I came to Rome full of the best intentions. I had itineraries and back up itineraries. I memorized the train system and my requisite five words of Italian to communicate to locals that I did not speak Italian but grazie, grazie, grazie.
And, of course, when you come to Rome you must see the big sites. There’s the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the endless amounts of beautiful churches crammed into every corner of the city. Indeed, every step you take will be dogged by people trying to sell you their ticket to whatever attraction you’re breathing closest to. What could be more unimaginable than coming to Rome and missing any of the above?
Easy. Not enjoying deeply, thoroughly, and intimately the delicacies Rome has to offer.
Food tours always fill me with a certain amount of dread. I’m a vegetarian and I’m often in cities where a) I don’t speak the language and b) the food being pushed on tourists is chock full of the strange bits of animals. After a few hours (ok, minutes) of research, I found this tour company- Eating Italy Food Tours which allows you to declare anything that needs to be known about your eating habits. I chose the Sunday Rome tour, dropped the veg-bomb and away we go.
Rome is the sort of place where just walking to the supermarket invites you to trip over some fabulously beautiful and ancient piece of architecture. So, on our walk to the meeting point, our day was already well on its way to being dazzling as we strolled past unpronounceable piazzas. Fortunately, despite our delightful tour guide’s promise to keep the history talk to a minimum, Chiara provided us with enough context to enjoy the walk between mouth-stuffing moment to moment.
But, on to the good stuff. Holy cow, did we eat. In a city where I had done little more than inhale pizza Margherita and Prosecco for the previous three days, I didn’t think I could be much more impressed. I’m happy to report I was wrong.
Our first stop was the Roscioli Caffè Pasticceria where we indulged in what Italians have a true skill in- decadent, delicious pastries for breakfast. Enjoy a beautiful, creamy maritozzo. The slightly sweet, puffed pastry is soft enough to not squeeze the delicate whipped cream out into your face as you might think it would at first glance. (Though, full disclosure, when I went back later for seconds, I did have an embarrassing moment when the barista asked me a question while I had the cream on the tip of my nose.)
After a quick lesson on the Roscioli food empire, the tour moves on to the nearby pizzeria owned by the same family, Antico Forno Roscioli. Here, pizza is served the way Romans like, by the slice. But, in case you didn’t know, these are no namby-pamby triangular slices like we’ve come to expect in the U.S. Instead, Romans indicate by weight or price how much pizza they’d like and then it’s cut to serve. Sink your teeth into pizza margherita and simple pizza bianca so perfectly savory, it’ll move you to tears. Perfectly crispy, thin crust with ingredients that are fresh and local- this is a pizzeria not to be missed and what every tourist hopes to uncover.
One oft-overlooked portion of Roman history is the Jewish history. But missing that history on a food tour is unforgivable. Chiara took us into the former Jewish ghetto and explained some of the particular points of history that lead to the rise of Jewish-Roman cuisine as it is today. I won’t spoil the surprise for you. Suffice it to say, everything is fried and, thus, everything is delicious. The tour does a great job of switching back and forth between sweet and savory and that holds true in the Jewish quarter as well.
As a person fairly dedicated to budget travel, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself seated at the well-coifed Ba’Ghetto (milky) where we were served artichoke in a way I was a wholly unfamiliar with. The double-fried smashed open ‘choke more closely resembled a sunflower than what it actually was. Crispy on the outside while meaty on the inside and, of course, drowning in olive oil, it was the perfect savory treat paired with a nice pinot grigio.
A few doors down, a line 2-dozen deep was queued for the Cake Boss-esque Kosher Cakes. The secret is to move just to the right of them and step into the smaller, more unassuming section of the bakery. Because this was a Sunday, the welcoming, wide-grinned proprietress stood out front dropping honeyed batter with dried fruits into a deep fryer. She pulled the delightful, sinful nuggets out before topping them with a simple icing and handing the whole package to each of us in a napkin. Readers, when I tell you my clumsy grazie was not enough, it was not enough. I don’t know what it was she served me and I don’t care. She is a gift and what she gives you is a treasure.
After much cheek-kissing and rubber-necking, we made our way to our penultimate stop.
Open Baladin is an early leader in the Italian craft beer scene. Through clever marketing and truly intelligent product development, the Baladin business is booming. Here we enjoyed a thoroughly Italian beer by the name of nazionale and cacio e pepe potato balls. The cheesy, bite of the potatoes was an especially intelligent pairing with the beer. I won’t embarass myself by trying to describe it. Just know, it’s worth your time.
At this point, we’re all pretty much stuffed. Finishing our beers was tough enough. However, when Chiara mentioned gelato we all managed to perk up for one last round the way you only can when really good dessert is on the line.
Gelateria del Teatro overlooks the River Tiber and, as your guide will tell you, is all real. Now me, I don’t like ill-defined words. After I asked for clarification on what a real gelateria is Chiara gravely informed me that some (much less noble gelaterias) have stooped to using powdered ingredients in their (shamefully fluffy) gelato. Carlos at Gelateria del Teatro, on the other hand, has his gelato made every day in the attached workshop with real locally sourced ingredients. The pale green of the pistachio (sourced from Sicily) and the density of the cream let you know you’re working with the real deal.
It was here, with much regret, that we finally split ways with our delightful host and the treasures she revealed to us. After the tour, I’m afraid I turned into an incontrovertible Roman food snob. Who could be so passé as to eat the swill passing for pizza near the Trevi fountain when the perfect pizza by the slice is a mere twenty-minute walk away? My formerly lukewarm relationship with Italian food has been blown away by this incandescent three-hour walk through Rome. All this to say, friends, when in Rome, do as the Romans do- eat. And, eat well.