WHEN IN ROME
Posted on 05/24/2016 | About Italy
When in Rome you eat. And eat. Because that’s what the Romans do. Before I cried uncle and tried for light crudités (I think I got the whole grocery store on the plate for that one) – I dove into the culture. I signed up for two food tours through Eating Italy: one at twilight through Trastevere and the other a daytime visit to the Testaccio district. Such tours are trending hot in most major cities and are stomach-bursting eye-opening fun.
The evening Trastevere tour started on Tiber Island (Isola Tiberina) with an introduction from Sarah our American in Rome guide. Dressed punk style and full of life, she was an enthusiastic leader with an amplified voice to match her character.
Trastevere has been compared to Greenwich Village and the Left Bank of Paris. It’s an old quartier that’s very trendy now with narrow cobblestone streets, ivy coated walls and a charm that has attracted up and coming locals and foreigners to move in. Restaurants are often run by the same family for generations and come alive as the sun sets.
We started at Da Enzo al 29 owned by three brothers. Signs boasted “fava fresche” as it was fava bean season and of course there were carciofi alla giudìa and Roman style. Artichokes are a beloved vegetable of Rome and are served either deep fried the Jewish way or alla Romana which is simply boiled with herbs. I adore artichokes and both were divinely satisfying.
We also had another Roman favourite, burrata. It’s made from buffalo milk into the same stringy cheese as mozzarella but is formed not into a solid ball but into a hollow pouch, which is then filled with fresh cream and soft stringy bits of curd, the ritagli, or rags, remaining after mozzarella making. The version we had skipped the exterior and was made of just the fresh cream and soft stringy bits with fresh cherry tomatoes added. Ecstasy on a fork.
From there we moved to Spirito di Vino, with a 5,000 wine bottle cellar in a former synagogue. The atmospheric cellar dated to 80 BC and our guide quipped that with each step in the lengthy staircase we descended 75 years. Here as with most of the stops we had wine – this time it was from Sicily made from the Nerello Mascalese grape which flourishes on the volcanic soils of Mount Etna. We had slow cooked pork stew with apples and honey to go with it. My Jewish husband suggested the rabbis must be turning in their graves.
Next stop was at the Innocenti family bakery opened in 1920 where Stefania and her team make hundreds of types of biscotti in a 1950s vintage oven. The temperature was decidedly hot and I wondered how the tour fared with this stop in the full heat of summer let alone the owners. However sweet lovers didn’t seem to care.
We went to L’Antica Norcineria regarded by Trasteverini as having the best porchetta in the neighbourhood. This is a roasted, juicy, stuffed piglet with crispy skin. The owner Piero raises his own pigs in the Castello Romano area which is part of the secret. Also the Pecorino Romano cheese made from sheep’s milk is delish. (Apparently ones from Lazio region where Rome is situated are the original and best. Beware those from Sardinia.) We also tried young spreadable gorgonzola (who knew) and Ciu Ciu wine from the Marche winery San Carro which is a blend of predominantly barbera with sangiovese and merlot. At I Supplì we were treated to authentic Roman street food. At these kinds of holes in the wall, you take your order and eat it literally on the street. It’s a hive of activity all day long and serves up tasty supplì (deep fried Arborio rice balls filled with cheese and ground meats), takeaway pasta and old-style pizza by the slice (large slabs cooked on low-edged pans).
Thought we were getting to the end? So did I but I was completely mistaken. Next came Enoteca Ferrara run by two sisters Lina and Maria - a chef and sommelier duo. We had three pastas here: ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach, topped with tomato sauce; tonarelli cacio e pepe which is a classic roman dish of black pepper, Pecorino Romano cheese and pasta that uses some of the hot left over pasta water; and Trofie al Pesto a Ligurian pasta made with flour and water, no eggs. Of course there was copious wine but by now I’d forgotten to check what we were drinking. It didn’t seem to matter anymore.
Finally we were at the dessert stage at the doorstep of Fatamorgana, a gelato place. We learned that there are over 15,000 gelateria in Italy and about 1,500 in Rome. From there the lecture began. Don’t go for bright coloured gelato – they are undoubtedly fake. (e.g. Pistachio is naturally a dull green not a florescent one.) Fluffed up gelato looks pretty but is full of air. And too many flavour choices means the gelateria is not likely to be using fresh seasonal ingredients but rather powders and formulas.
Fatamorgana was the real thing. Flavours were bright, pure and limited. No fluff.
If you still have the stomach for it, follow me on the next column as I tackle the Testaccio district of Rome, known as the former slaughterhouse area.