Leaving Florence was sad, as I love it so much, but that sadness was mitigated by the knowledge that we were headed off to Rome! Nicknamed The Eternal City, I guess because it’s been there for so long, Rome is impossible to dislike. Enjoying milder weather than in the north seems to have impacted on the personalities of Romans who are generally outgoing, gregarious and affable – an interesting contrast with the northern Italians who are much more reserved. One of the things I find most striking about Rome is the sense that nothing much has changed there. Of course technology has had it’s impact and the city is a modern place, but what happens in Rome is pretty much the same thing that has been happening there for millennia. People have been meeting, trading, shopping, plotting and seeing the sights there forever – after all, all roads lead to Rome!
It’s no secret that food is quite a big deal to Italians and Rome is no exception. While the city streets are awash with uninspired “tourist” cafes, restaurants and trattoria’s, it is not difficult to find a good or great meal in Rome. We ate some remarkable food there, but the most food fun we had was on a tasting tour called Eating Italy which I found on the magical interwebz. Once again the brainchild of an ex-patriate American – Kenny Dunn – Eating Italy is similar in theme to Taste Florence and takes the hungry traveller on a walking tour of the historic Roman district of Testaccio. In antiquity much of the river trade on the Tiber took place here, including the food which was brought in, stored and traded to feed the 1 million people who lived in Rome at the time.
The tour takes is a wander through the Testaccio covered market, an historic fixture of the traditionally working class area. Many of the stalls here have been owned and run by the same families for three or four generations and you will meet some remarkably passionate and knowledgeable characters – as well as some which are just remarkably memorable. Like the two fish traders whose stalls are next to one another, but whose rivalry is so fierce that they are not known to speak to each other – at all. In fact, if you regularly buy from one of them but decide one day there is a bargain that can’t be ignored with the other, you run the risk of being refused service from the first for some considerable time!
We were there when the spring produce was at it’s finest and could have chosen from new seasons peeled and prepared artichokes, magnificent zucchini flowers and lush, fresh greens. Of course, one of the most recognisable of Italian food ingredients (even if not originally theirs to start with) are tomatoes and there was no shortage of them here. One of the traditional stall holders sells nothing but tomatoes and stocks 4o different varieties, all of which have subtly different, but vibrant, flavours and are used for different dishes. Carmelo is a tomato expert and he takes his job seriously. All of his tomatoes are the same price per kilo, but you don’t go to him and pick your own – no, no, no. If you want his tomatoes you need to tell him what you intend to use them for and how many mouths you are feeding. He will then select the variety or varieties which he feels will best suit your need and will also supply the recipe that you must cook from – no arguments!
From the markets, the tour meanders around the streets taking in the famous Roman gourmet store Volpetti, the home of smallgoods, hundreds of cheeses and costly 100 year old balsamic vinegar, a pasticceria for cornetti and tiramisu, a 97 year old gelateria for a lesson in appreciating proper, freshly made gelato (as opposed the ubiquitous powder-based gelato), a full meal and wine in a popular local trattoria and a couple of surprising points of interest that you would not expect.
The first was the site of the only pyramid in Rome. The pyramid was built circa 12 BC as a tomb for Cestius, a local magistrate who unfortunately ran out of money to pay the labourers who built it and was thrown in the river instead. The walls of the pyramid form part of the ancient Aurelian Wall, an important part of Rome’s defences right up until the 1850’s and is in the grounds of the Protestant Cemetery. I’ve always been fond of a good cemetery and this one is beautiful. It is a cool, green, shady spot in the middle of the city and contains the graves of several notables, including Keats and Shelley, and the saddest tombstone I think I’ve ever seen.
The Eating Italy tour takes about four hours and is a combination of walking, sitting and lots of eating. Kenny lives locally and clearly loves sharing his neighbourhood and it’s gossip with his guests. You will come away from this tour with a map of where you’ve been and a list of where you’ll want to go, feeling very full of both food and shopping and dining hints. As with the Taste Florence tour, I’d advise doing this very early in your stay in Rome so you can eat like a Roman for the rest of your trip.