Rome – food tour with Context Travel
Whether you are a foodie or not, one of the best ways to get a sense of local culture is through its food and I can’t think of a better place to do this than in Rome. In Italy food is important, and Italians take the time to enjoy it in a way that is unique and truly inspiring.
To do a food tour it’s always best to sign up with a local company and join a local guide on a private or group food tour of the city. And so, at 9:00 am (why so early?) on a crisp December morning I joined a small group of other food enthusiasts on a food tour of Rome organized by Context Travel, a company that pairs curious travellers with local experts who introduce you to places that locals go to and that you may otherwise miss. With no more than 6 person per group you are guaranteed that the tour would be personal and intimate, narrative and participatory. Context Travel offers not only food tours: they have “docents” with expertise in art, history, architecture, archeology and more and going with one of these experts on a tour makes the experience highly educational and informative.
Our tour docent Chiara is Roman and a chef, and she was to lead us on a walking tour through some of the places where Romans eat and shop. Our small group met at a cafe near Largo di Torre Argentina, not far from the ancient ruins where Caesar is said to have been assassinated. History is all around you in Rome and every corner seems significant.
After a quick espresso at the bar we walked through some narrow streets towards the Jewish Ghetto, a neighbourhood in Rome famous for its authentic feel and unique foods. Chiara seems to have an affection for this special area. Walking on the cobblestone streets she pointed out brass “cobblestones” in front of some of the doors to the buildings, commemorating those who lived there and were deported to and killed in concentration camps. Each “stone” (plaque) is marked with the person’s name, date of birth, date of capture, and date of death in a Nazi extermination camp. A somber reminder of a not too distant past.
We stopped at an iconic bakery on the corner, an unassuming little shop without a name or a sign (or a website) but with an eternal lineup in front. I have passed by several times and there is always a line up. If it wasn’t for the lineup, you’d never notice it being there, unless of course the door is open and you catch the aromas of freshly baked breads and pastries. The bakery, Pasticceria “Boccione” Limentani (Via Portico D’Ottavia #1), known by Romans as the Il Forno del Ghetto, is a family affair in operation at the same location for several generations. Walking inside, there is barely room for a few people and only a couple of glass cases displaying their products. What they lack in decor they make up in products and everything they make looks special.
Chiara bought a few different pastries for us to taste standing outside but I had a hard time extracting myself from the scene inside, watching the several women who all seemed to be part of the family serving clients, wrapping cakes and chatting with familiar customers as they go. One of their specialties is a cheesecake called ricotta con visciole, (above, left) made with ricotta and berries or sour cherries. There is also a chocolate version called ricotta e cioccolato. Seeing how fast they fly off the shelves I bought the one with the berries for $26 Euros, they wrapped it nicely and I carried it home to try. The cake was dense and moist and a small slice goes a long way. Other interesting items were the Jewish pizza (pizza Ebraica) not really a pizza but a cake made with nuts, raisins and candied fruits, and the almond biscottini that apparently disappear off the shelves as quickly as they bake them. Later in the day when the oven is still hot and the baking is done, they roast pumpkin seeds with salt and people in the know line up to get those as they come out of the oven. “These are all characteristic things that the family has been making in this location for generations” says Chiara.
There are several restaurants in the Jewish Ghetto and one of Chiara’s favourites is Da Giggetto, having gone there with her family since she was a child. The restaurants in the ghetto are known especially for the Jewish Artichoke, a twice fried artichoke that is apparently not that easy to make at home, and their baccala, a cod fish prepared a couple of different ways.
The next stop was outside of the Ghetto at another “institution”, Roscioli, on Via dei Giubbonari, 21, a family business in continuous operation since at least 1824. Roscioli has two locations, one is a salumeria, meaning a restaurant, deli and wine bar where they serve typical Roman dishes and sell pasta, meats, cheeses and other food products. It’s a fun, busy place and is on my list to try for lunch soon. Chiara pointed out a pasta that she prefers, Benedetto Cavalieri. “You have to look for pasta that says di semolino di grano duro and it should indicate trafilata al bronzo” she says, “meaning when they prepare the shapes they press the dough through a disk made of bronze, not teflon. The bronze press gives the dough a somewhat rough texture that enable it to catch the sauce properly.” I have actually seen this bronze press in a pasta making artisan mill while visiting Tuscany, and the pasta does have a different texture when made this way. I’ll have to pick up some of this pasta on my next excursion to the neighbourhood. I was already carrying too many bags by now.
Roscioli also has a bakery (Antico Forno Roscioli) around the corner from the restaurant on Via dei Chiavari, 34 where they bake amazing looking breads and a variety of classic Roman pizza. “Flour, water, salt, yeast , sugar and a long natural leavening: this is the simple mixture of the classic Roman pizza” they say. We stopped there to taste their pizza rossa and it was simply delicious, crisp and flavourful with just a few very simple ingredients. “Pizza slice can be a lunch for a Roman” says Chiara, “but Romans would not dream of oredring a whole pizza at the table at lunch time. Whole round pizza is for dinner.” We stood at the high tables with our pizza rossa slices and ate them like the Romans do, standing up. Romans do not walk around with food. Don’t miss a visit to this bakery if you are in the area.
Next we walked to the very famous Campo di Fiori market nearby. The best time to visit the market is in the morning, perhaps this is why the tour leaves at 9:00 am. The market was in full swing and my head was spinning from seeing all the gorgeous vegetables, herbs, fruits and spices. I am told that the market has become “touristy” but, touristy or not, the variety and quality of vegetables was unsurpassed. Chiara seems to know many of the vendors and has her favourites: “this is where you buy the artichokes, and this one is best for puntarelle” she says.
Artichokes are in season now and there are different kinds. The longer, more slender ones are from (Sardegna) Sardinia, the rounder, fatter ones are Romaneschi Tarquinia (Roman) artichokes. The vendors sit at the stall trimming the artichokes and you can buy them ready to cook. It’s fascinating to watch their skilled hand turning the curved knife around the base and leaves, discarding the inedible parts and leaving just the ready to cook edible artichoke. They drop the trimmed artichokes into acidulated water and will pack them for you to take home.
Another seasonal vegetable is the broccoli romaneschi, a vegetable I only recently discovered and have been ordering at restaurant at every opportunity. A cross between a broccoli and cauliflower, it is beautiful lime green colour and has pointy florets piled one on top of the other forming a pointed, green cauliflower shaped vegetable. It is available everywhere at the markets but not as easy to find in restaurants. If not overcooked it is quite delicious with a mild broccoli/cauli flavour and nice texture (when cooked properly).
Puntarelle is another new discovery for me. Puntarelle is chicory root that Romans serve as a salad they call puntarelle alla Romana with a dressing of olive oil and anchovies. The chicory root is trimmed first and then cut a certain way, producing curly strands of the root that have similar texture to celery. The vendors sit with a little square gadget lined with thin steel wires and push the end of the trimmed chicory through the gadget and pull it back out. As a salad they simply pile them on a plate and serve with the dressing, made with an “emulsion of anchovies, oil, salt vinegar and garlic” says Chiara. I have had puntarelle at restaurants a few times, it is not as easy to eat and a lot depends on the flavour of the dressing but if it’s done right, it a wonderful salad. Needless to say I bought the puntarelle cutting gadget at the market.
I could go on describing the gorgeous vegetables we saw but will leave it at that and let the images speak for themselves. Just the radicchio selection alone can leave me depressed for days. We don’t have anything like that in Canada.
After checking out the produce we stopped at Forno Campo di Fiori, another iconic Roman institution. In operation “only” since the 70s, this bakery has been making the same breads, same pizza and same products that Romans come back for again and again. The small bakery is churning out pizza bianca, pizza rosso and various pizza by the slice all day long to waiting customers who then stand outside the store to eat the take out lunch. I have been there a few times and it is packed every time. If you can, ask for a warm pizza bianca that just came out of the oven, or try the pizza with artichokes, all quite remarkable. You can watch from the window outside and see how they make the dough, stretch it into a long shape, poke it with their fingers to create pools for the oil and bake in their commercial ovens. It’s quite hypnotizing to watch and I have already spent considerable amount of time doing just that.
From there we left the area and walked along a few narrow streets closer to the Pantheon to have a gelato at Gelateria del Teatro. You must have a gelato if you are in Rome. I believe there is a law to that effect so we have it at least once a day, just to be safe. Chiara says that real gelato is never fluffed up and brightly coloured. “This type of gelato is for tourists, it has sugar and food colouring and stabilizers” she says, “real gelato has to be packed into the containers and they have to scrape it out to serve.”. They had some interesting flavours and I chose a two scoop cone with garden sage and raspberries and a rosemary-honey-lemon. It wasn’t as smooth as some I have had but delicious just the same.
To end the tour Chiara took us to a coffee bar near the Pantheon, La Casa del Caffe Tazza d’Oro, where they roast their own beans onsite and make their own blends of coffee. It was still morning so I could order a cappuccino without breaking any food “rules” (no milk in the coffee after lunch). The coffee was creamy and smooth and served at the right temperature (meaning hot, not the usual Italian lukewarm…) and we enjoyed standing at the bar Italian style enjoying the hot drink on the cool day.
This ended our tour and most of us had a few bags in tow by then, having purchased breads, cakes, artichokes, flowers and other items along the way. We also took notes of Chiara’s recommendations of restaurants, food shops and kitchen shops to visit, some of which I have already been to. It was an excellent way to start a vacation in Rome and get oriented and informed about the food and culture of this fascinating city.