There are few countries as synonymous for their food as Italy; even before setting foot here, we were aware of how Italians cherish their food and the traditions that come with it. It seemed inevitable then, that part of our time in Italy’s capital city, Rome, would be spent checking out some of their local dishes and when we stumbled across Eating Italy we decided there was no better way to enjoy the local cuisine than on a walking foodies tour with the help of a local!
After all, if you walk in between nibbles, you’re allowed to eat more – right?
Our tour met on the benches outside a little cafe not too far from the centre of town. It was easy enough to spot but unfortunately in our haste, we jumped off at the wrong spot; we suggest you learn from our mistake and pop CityMaps2Go on your smartphone to help you find the spots you’re looking for easily.
Once we’d been introduced to one another and to our guide, Bethany, we were given some background regarding to the importance of the Testaccio area. This neighbourhood was the birthplace of cucina romana (Roman cuisine) and for this reason it is known to Romans as the heart of the city.
We soon learnt that a tour through this area would introduce us to a range of local characters, each with personalities and stories as integral to the tour as the food itself.
Our first stop was at an amazing local deli where, in the tradition of the neighbourhood, we started off by eating on the street. In years gone by, new shop owners struggled to drum up business as Italians are fiercely loyal, sticking with those they know that offer high quality produce. To counter this, new stores would offer samples to passers by in a bid to convince them of the quality of their products, hopefully winning their custom.
If I were an old-school Italian, I can tell you right now, that deli would have become my absolute favourite! Together we sampled prosciutto (literally melt-in-your-mouth good), parmigiano and truffled pecorino cheeses and salami infused with barolo wine (the best salami I’ve ever eaten!) before being invited inside to learn about the different types of balsamic vinegar (and of course, sample them). We had no idea of the range of balsamics on offer – as a general rule we learnt that the longer a balsamic is left to age, the sweeter the final product and we were introduced to a white balsamic (which was delicious – fingers crossed we can make room in our bags to take some home for Nathan).
The entire tour was supplemented with fantastic information about the produce and area, helping us to develop an understanding of how, where and why Italians eat as they do. Everything we tried came with a backstory, making this tour so much more than an extended lunch!
From there we forged on to a pizzeria where we munched on fritti (fried street food, commonly eaten as an entree to pizza) made from eggplant, peppers/capsicums and courgettes/zucchinis fried in a light batter. Though they were delicious (Nathan was excited to get his quota of vege up), the standout of this stop for me was undoubtedly the fried apple, sprinkled lightly with sugar – oh my!
After stopping off for some quintessentially Italian pizza (of which we learnt there are two different styles served here), we made our way to the Pyramid of Cestius, one of the best preserved ancient buildings in all of Rome.
This structure, of course inspired by the great pyramids of Egypt, was built approximately 12BC and has remained standing (when others have fallen) mostly thanks to its inclusion in the Aurelian Walls that provided protection to the city.
In the same area is the Cimitero Acattolico (“Non-Catholic Cemetery”), the final resting place of many poets, artists and scholars that made their way over to Rome in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. Though a visit to a cemetery may feel like an odd fit within a foodies walking tour at first, the grounds are spectacular and the site has a gorgeous calm about it, making it great place to explore in between food stops.
Ready to fill our bellies again (or pukus for you Kiwis!), we wandered over to the newly relocated local market to pick up some fresh produce. Stopping off at the fresh vegetable stall for a variety of Italian tomatoes, another with artisan crafted bread and finally a wee stand that sold fresh buffalo mozzarella (made this morning – it doesn’t get fresher), everything was whipped up into an on-the-go feast for us.
Little did we know that around the corner we were about to find the savoury highlight of the day though… Food trucks and boxes have now caught on in Italy and a team of guys at the market are taking traditional Italian nibbles and adding a modern twist to them in the best way possible. We were treated to the most delicious fried rice balls (known locally as ricetta supplì al telefono); this traditional Roman street food is stuffed with flavoured rice, mozerralla and meat before being deep fried to crispy perfection. They get their name because of the long stretchy bits of cheese that pull out as you’re eating them – just like a telephone cord (for those of us old enough to remember when we had corded phones). Regardless of whether you’re familiar with the style of phone, you almost certainly will fall in love with supplì!
Following on from the fried rice parcels, we each tried a pork dish, made up of a strip of pork enclosing bacon and cheese, lightly crumbed ready to be enjoyed. This one was another real standout of the day for the both of us – it was tasty and beautifully cooked.
Whilst at the Food Box we also sampled some local craft beer – whilst Italy isn’t generally known for its beer, breweries are now getting onboard and crafting special brews within the country, so if you’re here, be sure to try one along with the fine Italian wine on offer (oh and there was plenty of that during our lunch stop!)
As we left the Testaccio Market, we swung by what used to be the old slaughter house and saw the remains of the old clay pot factory that used to service all of Rome. In ancient times, food would be stored in ceramic pots (known as amphorae) but due to their narrow necks, they were impossible to clean; because of this, when they became too dirty to use, the pots would be dismantled and laid flat on the ground. Like a perfectly structured puzzle, layer upon layer grew until a modern-day landmark grew up from the ground – Monte Testaccio. What looks like a normal hill in this area of Rome is really a man-made mountain of discarded pottery (see the image below, it’s mind-blowing).
Sitting down in a forty year old restaurant dug into this mountain of clay we were served three traditional home-made pasta dishes (carbonara, cacio e pepe and amatriciana), accompanied by both red and white Italian wines. The dishes were all tasty, with Nathan favouring the tomato based option whilst I fell in love with the carbonara and it’s crispy bacon-cheek strips.
Off we went to one of two sweet-stations (with yelps of joy on my part!) where we started with samples of Italian pastry/pie and learnt about the ‘right way’ to drink coffee in Italy. Romans have a series of guidelines that they live by when it comes to food (each one maximising the amount of food you can eat comfortably it would appear) and coffee falls into these rules just like anything else. Freshly informed, coffees were ordered and enjoyed before moving onto our last stop on the tour…
No Italian food tour would be complete without a generous serve of gelato and thankfully our last stop took us to one of Rome’s most respected gelaterias. Much to our delight we were informed that no matter how small your gelato order, everyone is entitled by law to two flavours and a dollop of fresh cream too. Italy takes it’s gelato seriously (as they should, it’s seriously good!) We also learnt how to spot genuine gelato from the fake stuff (an important life-skill) but I won’t give that away – we’d better leave some secrets for the tour!
All food and drink was included for the length of the tour and it’s fair to say that absolutely everyone went away full. We didn’t have breakfast and didn’t need dinner until 8pm this evening!
If you’re looking for a local’s perspective in Rome and something to do that’s a little outside of the ordinary sight-seeing, we highly recommend Eating Italy. Bethany, our guide, was incredibly knowledgeable, friendly and fun and shaped the tour into the experience it was. This tour went beyond being just a walking tour to try different foods, instead offering up history lessons, tips and tricks and of course, good food, all in a relaxed and casual environment.
Eating Italy tours, cooking classes and specialty dining options are available in Rome (we went on the ‘Taste of Testaccio Food Tour‘) and also Florence and Venice. You can also explore the local sights and tastes in London, Amsterdam and Prague through Eating Europe.
Should you decide to join the fun on an Eating Italy experience, we’d strongly suggest requesting Bethany if possible – I do not doubt the other guides are just as fabulous, but she really made our tour memorable.
Thank you to Eating Italy for generously hosting us for the purpose of this review. As always, all thoughts are our own.