A culinary tour prepares a diverse international group for all Rome has to offer.
In Rome, all roads lead to food, so it can be a challenge knowing what to eat and where to sample it.
Which is where a food tour with a third-generation Roman comes in useful.
Like the opening of a fast-paced European thriller, our culinary mystery tour commences beside the newspaper kiosk in Piazza Farnese.
It’s here, at 4.30pm on a mid-May Monday, that we are greeted by our flame-haired young guide, Valeria Cuglia.
Warm and knowledgeable, Cuglia is the good egg that binds together 12 disparate ingredients from the USA, Russia, Denmark, the UK and Australia, as we amble, salivating, across Rome.
For we Romans breakfast is a cornetto pastry and a coffee … or maybe a ciambellone doughnut.
Guide Valeria Cuglia
Our first stop is in nearby Campo di Fiori, where a fresh-produce market has run daily since 1869.
It’s also where two cousins, who no longer speak following a family feud, own what Cuglia declares are “Rome’s two best pizza joints”.
And you can forget all those highfalutin toppings with which we Aussies drown pizzas. Combining ham and pineapple on a pizza would probably earn a jail sentence in Rome.
“Pizzas must have no more than two or three toppings,” Cuglia assures us as we gather like kids at a lolly shop, outside the Forno di Campo di Fiori, “and we Romans like ours thin and crispy as opposed to thick and soft at the edge in Naples.”
We can smell our way to Salsamentaria Ruggeri, a multidimensional grocery presided over by animated butchers and cheesemongers, in the corner of the square.
This is the place to stock up for a Rome picnic, with aged pecorino (hard sheep cheese) so sharp it almost bites the tongue, soft, juicy mozzarella in a salty, milky brine and spianata salami pressed flat, rectangular and ingrained with pepper.
Leaving the campo, we find crusty bread (“filone”) to go with it at Forno Marco Roscioli, on via dei Guibbonari, and also get waylaid by the bakery’s sweet treats.
“For we Romans,breakfast is a cornetto pastry and a coffee, costing around €1.20 [$1.90], or maybe a ciambellone doughnut,” says Cuglia, tempting us with slices of brutti ma buoni (“ugly but good”) meringue, hazelnuts and honey, and of apple cake.
One of Rome’s best districts for food is the nearby Jewish ghetto, close to the Tiber river. Here, for 300 years, between 1550 and the Italian unification in 1860, 6000 people were locked behind walls and gates. It was re-established by the Nazis during World War II, with 1670 Jews sent to Auschwitz from here and only 17 returning.
Kosher restaurants line the ghetto’s central via del Portico d’Ottavia and we stop at one to try suppli, crumbly rice balls with mozzarella and tomato, crispy fried codfish and fiori di zucca, zucchini flowers in batter.
For the final part of the tour we cross the river to Trastevere, literally meaning “beyond the Tiber”, one of Rome’s 14 original districts. It’s to Trastevere that Romans flock on Friday and Saturday nights to hang out over drinks and dinner, 6pm being aperitivo hour and 8.30 dinner time.
Even on a Monday evening, Trastevere is pumping, with street musicians playing and a hubbub building around its alfresco bars.
But we are here to get serious about pasta, at Sette Oche restaurant, in Altalena.
“Roman food is all about fresh and good ingredients,” Cuglia tells us by way of introduction, “and cooking like our grandmothers.”
“Our grandmothers’ cooking is not complicated,” she adds.
Her point is underlined by the arrival of three unfussy pasta dishes for us to try: Bucatini alla Amatriciana (thick spaghetti with pork cheeks, tomato and pecorino cheese), Tonnarelli with pecorino, parmesan and pepper, and Rigatoni alla carbonara, with pancetta and egg.
The tour reaches its inevitable conclusion with a scoop or two from the Gelateria della Teatro, in Trastevere.
After three and a half hours being led astray and fed titbits of history and culinary culture by this local gastronome, we’re still drooling over what we’ve seen and tasted and we’re far better equipped to navigate our own way through the simple deliciousness of Roman cuisine.
South African Airways offers return flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane (codesharing with Virgin Australia) and flying via Perth and Johannesburg to Europe starting at $2698 including taxes. See www.flysaa.com
This Rome Food Tasting tour costs $135 through europeholidays.com.au. Tel 1800 242 373.
Daniel Scott was a guest of Europe Holidays and travelled with assistance from South African Airways.