How to Eat Like a Local in Rome: Getting a Taste of Testaccio and Learning to Love Food
I’ve never really been all that fussed or excited by the prospect of eating. I once explained my attitude towards this to a friend as: “What and when I eat isn’t important, I just eat when I’m hungry. And if I’m not hungry, I don’t eat.”
I eat because I have to, not because I want to.
That was until I joined the Taste of Testaccio Tour with Valentina from Eating Italy Food Tours. I think even Valentina herself noted at the end of the tour how surprised she was with my determination to eat everything. The best reason for this comes in a quote I found by essayist Anaïs Nin:
“For the first time I know what it is to eat. I have gained four pounds. I get frantically hungry, and the food gives me a lingering pleasure. I never ate before in this deep carnal way. I want to bite into life and be torn by it.”
Just like on the Italian Food & Wine Journey the night before where for the first time I understood what it was to pair wine with your food, on the Taste of Testaccio Tour I understood what it was to eat good food for four hours straight….
Getting a Taste of Testaccio
The Testaccio Neighbourhood
I can’t really go on to entice you with the food of Rome without explaining why the tour takes place in Testaccio. Valentina explained the neighbourhood as the heart of Rome, mostly in part to it’s “working class soul”.
Why is this? Well it appears that as far back as the Roman times, Testaccio has been the base for food trades and markets. Much of this has to do with it’s location next to the Tiber River, which made trade by boat possible.
Over more recent decades Testaccio developed in to a neighbourhood rich with a loud and fresh local-produce market, generations old family businesses (such as butchers, breweries, cheesemakers and restaurants) and culinary expertise.
Testaccio is the place where you go when you want to eat as the Romans eat.
How to Eat Like a Local in Rome
So on with the tour! Our guide Valentina did a great job of introducing herself, and then having each of us on the tour introduce ourselves – which instantly made us a group rather than a random collection of individuals.
This helps a lot when you begin stuffing your face with pizza in front of them later…
A mix of cultural sightseeing, historical education, funny local anecdotes, kind hard-working families and of course food tasting, the Taste of Testaccio Tour was the perfect way to understand the culinary culture of the region.
As well as some of the rules that go along with it. So to help you to look less like a tourist when in Rome, here are some of the lessons I learnt from Valentina on how to eat like a local in Rome!
1. Start your day sweet and strong
Breakfast is a swift affair in Rome.
Cafés are known as bars, and whilst they do serve liquors and alcohol in the evenings, their main purpose is to provide a swift kick of caffeine and sugar to start your day and prop you up after lunch.
And Valentina’s top tip for visiting a bar in Rome? Don’t order a cappuccino after dinner as the Romans just don’t do it. Espresso is better…
Our sugar hit came from fresh hand-baked Cornettis and the softest Tiramisu I’ve ever tasted, served in an edible chocolate cup in Barberini – a local bar and bakery opened by the Barberini family in 1934!
And you’ll see this a lot over the course of the article; many of the places we visited have run for generations which is characteristic of the Testaccio neighbourhood and part of what makes eating there, and experiencing its culture, so special.
2. Pizza for lunch should be served by the slice
You can’t visit Italy without tasting their pizza. And whilst one of the world’s favourite foods actually originates from Naples and not Rome, it’s still really really good in Rome!
But, being served a large round pizza at a table in a restaurant is an experience best left for dinner. If you really want to eat like a local in Rome, then your pizza is served thick and rectangular from a counter.
We grabbed our pizza from Volpetti Più, another family business that began with a delicatessen opened around the corner in 1973 by the Volpetti brothers.
Their speciality is Pizza Margherita, and Valentina told us that the legend has it that this was the favourite pizza of Queen Margherita – hence the name! Although whether the Queen liked the colours or taste is a mystery.
Why colours? Well I don’t know if you’ve noticed (I hadn’t!) but the ingredients on a Pizza Margherita have the same colours as that of the Italian flag…
3. Put Pecorino on your pasta, not Parmigiano
One of the cheeses we tasted at the original Volpetti brothers store around the corner from the pizzeria was Truffled Pecorino.
It was so full of flavour, and I still can’t believe they gave us truffle – it’s so expensive and rare!
Made from ewe’s milk, Pecorino is used to top many of the more traditional pasta dishes in Rome, but it’s also great at the end of a meal as dessert with fruit. We tasted it as part of a platter outside the store with Prosciutto and Wild Boar Salami…
4. Put Balsamic Vinegar on your ice cream
Okay, maybe not your traditional salad dressing Balsamic, but from the kind staff inside Volpetti who offered us tasting of 4 or 5 differently aged vinegars we learnt that the sweetest kind can be used on ice cream!
One of the many highlights of the Taste of Testaccio Tour, it’s incredible to see how traditions such as eating bread with balsamic and oil in a restaurant are only a hint at the traditions of the food in it’s home country.
And I bet you didn’t know that you can also get white balsamic! If dressings are your thing (I actually have a bit of a thing for finding the best salad dressings) then you can even head to the deli for a 95 year old bottle of Balsamic – and it will only cost you 1,400 EUR!
5. Eat at Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio
The New Testaccio Market, is the place to be if you really want to hang out with the locals.
The stalls relocated to their new premises in 2012, but before that they were run by the same families in the Piazza Testaccio for decades, and the market still has the communal vibe that comes from walking in to an area in which people have been working side by side for years.
The produce is fresh and local, but if you’re not a fan of cooking for yourself whilst travelling then there are also stalls that serve fresh sandwiches (one of them was so popular people were queuing out the door!) and even beer!
6. Don’t be fooled by fake Gelato!
This last tip isn’t meant to scare you, but Valentina told us in Testaccio that 80% of Gelato found in Rome is fake!
What she meant by fake is that it’s made with powdered mixtures instead of all natural ingredients. First, that’s just Gelato fraud! And second, it’s not going to taste nearly as good as the proper stuff.
So how do you tell if Gelato is fake or authentic?
- If the Gelato is luminescent and looks like it can grow in the dark – it’s probably fake. We all know bananas aren’t yellow on the inside, so banana flavoured Gelato shouldn’t look yellow either!
- Those big mountains of Gelato you see on the counter are full of air and chemicals to make them keep their shape. Real Gelato can’t stand up by itself.
Of course, to taste the best stuff I can only suggest you follow the Taste of Testaccio Tour to Giolitti. Run by Armando who opened the Gelato bar in 1914, it’s the kind of place that will look at you disapprovingly if you order two flavours that don’t match!
7. Head to Trappizzino for Rome’s original street food snack
I just need to get this off my chest: I LOVE SUPPLI.
There we go. I had my first taste of it on my first night in Rome, at dinner with Linda, Steve and their family from The Beehive Ho[s]tel – and when I saw that this was to be our final savoury snack on the Taste of Testaccio Tour I couldn’t wait to devour it!
Trappizzino is a store made famous by it’s owner’s creation of the street food snack that gave the store it’s name (originally called 00100, the Trappizzino pizza sandwich became so popular that the owner rebranded the store to reflect this in 2008).
But I’m not talking about pizza here. I’m talking about Supplì – deep-friend rice balls and mozzarella. Tell me that doesn’t sound good…
3 Reasons You Should Take Part in the Taste of Testaccio Tour with Eating Italy Food Tours
- The guides are local and knowledgable. When The Beehive first suggested I get in touch with Eating Italy Food Tours, they were raving about the guide they had previously on their #WinterInRome blogger trip. I didn’t get the same one, but Valentina was sweet, friendly, informative… and she knew everyone in town (who also seemed to love her)!
- You’ll get an off-the-beaten-path experience in a very local area of Rome. Of course, whilst in Rome you’re going to want to see the Colosseum and St. Peter’s Square. But whilst sightseeing offers you history it doesn’t offer you culture – something you get in buckets on the Taste of Testaccio Tour. Especially as the business people you meet whilst on the tour are so incredibly kind and friendly!
- You will eat like the Romans do. Rome is full off pizzerias, gelaterias, pasta restaurants and cheese shops – a maze of tourist traps and fake Gelato! But the Taste of Testaccio Tour will not only guide you to finding the best of the best (with a great guide to take away for reference as well) but it will show you the importance of sharing time within the walls of traditional family-businesses in the more local areas.
“Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.” – Voltaire
Final Tips: The Taste of Testaccio Tour with Eating Italy Food Tours
- The Neighbourhood of Testaccio is really easy to get to from The Beehive Ho[s]tel. Just jump on Metro B from ‘Termini’ and after 8 minutes and 5 stops jump off at ‘Piramide’
- The Taste of Testaccio tour runs four times a day, every day except Sundays and Italian National Holidays – which just goes to show how popular it is!
- The tour runs at 9:45 am, 10:30 am, 11:15 am and 12 noon
- Take comfortable walking shoes and a bottle of water – you’ll be on your feet for most of the tour and whilst water is provided at some stops, those of you who get thirsty (like me!) might want to carry their own
- Valentina also took us to some fantastic cultural stops (whilst we digested!) which I just can’t fit in to this article – so look out for more info coming soon!
- The experience costs 75 EUR – click here to see the timetable and book
- This seems like a lot initially, but I didn’t spend anything else on food for the rest of the day (you really only need a light dinner after this!) and there were also cultural stop included that made the price for a food tour, history tour, breakfast lunch and dinner totally worth it!
I’d like to give a huge thanks to Eating Italy Food Tours for having me as a guest on their Taste of Testaccio Tour, and to The Beehive Ho[s]tel for helping arrange the experience, but of course all opinions are honest and my own.
I’d also like to give a big shout to Valentina – you are so sweet and you know so much that you completely helped me fall in love with food! Perhaps now I will eat when because I want to, and not just because I have to.
Lots of love,