ROME – As an American living in the Eternal City and covering the Vatican, I could tell you that the big news in Rome right now is Pope Francis’s reorganization of the Roman Curia, or the aftershocks of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s essay on the clerical sexual abuse scandals, or any number of other ecclesiastical developments.
The thing is, none of that is what has Americans in Rome, especially those who live or work around the Vatican, abuzz.
Instead, the first thing those kinds of Americans are saying to one another, the topic that comes up right out of the gate when they bump into each other on the street or swap greetings on social media, is this: “Have you heard about Homebaked?!”
For the past seven years, Homebaked has been almost a pilgrimage destination for Americans here, right up there with the catacombs and the papal basilicas. In a city chock full of Italian coffee bars advertising a phony “Full American breakfast,” Homebaked is the honest-to-God, mouth-watering real deal, serving up breakfast wraps, bacon and eggs, French toast, waffles, bagels with cream cheese, even – to be clear, I am not making this up – chocolate chip pancakes.
Although most people order a cup of hot, authentic American coffee to wash it all down, Homebaked does offer Mimosas and Bloody Marys to ease the pain of those especially frustrating Roman days when even the simplest things seem impossible.
Homebaked is also open for lunch and features such American classics as a grilled cheese sandwich, PB&J, and ballpark nachos.
Up to this point, Homebaked has been tucked away in a small location in a quiet residential part of Rome’s Monteverde Vecchio neighborhood, which is a fair haul from the Vatican. Now they’ve opened a second location that’s literally a three-minute walk from the famous obelisk in St. Peter’s Square, past the Holy Office and onto the Via Porta Cavalleggeri.
As a result, for those whose lives and business are focused on the Vatican, Homebaked has gone from being an occasional treat to an everyday possibility – and, to quote Robert Frost, “that has made all the difference.”
Homebaked is the brainchild of a native of Buffalo, New York, named Jesse Smeal, who came to Rome as a college undergraduate, met his wife Carolina Mafera, and put down roots. He said opening an alternative to the usual fare in the city was always a dream.
“I’ve been here almost nineteen years, and when I first came I thought it was something that would be cool,” he explained, leaning on the counter at his new Vatican location just days after it opened.
“Twenty years ago, you couldn’t find anything different from pizza and pasta here, and I thought something like this could work,” he said.
It helps that Homebaked’s original location is near the American University in Rome, while the new site is just a few minutes walk from the Pontifical North American College, the Roman seminary for future American priests.
Speaking of his customer base, Smeal said “the majority is non-Italian. The Italians are more return customers, and more on the weekends.”
“We get a lot of American students, obviously, because they’re studying here, and a lot of ex-pats who live here, plus a lot of tourists from all over,” he said.
Smeal reports that his most popular item is the classic American breakfast: Pancakes, eggs and bacon.
With a laugh, Smeal acknowledges that getting anything accomplished in Italy, including opening a restaurant, is way more complicated than it ought to be. (That’s a tip for proper Vatican literacy, by the way: Before complaining about how long it takes the wheels to grind in the Vatican, spend a year living in Italy. You’ll be amazed how much it changes your perspective.)
“It’s horrible, it’s the worst thing you can imagine,” Smeal said of the Italian zeal for unnecessarily complicated bureaucracy.
“Thank God I have my wife, so she can deal with all that. She deals with all the paperwork, and I handle the rest. I just have to listen to it … nights of crying, nights with no sleep, dealing with all that,” he said.
Despite the frustrations, Smeal takes tremendous pride in the fact that Homebaked doesn’t market itself in the conventional sense.
“Everything is word of mouth, or Facebook and all that stuff. I’ve never paid a cent for advertising,” he said. “I don’t believe in it. People say you gotta do this, but I don’t want to. That’s not us, that’s not who we are.”
“It’s stronger than me,” he said of what makes Homebaked work.
Smeal told us that in selecting his new location, proximity to the Vatican wasn’t so much the priority as simply finding a bigger place to allow the operation to expand. He and his wife felt they had reached a crossroads, he said, and they either wanted to double down or walk away.
“It was time to either take this further or stop, maybe do something else,” he said. “We decided to take it to the next level.”
Though I haven’t conducted any scientific polling, I feel confident in speaking for the entire American ex-pat community here when I say we’re thrilled with that decision.
With that, Smeal was off to deliver plates of eggs and bacon and cups of coffee as the tables in the new place began to fill up on a Friday morning.
Yet he popped back by with one more word, and it was classic Smeal: Though he’d deliberately refused to stage some massive, PR-driven opening gala at the new location, he said, he was doing something else to mark the occasion – friends, he said, only pay five bucks the first time they come.
So we plunked down five Euro each, smiled, said arrivederci, and walked away happier and more content than we’d arrived. Few experiences in life deliver that result reliably, but Homebaked is definitely among them.
Back in the day, one of the most influential histories of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was titled The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, focusing on the role of German-speaking prelates and theologians at Vatican II. Given Smeal’s Buffalo roots, perhaps we can think of the opening of his Vatican location as “Lake Erie flows into the Tiber” … and, dear Lord, is the place better for it.