Experiencing the food scene in Italy was the only time I truly felt immersed in Italian culture. I kinda assumed that it’d be impossible to have a bad meal in Italy, but since I stayed mostly in busy tourist areas, finding “authentic” Italian food was a giant pain.
After the awesome success of my Florence food tour, I decided to hop on an Eating Europe Food Tour exploring Rome’s Trastevere neighbourhood. Trastevere was my favourite part of Rome — it’s a bit punk-ish, and a little rougher around the edges. Cobbled streets, sidewalk markets, and family-owned shops are just some of the things that make this place so special.
Mornings start with sweets
Although my tour started in the afternoon, we began the experience with a proper Italian breakfast: sweets. Pasticceria Trastevere is a bakery that’s been around since the 70s, and Signora Vera’s bignè (pastry buns filled with delicious zabaglione cream) are THE must-try.
The only thing that might top starting off a morning with cream filled pastries is Canadian bacon.
But, the coffee.
I’m not typically an espresso person — I’m more of a pot-per-day kinda person. But the espresso experience is crucial to Italian life, and warrants bit of a lesson from someone who knows. Typically: take your espresso at the counter, and drink it there. Don’t loiter too long. If you sit at a table, you’ll likely be charged extra.
If you’re sensitive to caffeine, prepare to have the most productive day you’ve ever had in your life.
The particulars of parmesan
After breakfast, we headed to Antica Caciara for salami and cheese. This is a father/son operation that’s been in business since 1900, and their cheeses come from an uncle’s farm. You’ll find this trend typical of most speciality shops; the owners can tell you exactly where their food comes from. Hell, they can probably name the cow or pig or goat or whatever.
I learned an important lesson in Rome: parmesan is only parmesan if its rind is still attached. Also, the stuff we tend to buy in North America is a poor imitation. This surprises nobody, I’m sure.
Naturally I had to take a photo of these logs of cheese, because CHEESE. God, I’m developing kidney stones just looking at this photo.
Even the Italians like deep-fried food
Supplì are deep-fried rice balls stuffed with mozzarella and sometimes a tomato meat sauce. Otherwise known as the best damned thing you’ll ever put in your face.
Supplì is considered street food, so me and my tour group picked some up at I SUPPLÌ in Trastevere and chowed down on the sidewalk outside. It’s not the kind of fast food chain you’ll find in North America, though — although you WILL find pizza, there’s also lasagna and a whole slew of other dishes.
These little suckers are surprisingly filling, and their insides are molten lava. Be warned before you bite into one.
I had no idea what porchetta was before this tour. In a nutshell, it’s a log of pork loin and belly, stuffed with herbs, rosemary, garlic, and other delights. Antica Norcineria is the place to get it in Trastevere, although you’ll likely have to compete with the locals. The place sells out of porchetta daily.
That’s because it’s renown here — the owners have their own pig farm, and the meat is sent outside of Rome twice daily to be cooked in the traditional way (slow roasted over wood). It’s moist and boneless, and despite not being a huge meat-eater myself, this turned out to be one of the best dishes I tried my entire time in Rome. I didn’t know it was possible for meat to melt in your mouth.
(That’s what she said.)
Like the other pit stops in Trastevere, this is a family-run operation. In fact, the owner’s 90-year-old mother rang up our bill as we were leaving. Apparently Italians don’t believe in retirement.
To market to market to buy a fat pig
(Or a bunch of fresh fruits and veggies.)
San Cosimato Market in Piazza di San Cosimato is the place to be for fresh produce, fruit, cheese, and prosciutto. We visited an Italian couple named Concetta and Pietro, both of whom have essentially spent their entire lives in the market. No, seriously. Concetta’s mother worked in the market, and Concetta was literally born in it. Literally. She even met Pietro there. Apparently he stalked her relentlessly until her resolve wore away.
What I love the most about Italian food is how much the fresh ingredients are valued. Biting into a juicy peach at San Cosimato Market is practically a religious experience. The food is never imported — the offerings change as the seasons change, so you always find the best of the best.
You wouldn’t know the Innocenti bakeshop was there unless a local pointed it out to you — there’s no sign, and its door is barely marked. But the Innocenti family has been making their delicious biscotti since the 20s, and their clientele is so steady, there’s no need for advertising.
Personally, I’m still not a biscotti fan. But their brutti ma buoni — translated literally to “ugly but tasty” — is a hazelnut meringue biscuit that tastes like unicorn dreams (feature photo). The biscuit is simple, but it melts on your tongue, and you’ll want to secure a large bag of these before you leave. Their giant baking oven is the only one of its kind in the world.
All good things end in wine
Obviously any food tasting experience in Rome should end with wine. All the wine. And creme brûlée.
We finished our tour at Spirito di Vino, a local restaurant and Rome’s oldest wine cellar. Once a Jewish synagogue in the 10th century, it’s also been known to harbour some artefacts older than the Colosseum — including a Roman copy of the Greek sculpture “The Disc Thrower.”
To be honest, I hardly paid attention to the wine, because I realize creme brûlée was on the menu. There are two things I refuse to turn down whenever they’re offered: creme brûlée, and tiramisu. I don’t care if either dish costs $40 a pop. I harbour a deep mistrust of those who do not think creme brûlée is the best dessert in the world.
I may have stated this loudly to the table, because my excellent guide volunteered hers to me.
“I do this tour every day — I’ll get fat!” she said. But I figure some risks are worth taking.
You can do the Trastevere For Foodies tour, too. Bring pants with an elastic waistline.