(Boston Globe Photo / David L. Ryan)
 If you go: Rome's bookbars

Culture club's mix of martinis, music, and intellect

Email|Print| Text size + By Sofia Celeste
Globe Correspondent / July 23, 2006

ROME -- All over this city, one of the most luxurious in the world, people are indulging in a little late-night reading and intellectual inebriation.

Bars stocked with the latest bestsellers are now among the hottest spots in town. ``Bookbars," as they are known, are trying to appeal to all the senses -- offering not only books, but gourmet cuisine, political debate, performance art, and multimedia exhibits.

Take, for example, Caffè Letterario -- or Literary Cafe -- located along via Ostiense near the pyramid built in 12 BC that marks the grave of the magistrate Caius Cestius.

Actress Clio Evans is on stage, topless, violently shoving strands of dry spaghetti into her mouth before a crowd of awestruck twenty somethings standing at the bar.

It's not her debut as a stripper; it's her dramatic interpretation of the eating disorder bulimia.

Aside from offering his patrons a good book and perfectly blended mojito, cafe owner and architect Vincenzo Pultrone says he uses his venue to give artists like Evans a chance to make a name for themselves.

Pultrone received a grant from the city to develop an urban-renewal project in the city's downtown Ostiense district, which is populated largely by students and immigrants. With the opening of several trendy bars and restaurants, the once shabby neighborhood is becoming the heart of Rome's late-night scene.

``For years culture was really abandoned here , and there are a lot of young people in this neighborhood who want culture and don't know where to find it," Pultrone said. ``Caffè Letterario is a place where a young person can stay without buying a drink. Other places might turn them away."

Pultrone said his initial design for the project was more a high-culture concept. But he quickly realized that if he simply built a bookstore, ``it would never have survived."

The cafe's open layout was designed to be multifunctional -- with ample room to flip through books on Botticelli or recipes from ancient Rome . It also includes the Nails N' More salon, where women and girls can be seen during the day getting manicures and sipping tea while perusing books.

There is also a 60-seat cinema and a large central space that often hosts fashion shows and , most recently, a televised debate during Italy's contentious national elections.

Caffè Letterario is also equipped with video editing rooms and doubles as headquarters for an edgy television channel called ``Nessuno TV" that airs on Italian Cable 890 Sky. The emphasis on creativity and communication carries over to an exhibit space where young artists can display their works.

Miriam Tognella, 25, works as a graphic designer and was unknown as an artist until she displayed her creations at Caffè Letterario. She developed her ``Yellow Food Exhibit" -- symbolic for eating disorders -- to accompany Evans's ``Bulimia" play. With digital music thumping in the background, young Romans wearing cargo pants examine her computer-generated graphics, which incorporate bananas and McDonald's french fries.

Combining art, photography, theater, music, and graphics ``is a creative mode of communication," Tognella said, and is more effective in evoking emotions from the viewer. ``I've already gotten some offers," she added proudly.

Caffè Letterario ``is more than just a place where people can drink and make out ," Tognella said, calling it `` a unity of forces where people really get to know each other."

Across town, in the historic city center, men in suits and women wearing stiletto heels are sipping cocktails outside Salotto 42. With its posh interior, house tunes, and people lined up outside on a Saturday night, Salotto 42 at first blush could be any club in New York .

Once inside, however, customers are treated to a selection of books on fashion and art, along with W and Vogue magazines. It's the type of place where tourists don't look pathetic sitting alone flipping through a book on the life of Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana.

Opened by an Italian-American antique s dealer and his Scandinavian model wife, the bar offers an international menu that includes salmon tarts, nachos, and hot apple pie. With an extensive cocktail menu featuring South American drinks and a ceiling dripping with Venetian glass chandeliers, Salotto 42 attracts Rome's A-list .

But do people actually read?

``Sometimes I look at the books," said Simone Colombati, 33, a commodities trader who was lounging on a plush velvet couch, chilling to the electronic beats. ``But there is a little too much commotion to read actually. It's a better place to meet girls," he said while admiring several women sipping martinis nearby.

``The idea is to give people the idea that they are not wasting their time," said Damiano Mazzarella, the owner. ``If 10 people turn their heads to look at a book then it's not a waste of time."

For Mario Mottin, 35, a place like Salotto 42 is great just for people watching. ``There are a lot of young and trendy Italians and Americans here. You could only have this view in Rome," said Mottin, a civil servant and native of Brazil, observing the crowd and the Temple of Hadrian visible through the window.

Culturally, Mottin said, Rome has gone through a revolution of sorts. Via Veneto is no longer the paparazzi-laden boulevard that once served as a playground for Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren. Now, Romans are more inclined to drink wine served in cozy watering holes, he said, rather than an overpriced dirty martini in a chic, luxury hotel bar.

``Romans culturally like to go to enotecas (wine bars)," Mottin said, wincing. ``They are nice, but it is very typical."

Like Caffè Letterario, Salotto 42 sponsors small film festivals, book discussions, and even ``Philosophy Night" to discuss topics such as: ``What possibility do we have to be real if our priority is never to fail?" and ``Are we all masochists?"

Political and cultural discussions are a daily ritual at Bibli, located across the Tiber River in the city's medieval Trastevere neighborhood . Bibli is popular among Rome's intellectual professionals for its extensive selection of literature, cultural talks, yoga courses, late-night piano concerts, and Sunday brunch.

Manager Gabriella Magiulli said Bibli pioneered the idea of a ``bookbar" in Italy. Opened 10 years ago, it gained popularity for its four rooms filled with 10,000 books on cinema, poetry, politics, and human rights.

``Places like Feltrinelli are like supermarkets for books," she said of Italy's chain mega-bookstore. ``Bibli is like a warm living room."

At night, Bibli turns into a cultural center. Political debates and book presentations attract a mixed crowd more likely to sport bi focals and imported shawls than high heels and sequined handbags.

With bookshelves as the backdrop, pianist Cinzia Bartoli performs Chopin's ``Mazurka" and Schumann's ``Kreisleriana" before a sedate crowd sipping red wine. In the next room, the kitchen is offering a menu that includes medieval dishes like fried carrots. Locals are coupled or in groups, laughing over candlelit meals.

``It's a great place where you can hear yourself talk," said Elena Jacopini, 51, a translator. A Trastevere native, she comes to Bibli on ``a bad weather day to have brunch and socialize."

Donatella Iorio, 33, an architect, agreed, saying she would rather go to a place like Bibli than a crowded discotheque or lounge where drinking is the only pastime . `` [Here] you can go to one place and do a little of everything in a relaxed atmosphere," she said.

Contact Sofia Celeste, a freelance writer in Italy, at .

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