Rome is romance. Besides the uplit temples at night, beautiful singing accents, soft and sweeping landscapes and smiles of a beautiful people, food may be the ultimate romance. The Italians equate food with love and show it in so many ways.
Rome’s reputation as a cuisine capital was enticing me to explore its specialties. I decided to splurge and eat the best of what Rome could offer that day. A four-hour walking tour of one of Rome’s hottest spots for food was exactly what my foodie spirit was craving.
The tour met in the neighborhood of Testaccio. Over 2000 years ago, it was Rome’s Food Emporium where the food arrived from afar for distribution. Chock full of family run businesses, many that have spanned generations, this funky yet hip neighborhood has it all.
Our enthusiastic guide Bo, was quick with the little known historical and trivial facts. She whisked us in and out of shops introducing us to the locals and handing out tastes every 15 minutes it seemed.
Warning! There are an abundance of food photos. You may go on a binge after viewing!
My favorite stop – Volpetti, gourmet store extreme. If you are in Rome, do not miss this shop! With a proud history since 1973 of carrying the best and finest, you can find an almost infinite variety of cheeses and salamis, truffles galore, 100-year-old balsamic vinegar, gorgeous salads and more. According to the Volpetti brothers, “The major inspiration of all this activity is the ‘style’ (the philosophy) of Volpetti: to rediscover the ancient flavors and to create a culture of eating well.”
We are set free for a meager five minutes of tasting and admiring in this tiny jam-packed shop.
To digest our tastes so far, we take a stroll through the gorgeous “Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Rome,” which sits next to a giant pyramid – really. The story goes that the Pyramid of Cestius was built around 14 B.C. as a tomb for Gaius Cestius, by someone who may have been stationed at one time in Egypt. It is one of the best preserved tombs in Rome and is not open to the public.
Testaccio Market is 99 years old. The old market that had no power or refrigeration was recently moved to the new site. Oddly, as they built it, they uncovered multiple amphoras or vases revealing it might have been the site of a market long ago. Now it is home to 103 family owned businesses. All the produce is organic – yeah – in season and Italian.
One fun story we learned from Bo is that in the early days of tomatoes in Rome, the Vatican actually told the people not to eat them because they were too sexy! The average Italian eats 195 pounds of fresh tomatoes per year and three times that amount of gelato.
In the market we taste fresh bruschetta, caprese salad and the best cannoli my taste buds have ever experienced.
Enzo and Elene, the butcher and cheesemaker are the cutest couple. Married 40 years and in business 30, their broad smiles show they still love what they are doing. They treat us to a caprese salad of buffalo mozarella made fresh 12 hours ago in Napoli – such a treat.
Another walk makes room for a fresh pasta lunch. We pass by the original slaughterhouse, the size of four football fields. The butchers were not paid in cash but only in the poor cuts of meat, the brain, snout, tripe, tongue, tail, and offal. The wives were forced to create recipes to make these cuts taste good. These cuts were called Le Quinto Quarto or the fifth quarter. The quarter that does not count. Alas, how some of the classic Roman recipes came about like Osso Buco and tripe. This ancient house of history was not closed down officially until 1975.
Across the street lies a tall hill. This hill is layered with pottery shards. Back in the ancient days, Romans used amphoras to carry oil, water and wine. Each Roman family went through around 1,010 amphoras per year and due to breakage, needed a place to dispose of the broken pieces. This Monte Testaccio became the collection point for probably millions of old, broken vases. Unknowingly, they were creating the perfect wine storage facility. The temperature at the bottom of the hill is ideal for wine keeping. Now osterias which are simple, inexpensive restaurants, wine cellars and trattorias all back into this hill. The wine is happy and when it is hot in summer, it provides a cool retreat.
We are treated to a taste of homemade pastas:caio e pepe- pepper and romano and pecorino cheeses; amatriciana – pancetta and tomato sauce and carbonara – bacon, eggs, Parmigiano and garlic. Bo shares with us that when you cook the pasta al dente, it is less fattening and has a lower glycemic index value than overcooked pasta. I’m down for more pasta in my diet!
Even though our bellies are swelling, we must try a suppli in an inconspicuous joint that looks like a hole in the wall. The New York Times wrote up 00100 Pizza as an up and coming establishment with an owner who takes traditional Italian recipes and makes them gourmet. Suppli is a Roman favorite of risotto mixed with ingredients like beef, onions, carrots and parmesano formed into an egg shape, rolled in bread crumbs and deep-fried. You must eat them hot! One bite and you are hooked. Soft and creamy on the inside, a crunchy shell on the outside. I am in foodie heaven!
Last but not least, we get a gelato education. We learn that 85% of the gelato in Rome is made with a powdered mix and not true to tradition. Look for these clues to tell the difference:
Color. The color should reflect the true color of the fruit or nut. No lime green pistachio or bright yellow banana. Mint should be white, not green.
Height. The gelato that looks beautiful and is piled into wavy mounds is not real! It is made with powder and is full of air.
The real stuff will not exceed the container height. Bo tells us that in Rome, by law, you must get two flavors!
Flavio, the gelato maker loves his creations and when you order, if the two flavors do not harmonize, he will send you the end of the line to reconsider your decision!
Flavio’s family are fourth generation gelato makers, in business since 1914, so they really know how to make the very best. Giottit’s is the place to go!
So now I have an education about Italian food and history that leaves me hungry for more – not necessarily more food but more knowledge. I must say that this was the most fun I had in Rome.
“Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” – Federico Fellini
Ciao and Love for Now!