“Remember, what grows together goes together”, our guide Jess tells us, her hands visibly shaking as she dribbles balsamic vinegar from Modena onto bite-size squares of Parmigiano Reggiano.
I’m no stranger to food tours in Italy, nor to the essential ingredients of Italian cuisine. In fact, the aforementioned balsamic represents the third time in as many years that I’ve sampled this intense condiment in its country of origin. First in Florence, then Venice, and now in Rome – a city famed worldwide for its pizzerias, salumerie, enotecas, and gelaterias.
The Roman Food Tour focuses on some of the best of these venues in the Prati district, a bourgeoisie neighborhood with wide avenues and elegant buildings that set it apart from the fast-paced frenzy of central Rome. Despite its close proximity to Vatican City, the area is quieter, calmer, less touristy than the Centro Storico. There isn’t a selfie stick seller in sight.
Having never been to Prati, I’m looking forward to exploring new territory.
The first stop on our tour brings us to a popular gourmet grocer specializing in salumi, formaggi, and vino. Here, I eat only with my eyes. Legs of prosciutto, salumi hanging from the ceiling, over 300 types of cheese, and fresh handmade pasta whet my appetite for the tastings to come.
Our guide Jess gives our diverse group of ten (food lovers from Australia, Wales, Canada and the USA) a quick lesson in Italian certifications. Acronyms like DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) and IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) guarantee certain foods are produced, processed and packaged in a specific geographical zone and according to tradition. Each step, from production to packaging, is regulated to ensure authenticity and quality.
The eating begins in earnest at the next stop, a companion restaurant to the award-winning salumeria I’ve just left behind.
Here, I taste three types of prosciutto in what turns out to be a fascinating side-by-side comparison. The first is from Parma where the pigs are farm-raised and fed whey from locally produced Parmigiano Reggiano. The prosciutto di Parma is soft and moist and tastes faintly of cheese. The second is from Tuscany where the pigs roam the countryside eating whatever they can find. The prosciutto di Cinta Senese is drier than the ham from Parma and tastes much saltier. The third is Pata Negra, a prosciutto that comes from black Iberian pigs that feed naturally on grass, herbs, and acorns. Not surprisingly, the Pata Negra has a slightly nutty taste, presumably from the acorns.
I’m amazed at just how different each prosciutto tastes. Jess asks us which one we like the most. Based on its reputation as the most expensive ham in the world, I expect the Pata Negra to be the clear winner. Not so! The majority of tasters in our group prefer the silky prosciutto di Parma.
Stop number three is the tiny shop where this article began.
As I sip on a glass of Greco di Tufo, a DOCG certified wine from the Campania region in southern Italy, Jess presents a selection of tastings to illustrate that what grows together goes together. Pecorino with truffle paté, aged balsamic with Parmigiano Reggiano, buffalo mozzarella with sun-dried tomatoes. I love them all equally, that is until I nibble on a piece of pecorino with a thin ribbon of truffle running through the center. THIS is the cheese I want to be served at my last supper.
By the way, I liked Jess the moment I met her. Passionate, personable and a true foodie, she is the kind of girl who is ecstatic when her friends chip in and buy her a bottle of 25-year barrel-aged balsamic for her birthday. She tells me she has the same response at home when she pours the vinegar, her hands tremble as she rations it drop by precious drop.
Stop number four is the famous Pizzarium, Rome’s number one pizzeria. The owner, Gabriele Bonci, has been called everything from a Roman pizza god to the Michelangelo of pizza. He’s clearly a master of his craft.
The pizza here is al taglio – pizza by the slice that is cut with scissors into squares or rectangles then sold by weight. I listen intently as Jess describes some of the toppings and my head starts to spin – tripe, cod livers, caviar, foie gras, peaches with chicory – there are over 80 daily variations. She orders a selection for us to try. I like the simplest ones, like potato with rosemary, the best. The light, airy crust reminds me of focaccia and I love it.
At stop number five, we’re served a three-course meal at a family-run restaurant.
First, I am treated to Carciofi alla Giudea, a Jewish-style fried artichoke that is a specialty of Rome’s ghetto. The artichokes are fried twice in olive oil until they turn a beautiful golden brown, their crisp petals blooming like a rose. This is easily the most addictive thing I’ve eaten all day.
We’re also here to savor two handmade pasta dishes: Roman-style Ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta, and gnocchi with four cheese sauce. The gnocchi are light and fluffy. Possibly the best I’ve ever tasted. I remember hearing that, ‘if it’s Thursday in Rome, it must be gnocchi”. I check my iPhone and, sure enough, it’s Thursday. (Am I the only one who loses track of the days when traveling?)
The pasta course is followed by a slice of handmade apple strudel, a dessert I had eaten many times while traveling through Austria. Initially, I’m surprised at the choice, but I shouldn’t be. Apple strudel is the defining dish of Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige region.
The tour ends at Fatamorgana where we try some of Rome’s best artisanal gelato. I choose a zingy lemon curd and my lips pucker while Jess gives us her best tip for spotting fake gelato. Look for the banana flavor. If it’s bright yellow, you’re in the wrong place.
The Roman Food Tour
What: Small group walking tour
Where: Prati District, Rome
Duration: 4 hours
Runs: Daily at 5:30 pm
How to Book: Visit their website
Disclosure: I’d like to thank The Roman Food Tour for hosting me. Although I was their guest, the honest opinions expressed here are my own.