I know, it’s nearly the New Year and I haven’t posted anything since September, which is unforgivable. My new strategy is to try and catch up with alternately posts from this summer and fall, with current posts that are happening right now. With any luck I’ll be caught up in a few months, we’ll see. I could go on giving excuses about guests, and work, and technical difficulties, but lets skip that and get started with some new content. Let me begin catching up with one of my favorites that included great friends, a beautiful day, and best of all – fantastic food.
Warning: this post may cause snacking and/or unrequited cravings.
Close your eyes and think about Italy. If you actually did it, then images of ruins, art, beaches, gondolas, and high heels probably flashed before your eyes. (If you’ve been here then you probably also thought of graffiti and crowds.) But if there is one thought about Italy that unifies us all, it’s the food.
Pasta, pizza, gelato, and cappuccino are among the main specialties that have made a name for themselves across the oceans, and made Italian food so synonymous with international hums of delight and whatever the local equivalents are for “yum.” But I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that Italian food is worth the travel. What I do have to tell you is that it can be somewhat difficult and overwhelming to find quality Italian food on the typical Rome-in-three-days tour. It’s too easy to give into the restaurant barkers, sit down in a crowded piazza for exhaustion’s sake, and have a sub-par wallet busting meal that didn’t come close to meeting your expectations. That’s why food tours are such an excellent idea.
We should have gone on one of these months earlier. I knew about the food tours and told my husband, “we should go someday…,” but it was our friends Amy and Sue, who were visiting for the week, that brought it up with enthusiasm. Sometimes it takes finite amounts of time to get things done.
So it was settled, we chose from one of the several food tour groups online (Eating Italy Food Tour, check out their website), and booked our tickets about a week in advance for the 10:30am tour in the foodie neighborhood of Testaccio. Just a few things to note:
- DO NOT EAT before the tour, in fact, you should probably just have a light dinner the night before. It stretches for hours, but there are approximately a dozen courses, and you will be full for the rest of the day.
- If you are doing the Testaccio food tour (which is what this post is about) make sure you have plenty of time to get there. It’s on the south side of Rome during morning rush hour.
- Bring a bottle of water, there aren’t many chances to get water on the tour. It’s especially necessary during the summer months.
- I’m giving away a few names of the places we visited, but I wouldn’t try to use this post as a self-guided tour. Most of the samples we were given were unique to the tour, and it would take significantly more time and money to accomplish the same schedule on your own.
A bit of history on Testaccio: Testaccio is a traditional working class neighborhood, mostly developed in the 1920s, in the southern end of Rome, on the east bank of the river Tiber. On the surface this neighborhood is rather unimpressive. There are no grand monuments or charming ivy clad streets. Piazzas tend to be more on the utilitarian side, there are far fewer hotels, and besides our group of twelve, there were almost no tourists. What makes this neighborhood so special is the trade it’s been involved in for so long, food. Using the few advantages of having a neighborhood slaughterhouse and attracting early wine enthusiasts with Monte Testaccio, the food industry has lived and innovated, and shaped the way modern Romans eat.
Our group gathered at a coffee bar in Piazza Testaccio. This used to be where the main market was located, but since then the market had recently moved to more modern facilities. We couldn’t see much through the construction fences, but it seems the piazza was being made over into a small park. It should be finished by now.
We met our guide, who was an entertaining Italian-American ex-pat (would he be called an American-Italian now?) who moved to Italy to live the dream over a decade ago. After some introductions we set off on our first stop around the corner which was an unassuming pastry shop for a fluffy little cup of bite size tiramisu.
(I apologize for the picture quality but this was a camera phone kind of day.)
In case you have never tried tiramisu – in which I feel sorry for you, it’s one of life’s joys – it’s a cake/torte made of lady fingers, marscapone cheese, cocoa powder, and soaked with espresso. This one was also fitted inside a small chocolate cup, overall a delightful breakfast.
We moved around the corner to Volpetti, a Naples style pizza establishment that is consistently rated as one of the top five pizza places in Rome.
I’ve explained this before, but it’s important to repeat myself, not all Italian pizza is the same. In Rome, there are two main types of pizza, al forno which is the thin crusted round pizza, and al taglio which is a thicker crust and cut to be sold by the weight. Down south in Naples, where pizza was invented, they make a medium, chewy, and more internationally recognizable pizza. This is because it was the Neapolitans who immigrated in great numbers across the globe decades ago and opened many pizza establishments in their wake. Volpetti’s pizza is the closest I’ve seen in Rome to a Naples style pizza, which in my opinion is the best. Although there are several al taglio places that are fantastic as well. We all had a small, warm, and chewy-gooey slice of margherita pizza (mozzarella, basil, and tomato) and swooned a little.
Afterwards we walked around another corner and came across another shop that was also under the name E. Volpetti. This is a shop that has taken advantage of its proximity to so many different food artisans and has a reputation for selling some of the highest quality meat, cheese, and wine in the city. But what makes them unique are the men behind the counter. They hand out so many samples that a trip to Volpetti could be the equivalent to a small meal. But don’t try to take advantage, if you’ve just sampled a dozen cheeses, try to buy something . Here, we sampled freshly shaved melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto, savory wine cured salami, crumbly triangles of certified parmesan, and complex truffle infused cubes of pecorino romano. I’m typing this six months later and the memory is still fresh, it’s a wonder I only left with two small wedges of cheese, one tube of salami, and one bottle of dessert wine.
Our guide gave us a break at this point and took us to see a few of the highlights of Testaccio. Among them the Pyramid of Cestius and the Protestant Cemetary, which sounds macabre but was actually quite beautiful.
A short walk brought us to the next courses of the tour at the new Testaccio Market. The old market was long gone by the time I got here, so I have nothing to compare it to except the outdoor markets of my neighborhood which do not compare. This market is housed in an open air permanent structure, with wide aisles and white washed supports. My first thought was “clean.” Which is definitely not one’s first thought when visiting the temporary streetside competition. My second, third, and fourth thoughts were all through my nose and eyes, because these aisles and aisles of stalls were piled high colorful fresh produce, steaming baked goods, and some curious butcher stalls.
We had several stops in these stalls that included goodies like:
Everything was ridiculously fresh. We could still taste the sunshine in the tomatoes, and feel the warmth in the freshly handmade cannoli. Infact, the cannoli stand especially deserves another visit, if you’re interested check out Dess’Art. If you would like more info on the Testaccio Market, which is a destination all its own, check out this blog which gives a lot more detail. I was too busy chewing to take it all in.
Five more courses lay ahead, but we were getting dangerously full so our guide took us on a charming stroll on the grounds of the abandoned slaughterhouse. Now it seems to be a bit of an art gallery, or at least it was when we were there, but this place was relevant to our visit. If you have been to Rome or a Roman style restaurant, you may be familiar with cuts of meat like guanciale and pancetta, which are delicious and featured in many pasta dishes. And if you have ever visited a Roman butchers shop you may have been a bit distressed and/or impressed by the availability offal ingredients like trippa (cow’s stomach) and cervello (brains). Places like the Testaccio slaughterhouse are part of that heritage, because the lower class workers would bring home these discarded cuts and organs and try their best to make them edible. This resulted in some of the best food in Italy… and it also resulted in me tapping my chin at my grocery store when I am faced with cellophane wrapped hearts, lungs, and esophaguses next to the ground beef.
So on that note, we set off for the next restaurant to eat pasta – really, really good pasta. This was the heaviest portion of our day, and I advise to keep the servings at sample size. We were taken to a restaurant located inside Monte Testaccio, but more on that later. Once inside we were served family sized portions of:
If you aren’t licking your screen then you should be, all three are delicious. I was in a bit of a food coma after this, but I remember taking time to admire Monte Testaccio outside the restaurant. Which is a mountain that was made out of broken and discarded pottery during Roman times, about two thousand years ago. Since then it has been used on and off throughout the centuries as wine storage. Now restaurants and bars take advantage of its natural air conditioning during the summer.
Our next stop was something I had been looking forward to since we booked the tour – Suppli! This is just one of the dishes that I’m not sure I will ever see again outside Italy, and I know I’m not skilled enough to recreate on my own. Which is sad, because it is one of my favorites.
They don’t look like much, but these little fried rice balls deserve a place in the fried food hall of fame. On this occasion we were served Genovese style suppli. Where the rice was slow cooked with vegetables, spices, and ham, and then rolled into a ball and deep fried. I’ll be honest and say this wasn’t my favorite flavor, but it was still quite good. (So far the best Suppli I’ve had is at Pizzarium on the other side of town.)
Last, but absolutely not least was gelato. Our guide sat us down in the patio outside the shop and gave us a run-down of what makes a good gelato and bad gelato. A simple trick to telling the difference between bad and good gelato is its height. Does the shape resemble Marge Simpson’s hair-do? Is that the actual color of the flavor? (hint: mint and pistachio do not naturally make green gelato). Does it appear frothy? Then this is:
Venders do a great job of dressing it up and making it look like an irresistible confection, but these lack flavor since they are made with powders, and dyes, and whipped into oblivion to appear appetizing. See the picture above – gelato is never blue.
Good gelato is made daily with natural flavors. Frozen desserts made with milk, eggs, sugar, fruits and/or chocolate should be fairly dense and have tremendous flavor. This is what a gelato case should look like:
I believe I had amarena which is black cherry with fiordilatte which is kind of a sweetened cream flavor. Soooo good. I will be doing a thorough gelato post before this is all over because I have so much more to say about this.
This is where we parted, full and happy for the rest of the day. Since taking this tour I’ve become enthusiastic in recommending it to people that are visiting, and I plan on taking one of their Trastevere tours in the near future. It takes at least half the day, but you leave with a much better understanding of this significant part of Roman culture, and tasty memories that may even be better than that museum line you planned on spending the day in.
Did you guys miss me? Is anyone still there?
Until next time, Ciao!