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New soles for pope? Rome's Borgo's the go-to place

Wednesday - 3/20/2013, 8:26am  ET

Antonio Arellano stands next to a copy of a pair of shoes he made for Pope Benedict XVI, in his shoemaker shop, in Rome, Monday, March 18, 2013. Borgo, the sleepy, medieval neighborhood with a timeless feel right outside the Vatican's borders, has been at the service of pontiffs for centuries. From resoling to risotto, from light bulbs to linguine, Borgo is the go-to place for up-and-coming cardinals and sometimes even for popes. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

FRANCES D'EMILIO
Associated Press

ROME (AP) -- When a future pope needed new soles, he strolled to a shoe repair shop practically around the corner from the Vatican. When he was pope and nearing retirement, he had the same shoemaker craft a pair of comfy, calfskin slippers.

Borgo, the sleepy, medieval neighborhood with a timeless feel right outside the Vatican's borders, has been at the service of pontiffs for centuries. From resoling to risotto, from light bulbs to linguine, Borgo is the go-to place for up-and-coming cardinals and sometimes even for popes.

Pilgrims may hurry through Borgo's narrow cobblestone streets to catch papal blessings in jam-packed St. Peter's Square. But gastronomically picky, red-hatted prelates and black-robed monsignors often stop to dine in the neighborhood's eateries, debating the qualities of the next pontiff while tucking into tagliatelle and sausage in pistachio pesto or marsala-soaked braised pork.

Stroll Borgo's slow-paced streets between meal times, and you might spot prelates on errands like the ones Joseph Ratzinger ran, when as a German cardinal he lived in an apartment just outside Vatican walls. Proudly displayed inside the shoemaker's shop and in a lighting and electrical repair store are photographs of the businesses' owners with their faithful client Ratzinger, more famous as the recently retired Pope Benedict XVI.

Borgo means "village" in Italian, and, indeed, the neighborhood has a quaint, insular quality, perhaps because some of its streets are closed to traffic.

"It's a small town in a big city. Everyone knows you, and everything's on a human scale" in Borgo, said Patrizia Podetti, whose restaurant Velando was hopping with cardinals in the run-up to the conclave that elected Pope Francis and in the days immediately afterward. (During the conclave they were sequestered in the Vatican's hotel, eating what has been described euphemistically as simple pilgrims' fare.)

Several cardinals and other high-ranked Vatican churchmen live in apartments at the Vatican's edges. Ratzinger lived in a modern, austere-looking building at No. 1 Piazza della Citta Leonina, whose nondescript entrance faces a portal just outside the colonnade of St. Peter's Square. Tenants are listed anonymously on the building's intercom system, but just about anyone in Borgo will say Ratzinger lived there.

Turn the corner from Ratzinger's place and you come to a T-shaped intersection with a traffic light at the end of Borgo's main street, Borgo Pio. When the light turns green at the gate, dark-colored sedans roll in and out with Vatican City license plates, chauffeuring cardinals here and there.

It was here, just outside St. Anna's Gate, a Vatican side entrance, that Pope Francis shook off his security handlers, took a few steps outside the Holy See's confines and waded up to an admiring crowd on the first Sunday of his papacy.

Borgo tourists, stay alert: Who knows if Francis, quickly dubbed the "unpredictable pope" by Italian media, will succumb to Borgo's simple charms and cross the street next time?

In late afternoon, after a long day's work at the Vatican, Ratzinger, sometimes with satchel in hand, would stroll Borgo's few blocks, largely empty of tourists by then. Exquisitely polite and mostly shy, the cardinal would cordially exchange greetings with neighborhood shopkeepers and artisans.

Other prelates who live in Vatican City, where they work, also use Borgo as a backyard of sorts, perhaps lunching with ambassadors to the Holy See, or consulting with colleagues over a shot of grappa at the end of a meal. Velando, located at Borgo Vittorio 26, is a favorite dining spot for the churchmen, with sleek wooden furnishings, subdued lighting and vaulted, whitewashed ceiling giving an air of a church sacristy. Ratzinger often dined there before becoming pope; his favorite dish was rosemary-seasoned risotto, Podetti said.

Cardinal James Harvey, a U.S. prelate who until last year served as prefect of the papal household, is also a Velando regular. And recently seen at the restaurant was Boston's cardinal, Archbishop Sean O'Malley, who flew into Rome ahead of the voting, which saw him pegged as a possible favorite to become pope. He stood out in his plain brown Franciscan tunic amid all the red cassocks, Podetti said. After the conclave ended, Velando diners included the retired archbishop of Philadelphia, Justin Rigali.

Around the corner from Velando is a boutique for clerical garb. In the window shortly after the conclave was a mannequin in a red-trimmed cassock and red zucchetto, the cardinals' skull cap. Since it's not every day that bishops become cardinals and a red wardrobe is needed, the shop also makes lawyers' robes. The bustling and increasingly chic Prati neighborhood just beyond Borgo is filled with law offices.

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