This Walks of Italy food tour could also be called the ‘Alternative Intro Tour to Rome’ if you’re the type of person who likes to explore a culture through your stomach (that’s me). One of the most important things for any tourist to know, I believe, is where to find good food in any given destination and to understand how to get the most out of the local cuisine. On this tour we discovered those things and so much more and for that reason we’d say, if we had our time in Rome all over again, this is the tour we’d take on the first morning, to make our restaurant experience thereafter that bit more special.
We met at 9.30am in Campo di Fiori, the site of an open air food market that operates every day. The market was in full swingÂ at the time, it seemed, and we found it a colourful place with plenty to interest our cameras.
Andrea, our guide, introduced himself to our small group of seven. Lamia and I hadÂ met him before as he’d been ourÂ guide for the Walks of Italy Crypts and Catacombs walking tour the day before. Modest, polite, knowledgeable and with an understated sense of humour, Andrea is great company and clearly very proud of his city and country. I really couldn’t think of a better local to introduce us to Roman food culture.
We walked away from the market at first, past one of the smallest churches in Rome which Andrea pointed out at the end of a quiet street…
…and on to theÂ nearbyÂ RoscioliÂ bakery which produces bread for over 70% of the restaurants in central Rome. Here, Andrea bought Pizza Bianca for us straight from the oven and also white bread that we’d use while tasting olive oil, balsamic vinegar and truffle spread in the market later on. We ate the Pizza Bianca (which was basically a version of pizza base with no topping) standing outside the bakery; Andrea said this is how the Romans do it, often dunking itÂ into their cappuccino in the mornings. Like every stop we were to make on this tour, taking photos was encouraged inside the bakery; it’s a superbÂ opportunity for any photographer to capture something of the vibrancy that can be seen within the local food cultureÂ of central Rome.
The Pizza Bianca was warm and tasted very different from when I’d had it before in Florence. This was normal, explained Andrea, to find the same style of pizza tasting completely different depending on where you bought it. Ingredients might be the same on paper but because they’re grown in different soil under a warmer or cooler sun and of course, because people like to put their own stamp on a cuisine depending on where they come from, the final tastes are going to vary. In some places the Pizza Bianca is almost charred black, apparently, simply because the locals like it that way.
After a few slices of the delicious Pizza BiancaÂ we walked back to Campo di Fiori and began tasting olive oil.
We tasted fiveÂ types of oil, each of them poured onto a little piece of bread, the most memorable for me wasÂ the type from Sicily which was sharp in taste due to the maturity of the olives (picked at the very end of the season). Andrea also explained about the term ‘Extra Virgin Olive Oil) and that in Italy this means that the olives can’t even touch the ground before being pressed!
Next we learnt about balsamic vinegar.
Before coming on this tour I didn’t realise the complexities of balsamic vinegar or how good it can taste if you get a well matured/produced variety. Some were more of a dressing whilst another was so rich, thick and sweet that it was a food all of it’s own and would make a tasty meal alongside a little bread and pecorino. I won’t try toÂ explain much more about this as you really have to taste it to understand how good a balsamic vinegar can be, and how the taste can differ widely from one variety to the other. But suffice to say that anything I’d had in England didn’t measure up to what I had in Rome on this tour.
We also sampled several truffle flavoured spreads, which are clearly an acquired taste. I was indifferent toÂ it and itÂ almost made Lamia gag.
“It smells very peculiar, like warm human breath, but not in a nice way!” she said.
“Yes, well, with truffle you either love it or hate it.” Andrea replied. Â Personally I’m glad we tried it, even though both of us weren’t that keen on it. It’s better to find out on a tasting tour that you don’t enjoy it than to wait until you order a very expensive truffle-based dish in a restaurant (gram for gram, truffle is more expensive than gold!).
Our final stop in the central market was to taste lemoncello and various other liqueurs. My favourites were pistachio, peach and of course lemoncello. Bottles were on sale in 100ml size, perfect for carrying back on your hand luggage.
Our next stop was a butchers shop in the arcade that flanks the market, run by a local family and serving an incredible variety of meat cuts, several of which we were going to try.
Upon hearing that Lamia doesn’t eat pork, Andrea arranged for a tray of turkey and beef cuts to be brought forward that I thought was very considerate of him. We were offered red wine to sip alongside the tray of eight or nine different styles of salami and ham.
Some were to be eaten exclusively at Easter, Andrea explained, whilst others could only come from certain parts of the body such as the thighs, head, shoulder or belly if they wanted to be known by a certain name. I try to stay away from eating meat generally but I found it fascinating to discover more about these foods that most of us eat every day in one form or another. It was also good to understand how decentÂ meat, carefully prepared, should taste as unless you’re going to buy the most expensive items at your local supermarket, you’re unlikely to experience this quality very often.
The final food tasting experience of the morning took us to a cheese shop…
…where chunks of Parmesan, soft mozzarella, buffalo mozzarella, pecorino, saffron and chilli flavoured hard cheese and various others were served, along with white wine.
The creamy buffalo mozzarella was the most memorable for me (such a luxurious taste) and Andrea advised us that if we’reÂ ever in a pizzeria and want the best experience then we had to ask for buffalo instead of cow mozzarella on top of the pizza. In the past I wouldn’t have known this and indeed would’ve looked at the cheese counter and not known the difference between Parmesan and Grand Padano and as for Pecorino I wouldn’t have even given itÂ a second look. But now I know the differences between the cheeses and the enjoyment that different styles can give me at different times of the meal and whilst combined with other ingredients, I know that I’m going to enjoy my mealtimes 100% more.
Our final stop on the tour, and the highlight for me, was a visit to an actual pizzeria where we were going to make our own pizza. We were all in a jovial mood by now, what with the glasses of red wine at the butchers shop, the white at the cheese shop and the lemoncello tasting in the market!
We split into two groups of four, put on our aprons and, with guidance from Andrea, set to work making our own, personal pizzas.
The first job was to flatten the ready made balls of dough with our fingertips before rolling it out with a wooden pin into a base.
Then we smeared tomato paste over the base before adding our personal choice of topping. Lamia chose a classic mixture of mushrooms, green peppers, ample tomato and buffalo mozzarella whilst I chose all of the above as well as what I considered the classical Roman ingredients of artichokes, eggplant, zucchini and black olives.
The whole process was a lot of fun and even though none of us were experienced in pizza making, we all managed to do a pretty good job in under 15 minutes. Then chef brought his metal scoopÂ over and tookÂ the pizzas into the wood fired oven that had already been heated for four hours that morning to a temperature of about 800 degrees celcius. Our pizzas were cooked and ready in about five minutes!
We enjoyed our own pizzas, topped with fresh basil and salami/ham if we wished, with a drink of our choice and finished with a cappuccino. Even though I made it, I’ve got to say that mine was the best pizza I’ve ever had! Thanks to, I suppose, using simple, fresh ingredients, preparing the pizza with care and then cooking it quickly in an extremely hot oven.
Andrea finished the tour with giving us information about a range of local restaurants that he recommended, both cheap and expensive (another good reason to take this tour at the start of your stay; you learn where the best places are to eat) and helping us with directions to our next destination. For most of us, that was a nearby place where we could sit down and digest not only a very satisfying lunch but also all that we’d learned on one of the most informative cultural tours on offer in the city of Rome.
Here’s the final snap of the day; Lamia couldn’t finish all of her pizza so she got a take-out box.
If you’d like to take this tour yourself, please check out the website here:Â http://www.walksofitaly.com/tour_bookings/tour_all_listing/1/114