Roman Feast

The day begins, like so many great days in Italy, with coffee.

We sit around a wooden table on a quiet Testaccio street in the morning air, sipping cappuccinos, frothy and perfect, as the other foodies arrive. The coffee is lukewarm and not too strong, ideal for knocking back quickly, just as the commuters and local workers have been doing in a steady stream since our arrival at this small cafe. Order at the bar, chat, gulp and run — that’s the way to do it.

But we’re not in a hurry. The day we have ahead is one of eating, and of gluttony. It’s a day to appreciate the best fresh produce, the best meals and the best sweet treats that Rome has to offer, in a part of town most visitors won’t even give a second glance. Testaccio, a largely residential suburb in the city’s south, has no world-famous ruins or touristy drawcards — what it does have, however, is a serious passion for food. “This is where Romans come to eat,” says Luna, our tour guide and foodie doyenne for the day. “Ask any Roman where the best food in the city is and they’ll always say, ‘Testaccio’.”

The tour is called Eating Italy and that’s what we’re planning to do. The food we’ll consume today includes pastries, cheeses, cured meats, pizza, bruschetta, cannoli, gelati, and famed Roman specialities such as rigatoni all’amatriciana and an award-winning carbonara, all dished up by Testaccio locals with a passion for their cuisine. Our first cappuccino isn’t even part of the tour — it’s just an Italian ritual to indulge in as the tour attendees trickle in from the metro station. After a quick headcount, however, we’re ready. Luna smiles as she looks around the group: “OK, let’s go to our first stop. I hope no-one had breakfast.”

The place is called Barberini (Via Marmorata 41–43) and it’s been doing business since 1945, serving up bakery treats from behind big-glass counters to the hungry Roman masses. The house speciality? Pastries and sweets, the perfect way to start an Italian day. Luna hands out cornettos, the cream-filled croissant-shaped pastries that go with a cappuccino like an Armani suit with a tie. At Barberini they’re sweet, delicious and devoured in no time. Then there’s a chance to sample another Italian classic, tiramisu. The Barberini version is served in an edible espresso-sized cup made of solid dark chocolate — two large mouthfuls and the whole lot is gone. You could eat 10 more, but there’s a long day of devouring ahead.

Our next stop is next door. No need to go too far for good food around here. Volpetti is the Italian deli of your dreams, a place that stocks the best meats, cheeses and other gourmet produce that the country has to offer. There are huge legs of prosciutto hanging from the ceiling; rows of smoked sausages stacked on a counter; wheel after wheel of cheese, from pecorino to Parmigiano-Reggiano and everything in between, piled up beneath a glass counter. Rows of olive oil bottles line the shelves, and smiling apron-clad men — who look like they’ve manned these counters their entire lives — hurry to take your order.

Luna hands out hunks of pecorino. “See if you can guess what it’s flavoured with,” she says. The hit of truffles is so strong it’s almost laughable. Luna hands out more treats: chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the aged cheese famous around the world; slices of Barolo (red wine) salami, flecked with fat; and finally, razor-thin slivers of prosciutto from San Daniele, the kind that melts in your mouth before you’ve even had a chance to chew it.

Alessandro Volpetti, the owner of his eponymous deli, smiles as he sees the looks of joy on everyone’s faces. Luna is charged by our group to find out Alessandro’s favourite region to source his prosciutto: Parma, or San Daniele? There’s a short conversation in rapid-fire Italian. “He’s from Umbria,” Luna finally says with a shrug. “So, Umbria.”

What comes after Volpetti? Volpetti Più (Via Alessandro Volta 8). The hot-snack bar right around the corner, run by Ottavio Melarangi. Ottavio’s speciality is pizza by the slice, and this particular slice is among the 10 best in Rome, according to local newspaper Il Messaggero. That’s some claim. With the grace of an expert, Ottavio hacks up wedges of margarita for our group, each slice adorned with a cherry tomato and a sprig of basil. The base is crunchy on the bottom, doughy in the middle, with a rich, tasty topping above. Like a caring grandmother, Ottavio hovers over the table as everyone eats, gauging reactions, ensuring his product is hitting the spot. He needn’t worry.

“Remember,” says Luna, “if anyone in Rome tells you that they’re serving wood-fired pizza at lunchtime, they’re lying. It’s law here that you can’t start wood ovens until the afternoon.”

As you would expect in a suburb like Testaccio, there’s a central food market, a bustling place of fine produce and passionate purveyors. You want typical Italian? The Testaccio market has about 63 fresh-food vendors, including 11 butchers, five fishmongers and four bakeries, and one designer shoe salesman. We’re here for the food though, so it’s straight to one of those grocers for some fresh tomatoes, garlic and basil, then past the bakery and on to a deli owned by Enzo Paolantoni and Lina Lazzerini to make up some bruschetta. There’s also a chance to check out the meats on sale — Enzo’s been a butcher since he was 11, he says. He knows his stuff. But then, so does everyone around here.

Keep it Simple

You don’t put cream in carbonara. Ever. And no mushrooms. And no garlic. And no bacon. And no onion. This is a zealously protected Roman recipe we’re talking about, and it’s not to be messed with. If you want to make carbonara the right way, the way the Romans do, you get only five ingredients to work with: pasta, pecorino, egg, guanciale and pepper. It’s a simple recipe that requires the utmost care to get just right. “Carbonara is like life,” smiles Luna. “If you’re not paying attention you’ll screw it up.”

At Flavio al Velavevodetto they’re paying attention. It almost seems unnecessary to mention, given the overall quality here, but the restaurant’s rigatoni carbonara is award-winning — it’s the second best in Rome, according to food guide Gambero Rosso. That’s why we’re here to try it. That, and the fact that no food tour of Rome would be complete without a crash course in the fine art of pasta.

We sit at a banquet table and the stars of the show arrive, huge platters of the famed carbonara, plus rigatoni all’amatriciana and cacio e pepe, an ancient Roman recipe that means simply “cheese and pepper”. That’s all that’s served with this spaghetti dish (plus a little pasta water for a creamy consistency), and it’s perfect. Typical of Roman cuisine, it’s simple to the point of absurdity, but deceptively difficult to get right. Here, it’s right.

There can’t be more food after all of that. But of course, this is Italy — there’s always more food. From Flavio al Velavevodetto we lurch further down the street towards 00100 Pizza, a relatively new kid on the block that specialises not just in its namesake, but in suppli, the deep-fried balls of rice better known to Australians as arancini (which is actually Sicilian). In a Roman suppli the rice is mixed with stewed veal then balled, crumbed and fried. We eat the Pizza 00100 version in a park next door to the restaurant, struggling to get them down with the knowledge that there’s one last course to come. It’s the classic way to end an afternoon of eating: gelati. “Gelati should never be brightly coloured,” says Luna, giving us a crash course in Italian ice-cream as we walk to the store. “If it’s really bright, that means they’re using fake flavours. And gelati shouldn’t magically stand up in big mountains, it should slump. That’s what real gelati should do. And always,” she smiles, “always order two scoops.”

Giolitti, a nondescript store on yet another Testaccio street, is our final stop. The shop has been serving gelati for 99 years and owner Armando de Silvestro, the third generation of his family to work in the store, considers himself an expert of the trade — so much so that if you order a combination of gelati flavours that he disapproves of, he’ll smile, shake his head and refuse to serve it. So, that’s the challenge: select two flavours you like, and hope Armando approves. I opt for a guaranteed winner, raspberry and chocolate, and sure enough, as our group holds its collective breath, it gets the nod from Armando, and is duly scooped into a paper cup and handed over the counter.

It is, of course, delicious. Is that our last dish for the day? Almost. As we scrape the gelati cups clean, Luna suggests a final espresso from Giolitti to round things off. We all nod acceptance. Why not?

So the day ends, like so many great days in Italy, with coffee.

Continue the Food Tour...

Eataly, Testaccio

Picture a four-storey department store filled with the freshest and best gourmet Italian food products, sourced from around the country. There are purveyors offering free samples of everything on sale, from cured meats to cheeses to wine and beer. Picture specialist pasta, pizza and oyster bars. It’s almost a religious experience to rival the Vatican.

Salumeria Roscioli, Campo de Fiori

It’s rare you’ll find such an authentic and consistently good restaurant in the tourist centre of Rome, but Roscioli  bucks the trend. This salumeria (deli) specialises in cured meats freshly shaved off the bone, but also does one of Rome’s best spaghetti carbonaras, as well as a mean cacio e pepe. All topped off with impeccable service.

Trattoria da Lucia, Trastevere

The bustling studious suburb of Trastevere is the perfect antidote to the tourist hotspots across the river. Hidden down a narrow alley, da Lucia dishes up basic, unpretentious Roman cuisine, with everything from top-notch salami to braised rabbit, tripe and an excellent rigatoni all’amatriciana.

Words by Ben Groundwater - Published in Voyeur April 2013
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 3 million
Area 1,285.3 km2
Time Zone GMT +2
Languages Italian
Currency Euro (EUR €)
Electricity 230v 50Hz
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