By Christopher Intagliata
“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”
And with those words, written four centuries ago, Shakespeare forever changed tourism for Verona. Never mind that the story was an old folk tale, adapted by Shakespeare and recast in Verona. People still arrive by the busload daily to gaze upon Juliet’s balcony – placed there to attract tourists – and to come calling at Romeo’s nearby abode.
For most, Verona is merely another station to pass on the train from Milan to Venice or en route from Venice to Florence. But of those who decide to visit, many follow a time-beaten trajectory. The bus stops at the cream and maroon gothic heights of San Fermo church along the Adige River. A short walk west on Via Cappello brings them to the balcony, where custom demands that visitors rub the right breast of Juliet’s statue for good luck. After the debauchery, they take a short peek into Piazza Erbe, the fantastically frescoed central square, and the adjoining Piazza dei Signori, where an imposing statue of Dante lords over all who pass. Changing tack, they head down Via Mazzini, the shopping artery of the city, full of impossibly trendy Italians and their less-fashionable tourist counterparts. Via Mazzini peters out at glorious Piazza Bra, where the Roman Arena presides, and a short walk across the plaza leads the tour back to the waiting bus.
This is a brilliant tour of the city if you have about one hour to spend. With more time, there is much more to see and the quiet, forgotten alleys near the Duomo and across the river in Veronetta provide a pleasing alternative.
The author on his bike and a church in Verona.
Just across the river, over the Roman bridge Ponte Pietra, a lovely walk leads up to the heights of Castel San Pietro, a castle built during the Austrian occupation of the city. On a clear day, there is a fantastic view of the historic center, neatly constrained by the U-shaped curving of the Adige River and the multitude of bridges that cross it. Exploring the hills east or west of the castle (wear your walking shoes), it’s possible to follow stretches of the massive northern city walls, built during the Middle Ages and later fortified by the Venetians and Austrians in subsequent occupations of the city. East of Castel San Pietro, lies the monastery San Zeno in Monte, built by the Hapsburgs as military barracks. From here you can descend into Veronetta, or “Little Verona,” where many nobles built their villas close to the historic center. Today it’s an immigrant enclave, a strange contrast between quaint dead-end streets and large traffic-filled avenues lined with kebab shops and ethnic markets.
It’s also home to one of the best undiscovered restaurants in Verona, where you can taste authentic and cheap Veronese cuisine served by a laughingly gruff host who speaks only the Veronese dialect. Trattoria da Ropeton, on via Fontana del Ferro 1 near the Romanesque church San Giovanni in Valle, is a classic for authentic local cuisine. Start with the grilled polenta and assorted cold cuts, including soppressa, the local salami, and lardo di colonnata, a decadent slice of spiced and cured pork fat that melts temptingly atop a square of polenta. For pasta, the undeniable Veronese classic is bigoli al ragu, a thick, homemade spaghetti topped with a rich meat sauce. The selection of meats and vegetable sides at Ropeton is extensive, including many grilled specials. Adventurous eaters should try the delicious pastissada de caval, horse meat braised for hours with onions and juniper berries aside a mound of wet polenta. Most Veronese know that dessert at Ropeton is synonymous with a plate of delicate millefoglie, a delightful layering act of broken puff pastry, Chantilly cream and chocolate. While not a typical dessert in Verona, it’s the hallmark at Ropeton. For after-dinner drinks the obvious choice is Piazza Erbe, teeming with happy chatter and clinking wine glasses on a summer evening.
DINING OFF THE BEATEN PATH:
Osteria al Duomo
Via Duomo, 7 Hidden on a small street near the Duomo, it’s easy to miss. Inside the narrow restaurant, the walls are festooned with medieval stringed instruments and other oddities. The food is simple and cheap, including some variations on the typical Veronese fare. Come for a glass of wine before dinner and you may catch a group of men who play Tarantella music weekly.
Pizzeria al Leone (da Ciro)
Via Zambelli, 20 Look on the map for this one – it’s almost impossible to find. The pizza is worth the effort though, undoubtedly the best in Verona. The classic “bufala” with buffalo mozzarella, tomato sauce and a few basil leaves is great, as is the “parmigiana” with wonderful morsels of eggplant parmesan atop a simple pizza.
Trattoria al Ropeton
Via Fontana del Ferro, 1 Near San Giovanni in Valle in the Veronetta quarter, you’ll find classic Veronese home cooking in an unpretentious setting away from tourist flocks. The host steals the show with his barking and silly antics.
HIDDEN GEMS FOR DRINKS:
Bar al Ponte
Via Ponte Pietra, 26 between Ponte Pietra and Piazzetta Bra Molinari. The winning point of this casual bar, unknown even to many Veronese, is a romantic patio out back that overlooks the Adige River and Castel San Pietro.
Circolo Arci Malacarne
Via San Vitale, 14. Located on a small street in the Veronetta near the University, this is a leftist bar run by the national “ARCI” organization and caters to the alternative crowd. It’s the only bar of its kind in Verona, full of vintage furniture, a pinball machine, cheap drinks, and Soviet propaganda posters. They also host small concerts, poetry readings, and occasional guest speakers. Recently a withered old friend of Che Guevara spoke there (in Spanish) and reminisced about his revolutionary days. Officially open only to card-holding members (an annual card is 10 euros), this isn’t a problem on most nights, and comes up only at the bar when ordering. Just be friendly and you should be able to manage. Their Valpolicella Ripasso wine from a local winemaking co-op is a steal at just one euro a glass.
Via Santa Felicita’, 8, near Ponte Pietra. This is an elegantly designed bar inside a deconsecrated church. The ceiling and walls are beautiful and sport the occasional cracking fresco. Try a “spritz,” a concoction unique to the Veneto region consisting of white wine, Aperol (a liquor) and sparking water in equal proportions.
All photos by Christopher Intagliata