Is it possible to have a bad meal in that culinary wonderland of Italy? Actually, it's surprisingly easy! Especially in the very big, touristy cities such as Venice & Rome, filled with so many dining options that choosing where to eat is like throwing the dice. Unless you know where to go, what to avoid - or better yet, have a local take you around. Now, it may not be easy to acquire an Italian friend immediately, though if you're staying at a BnB or an apartment, always, always ask the owner - they often have the best suggestions. The next best thing is to leave yourself in the very capable hands of Eating Italy Food Tours!
We have had a couple of indifferent meals in Rome when we travelled there in the summer of 2013, so on our latest trip in Oct 2014, we decided to trust the experts. We chose to try the Taste of Testaccio Food Tour as we hadn't visited this Roman neighbourhood, which is considered to be the place where cucina romana (Roman cuisine) was born. What better place than this to find authentic Roman food in the Eternal City?
The Testaccio tour has a choice of 3 departure timings and we decided to go on the 11.15 a.m. tour. The tour goes on for more than 4 hours, so make sure you're wearing comfortable shoes and carry a bottle of water (and an umbrella, depending upon when you're going); and please skip breakfast if you want to do justice to this tour! The thing with guided tours is that your experience largely depends on the guide, and we were lucky to have Domenico - a tour guide, ex-UN worker, singer in a rock band and an all-out entertainer.
First stop was the pasticceria Barberini for a traditional Italian breakfast of coffee & cornetto. Loved the cornetto semplice - a mini croissant dusted lightly with honey, along with a shot of espresso. And as if the morning needed a pick-me-up, out came tiny chocolate cups filled with tiramisu! What a delicious start to the tour :)
We then headed to Volpetti Più for a pizza a taglio - a slice of the classic Margherita pizza.
Next stop was the salumeria E. Volpetti, which is an absolute foodie heaven!
We sampled several cheeses and cured meats. The highlight for me was tasting balsamic vinegars - aged between 5 and 50 years.
The older the vinegar, the thicker and sharper tasting it was, with the oldest having a sweet, almost raisiny flavour.
Next we went to the 100-year-old Testaccio Market, which was originally in Piazza Testaccio, but is now in a covered space nearby. This space used to be the location of an ancient (2000-year-old) warehouse where food used to be stored in amphorae (porcelain containers), and there is a large excavated area right in the middle of the market where you can see remains of this warehouse.
We walked around the bustling market, rubbing shoulders with the locals, with many of the shop owners calling out greetings to Domenico. The stalls were piled high with seasonal produce and it was a veritable riot of colours.
We stopped by several shops, sampling a bruschetta here, a caprese salad there...
Loved the smiling couple Enzo & Lina at whose stall we had the freshest of mozzarella di bufala.
We ended our jaunt through the market with some freshly made, heavenly Sicilian cannoli.
But this wasn't the end of the food tour! The restaurant Flavio Al Velavevodetto was waiting for us with a sit-down meal of pasta and wine. When in Rome, you have to try the very Roman cacio e pepe - a simple pasta with cheese and pepper - three ingredients, but the Romans know how to elevate them to a dish you'll remember. It was my favourite pasta (till I reached Sicily, but that's for another post!).
We also had a carbonara and an amatriciana pasta, accompanied by some house wine.
We waddled out of the restaurant, convinced that this was the end of the tour. Far from it!! Next stop Trapizzino for another typical Roman street food - suppli. Big balls of arborio rice, cooked with tomato and mozzarella, crumbed and deep fried to make a satisfying quick meal on the go.
Last stop (phew!) was Giolitti, which is the oldest ice cream parlour in Rome. Armando has been behind the counter since he was 17 and he holds forth on how to figure out if your gelato is the real deal or some synthetic rubbish. "First, the colour should not be too fluoro (bright); banana gelato cannot be bright yellow or mint bright green, it should be white", says Armando. Also pistacchio (Italy's favourite flavour, I think) should be a kind of dull green. Next, the gelato should not be too big & airy or fluffy. This means it contains artificial stabilisers. An easy way to identify this if the gelato in the container is piled high above the rim - avoid! Remember you can get (at least) two flavours of gelato in every serving, and you can ask for free whipped cream - just say "con panna, per favore". I had the classic combination of pistacchio and dark chocolate (fondente).
A Cemetery & an Ancient Tomb
The tour is not all about food. Domenico also took us to the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome, one of the oldest burial grounds in Europe, in use since the beginning of the 18th century. Many famous writers, painters and sculptors have been buried here, including the two well-known English Romantic poets Keats and Shelley. Keats' tombstone contains no name or date in accordance to his wish, and only contains the inscription "Here lies one whose name was writ in water". Keats' tombstone seems rather bare compared to some of the more ornate ones in the cemetery.
One of the most striking tombstones is the Angel of Grief, a sculpture by the American sculptor and poet William Wetmore Story, which serves as the gravestone for his wife. The weeping angel is hunched forward on the tombstone, perfectly symbolising grief and loss.
Near the cemetery stands the remains of Rome's ancient Aurelian wall - and another surprising structure. Did you know that there is an ancient pyramid right in the middle of Rome?! The Pyramid of Cestius stands next to the cemetery. It was built in 12 BC for the Roman magistrate Gaius Cestius. The pyramid (which is older than the Colosseum) is nearly 40 metres tall and its construction was completed in just 330 days. It's an astonishing sight to behold, especially if you have just gotten off the metro at the Piramide station!
A Unique (not-so-secret-anymore) Keyhole
If you're in the area of Piramide, there's another must-see spot. Climb up the Aventine Hill to the Piazza Cavalieri di Malta (the Knights of Malta). Stand in a queue in front of a huge (locked) green door and then peer through the keyhole (known as the Aventine Keyhole).
You will see a garden path, flanked by bushes, perfectly framing the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City! The Order of the Knights of Malta is one of the last few surviving orders left from the Crusades. The door leads to the Aventine villa, which is the residence of the ambassador of the Order, which is essentially treated as a sovereign state - so you're in fact looking at three different countries - Italy, the Vatican and the Knights of Malta. How cool is that!
FYI, the Aventine keyhole visit is not included in the Eating Italy tour, but Domenico kindly pointed us in its direction and off we went :)
Pssst - if you subscribe to the Eating Italy newsletter you will get a 20% discount on any food tour booked during January & February 2015! The discount is valid for any tour that you take with them through 2015 - just make sure you book before the end of February. And this is not just for a food tour in Rome. Be sure to check out their tours if you're planning to visit London, Amsterdam or Prague this year. So head over to the Eating Italy website and sign up :)
In Rome you can choose between the Testaccio Food Tour (the one we went on) or the Trastevere Tour - either during the morning or evening (when the neighbourhood comes alive and has Rome's most popular & swinging nightlife). Or sign up for a cooking class with a true blue Roman nonna (grandmother).
Every meal in Rome is precious and not to be wasted on sub-standard pizza & pasta. Get a little help and savour some authentic Roman food on your next trip. Buon appetito!
Disclosure: Our experience was made possible by Eating Italy Food Tours. Views are entirely my own.
Labels: Eating Italy Food Tour, Italy, Rome, travel