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Roman Holiday: Palm Sunday

April 04, 1993|VIANA LA PLACE

Palm Sunday in Rome: Bright blue skies and great white billowy clouds. People just out of church stroll the hushed city carrying sprays of silvery-green olive branches. I walk around the city in a reverie induced by the perfection of weather, the clarity of light and the sound of church bells ringing in the quiet streets. My stroll leads me through the Piazza di Spagna and up the curving steps of the Scalinata di Spagna. Along the belvedere of Villa Borghese, Rome's famed park, I look out over palazzi colored clay-red and ocher, green rooftop gardens and in the distance, the dome of Saint Peter's.

In the dead of summer, Villa Borghese can take on a parched and neglected aspect. But this is spring--a fleeting season in Rome--and the park is in its full glory. I walk for hours, amid date palms and trees thick with dark pink blossoms, their petals floating on the breeze. Children play in the tall soft grasses rampant with white chamomile flowers, or ride their tricycles, or take a turn on the small, somewhat dilapidated merry-go-round with its strange collection of sports cars, horses, space-age craft, ambulances and tanks. A little girl, clutching a small bouquet of wild flowers, sings along to the amplified sounds of Italian pop music streaming out of the merry-go-round. Mothers push strollers through the wide, shaded paths while people of all ages stroll arm-in-arm and bicyclers glide in the coolness of the spring air.

Crowds gather around the carts dispensing sweets and other treats appropriate to a Sunday in the park. At the Chez Toi Bar, a caffe on wheels, essentially a small bus-turned-bar, you can buy bibite, drinks-- aranciata, chinotto, colas--slightly stale pizza and panini and, of course, gelati, in all shapes and colors.

Tired and a little hungry from my long walk, I sit down at a caffe in the leafy heart of the park. I order a small salad. It arrives, a handful of tender bitter greens and narrow wedges of tomato, served with a crusty roll as tiny as a baby's fist. My waiter places cruets of olive oil and red wine vinegar on my table for me to use to dress my salad.

A few days before, I'd gone to one of the big outdoor markets of Rome and seen the vast array of spring greens for sale, from small leaves such as the ones on my plate to nervous, frizzy heads of endive, and spoon-shaped leaves of mache, called valerianella, but also known by a host of regional names (true of many of the greens). There were bunches of ruffled escarole and dark green wild mustard; small leaves of wild arugula, called ruchetta di campo; puntarelle, the tender, slightly bitter shoots soaked in cold water until they curl up, then, according to Roman custom, served in an anchovy-and-garlic dressing; young Swiss chard and spinach; green and red radicchio di campagna, gathered in the countryside; and tender young dandelion leaves, called dente di leone, which refers to the leaf's jagged outline, thought to resemble the teeth of a lion. Some vendors were selling misticanza, a word used by Romans to describe their own mix of wild and cultivated greens used for salad. It seemed as if there were hundreds of varieties of greens for sale, some of which I could identify, others which remained tantalizingly mysterious to me.

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In the market there were also bunches of spring carrots and red radishes topped with bright green foliage, freshly dug new potatoes smelling of warm earth, fragrant bulbs of pearly white fennel, thin and fat leeks, fresh little pea pods and unruly bunches of skinny wild asparagus. Artichokes were everywhere, in a frenzy of seasonal excitement: spilling out of vans and trucks, packed into wooden crates that were stacked on the back of Vespas, and piled high in market stalls--large, round, rosy artichokes, artichokes shaded violet, small, spiny artichokes tapering to a point; and others no bigger than a thimble, to preserve in olive oil.

As I sit at my table eating my insalata mista, the caffe slowly fills with people. They stay for hours, whiling away the afternoon--a group of pale British artists wearing faded, threadbare clothing, sipping tea, talking about art and painting; a Roman mother and teen-age son eating pastries, he with an ascot at his neck, his jacket perched neatly on his shoulders, leaning over at each bite to keep the powdered sugar from falling on his immaculate clothing; two young Romans in black leather jackets impassively sipping espresso and smoking cigarettes while reading Kafka; a solitary man skimming the pages of Il Messaggero, Rome's leading newspaper; and chic matrons wearing huge sunglasses, chatting quietly.

Sheltering the caffe from the sun is a canopy of interlocking branches and shining green leaves. A wind gently flutters the leaves in the trees and sends a violent quiver through the sharp spiky palms. In the air is the smell of verdure, the sweetness of powder and perfume and children's candy, the bittersweet smells of coffee and smoldering tobacco.

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