ROME — Sylvia Poggioli wanted to be a Shakespearian actress. Fortuna intervened and since 1982 National Public Radio listeners have heard her syncopated sign-off, “Sylvia Po-JO-lee, NPR News, Rome.” Or Berlin. Or Paris. Or Istanbul. As senior European correspondent, Poggioli covers everything from politics to pasta, Britain to Berlusconi.
After more than 30 years here, where she lives with her husband, Piero Benetazzo, a retired foreign correspondent for a major Italian daily, Poggioli has an intimate sense of the changing city, its people, its politics, and its food. She walks or bikes everywhere — she says this is good for her health — minding the weaving cars and heaved cobblestone roads. Home is the charming Trastevere section in the center of Rome. From there, in the last three decades, she has covered the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the war in Bosnia, and the plight of refugees fleeing the fighting in Libya to Italy’s southernmost islands. For the past year, the European financial crisis has consumed her time. Today, she is at an outdoor market she knows well.
The correspondent grew up in Cambridge, the daughter of Italians who fled fascism in 1938. She attended Buckingham School and Harvard, then came to Rome as a Fulbright scholar, settling into her first apartment in the Campo de’ Fiori. Restaurants and bakeries ring the square, which is filled with a sprawling outdoor farmers’ market.
Campo de’ Fiori is still Poggioli’s favorite place to shop. On a sunny spring day, a street musician tightens his bow, a small group of nuns floats by in their gray habits, and Poggioli, in a long cardigan in hues of garnet and orange, with a scarf casually wrapped around her neck, heads for a vendor she knows well. Claudio Zampa, co-owner with his brother, Massimo, of Da Claudio a Campo de’ Fiori, greets Poggioli with a warm “Carissima!” They banter in Italian. Poggioli notes that the Zampa brothers’ market was in a scene in Woody Allen’s new film, “To Rome With Love.”
Tables are covered with asparagus, artichokes, peas, fava beans, lettuces, chicory, broccoli rabe, apples, oranges, strawberries, and melons. Employee Leszek Hubert Bigus who has been working here for 20 years, offers a few sprigs of dark green watercress to taste. “A bit too peppery for me,” says Poggioli. Next to a pyramid of pomegranates, burly Stefano Zampa, Claudio’s son, makes fresh juice. Poggioli explains that this was her idea because making her own juice had become tiresome. She convinced the Zampa brothers this would be popular. Now, even at 5 euros a glass (about $6.50), there is no shortage of customers.
Poggioli is so often on assignment that she doesn’t have much time to cook. When she does, her passion is vegetables. She talks about a favorite dish, vignarola, a Roman spring classic, made with vegetables in season. Massimo is selling spring onions, romaine lettuce, trimmed artichokes, shelled peas, and fava beans. “I like to use asparagus as well,” says Poggioli.
Just steps away at another stall, she stops to watch a vendor demonstrating and selling utensils that slice, dice, and make curlicues out of vegetables, something like you’d see on the Shopping Channel. “What’s your name?” asks Poggioli, who is grinning. “Ali Baba,” he quips with a straight face, before identifying himself as Ahmed Said and returning to hang zucchini curls from the ears of a delighted child. “I wanted to do a story on this guy, but you really need a video,” says Poggioli.
Romans are very proud of their unpretentious cuisine, which uses vegetables and pasta, often with few ingredients. An example is cacio e pepe, a dish of spaghetti, which is Poggioli’s favorite pasta shape, made with pecorino cheese and lots of black pepper. Food here is prepared more simply than in Emilia Romagna and the Veneto, two regions north of Rome famous for elaborate sauces and rice dishes.
Leaving the market and walking down the narrow Via dei Giubbanari, Poggioli talks about the changes in the last five years. She is concerned that the European financial crisis has led to a rise in suicides and in youth unemployment, now nearly 30 percent. Immigration from Asia, North Africa, and Eastern Europe has also risen dramatically. “There isn’t a restaurant kitchen in Rome without immigrant workers. Egyptians have been here the longest, and many have become chefs.” “Kilometer zero” — a reference to no carbon footprint when purchasing food — is a newer development. So is eating raw swordfish, tuna, and crawfish, though Poggioli does not think Italians associate it with sushi.
At the Piazza Farnese, Poggioli returns to her parked bicycle. Work isn’t all economic downfall and politics. The journalist recalls that the silliest story she ever did was about Italian restaurants going garlic-free. She reported that Prime Minister Berlusconi’s dislike of the smell of garlic triggered a trend that came and went.
When traveling, the correspondent eats whatever is available, and sometimes she’s pleasantly surprised. She recalls a memorable pasta with a simple sauce of tomatoes and capers on the island of Linosa, off the coast of Sicily, made for her by a restaurateur who had prepared the dish for African asylum seekers.
When you get to lead a life like this, who needs Shakespeare?