Until a few years ago, I had never really cared about food abroad. As a picky pescetarian, my options have always been pretty limited anyways. Back in 2009 I didn’t care about croquet in Amsterdam; back in 2011 I didn’t care about goulash in Budapest — because these dishes are not vegetarian, but also because I just really didn’t care: Why eat authentic food when there are more familiar options I trust, like my oh-so-beloved French fries?
Before you leave the blog in shock: I changed my opinion about food abroad. In the fall of 2011, after a few weeks into my semester abroad in Lisbon, I started wondering why everyone kept talking about those pastel de nata pastry thingies. I eventually tried a pastel de nata and realized that I had missed out this whole time! They are the best pastries in the world and I had spent weeks not eating them? And I had been to Portugal before, for an extended weekend trip back in 2008 — really, HOW could I not have cared? Not that my first visit to Portugal wasn’t absolutely amazing, but I was SO glad that I had the chance to go back to the country for a longer period of time to eat everything I missed during my first visit.
I swore to myself that I would not let this happen to me again. Food is an amazing way to learn more about a country and its culture, because understanding food means understanding certain language expressions and idioms, holidays and festivals, sometimes even religion, history, and literature. I’ve finally accepted this, and today I’m willing to sample funny-looking (albeit vegetarian) foods abroad as an important part of getting to know a country.
That’s why I was thrilled to go back to Italy this spring. I’ve been to Rome eight years ago, but is there any striking food memory left from that week in 2006? Nope. I only drank horrible cheap hotel coffee and even cheaper wine. I ate no gelato and basically only oily pizza. The only food visual I have from this trip is a photo of a spinach panino from a little metro station bakery in front of the Coliseum — that’s all. But going back to Rome was my chance to make up for all my missed food opportunities last time.
And at least everyone knows what Italian food looks like. Or do they?
During my first days back in Rome — in 2014, and with my newly discovered food-enthusiasm — I was disappointed. There are so many restaurants and bars in Rome that I was entirely lost. Everyone kept saying I should have dinner in the Trastevere neighborhood. But honestly, at one point I had a feeling that this is just a rumor spread by the restaurants with the “four-courses-for-12-Euros-tourist-menues” to lure people into Trastevere on an empty stomach.
It sounds like an unreal thing to say but: I couldn’t find good food in Rome, the capital of the world’s most famous foodie country, of all places.
As a weekend visitor with little insider knowledge it seemed almost impossible to find the Italian food I was looking for: Home-made pasta, pizza out of a real stone oven, coffee so good that it would make me cry. I needed an insider to show me around, a local to tell me where the real Italian food is, the stuff that has nothing to do with fixed tourist menus.
And luckily, I found one: Simona, the tour guide of the Walks of Italy Rome Food Tour. I know this sounds super cheesy, but Simona and the amazing food tour absolutely saved my Roman foodie experience. Here’s how:
Campo dei Fiori and the Veggies
The tour started at the famous Campo dei Fiori market, shortly after at nine am in the morning. Going rather early in the morning is the best way to avoid the tourist crowds (who have long discovered this market as a place to see), and to watch fashionable old Italian ladies buy their veggies.
Buying vegetables at Campo dei Fiori — which by the way literally means field of flowers — is not the cheapest option to get groceries in Rome. But we learned that Romans still love this market, because you can buy smaller portions and pre-cleaned vegetables there — perfect for the busy city people who want to save time, but still cherish freshness and regional foods.
Many of the vegetables and fruits looked familiar to me, though way fresher than I usually see them in supermarkets in Germany. What caught my eye however, were the things unique to the Italian cuisine: Zucchini flowers and artichokes, for example. Especially artichokes are an ingredient that cannot be missed in the Roman cuisine. Personally, I still haven’t made up my mind about artichokes, but certainly learned that they are wonderful to photograph because they look like a little flower bouquet!
The introduction Simona gave us tour attendees in the middle of the campo was full of aha-moments for me, because I apparently I had spent my life assuming things about the Italian cuisine that aren’t actually (entirely) true.
Tomatoes, for example, have not always been part of the Italian diet. Quite the opposite: They were considered to be poisonous for the longest time until there was a big famine about 200 years ago, and people figured they could try the tomatoes now if they were starving anyways. Also, the first tomato brought to Italy from the Americas was the yellow one, which is why they named the fruit pomodoro, the golden apple. I don’t want to give all the surprising facts away in case you make it to Rome yourself someday, but I already felt so enlightened after the first half hour of the tour!
The Olive Oils
After learning about the history of Campo dei Fiori and Italian and Roman food in general, we tried our first samples. And although I was really looking forward to trying everything, sampling pure olive oil sounded weird to me at first.
Of course, I use quite a bit of olive oil at home, but the thought of trying it just on a little piece of bread has never crossed my mind before. But that’s probably because olive oil outside of Italy has absolutely nothing to do with real Italian olive oil. Most of the stuff labeled “Italian olive oil” in the supermarket around the world is just a cheap mixture of several different kinds of oils — often not even really from Italy. But when Simona told us that she uses a liter of olive oil per week (!!) I had a feeling that there had to be something special about the real stuff.
And I was right about that. Sadly, I totally lack the right words to describe the taste of pure oil, but I can promise that next time I come to Italy I’ll bring an empty suitcase to take olive oil home to last me for the next ten years — yes, it was THAT good.
The Balsamic Vinegars
And because olive oil and balsamic vinegar just belong together, that’s what we tried next. To be honest though, I’m not a vinegar person at all. I only use vinegar to clean my coffee maker (cheap and organic, btw!), and the only time I use balsamic vinegar is for a special twist in vegetable soups, and for caprese salad maybe. But, similar to the oils I tried before, it turned out that I just never had the good stuff.
Real balsamic vinegar is so much tastier and comes in so many different kinds — ripened in barrels for decades, or as a sweet vinegar used for desserts. And I know vanilla ice cream and strawberries with vinegar sound absolutely strange — but I promise it’ll make total sense after trying that sweet balsamic vinegar!
Obviously, what could not miss in our sampling tour across Campo dei Fiori were the spreads. Like probably every other student who just moved out of their parents’ house, pesto and I have a long history. I would eat spaghetti and pesto verde for several days in a row. But there are so many more spreads then just green pesto!
I tried spicy red chili pesto and different kinds of vegetable spreads and I honestly loved them all. The very best however, was a white truffle spread. I had never had truffle before so this was a foodie revelation of the orgasmic kind: I can’t even remember what my pre-truffle life was like, but I now know that I have to eat them every once in a while to stay happy.
Still tracing the faint tastes of all the sampled spreads in my mouth, Simona announced that it was time for cured meats and the tour group got really excited. I had told her I was a vegetarian before, so when we started walking toward one of Rome’s oldest butcher shops she asked me: “There’s gonna be a lot of pork — can you handle that?” – “Of course”, I said quickly, but I wasn’t quite prepared for just HOW much pork we were talking about here. Simona had not been exaggerating: There was a lot of, and I mean A LOT of pork in that little shop.
With meat hanging from the ceiling and walls so you could barely see anything else, it was almost impossible to not accidently touch anything. But before I could start thinking about what a great joke intro this would have been (“A vegetarian goes into a butcher shop…”) I was served some wine (it was about 11am by then — the Italians take their day-drinking seriously!) and focused on taking a few photos to make up for the fact that I wouldn’t be able to write about how the meats tasted. The meat-eaters in our group were in their personal cured-meat-heaven though, and I was told that the smoked prosciutto was to die for.
You might think I missed out by not trying Italy’s world famous ham, but the good thing about it was that I was slowly getting full already and by missing a “course” I could prepare stomach for the next highlight: Cheese!
And where do I even start? We tired so many different kinds of cheese: Parmigiano, mozzarella, ricotta, pecorino — and each time I tried a new kind I was convinced I had found my new favorite cheese. What genius came up with smoked mozzarella? How can ricotta be so creamy and sweet that you could drink it in your coffee? How is parmigiano so delicious that this is what Italian moms give to their babies when they are teething?
But my absolute highlight among all this cheese-flavored awesomeness: Buffalo mozzarella. Honestly, I think I’m pretty much ruined for life now, because no other mozzarella could EVER compete with the mild, yet intense flavor of the buffalo mozzarella in Italy. I can’t believe I’ve lived almost 27 years without this cheese!
The cheese might have been my personal highlight, but I was definitely looking forward to making real Italian pizza under the guidance of a real Italian pizza chef as well! When I make pizza at home I usually just buy ready-made dough, sometimes even ready-made tomato sauce (I know, shame on me!). But what I learned during our pizza making experience is that these are the things you should never be sloppy with, because they define the quality of a pizza. Pizza dough in Italy is left sitting for more than a day — the longer, the better. The secrets of the tomato sauce (we were in a normal restaurant after all) weren’t given away, but I was convinced that fresh herbs and good olive oil played quite a big role in it.
As the dough has to be more than a day “old” to guarantee a really tasty pizza, we were given a ready portion of dough to work with — and flour to properly get our hands dirty. We were taught all the little tricks how to make a really thin pizza with a really crunchy crust. Pizza may sound like the simplest dish in the world, but there is quite a lot to keep in mind when making it!
I topped my pizza with zucchini (which I apparently arranged perfectly symmetrical aka very German), mushrooms, and bell peppers. After what only seemed like a minute in the stone oven my beautiful pizza came back and I kid you not, it was absolutely the best thing I’ve eaten during my time Italy. Really, SO GOOD! Of course, after sampling foods the whole day I couldn’t finish it, but I took the leftovers with me and the pizza was even more delicious as a late night snack!
After several hours of eating my body was aching for coffee. Fortunately, Simona took us to the place with the best coffee in Rome and I could not wait to try it. But first we obviously had to learn the art of drinking coffee in Italy. Most people know that you should never ever order a cappuccino after a meal in Italy, but I was convinced that there also something like an acceptable “cappuccino time frame”. Turns out, there is no such thing: You can order a cappuccino in the early afternoon if you just got up and have a late breakfast. Ordering a cappuccino in anything other than a breakfast situation though? That’s a no-no!
Personally, I love having espresso after a heavy meal, but many people find it too strong. Simona’s insider tip however: Order an espresso macchiato! It’s espresso with a drop of milk so the coffee is less strong — but it’s a totally acceptable drink after a meal in Italy! And of course, you are always allowed to put a whole lot of sugar into your coffee. The place Simona took us to even put some kind of sugary syrup into the cups before putting the espresso in there, causing the thickest crema I have ever seen on a coffee. I usually never sweeten my coffee, but my espresso doppio was just fabulous: Steaming hot, super strong, not bitter at all — just perfect.
One little thing I struggled with though, is that coffee drinking in Italy is a quick thing to do in-between everything else. I’m a coffee shop girl, I love sipping coffee out of big mugs while sitting in comfy chairs. I love the act of drinking coffee and meeting for hour-long coffee dates. In Italy however, drinking coffee has nothing to do with sitting or extended girl talk sessions: You order an espresso, drink it standing on the counter, pay and leave. You are “done” in less than ten minutes. Don’t get me wrong, Italian coffee is fantastic and I loved the Italian coffee culture, but if I ever lived in Italy I could foresee myself going to a more modern coffee shop every once in a while just for the big mugs and sofas.
After many hours of flavors exploding in my mouth and learning things that turned my world upside down, Simona sent us off (not without recommending her favorite gelato place, of course) to make use of our new-found foodie wisdom in the real world. And suddenly, finding good food in Rome had become easier (although nothing exceeded my pizza!) and things started to make sense: For example, why would a waitress bring you sweet cookies to go with your red wine? Because you ordered a tiramisu for dessert before and once you’ve “gone sweet” there’s no returning to savory — the right order of food is sacred in the Italian cuisine.
I’m so incredibly glad I took this food tour in Rome and I’m so relieved that I could go home knowing that I had seen, or better, tasted a glimpse of the real Italian cuisine.
Have you tried real Italian food in Italy?
Did you love it as much as I did?
Note: I was a guest of Walks of Italy, but all opinions and tales of foodie revelations are entirely my own. I truly loved this tour and I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about Italian food in Rome, or anyone who just wants to have their minds blown by that buffalo mozzarella.