most airlines let you do a flight change if the price drops. Most charge, but it can be worth it: Virgin charges $75, United $150, and Delta and US Airways $250. So if the price drop was more than that, give them a call to get your money back.
8. Tip like an Italian…
Tipping in Italy is always a touchy subject, but let’s be clear on one thing: Italians tip less than Americans. A lot less. We’re talking about rounding up to the nearest euro, not throwing in an extra two or three dollars, for a cab ride. We’re talking about rounding up on the bill at a restaurant and maybe putting another euro or two down, only if servizio wasn’t already charged. We’re talking about not tipping the person who cuts your hair or does your nails.
Yes, it might make you cringe at first, but Italy is a completely different system. Many Italians aren’t even happy about seeing Americans tip a lot, because that changes the local culture, and changing the local culture to be more like what you’re used to “back home” is the definition of invasive tourism. Part of living somewhere is adapting to the local culture. The local culture is not a tipping one. So instead of tipping 20 percent on a restaurant bill, save your money—and use it to return to the restaurant a second time.
9. …shop like an Italian: during the saldi!…
Even if Italy’s prices seem high the rest of the year (jeans for €60? Really, Zara?), that’s just because everyone is waiting for the saldi, that wonderful twice-annual tradition where every store in town slashes their prices. Generally taking place for six weeks, once around New Year’s and once in mid-summer, it’s the perfect time to stock up on clothes. It’s also when you should consider making pricier purchases, like leather boots, handbags, computer items, even a mattress.
10. …and try to eat and, well, live like Italians
At the risk of painting an entire culture with a broad brush, in general, Italians don’t eat dinner out every night, but cook (wonderful, big) meals for their families. They don’t drink, and they definitely don’t make a habit of shelling out for €10 cocktails at bars. So, when in doubt, take a cue from the people living around you. They’ve figured out how to live in Italy without going broke. You can, too. Really truly.