Just half an hour’s drive or train ride from the centre of Rome is the medieval city of Frascati, one of several historic hill towns to the south-east of Rome collectively called ‘Castelli Romani’.
It’s a very relaxing place to be, with its narrow, cobbled streets, pavement cafés, bars and gelateria intermingled with numerous inviting restaurants. Being up in the hills the air is much cooler and fresher than below and its picturesque squares with shady trees and fountains are the perfect places to chill out with an espresso, cappuccino, ice cold beer or glass or two of the famous Frascati refreshing white wine.
It’s a popular daytrip destination for many Romans wanting to escape the heat, fumes and noise of Italy’s capital but I’ve been there a few times now and it never seems overcrowded even with a fair number of tourist hotels in and around the centre. It depends what time of year you go of course, but I was there in mid-July and there were no crowds to spoil the feeling that you’ve finally managed to ‘get away from it all’.
It’s a pretty upmarket kind of town, with smart designer and jewellery shops tucked discreetly away down side streets and judging by the number of top-of-the-range cars bumping and rumbling over the cobbles trying to find limited parking spaces, there are a lot of wealthy locals mingling with their counterparts up from Rome. A number of times my glass of vino didn’t actually reach my lips as I drooled over Mercedes S classes, various Maseratis, Porsche Panameras, Audi 8s, Range Rovers and a Bentley Bentyga as it arrogantly purred past the rows of parked cars just missing everyone else’s mirrors by a cat’s whisker.
The main square, Piazzo Marconi in front of the city’s impressive cathedral, is where young and old alike promenade, parade or sit in the evening until around 11pm, most enjoying delicious, treble-scoop ice creams from the gelataria across the road, as they flirted or gossiped, depending on their age. Well, not necessarily maybe, there seems to always be a contagious romantic feel about a warm Italian night air no matter how old you are.
At the last minute we decided not to book the elegant 18th century Villa Tuscolana Park Hotel just above Frascati at which we have stayed before with its fabulous views and elaborate décor, as without a hire car it was a bit too far out of town for our purposes, so instead we stayed in the centre at the Hotel Colonna; just a minute’s walk to the main square and not much longer to the Frascati train station, this popular hotel is perfectly comfortable and reasonably priced with a recently installed stair lift for those with mobility problems.
Most mornings we either had a delicious pastry and cappuccino at the hotel’s bar or terrace or wandered over to a smart, specialist corner café selling a vast selection of the most tempting cakes and pastries including of course the classic Cannoli – fried pastry dough in rolled up tube-shaped shells filled with creamy ricotta, candied fruits and nuts and sprinkled with chocolate! Dear oh dear. One of these and maybe a custard cream Bomboloni doughnut gave you enough of a sugar shot to keep you going until lunch. Sadly, not a place to venture into if you have any diabetic concerns.
Maybe it’s because the sun is always shining but all the locals including shopkeepers and staff working at bars, cafés and restaurants all seemed genuinely pleased to see you with lots of welcoming smiles. It might also be because they are at last, thank goodness, making hay while the sun shines to try to compensate for the devastating two years of no tourists and no business due to the wretched Covid. So, for whatever reason we found everyone very pleasant to deal with and even had a couple of instances when we shared the same sense of humour.
One morning my wife and I popped into a chemist to get her some cosmetics and there followed quite a lot of ‘pigeon’ Italian and English and a lot of explanatory hand waving to finally find what she was looking for. Feeling left out, I took off my sun-protective cap and pointed to my bald head: “Anything to make my hair grow?” I asked the genial lady proprietor; without a moment’s hesitation and with a big grin she immediately said “No! You need a miracle.” To which I replied: “Ok I pray.” It made us all laugh and it was good to leave hearing her still chuckling in the background.
Naturally, being in Italy, besides all the other wonderful things about the country and the people, we came for the food and wine – and in Frascati there are some fabulous restaurants with superb menus from which to choose. Each evening before deciding where to go for dinner we started in an open air bar with an ‘Aperitivo’ as an appetiser, usually with an Aperol Spritzer accompanied by olives, proscuitto crudo (cured ham in case you’d forgotten) and different types of salami plus some crispy-crunchy fennel seed Tarallini.
There’s a slight danger of such a platter putting you off your appetite for dinner but we usually managed to overcome that I’m glad to say.
Wander through the cobbled streets and you’ll find a wide variety of restaurants but stroll along the via Regina Margherita on the edge of the town overlooking the fabulous countryside panorama below with its farms, olive groves and vineyards and Rome in the distance, and you’ll find a row of them, all with terrific views. Sit outside to watch the sunset and the swallows chasing each other, swooping and diving like jet fighters straight out of ‘Top Gun Maverick’!
One evening we went to the Ristoranti Belvedere there. On this visit we just had a couple of excellent pizzas; to be honest I think the Aperitivo had actually taken up a little more stomach room than anticipated, but when you’re really ready for a slap up lunch or dinner, the menu has a comprehensive choice of beautifully prepared and classic Italian dishes most of which we’ve tried before. My suggestions are, for an Antipasti go for the Zuchini flowers stuffed with ricotta, wrapped in bacon with pine nuts and balsamic vinegar. For the Primi have the Fettucine with fresh truffle, and for Secondi order the Bocconcini – sautéed lamb chunks in Frascati wine with crispy artichokes.
If you’ve got any room by then, savour the divine Semifreddo – hazelnut parfait with pralines, espresso coffee and chocolate sauce or maybe the baked pears cooked in red wine on a Chantilly and vanilla sauce! I’ll leave the wines for you to choose, almost all of which are from the local Lazio region.
Whilst gazing at the sunset that evening, waiting for our food, we had the ubiquitous rose sellers regularly thrust red blooms at me saying: “Una per la signora?” To which we both said in impeccable Italian “No Grazie”, and then for our entertainment, a lovable old chap walked around the diners strumming the same incessant tuneless cord on a plastic guitar accompanying his playing with what sounded like an Indian war dance chant; it was a dreadful noise; I wanted to give him some money for his effort at least, but he seemed to have forgotten that the whole point was to collect some cash and just as I’d sorted out some change, he disappeared round a corner without stopping at any tables. Hope he’s OK.
Oh, before I forget, going back to food for a mo, if you can still bear to think of it, if you are feeling peckish during the day, treat yourself to a few slices of Porchetta from one of the stalls in the squares and make a sandwich of it with some crusty bread, maybe washed down with either a cold glass of local Frascati wine or equally excellent value, red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
OTRAL buses run frequently from Anagnina metro station (remember to buy your tickets in advance from the kiosk at Anagnina, and to validate them when you get on the bus). For more information about COTRAl buses, see the Lazio transport page. There is also a local train service from Rome, which leaves from Stazione Termini.
Best time to visit:
Each February there is the Carnevale, with parades and celebrations. In May there is the Festa dei SS Filippo e Giacomo, a festival in honour of the town’s patron saints. On 23rd June it’s the Sagra della lumaca, which is a snail-eating outdoors feast, and in October it’s the Sagra del vino, wine festival.
For more information on what to see and do in Frascati, please visit: www.italyheaven.co.uk.
Jeremy Fraser is a much-travelled writer who specialises in relating experiences from within the hospitality, travel and motor industries.