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Piazza pivot: the restaurant bringing back locals to Rome’s most famous square

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This article is part of a new guide to Rome from FT Globetrotter

When I ventured into central Rome for the first time after the lockdown was lifted in early May, I encountered what felt like a different world. Piazza Navona, the first place I visited — and one of Italy’s most famous squares — was almost deserted.

The typically bustling area was for once devoid of the usual tourists taking selfies in front of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, artists selling their portraits and the inevitable street vendors. Due to the lack of footfall, grass had made its way between the cobblestones (or sanpietrini), providing unexpected colour to the piazza. For the first time, I could hear the sound of the water gushing from the mouth of the travertine Tritons and the rocks under the obelisk at the centre of the square.

Piazza Navona, in normal times, is typically bustling with tourists . . .  © Getty Images/iStockphoto

. . . but with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, the famous square has been largely emptied © Contrasto/eyevine

Like many others living in Rome, I felt selfishly happy to have this stunning place all to myself. It was suddenly hard to believe that Piazza Navona had always been regarded by locals as a place to avoid — a tourist hotspot such as Piccadilly Circus or Times Square, with overpriced restaurants and chaotic crowds, only to be circumvented en route to somewhere else. No one would have predicted that the tourists would stop coming one day — especially the owners of the restaurants, bars and cafés around the piazza.

With the number of foreign visitors vastly reduced, the majority of these businesses reopened without customers. Despite the newfound calm, Romans were still not willing to be overcharged for the privilege of sitting with a coffee or a spritz on the square. Most tables were empty and waiters looked bored, standing by the plastic placards displaying tourist menus.

But one restaurant seized the unique opportunity granted by the lockdown to reinvent itself and quickly adapted to a new clientele: Romans who were starting to reclaim the empty city centre.

The De Sanctis brothers took over their family’s restaurant, Camillo, earlier this year, and spent Italy’s lockdown period revamping its menu that had changed little in decades © Andrea Di Lorenzo

Earlier this year, 32-year-old business graduate Filippo De Sanctis and his brother, Tommaso, a 28-year-old chef, took over their family’s restaurant, Camillo, which overlooks the fountain in the centre of the piazza. Their great-grandfather, after whom the restaurant is named, originally opened it as a souvenir shop in 1890, and their father Enrico converted it into a restaurant around 30 years ago.

The menu at Camillo rarely changed over that period, and nor did its clientele: hurried tourists who came to wolf down fettuccine alfredo atop red and white chequered tablecloths in a traditional dining room.

During Italy’s lockdown — one of the strictest in Europe — the De Sanctis brothers realised that they could eventually reopen and continue to serve the same menu they had for decades, or use the time to prepare themselves for a shift in tourism and redevelop their offering for local diners.

“Traditionally, the main target of commercial activities on this square has been mass tourism, and so far, it worked well for pretty much everyone here, including us,” says Filippo. “We saw the chance to develop a more sustainable model, replacing mass tourism with quality tourism. But most of all we want to be a restaurant that Romans are willing to come to.”

When Camillo reopened at the end of May, the old tourist menu had been replaced with a brand-new list of dishes . . .  © Andrea Di Lorenzo

. . . combining affordability, modernity and quality ingredients © Andrea Di Lorenzo

Tommaso spent his days during lockdown bustling around in the kitchen, mixing spices and discovering new flavours. “I was like a mad scientist with my test tubes and experiments,” he says of his efforts to create a more worldly menu that would appeal to a younger generation of well-travelled Italians.

When Camillo reopened at the end of May, the old tourist menu had been replaced with a brand-new list of dishes, combining affordability, modernity and quality ingredients. Main courses start at €7, smaller sharing plates are available and the brothers also introduced the “Drinketto”, a takeaway aperitivo priced at €3.5 (compared to the €9 drinks served before lockdown) — a popular addition among the locals now venturing into the centre.

“I hadn’t had a drink on the square for years, but I want to make the most of it now,” says Andrea Di Chiara, a marketing manager from Rome, as he enjoys a takeaway Aperol spritz next to the fountain opposite the restaurant.

Camillo’s dishes today still include Roman classics such as cacio e pepe, but he’s added a contemporary twist to old favourites such as carbonara, which now comes in the shape of a fried crunchy cube — a real explosion of flavour — and “Lasagnetta Funk”, a small lasagne made with zighini, a spiced Ethiopian beef ragù. A spectacular Korean fried chicken with gochujang sauce is also on the menu, as well as fettuccine with Alpine butter, miso and lime zest — a new interpretation of pasta alfredo with the addition of unexpected ingredients.

The former clientele consisting of hurried tourists the occasional table of policymakers (the Italian senate is just behind the corner) has been replaced by Roman professionals and expats, who began congregating at Camillo following write-ups in local newspapers and food blogs.

Camillo’s menu today still includes Roman classics, but with a contemporary twist, such as “grandmother’s meatballs” . . .  © Andrea Di Lorenzo

. . . and it also includes more worldly dishes, such as a spectacular Korean-style fried chicken with gochujang sauce © Andrea Di Lorenzo

Other restaurants in the piazza are still struggling to adapt to business without high-volume tourism. One local restaurateur, who wished to remain anonymous, said it was difficult to survive. When asked what they were doing to address the problem, he replied: “There is not much we can do apart from wait for the tourists to come back.”

But nearby, the De Sanctis brothers are doing a roaring trade. On a Tuesday night in October, almost five months after they reopened, the tables outside are all occupied with Italians, chatting away and enjoying a balmy al fresco dinner.

“Even in highly touristy areas [such as this], there are locals who live here. Sometimes it’s difficult to know who lives here, as everyone seems to be just passing through,” says Tommaso. “But we may have created something for the community — we already have regular clients who order ‘the usual’.”

Sitting with friends while sipping a glass of Barbera, a full-bodied red wine from Piedmont, Paolo Vaiano, a local resident in his thirties, says he’s glad to finally be able to enjoy one the most stunning places in the neighbourhood, now that Camillo is offering food and wine that is up to rigorous Italian standards, if not above: “Piazza Navona has always been considered by Romans as just a beautiful place to be looked at as you hurry to the quieter bars in the streets behind the square.

“Until a couple of months ago, it was impossible to think of actually spending time here, or eating something decent in one of these restaurants that seem to have been created exclusively for tourists with no knowledge of Italian food,” he adds. “But here we are — who’d have thought?”

We’re looking for your best tips about the Italian capital. Tell us your favourite places to visit, eat, drink, exercise, sightsee, and more

For more stories like this, visit ft.com/globetrotter, or follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter





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EU pledges aid to Lithuania to combat illegal migration from Belarus

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EU immigration updates

In the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the EU and Belarus, Brussels has promised extra financial aid and increased diplomatic heft to help Lithuania tackle a migrant crisis that it blames on neighbouring Belarus and its dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Lithuania detained 287 illegal migrants on Sunday, more than it did in the entirety of 2018, 2019, and 2020 combined, the vast majority of them Iraqis who had flown to Belarus’s capital Minsk before heading north to cross into the EU state. Almost 4,000 migrants have been detained this year, compared with 81 for the whole of 2020. 

“What we are facing is an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime designed to provoke,” Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs told reporters on Monday after talks with Lithuania’s prime minister Ingrida Simonyte. “The situation is getting worse and deteriorating . . . There is no free access to EU territory.”

The EU imposed sweeping sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime in June, after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then led a brutal campaign to violently suppress protesters and jail political opponents. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

The rising concern over the migrant crossings, which EU officials say is a campaign co-ordinated by Lukashenko’s administration, comes as one of the country’s athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games sought refuge in Poland after team management attempted to fly her home against her will after she publicly criticised their actions.

Johansson said the EU would provide €10m-€12m of immediate emergency funding and would send a team of officials to the country to assess the requirements for longer-term financial assistance, including for extra border security and facilities to process those attempting to enter.

Simonyte said that Vilnuis would require “tens of millions of euros” by the end of the year if the number of people attempting to cross the border continued at the current pace.

Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told the Financial Times in June that Belarus was “weaponising” illegal immigration to put pressure on the Baltic country over its housing of several opposition leaders. Since then, the flow of illegal immigrants from Iraq, Syria, and several African countries has increased sharply.

Iraqi diplomats visited Vilnius at the end of last week after Lithuania’s foreign minister flew to Baghdad in mid-July. Johannson said on Monday that EU diplomats were engaged in “intensive contacts” with Iraqi officials, which she said were “more constructive than we had hoped”.

State carrier Iraqi Airways offers flights from four Iraqi airports to Minsk, according to its website. Former Estonian president Toomas Ilves suggested on Twitter that the EU could cut its aid to Iraq “immediately until they stop these flights”.

Speaking at the border with Belarus on Monday, Johansson added that the tents provided by Lithuania were unsuitable for families. Lithuania’s interior minister Agne Bilotaite said she hoped the number of illegal migrants would subside in the coming months but that Vilnius was planning to build some housing to accommodate them over the upcoming winter.



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Britain’s wrong-headed approach to refugees

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UK immigration updates

Thanks to the bravery of volunteers who run towards storms at sea to rescue ships’ crews, few British institutions command as much respect as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The charity, however, has recently had to negotiate a different kind of storm, over its efforts to help refugees who get into difficulties crossing the Channel from France. Nigel Farage, the former Brexit party leader, accused it of running a taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs. Last week, the RNLI said it had received hundreds of thousands of pounds of extra donations in response.

The RNLI has become embroiled in a now familiar story when the summer months allow more small boats to make the Channel crossing. Compared with the flows to other countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, only a handful of migrants attempt the journey. That makes the UK’s inability to control the border in an effective and humane way — and shabby treatment of those who do make it across — no less of a scandal.

Britain’s strategy for stemming the flow has relied mostly on paying the French authorities to limit the number of boats crossing and return any that leave to France, while deterring would-be migrants through the unwelcoming environment that awaits them. Just as EU countries are dependent on their neighbours for keeping entrants down — whether Morocco for Spain or Belarus for Lithuania — the UK needs French co-operation to control the mutual border. Diplomatic spats, whether over Brexit or extra Covid quarantine restrictions on arrivals from France, have made that harder.

The UK approach manages to be simultaneously ineffective and cruel. Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, wrote last week to home secretary Priti Patel to complain of unacceptable conditions in the holding facility for migrants who make it to the Kent coast. A recent unannounced visit by MPs found most of those remaining in the overcrowded facility sitting on a thin mattress on the floor, with women and children in the same room as adult men.

Earlier this year, the High Court ruled that “squalid” conditions in the Napier Barracks, a temporary centre set up last year to house asylum seekers during the pandemic, were so bad as to be unlawful. While arrivals have declined since the peak seven years ago, cutbacks have led to a backlog in processing claims, leaving more in a legal limbo.

Since the start of the pandemic Britain has shut down other paths into the country, ending a resettlement scheme. This has ceded the ground to people traffickers. The “push factors” of the risk of violence and torture at home and “pull factors” of higher living standards mean many are still willing to resort to risky and illegal methods to try to reach the UK. Creating a harsh environment for those who make it has done little to dispel the widespread belief among migrants that Britain is a better destination than other European countries, and stem the flow.

That will not stop the government trying. Barristers have warned that a clause in draft border legislation could potentially make it a crime to help asylum seekers arrive in the UK, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment; at present it is illegal to do so to earn a profit. The Home Office says the clause is aimed at criminal traffickers. But along with a suggestion to set up offshore processing centres, the provision has rightly earned criticism from human rights groups. If the government is unwilling to create safe and legal routes, its only option is to prevent people from coming in the first place. That, ultimately, will mean relying on France.



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Olympic organisers investigate after Belarusian runner seeks refuge

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Tokyo Olympics updates

A Belarusian runner due to compete at the Tokyo Olympics was taken to the airport against her wishes after making complaints about her coaches, according to media reports on Sunday night.

The International Olympic Committee, the Games organisers, said it had asked for clarification from the Belarus team about the status and whereabouts of Krystina Tsimanouskaya, who is due to compete in the women’s 200m sprint on Monday.

Belarus’ dictatorial leader Alexander Lukashenko and his regime are widely seen as international pariahs after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then embarked on a brutal campaign to suppress protesters and supporters of his rival, which has seen thousands beaten and jailed. 

Images and video circulated on social media sites by Belarusian opposition activists appear to show Tsimanouskaya at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, where she refused to board a plane and instead sought refuge with Japanese police.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya took part in the heats for the women’s 100 metres on Friday but narrowly missed qualifying for the semi-finals © Aleksandra Szmigiel/Reuters

The IOC said it “has seen the reports in the media, is looking into it and has asked the [Belarus] national Olympic committee for clarification”.

Japanese police did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Belarusian Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but a statement attributed to the body suggests she had been removed from competition by coaches on the advice of doctors advice about her “emotional, psychological state”.

Late on Sunday, Tsimanouskaya shared a screenshot of that statement on Instagram with the message: “This is a lie.”

“I am asking the International Olympic Committee for help, they are putting pressure on me and they are trying to take me out of the country without my consent,” Tsimanouskaya said in a video message reportedly recorded on Sunday evening from the airport and posted on social media.

A person close to Olympic officials said there remained “confusion” around the incident, adding they had been told that Tsimanouskaya had boarded a coach to the airport and had gone through the departures area to board a plane to Istanbul, where she then sought Japanese police to ask for asylum.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya tweeted that she was grateful to the IOC for its quick reaction. “She has a right to international protection and to continue participation in the Olympics. It is also crucial to investigate Belarus’ NOC violations of athletes’ rights,” she said.

Tsimanouskaya on Friday appeared to criticise her coaches and team management in an Instagram post that said she had been “ignored” and that “people in higher ranks should respect us as athletes”.

The 24-year-old had taken part in the heats for the women’s 100 metres on Friday but narrowly missed on qualifying for the semi finals of the event. She is listed on official Olympics sites as due to compete in the first round of the 200 metres at the Olympic stadium on Monday morning.





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