David’s Discoveries: Rome’s most charming neighborhood — Garbatella

Say “Rome” and like Pavlov’s dog, millions worldwide will bark “Colosseum,” “Forum” or “Vatican.”

Ask even an intrepid traveler with an insider’s track on the Eternal City and you still probably won’t get “Garbatella” in reply.

Yet these days Garbatella is among Rome’s hippest, most charming and atmospheric neighborhoods, with one of my favorite authentic, throw-back trattorias anywhere.

First, no tourists: Garbatella is south of the historic sites wrapped by Rome’s Seven Hills, south of the Pyramid of Cestius, south even of the Ostiense train station and the daily commuter scrum.

But it’s easy to get to: Look for the towering old “gasometro” gas storage facility. Then keep going south another half mile toward the unsung Catacombs of Commodilla. Or take a direct metro to Garbatella and walk southeast five minutes. You’ve arrived when the streets climb and twist and turn, when sidewalk gardens and trees appear between strange, seemingly postmodern palazzi.Garbatella isn’t postmodern, it’s pre-modernist, a planned “garden suburb” for the working classes in the bad old days of Fascism, from the 1920s to 1940s. Its bizarre urbanism merges faux ancient Roman and Mussolini Modern. It may well have inspired American postmodern architects. Robert Venturi spent time in Rome and came back as the apostle of the movement.

Like those of postwar American suburbs, the streets are contoured in Garbatella. They lead from odd-shaped squares to pocket-sized public gardens. Curving stairways or vaulted passages join shady courtyards that double as outdoor living rooms. Alleys are lined by the kind of wisteria-draped cottages you don’t associate with Italy. Most of the neighborhood has been gentrified but still looks delightfully down at the heel.

Contrasts abound. Shrines to the Madonna perch below forgotten, tattered flags bearing the hammer-and-sickle. Marble balconies jut out of peeling pink or red façades. Both are reminders of Garbatella’s recent radical past.

My favorite starting point is Piazza Benedetto Brin. In good weather one side of it is taken over by the tables of Dar Moschino, the archetypal Roman trattoria. A fountain splashes out front. Umbrella pines sway. White paper lies top the red-and-white checked, plastified tablecloths.

Inside are wooden tables and brick vaults. The vintage black-and-white photos show horse races, the passion of the place’s owner since the ’70s. That’s when Franco “the fly” Perugini took over.

You don’t have to order Dar Moschino’s specialty – inner organs, cooked up in a dozen ways. The pasta is classic and delicious: cacio e pepe– fresh ribbons dusted with black pepper and heaped with grated pecorino. Or dressed with sugo di coda– piquant oxtail sauce.

Like the neighborhood, the meaty main courses and desserts – sour cherry or ricotta crostata, for instance – aren’t lovely to look at. But they have Roman flavor and texture, and they’re housemade. I wouldn’t soak dentures in the house wines. But they don’t seem dangerous when swallowed. They still come by the barrel from Rome’s suburban vineyards. And, as in the days of blue collars and red flags, your espresso kicker comes in a glass that burns your fingertips. Delightful.

Dar Moschino: Piazza Benedetto Brin 5, Tel: +39 06 513 9473. Closed Sunday and August. About $30-$40 per person, house wine included.

David Downie’s latest books are the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” and “Quiet Corners of Rome.” His websites are www.davidddownie.comand www.parisparistours.com.

[flickr image via Franco Farina]