OK, confession time. I’ve just returned from my first solo trip to Rome, and while I could write pages upon pages about how rewarding the experience was (watch this space!), there was one thought which terrified me:
“What the heck will I do in the evenings?”
If there’s one thing I love to do after a busy day sight-seeing, it’s to reflect on it over dinner. Usually that involves company.
Now I have no qualms visiting cafes by myself. In fact, that’s part of my job as a venues editor back in Scotland (I know, tough gig eh?) and usually it’s whilst sipping on a flat white and soaking up the background noise of hissing espresso machines and strangers gossiping that some of my best work gets done. But still, the idea of eating out at night alone just seems a little more…intimidating.
I love a good blether, and while I’m sure the local waiters would have been happy to lend a sympathetic ear, I wasn’t quite so keen to gain myself a reputation as that barmy Scottish lass who doesnae know when to pipe down, ken?
Still, eating out is one of the best things about travelling. You can learn so much about a culture from its cuisine and from the way the locals interact with each other and their environment. No way was I missing out on the experience – after all, this was Italy, home to the mighty pizza and glutenous gelato!
Thankfully I stumbled upon a company called Secret Food Tours, who offer both daytime and evening tours around the culinary heart of the city.
“A walking tour centred around food?” I pondered, as my belly rumbled with excitement. “Could this be the best way to see a new city?”
The answer, I can confirm, is yes. Here’s why.
Our tour began in the beautiful Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s largest and best known squares, which is also home to Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers. I was so distracted by the scenery I nearly missed the start of the tour.
There were eight of us in the group (Two Aussies, two Texans and four Brits), and we were met by the lovely Giada, who had been living and working in Rome for the last nine years, and who had a cracking sense of humour to boot.
After telling us a little about the piazza, Giada led us to our first stop, a tiny little espresso bar just off the main square. Espressos, she laughed, were essential to daily existence here in Rome, and it’s not uncommon for locals to have four or more in a day.
As we squished into the cosy bar, the differences in coffee culture were immediately apparent. Italians, for example, do not order milk-based coffees like cappuccinos or lattes after mid-morning, but stick to the hardcore espressos. They’re also pretty scathing about adding sugar, but you can follow it up with a sip of water after if the caffeine hit is just too potent. It also costs more to sit down in the coffee bars, though you’ll often have the advantage of being brought over a platter of food to accompany your drink.
Tips when ordering coffee in Italy: If you want a simple shot of espresso, that’s a cafe espresso. A cafe macchiato comes with a dollop of foam on top. And remember that ‘latte’ in Italian simply means milk – expect a few odd looks from the barista if that’s all you order. Unless you’re serious about topping up on your calcium levels, you might want to make it a cafe latte.
With our caffeine levels suitably topped up, it was time to make the short walk over to Campo de’ Fiori to get our first proper experience of Roman pizza. Giada took us to a lovely family owned joint called Il Forno Campo de’ Fiori (literally translated as the oven of Campo de’ Fiori), which has been running for over one hundred years. Its popularity was evident from the swarms of locals vying to get a spot at the tills (always a good sign!).
Ordering pizza seemed to be an art in itself. Unless you are ordering a sit-down meal in a restaurant, pizza in Rome is not served in the traditional round shape we are used to seeing back home. Instead, it is sold in long, rectangular strips and is bought by weight rather than by the slice. This seemed to involve a lot of fast talking and elaborate hand gestures, and I was pretty glad we had our guide on board to help us out!
Because it was so busy inside, we had our pizza out in the square. With the sun coming down over the ancient townhouses, it was hard to imagine a more idyllic setting:
Giada had chosen three simple pizza breads for us to try; a plain focaccia (just olive oil and a sprinkling of salt), one which came with a simple marina sauce and a classic margarita (mozzarella, tomato and basil). All three were delicious but the margarita won it for me. I was surprised by the simplicity of the pizzas here, but as Giada pointed out, Italians don’t believe in embellishments. “You won’t find any Meat Feasts here!” she laughed, and it’s just as well. The thin, crispiness of the dough, which is specific to Roman pizzas, was also a revelation.
Tips when ordering pizza in Italy: Be careful if you a like a bit of sausage on your pizza here – ‘pepperoni’ in Italian means the same as capsicum peppers in English. Check the menu before ordering meat options!
Next up was Cooperative Latte Cisternino, a traditional little cheesemonger just off the main piazza. The shelves were densely packed with an array of cheeses from across Italy, but we were here to try burrata, which comes from the South East. The burrata was a creamy cheese, very similar to mozzarella, but perhaps a little richer. Rumour has it that the buffalo are given massage treatments in order to produce the best possible flavour. Happy cows = happy customers. Who knew?
From the cooperative, we moved on to Supplizio, which was by far my favourite stop on the tour. This little hole-in-the-wall bistro could have been easily missed from the outside, but was simply beautiful inside, with ancient stone walls and a cosy intimate setting. It would be the perfect place for a romantic evening out – though perhaps the young couple who were there at the time might disagree, as they were forced to surrender half of their table to our group. Nothing like a bit of human contact, eh?
Supplizio specialise in making artisan suppli (otherwise known as arancini), which are deep fried risotto balls packed with mozzarella and pigs cheek (yes, really!) and quite possibly my new favourite thing ever. Suppli are a traditional Italian snack food, but I’d have no objection to having them on their own as a meal. We tried two different versions, the suppli bianco which is the classic version, made with risotto rice, parmesan, mozzarella and egg, and also suppli rosso, which has a red sauce running through it. Both were fab, but if I had a knife to my back, I’d probably choose the rosso.
By this point, we were in need of something light, and so it was somewhat of a relief when Giada suggested we indulge our sweet tooth a little. She led us on to I Dolce di Nonna Vincenza, which again was a lovely little family-run number, this time specialising in all things sweet and cakey. I was close to glazing over myself as I gazed into the glass cabinets and the sugary delights before me…
Left to my own devices, I could have done some serious damage in this place. Thankfully, we had an agenda to follow. We were here to sample one thing and one thing only; the cannoli. I’d never had cannoli before, but one bite into the crispy shell, filled to the brim with sweet ricotta cheese, and I was an instant convert. There are plenty of places all over Rome serving cannoli – you can find them dipped in pistachio and hazelnut and laced with chocolate, but if I’m honest, I loved the simplicity of Nonna’s traditional recipe. As they say, if it ain’t broke….
Keeping up with the dessert theme, we were then treated to a wine and cheese tasting at the nearby Beppe e i Suoi Formaggi. Beppe had laid on a fine spread for us, with three different cheeses to sample, along with a pineapple chutney and a sweet dessert wine. I have to admit, I was a bit sceptical about the combination, but all three flavours balanced each other nicely, and the pineapple chutney was heavenly.
By this point I was close to bursting, and it was hard to believe we still had an hour left to go! I had reached the stage in the evening my family would traditionally refer to as ‘Swadge Time’. Swadging is an important custom in the Gray family household. It’s that time between courses when you simply cannot continue, but when you’re not quite ready to give in yet. Usually, you’d grab yourself a wee gin and tonic or laze about on the sofa groaning until the feeling of over-indulging has subsided enough for you to continue gorging. It’s vital to the continuation of a good meal, and I was glad that this mentality could transcend countries and cultures too, for Giada had clearly thought ahead.
Rather than ploughing straight into the next venue, we were given the chance to wander the narrow back streets of the Centro Storico and burn off a few calories as we meandered around stunning courtyards and past galleries and workshops, where local artists were still at work late into the evening. I love the complexity and intricacy of Rome’s design. It is, as Giada pointed out, a bit like a slice of lasagne, with layers upon layers to explore. Every doorway we passed seemed to give way to a secret world.
Finally, we found ourselves in the Jewish ghetto, a bustling part of the city with a great smattering of restaurants and an interesting history. Here, Giada had booked us into a traditional trattoria where had the chance to sit down and get to know each other whilst sampling two different types of pasta, cacio e pepe (a really simple dish – literally just cheese, olive oil and black pepper), and matriciana, which was cooked with a rich, tomato sauce. Naturally, both were cooked to perfection, done al dente. The Italians don’t believe in overcooking pasta – as Giada pointed out, “You’re not making a soup!”. Quite right!
After the truly torturous process of sampling the pastas and polishing off a nice bottle of red (hey, I can’t help if more people prefer white…), it was on to the final stop of the night, the one I had been looking forward to from the start, the Gelateria Artigianale Corona. Here, we were told about the different ways you can spot real gelato from the fake stuff – just because a place uses the tag ‘artigianale’ does not necessarily mean it is serving you the real deal! Real gelato should be freshly made, using natural ingredients. As well as the containers it is stored in (look out for the round rather than rectangular trays), you can usually use colour as a good indication. If the gelato is too bright or garish, the chances are it’s a fake. Pistachio gelato, for example, should be a pale, nutty colour, never green! Suitably reassured that we were about to be served the real deal, the only dilemma was which flavours to pick. I went for chocolate and pistachio. Despite being incredibly full, they went down a treat. As I used to say as a child “but mum, there’s aaaaaaalways room for ice cream!!”.
There was a genuine sense of sadness in the air as our tour came to an end. Bonding over food is always going to be a winner, and it was lovely to meet a group of like-minded travellers, who despite coming from all different walks of life, shared an affinity for travel and culture. The route we took introduced me to several parts of the city I might never have discovered on my own, and really helped to give me a sense of bearing for the rest of my trip. Of course, it also left me with plenty of inspiration for places to eat and things to order.
As well as getting to sample amazing Italian dishes, we were given the chance to get to know more about this beautiful city and the local culture. All of this would not have been possible had it not been for the company of Giada, whose warm personality, local knowledge and genuine enthusiasm made it an absolute blast from start to finish.
I can’t recommend Secret Food Tours enough, but don’t just take my word for it – they come really highly recommended on TripAdvisor and Facebook too. The Rome tour costs 69 euros per adult, but they also offer tours across Europe which would be well worth checking out! You can visit their website here for more information.