Rome: A Taste of Testaccio

My bar trip marked my third visit to the wonderful city of Rome (here’s one and here’s two). While I didn’t have any specific reasons for returning – beyond thinking the city is really, really beautiful – I did want to make a point of visiting new-to-me pockets of the city. So when I saw the Taste of Testaccio food tour, I signed right up. Described as the “original foodie neighborhood of Rome,” I knew I was in for a treat in Testaccio, a neighborhood I hadn’t set foot in prior to this visit.

We started by heading to Barberini for a very sweet breakfast: cornetto (the softer, sweeter Italian version of a croissant) and tiramisu in a little chocolate cup. Our guide, Doug, explained that Barberini has its own bakery on the premises – apparently, a rarity these days.

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At Volpetti, we sampled some gourmet oils, meats, and cheeses. We tried three kinds of balsamic vinegar: one aged five years, one ten, and and one fifteen. As balsamic ages, it gets sweeter; newer bottles are good for things like salads, and older bottles are perfect with strawberries or ice cream. Volpetti had bottles aged up to one hundred years! For a cool $1495, one of those bottles could have been mine.

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For our cheeses, we nibbled on a pecorino cheese with white truffle and a parmigiano-reggiano. Our guide told us to always check for the DOP label when buying parmiagiano-reggiano, as there are apparently many American and Australian imitations out there.

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We finished at Volpetti with some meats: a San Daniele ham (one of my favorite things when in Italy), and a wild boar salami.

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Then it was on to Volpetti Piu for some pizza. We learned that, while pizza originated in Naples, it didn’t become popular in Rome until after World War II – much more recently than I would have guessed! We also learned that there are about 4500 pizza places in Rome, and Volpetti Piu landed a spot in the top 10. We went early enough that there was no line, but Doug told us that during peak lunch hours the restaurant would be absolutely jam-packed.

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After pizza, we paused for an interesting non-food-related detour at the Cimitero Acattolico (the “Non-Catholic” Cemetery), where both Keats and Shelley are buried. Keats, not super successful in his lifetime, apparently stated that “If I can’t be remembered as a poet I would rather be forgotten,” and as such his actual tombstone doesn’t have his name on it – but his crafty friend, buried nearby, put Keats’s name on his tombstone so people would know anyway. Shelley’s grave features a verse from The Tempest on it – appropriate, as the play starts with a shipwreck, and Shelley himself died at sea.

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Then it was on to one of my favorite stops of the tour, the Testaccio Market. Here, we assembled our own bruschetta by picking up products at various stands. While doing that, we also had a chance to peek at the various stands packed full of fresh produce.

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We also stopped by a stand selling fresh mozzarella di bufala. The shop owner here didn’t speak English but cheerfully made the gesture Italians use to say something is good – taking her pointer finger and twisting it in her chin – to ask if we had enjoyed the cheese. We had!

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Our last stop at the market was an amazing one: cannoli! There are three signs to look for when seeking authetic cannoli: 1) The pastry chef is Sicilian, 2) Sicilian sweet ricotta is used, and 3) the cannoli aren’t pre-filled. These cannoli met all three requirements and were fantastic – definitely the best I’ve had outside of Sicily itself. The recipe is top-secret, but Doug said he did know the dough had a bit of coffee in it.

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Then – as though we hadn’t already had a small feast – it was time for a pasta lunch at Flavio al Velavevodetto, makers of some awesome pasta. We tried three kinds – amatriciana, carbonara, and cacio e pepe – and while all were yummy, I particularly adored the amatriciana.

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Stuffed to the brim, we soldiered on to Trapizzino for some suppli, deep fried rice balls cooked in a beef broth. I was so full I had to wrap mine up for later – luckily they make great hotel room snacks!

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We ended just as we had began, on a sweet note. Giolitti is one of Rome’s old, revered gelaterias: they recently celebrated their 100-year anniversary, and in their shop they proudly hang a plaque given only to shops in Rome that are 80 years old and have been in operation for four generations.

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Here we learned that 80% of gelato in Rome is fake, made from a powdered mix. To separate the good guys from the impostors, look at the colors of banana, pistachio, and mint and make sure none are too fluorescent. Mint gelato should be white, pistachio an earthy green, and banana the color of a mashed banana – so something like a grayish white.

I have taken a lot of food tours in the last two years, and this one was one of my very favorites. Our guide was knowledgeable and fun, and I loved exploring the neighborhood: I had never visited Testaccio before, but I left with an appreciation for this foodie-centric place – and a desire to return for even more culinary goodness.

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