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ROME, Italy -- They come here, like so many do, as pilgrims and as scholars.
Their travel slate may include a papal Mass at St. Peter's Basilica, or a study of the ruins of classical antiquity. But as itinerant subjects of the Steelers Nation, they also flock to La Botticella, a cozy pub just off of the Piazza Navona, which in recent years -- mostly by happenstance -- has become the cantina of choice for Steelers fans in the Eternal City.
The reigning Emperor of the Roman Steeler Republic, Giovanni Poggi, is the owner and proprietor. Travelers from around the globe have stopped to leave an official "Asciugamano Terribile" as tribute.
"I must have 30 Terrible Towels," Mr. Poggi said, laughing and pointing to close to a dozen bags stuffed with, among other things, Terrible Towels, Steelers T-shirts, signs, magnets, hats -- even a pair of slippers and a long-haired Troy Polamalu wig.
Housed in a century-old former wine merchant's shop in a narrow cobblestone alley, La Botticella was opened 18 years ago by Mr. Poggi to capitalize on hordes of tourists looking to quench their thirsts with a cocktail between sightseeing stops.
Along the way, the haunt developed a loyal clientele, first among U.S.-based flight crews stopping over in Rome and later college students studying abroad. About four to five years ago, Mr. Poggi said groups of Penn State and Duquesne University students spending semesters in Rome -- most of them from Pittsburgh -- adopted La Botticella as their hangout.
The advent of satellite TV made it easy to catch American sports, and homesick students wanted to see their beloved Steelers and Penguins play. A match was made, and La Botticella became a regular Sunday gathering spot to see the Black & Gold.
"The fans that came in here, their passion for the Steelers was infectious," Mr. Poggi said. "They go as nuts for them as the [soccer] fans here do for Roma or Lazio," he said, alluding to Rome's stalwart futbol franchises.
He tacked a small Steelers pennant onto La Botticella's sidewalk sandwich board to beckon to Pittsburghers and Steelers fans who passed by. Soon after, Pittsburgh paraphernalia -- Terrible Towels, Sidney Crosby and Troy Polamalu jerseys, even a sticker from Fat Head's Saloon on the South Side -- were affixed behind its bar.
A "You're in Steelers Country" banner now hangs on the back wall, and Mr. Poggi once unfurled it out at the Coliseum prior to Super Bowl XLIII. Conspicuously absent however: any "Franco's Italian Army" bric-a-brac.
Having amassed dozens of friends from Pittsburgh over the years, Mr. Poggi came to America in November for a football vacation: a Thursday night Steelers game at Heinz Field, followed by a Penn State football Saturday at Beaver Stadium in Happy Valley.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette chronicled his journey in an online video that to date is the most watched video ever produced by post-gazette.com, with more than twice the page views of the next most-viewed video produced by the Web site.
Since then, Mr. Poggi said it feels at times that every tourist from Pittsburgh has stopped to see him as well.
"It's been unbelievable," he said. "There are periods where we'll get a group from Pittsburgh in here every day for a month. We had 60 kids from Slippery Rock come in on their spring break and a dean from Robert Morris came in and gave me a sweat shirt."
Jack Tucek, a physicist with the Northrop Grumman global security company in Chicago, and his wife, Julie, visited Rome earlier this month while attending a conference. Dr. Tucek, a North Hills native, was tipped off to La Botticella by a friend who had seen the post-gazette.com video and was compelled to make a stop.
"We had to come by and pay homage to our Pittsburgh friends," Dr. Tucek said.
"Three times we came by," Mrs. Tucek added. "We put it on our list -- the Vatican, Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain and the Steelers bar."
Branden and Maura Woodard, of Peters, sought out La Botticella to watch a Penguins game while on their honeymoon.
"We came here and saw that it was an awesome place to be -- great beer, great friends, and watching the Penguins in Rome," Mr. Woodard said. "It's a great bar."
Traveling Penguins fans also have continued to show up throughout the playoffs, and Mr. Poggi said he hopes to replicate the crowds that flocked in for the Super Bowl, when Steelers fans from all over Rome and from as far as Milan and Palermo came to watch the game Feb. 1.
But because of the time difference, kickoff didn't occur until after 12:30 a.m. local time. Though the city might be Eternal, closing time isn't. As in Pennsylvania, last call came at 2 a.m., and patrons had to vacate the premises. Sort of ... .
"Officially we had to close at 2 a.m., but we had more than a hundred Steelers fans here to watch the game. So I locked the doors and closed the shutters and we partied until the sun came up," Mr. Poggi recalled with a grin.
Jared Bowman, a student at Saint Vincent College who was studying for a semester at John Cabot University in Rome, said he was overwhelmed.
"It was the most amazing experience: a bar in Rome full of Pittsburgh fans rooting on the Steelers, thousands of miles from home ... it doesn't get any better," he said.
Mr. Poggi lived in Canada during adolescence and early teens -- his English is impeccable -- and has dreamed of returning to this side of the pond someday, perhaps to open a bar or trattoria. Pittsburgh is on the short list of cities he's considering.
"I loved my visit to Pittsburgh," he said, noting that he chatted in Italian with the folks at La Prima Espresso and was impressed by the range of Italian delicacies at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip District
"The city is great and a lot of fun, especially the South Side. But the people are great. Really friendly and humble. They seem to go out of their way for you, and I really like that. You don't see that in most places."
To borrow a phrase ... When in Pittsburgh ... .
Dan Gigler can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1884. First Published May 17, 2009 4:00 AM