I’m a big lover a of Italian cuisine, but I’ll be fully honest – I wasn’t entirely sure, after years of eating in crappy chain Italian restaurants in the UK what was authentic and what wasn’t. Added to the rumours I’d heard that central Rome was a massive tourist trap when it came to great food and I was ready to take an experts view on what to eat when I went on my recent Rome City Break.
Attracted by pictures of ALL THE FOOD and the pretty reasonable prices, I decided to book on to one of Eating Europe’s four Rome food tours. Led by our excellent guide Francesco, we toured some of the best spots outside the main city, tried some things I thought I’d never eat and learnt more about Rome food culture than I thought possible. Oh, and of course enjoyed an aperitivo or two!
Here’s what happened on our food tour of Testaccio.
Although it’s outside of the main drag of Rome, and not close to any of the big ticket tourist sites, Testaccio still enjoys a pretty central location. It was about 30 minutes walk from our hotel next to the Pantheon, along the river and accessible by both metro and a 12EUR taxi. Testaccio is a working class neighbourhood, and not touristy at all, with its history very related to food (and terracotta).
In fact, it’s likely you’d only venture to Testaccio for the food as it doesn’t have many sights of note. You can see both the Pyramid (yes, an actual pyramid), and Monte Testaccio for which it’s mainly known. In Roman times the remains of broken terracotta vessels were stacked here when they realised they couldn’t keep dumping them in the river, creating the artificial Testaccio hill. Today this hill gives us loads of clues about ancient everyday Roman life.
But in essence, this is where people live. The square that we met in had couples meeting, children playing with balls and people returning from work, starting to pop into little bolt-holes for their post work aperitivo. Because of this the food is about a million times more delicious and authentic!
L’Oasi della Birra
First up, we visited L’Oasi della Birra to start our own journey with an aperitivo (or in my case two, as Andrew isn’t a fan of the Aperol Spritz). This was still family run and we were led downstairs to a cellar room with lots of tables and chairs (and our spritz waiting for us!)
As we sipped our drinks, Francesco explained that whilst Osteria and Trattoria are now almost interchangeable names for casual restaurants, an Osteria used to be just wine bars with cheap wine. They operated effectively as old school men’s clubs, all with cellars with big wine tanks.
In the 50s, the current family started serving beers, and it became much more known for beer in the local area (hence the name), but you can of course find wine and aperitifs here too.
Now we were all warmed up, we moved just a few doors down to Mastro Donato which had opened especially for us. Here’s a thing to know – in Rome, most locals do not eat until at least 8.30pm, and lunch is between 1pm and 3pm. It’s another good way of spotting a restaurant that is largely serving the tourist trade – can you get a full dinner at 6pm?
I digress. Mastro Donato is known for pizza, but also its deep fried food which is a very typical Roman way to eat. Here we tried a left over risotto deep fried with cheese, known as Suppli. The working classes of Rome did not want to waste any food, so deep frying risotto and making something else delicious was what they did. Nowadays it’s made with fresh risotto, but the origins of this food are clear to see.
Here, I also learnt that fizzy drinks like prosecco are good with fried food. Who am I to argue?!
Francesco took us deeper into the neighbourhood for our next stop at a wonderful delicatessen with tables and chairs where you can enjoy anti-pasti and wine in a cosy setting. Masto source all their products directly from small farmers across Italy and we were treated to a tasting plate of some of the best produce they offer. We tried:
- Prosciutto from the south of Lazio
- Cazolette from the north of Italy
- Buffalo mozzarella from Peastum in the south (where the Buffalo sleep on mattresses and listen to classical music)
- Mortadella from Bologna
Finally, we were treated to some high quality pecorino cheese which absolute blew me away.
It was a simple plate, but the local quality of ingredients were far superior than anything we’d tried in Rome so far. I also learnt that having honey with cheese is truly delicious and that’s something I’ll try at home!
After the tasters we’d had so far, we were more than ready for what I would describe as the main event. Because I possess a bottomless pit of a stomach. I digress, we headed to an amazing restaurant called Angelina which has been built right in Monte Testaccio. The ambience is definitely what I’d describe as “greenhouse chic” – lots of windows, white wood and greenery, with candles dotted around. It would definitely suit both romantic couples and larger groups of friends. By this stage I was about 6 drinks down so didn’t snap any restaurant photos. FAIL!
We started with a classic Roman pasta dish – Cacio e Pepe. Simple pecorino cheese, black pepper and olive oil was so delicious I wondered why we ever went to the effort of making sauces at home. But I’ll bet that it’s almost impossible to recreate authentically!
Next, it was time to put my big girl pants on and try something different. Oxtail and tripe are big news in traditional Roman cuisine (cheaper cuts for working class families), and despite what my brain was telling me, I got stuck in. The oxtail was delicious. Rich and coming straight off the bone it melted in my mouth and I went in for seconds. It was that good.
The tripe took a bit more convincing, largely because I grew up feeding it to my dog (and the smell of my childhood was pretty overwhelming). I closed my eyes and went for it, and actually it wasn’t terrible. It was also slow cooked in a tomato based sauce, and whilst not as succulent as the oxtail, it was definitely not hong like what I’d fed to my dog 25 years ago!
So after the main course where do you go? For gelato, that’s where and Giolitti’s in Testaccio is pretty serious about it too. Since 1908 they’ve been making real deal gelato in the neighbourhood, and we were asked to select two flavours to try (it’s apparently a crime to have only a single flavour of gelato in one sitting). We were warned however that if our flavour combination wasn’t suitable, we’d be “advised” to try another!
I picked coffee and pistachio and Andrew picked strawberry and chocolate, and luckily we both passed the test! Told you they were serious about gelato! We were educated in how to spot good gelato (read my gelato guide for more info!) and ended the evening with an espresso and a little grappa.
The Testaccio Supper Stroll with Eating Europe was one of the best tours I’ve done whilst travelling. It was both fun and educational, and for the amount we ate and drank it offered real value for money. You can book your tour with Eating Europe for 79EUR per adult!