Someone once said, “The best way to experience a culture is to taste it“. As it turns out, searching all over the interwebs for this tastebud philosopher who said it turned up no results. So, I am claiming this quote, since it is truly the way to experience Italian culture.
And my backpacker belly definitely says I experienced (indulged…)
Across the Tiber on the western bank of the river sits Trastevere, a neighborhood of winding corridors and a labyrinth of tight cobble-stone lined streets with deep-rooted history to Rome. Though the people of Trastevere will never say they are from Rome. Originally occupied by the Etruscans, after being conquered and taken over by Rome’s expansion, fisherman took up residence opening markets and bringing in the products from around the empire on the banks.
Soon, Trastevere became a literal melting pot of cultures and flavors, as no foreigner could own property in the city of Rome. Even Julius Caesar’s mistress, that sultry Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, had to stay in Trastevere in a villa they owned. With the fisherman and butchers and markets popping up in Trastevere featuring tastes from all over the world, it would survive to become one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in Rome and a place still known for traditional Roman recipes. And this is where I am taking you today — on a tantalizing food tour through Trastevere, where I had a chance to try out local and traditional Roman style dishes that have survived the test of time.
DA ENZO AL 29
The first tasty stop on the tour was to Da Enzo Al 29, a family run hole-in-the-wall restaurant that feels more like a home than dining spot. Our group walked in and the table was already set with Prosecco and bread, with one of the family members in the background making homemade tiramisu. “I hope we are here for dessert first” said someone in the group, as we were all watching him make it. No, we were not here for the tiramisu, but another house specialty — traditional Jewish fried artichoke.
I had never seen an artichoke in its entirety up until this point, and when fried, it honestly doesn’t look that tasty. I really didn’t know what to do with it, as the others felt in the group as well. “Can you eat the whole thing?” someone asked, and our guide reassured us it was all edible. And damn it was. I dove in and cut it up, trying fried artichoke for the first time in my life. It was smoky and crispy on the outside, crunching as you bit into the fried flower, then soft on the inside. I finished mine in about 2.5 seconds. Another one of their house specialties we heard was an oxtail stew, though we wouldn’t be trying it this day.
Spirito di Vino
Deep below the cobbled streets of Trastevere is a historical secret, and one of the oldest wine cellars in Italy. In a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in ancient Rome, Spirito di Vino sits inside the shell of an old synagogue, with the original four walls remaining that makes it the oldest synagogue in the world with all four original walls. Beneath street level is their famous wine cellar with no alterations made to the original cellar — besides bringing in free-standing wine racks.
The wine cellar is actually 150 years older than the Colosseum of Rome!It was almost completely dark inside as out group crowded in the cold cellar, looking about in awe. In the entrance, old pottery shards sat in a tray that had been found during excavations. Hundreds of bottles of wine, some wrapped in plastic to preserve the label as they sat aging to perfection, lined the dark wood racks. Before us was a spread of appetizers; lintels and succulent meatballs that were my favorite, alone with bread and sliced meat. But the best aspect of all was drinking their red wine in the oldest cellar in Rome.
Who doesn’t love a mid-day sweet? In the United States, we think a biscotti is one very specific type of cookie, but ask for a biscotti at Innocenti in Trastevere, and Stefania will ask you, “which one?” That is because biscotti simply applies to a sweet or savory cookie. Stefania is the owner of the shop now, but it has been in her family since it opened in the 1920’s, and still uses the same custom 16-meter long oven to cook these scrumptious morsels.
It’s okay to be drooling, because all of us on our food tour were salivating at it. We tried three different types of biscotti, and you could tell by the deliciousness that all of them were made with love. Nom nom.
Saying that Italy is a pretty cheesy place is an understatement. I really do think cheese is in the Italian DNA, and it is something that is somewhat of an art form. So much so that there is a Cheese Master that listens to the cheese when tapping on it to see if it is aged enough or cracked.
Now, I freakin’ LOVE cheese, though that dirty shoe smell still punches me in the nostrils when I enter a shop…
Inside a bustling meat and cheese shop down a side street that smelled, well, quite pungent, stood Roberto beaming ear to ear while serving locals and customers that specifically come to see him. And Roberto has been working there since 1963, starting when he was 13 years old, and works nearly 16-hour days. His philosophy, “You only work half the time when you love what you do all the time.“
In Antica Caciara, opened in 1900, all types of specialty cheeses and cured meats lined the walls, with the Italian favorite pecorino romano to be our sample. As our guide told us about Roberto, the shop history, and cheese, we indulged in the salty and tasty pecorino romano — made with sheep milk from Roberto’s uncle’s farm. Something that they are known for.
No, it is not a new Apple i-food, but it is as traditional as you can get for Roman munchies. Inside one of the tiny grab-and-go style style shops in Trastevere is I Suppli, considered the best supplis in Rome, whipping up traditional style comfort food, and also slinging out these fried snacks.
What the heck is a suppli? Though they are sometimes stuffed with veggies or meats, the real Roman style snack is a ball of rice with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese fried into a flavor grenade. Best part of it? One will likely fill you up, and they are usually only 1-2 euros.
Though Rome wasn’t the birthplace of pizza (that being Naples) it has definitely become the staple street food or meal around Rome. And with that, the concept of pizza has evolved to the all different types of toppings and thicknesses and flavors — all things that might seem to be the norm in the US (we do love our options and pickiness) but aren’t traditional.
La Renella is a local institution, known for having some of the best baked bread in all of Rome, as well as a brick-oven that dates back to the 1800’s. Stoking the flames and making their dough in the back is owner Massimo, still at it today cooking the same way his family did when it was opened in 1860. You might not know, but at one point in the history of Rome, nut shells were used to fuel that fire in ovens all over the city after a ban on cooking with wood. It was the cheapest and most available fuels, and added a very unique flavor to baked goods. A flavor lost otherwise, except at La Renella, which still uses shells to this day in the oven.
When the group entered through the back door of the bakery, immediately you could feel the heat of the flames on your skin. In the hall, stacks of flour, with Massimo in a side room using a massive machine to home-make their dough. He led us into the oven room, where flat-bread pizzas lined the wall cooling off. In the corner, a container filled with shells that fueled the fire before us. He opened it, showing just how hot it was and the fresh baking bread inside.
When we were done checking out the back, we had a chance to try some of their famous pizza, and only the classic mozzarella. The crust was slightly charred, and had an amazing flavor I had never tasted to the bread from the shells, with molten cheese and a slightly bitter tomato sauce. I couldn’t help but have seconds.
Osteria der Belli
Inside Osteria der Belli, traditions from Sardinia are apparent as this family-run restaurant in the heart of Trastevere serves up some of the freshest seafood dishes in Rome. This was our dinner portion of the tour, where serious chow-down was to happen with pasta and wine. Though the pasta was phenomenal, especially their traditional penne pasta, it was gobbled up too fast to take a photo. But I did manage to snag one of the fried zucchini, equally tasty, with fluffy breading.
Gelato is serious business in Rome, and it is such a popular dessert that locals have it at least once a day. Sometimes twice. Or three times. It’s popularity also comes at a dire price — nearly 85% of the hundreds of gelato places in the city serve of fake gelato. True gelato is dense and made with fresh ingredients. Most “gelato” places in Rome serve up gelato with cream and not milk, and it tends to be artificially sweetened and fluffed. Otherwise meaning it’s crap compared to the real deal.
Want real gelato? One of the most famous gelato shops is Fata Morgana, where the gelato is made with the freshest (and sometimes whackiest) ingredients out there. Take the chocolate flavored with Kentucky tobacco, or basil, or black rice. Even rose-buds.
This culinary spectacle was nearing to a close, but not before stopping at one of the favorite gelato shops of Romans. When we entered, I noticed how this gelato sat in smaller pans than other shops, and that there wasn’t crazy designs or elaborate fruit stuck into it to make it look schzazzy. An indicator that this was the real gelato.
Even though there was a plethora of flavors, I can’t help but get coffee flavor anytime I go. But, along with the coffee and homemade whipped cream, I got a scoop of tiramisu flavor. Which now has become my favorite.
After my Eating Italy Trastevere tour ended I waddled full-bellied back to my hostel, but I’d find myself in Trastevere many times after just for a snack — it is truly a haven for traditions still surviving thousands of years.
*This food tour was offered by Eating Italy, but all options and scrumptious views are my own*
Have you ever been to Trastevere? What is your favorite traditional Italian food?