I’m not one for group tours, but Eating Europe Food Tours is the exception. Their shtick is to take a small group of travelers, say six, to lesser-traveled neighborhoods in tourist favorites to get a taste (no pun intended) of local life and the food they actually eat. (Perhaps a drink or two or five gets thrown in, as well.)
Suffice it to say, Eating Europe nails it. After joining them for their Twilight Soho Food Tour in London and now their Testaccio Supper Stroll in Rome, I feel I’m on the verge of becoming a groupie with my eye on their remaining tours in Amsterdam, Florence and Prague.
But first, Testaccio.
You begin, logically enough, at Piazza Testaccio. Unlike any corner I had seen thus far in Rome, it was quiet despite perfectly temperate weather and the elsewhere busy early evening hour. Had there been no tour, the piazza would have been left to some kids running around and the occasional pedestrian passerby. Unlike the many impressive and gallant piazzas scattered around the city, this had a much more modest feel like it belonged in a residential neighborhood.
Our guide, Katie, was a young American transplant to Rome who opted to stay in the city after finishing her college degree. Only her parents seem to have questioned what she’s really doing in Rome.
“I tell my parents, ‘I give food tours around Rome for a living,’ and they don’t believe me,” she said.
To be fair, it is a pretty envious gig.
“Hey! Want to walk around one of the world’s preeminent walking cities, eat arguably the most renowned cuisine and get paid?”
We started the evening right on the piazza with L’Oasi Della Birra. Following Katie, we snaked our way through the café entrance and down into the centuries-old basement to start our aperitivo (Italian for “eating and drinking before dinner”) with an Aperol Spritz. The drink comes from Venice when it was in the Habsburg’s Austrian Empire of the 1800s. The story goes that Habsburg transplants into the Veneto region weren’t accustomed to the higher alcohol content of the local wines, so they’d ask servers to spray a bit of water (spritzen in German) to make the drink a bit lighter. The tradition has since spread throughout Italy with every city and town coming up with their own take.
We continued down the block to Mastro Donato, a street food favorite that serves up a glass of Prosecco to wash it down. (Italian champagne, if you want to get smacked.) Chef Donato himself is the guy anyone wants in their neighborhood running a restaurant. Just as we’re getting the spiel about how much of a local favorite Donato’s is, we got our proof when the Chef started barking at a passing stranger to come back so he could give the young man a sample from his shop. But more often than not, Chef Donato knew who was walking by, shaking hands and patting backs.
“If he doesn’t know you, he stops you and gets to know you,” Katie explained. “He knows everybody in this neighborhood.”
Onward to Taverna Volpetti for a tagliere tasting of cured meats and local cheeses. On the animal front, there was lardo di Colonnata, culatello di Zibello and salami di cinghiale. Our sommelier walked us through his wine selection and pairing process. When he sniffed the cork after opening a bottle, it wasn’t just for show. He’d dump a bottle if something smelled off before giving us a terse lecture on Italian eating etiquette.
“Your mouth isn’t a blender,” he said, openly willing to scold anyone who can’t pause between chewing and taking a sip of their wine. “It drives me nuts.”
By now most of us within our small group were already getting the sense of how aperitivo can be stretched into dinner. We took a short break at Monte dei Cocci (or Monte Testaccio) — a tremendous man-made mound of amphorae that date back to the Roman Empire, covering an area of 20,000 square meters. Overtime the mound gained various religous and military significance, but throughout the centuries it has remained at its core a curious spectacle of what essentially boils down to Roman trash.
Next up was Ristorante Angelina for some truly Roman specialties. I’m not talking about the farfalle pasta that you tell a kid is a fancy bow tie to make them feel special. I’m talking about trippa alla romana (tripe) and coda all vaccinara (oxtail). Tripe, for those unaware, is the edible lining of a cow’s stomach.
While perhaps not the most appetizing sounding meals to those who have never had to worry about their next meal, these were dishes created by Italian butchers to get through hard times. They sold the good stuff to make money then sent the rest of the animal back home for their wives to turn into something edible. Now that we realize the pleasure that can be derived from so-called peasant food, tripe and oxtail have become obligatory staples on a Roman menu.
Of course culinary tastes evolve. Street food, or what some of us remember as college food, is as popular as ever. The Roman variety is the trapizzino served up at its namesake (Trapizzino Roma) on Giovannia Branca. Basically it’s a pizza pocket with thick, juicy pieces of chicken that, like at the aforementioned Angelina’s, is happily branded cucina povera or kitchen of the poor. An accompanying craft beer completes the gut bomb.
Naturally we had to stop for some gelato to bring the evening home. Giolitti on the edge of Testaccio has been making proper gelato since 1914. And proper gelato, we learned, is not the fluffy-looking stuff. That’s a presentation trick. Katie estimated that nearly 80 percent of the city’s gelato is “fake,” tarnished with unnatural flavors, chemicals, and air that gives the gelato that pillow shape. Real gelato should consist of only natural ingredients, like banana and mint. (Mint, by the way, should be white, not green.) In other words, run for the hills when you see a gelato the color of Papa Smurf’s ass.
Giolitti, of course, is all about making authentic gelato in an atmosphere that feels ripped right out of the early 20th century. In all I couldn’t think of a better way to end the evening.
Another Eating Europe Food Tour and another happy belly.
Disclaimer: I joined as a guest of Eating Europe Food Tour. As always, all opinions are my own.