On Wednesday we did a Roman Food Tour – I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. First up was a ride on the metro which was surprisingly easy to navigate – they only have two lines – A & B. A third line is under construction but due to all the ruins being discovered on a regular basis it is proving difficult to navigate underground.
We arrived at the meeting point with quite a bit of time to spare – we had been warned about the unreliability of Italian public transport so had built in a generous buffer. What to do with the spare time – have a haircut of course 😉.
We met our guide Luca at the Cipro metro station. Luca is Romanian – she came to study in Rome 12 years ago and never left. She has been taking the food tours for the past three years and I’m in love with her passion for food.
We were in the neighbourhood of Prati – this is a residential neighbourhood where apparently you find all the best places to eat as this is where the locals eat.
She explained that Italy has 20 regions and although it is one country it might as well be 20.
All of the regions of Italy are very distinctive and often the landscape and way of life changes quite dramatically between one region and the next. Although Italian is spoken throughout Italy, many of the regions have their own dialects, some totally unrecognisable from standard Italian.
There are often differences in appearance between people from different regions. Venetians can be taller and thinner than some of their cousins from Naples and the dark hair and brown eyes of the Mezzogiorno can look very different from the blonde hair and blue eyes of the regions in the far north. But the main thing that makes each Italian region unique is the attitude of the people. Italians are fiercely loyal to their own region, each believing that theirs is better than any other. There is even an expression for it: ‘Campanilismo’ (the love of one’s own bell-tower).
They love the landscape of their own home and think their region’s climate is the best and steadfastly hang on to every tradition and fragment of culture that is historically theirs.
Food and wine are the biggest differences of all, with people from one region almost refusing to eat anything from another. Recipes have been handed down for many generations and certain dishes that we have grown to love outside Italy are only eaten in one small corner of a particular region and are almost unheard of elsewhere.
One thing that all the regions thrive on is coffee. Introduced in the 1500s, coffee has developed its own culture in Italy.
The day is defined by coffee rituals: a cappuccino with breakfast, a caffè macchiato – or two – as an afternoon pick-me-up, and espresso after dinner. And like any culture, that of Italian coffee comes with seemingly mysterious laws. Order a latte, and you’ll receive a glass of milk (which is exactly what you ordered). Ask for a to-go cup or order a cappuccino after 11 a.m., and risk an instant tourist label.
BUONGIORNO! The morning begins with a breakfast comprising a pastry paired with a delicious, milky coffee:
Cappuccino: equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk
Caffè latte: espresso with more steamed milk and less foam
Latte macchiato: steamed milk “marked” with a splash of espresso
To blend: Don’t order these drinks after 11 a.m. Italians only enjoy milky coffee in the morning – never in the afternoon, and especially not after a meal!
PRENDIAMO UN CAFFÈ! “Let’s get a coffee!” Appropriate anytime, a caffè (or caffè normale) is simply an espresso, a small but strong shot of black coffee. Italians often sip a caffè as an afternoon pick-me-up or after a meal.
To blend: While you can order a caffè doppio for a double shot of espresso, this is not typical in Italy. If you need that extra jolt of caffeine, just visit your favorite barista multiple times a day – you won’t be the only one.
MIX IT UP. Over the centuries, Italians have created a variety of alterations to the powerful punch of espresso.
Caffè macchiato: For the softer side of coffee, enjoy this espresso “marked” with a splash of frothy milk. Unlike the breakfast drinks, this lightly milky caffè can be enjoyed as frequently as caffè normale.
Caffè corretto: Literally translated to “corrected coffee,” this drink features espresso with a splash of alcohol, such as grappa or sambuca.
Caffè americano: After trying drip coffee in the United States, Italians decided to offer tourists a taste of home. Their interpretation: espresso diluted with plenty of hot water.
Caffè lungo: This “long coffee” comprises espresso with a splash of hot water but is stronger than the americano.
To blend: Since the coffee experience is designed to be enjoyed socially and in small doses, to-go cups are nonexistent in Italy.
THINK REGIONALLY. Each of Italy’s 20 regions boasts its own unique coffee culture. Espresso may be ubiquitous, but there are many regional twists to the caffè. In the northern Le Marche, enjoy a caffè anisette for an anise-flavored espresso; in southern Sicily, try caffè d’un parrinu, an Arabic-inspired coffee flavored with cloves, cinnamon, and cocoa.
To blend: Before ordering, research the region for local ingredients – or subtly listen to your fellow coffee drinkers at the cafe!
AL BANCO. In Italy, coffee is typically enjoyed al banco, or at the bar, with friends.
So you can guess what was first up on the food tour – COFFEE 😋 and a pastry.
The standard ritual is to go into a Bar (the sign Bar in Italy means coffee not alcohol) order an espresso and drink it at the bar. It is cheaper if you stand – the price is regulated by the government and for a standing espresso you won’t pay anymore than EU1.20. If you choose to sit the price goes up – the fancier the sitting place the higher the price.
Coffee was introduced to Europe in the 17th century. But it wasn’t until the invention of a steam-driven, coffee-making machine in the late 19th century that Italy gave the world espresso.
The pastry we enjoyed was a cannolo which is a Sicilian specialty – made from flour, cocoa powder and water – they are deep fried and rolled into a tube like a cannelloni. They are then filled with ricotta cheese and dipped in a topping like pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, cherries etc… I had candied orange – not bad although I’d take porridge any day of the week.
It was now 11am and time for pizza and not just any pizza but Bonci pizza. Rome’s esteemed pizzaiolo Gabriele Bonci (pronounced Bahn-chi) creates pizzas that are so delicious, so creative, and so visually stunning that he has developed a fanatical following not only in Italy, but around the globe.
His philosophy is simple – “I think good things are made with good things and produced by people who genuinely care for the well-being of those who eat them. We are changing the pizza game by embracing my artisanal Roman roots and these guiding principles:
• Quality without compromise
• Use only the freshest, natural ingredients available
• Agriculture as culinary art
We only use ingredients produced by people who share our beliefs and respect the true value of culinary and nutrition.
This is how we are … Simply Natural.”
In the words of the late Anthony Bourdain who visited this store in one of his programs – “It’s amazing … You want it. You want it bad. Your life would be so much better if you have this right now. Leave your family. Abandon your children … You know you want it.”
And he was right – after eating Bonci’s pizza I am unsure how any other pizza will ever measure up. The secret is in the dough – Bonci uses a 100% organic proprietary blend of heritage stone ground flours produced in Italy. Then they mix the flour with water, EVOO (EVOO is the natural juice squeezed from olives one day after the harvest. No heat or chemicals are used in extracting Extra Virgin Olive Oil) and salt. The dough is then left to rise for 48-72 hours and, when baked, the result is a thick but light and airy crispy crust rich in natural fiber. Bonci pizzas are cooked in special ovens that create the perfect crust and crunch. They also layer the toppings and cook them separately depending on how long each will take to cook.
The pizza base was light, full of air and crunchy. Luca explained that the lesser quality flours and shorter dough processes lead to a pizza base that makes you feel bloated. I think we can all say we’ve experienced that feeling at some stage in our lives before.
Gabriele has created 1,500 different pizza recipes. To date, no one has tried to eat them all at once. Vogue magazine’s food critic refers to Gabriele as “The Michelangelo of Pizza.” The toppings change daily and there can be up to 60 different flavours in one day – the shop is open from 11am until 10pm. There was already a queue when we arrived at 11am – the Italians are not good at queuing so you take a number and when your number comes up on the screen you’re up.
You tell the server what flavour you like and how much – they cut the pizza with scissors, weigh it and then heat it through in the oven. Most flavours cost EU26.50 per kilogram.
We visited the main store but there is a smaller store near Roma Termini and he has two stores in Chicago in the US with talk of expansion to New York also.
Each couple on the tour choose a flavour and we all tried each one. We choose the scrambled egg and pork belly one which was pretty good. Another flavour we tried was potato and onions with truffle oil which was my favorite.
The History of Pizza
Pizza in its most basic form as a seasoned flatbread has a long history in the Mediterranean. Several cultures including the Greeks and Phoenicians ate a flatbread made from flour and water. The dough would be cooked by placing on a hot stone and then seasoned with herbs. The Greeks called this early pizza plankuntos and it was basically used as an edible plate when eating stews or thick broth. It was not yet what we would call pizza today but it was very much like modern focaccia. These early pizzas were eaten from Rome to Egypt to Babylon and were praised by the ancient historians Herodotus and Cato the Elder.
The introduction of tomatoes to Italian cuisine in the 18th and early 19th centuries finally gave us the true modern Italian pizza. Even though tomatoes reached Italy by the 1530’s it was widely thought that they were poisonous and were grown only for decoration. However the innovative (and probably starving) peasants of Naples started using the supposedly deadly fruit in many of their foods, including their early pizzas. Since that fateful day the world of Italian cuisine would never be the same, however it took some time for the rest of society to accept this crude peasant food. Once members of the local aristocracy tried pizza they couldn’t get enough of it, which by this time was being sold on the streets of Naples for every meal. As pizza popularity increased, street vendors gave way to actual shops where people could order a custom pizza with many different toppings. By 1830 the “Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba” of Naples had become the first true pizzeria and this venerable institution is still producing masterpieces.
The popular pizza Margherita owes its name to Italy’s Queen Margherita who in 1889 visited the Pizzeria Brandi in Naples. The Pizzaiolo (pizza maker) on duty that day, Rafaele Esposito created a pizza for the Queen that contained the three colors of the new Italian flag. The red of tomato, white of the mozzarella and fresh green basil, was a hit with the Queen and the rest of the world. Neapolitan style pizza had now spread throughout Italy and each region started designing their own versions based on the Italian culinary rule of fresh, local ingredients.
A bit of lighter fare was up next – white wine, cheese and balsamic vinegar and a lesson about food certification in Italy based on origin, methods of production and quality. All of the acronyms associated with this can be a bit confusing, but they’re important to know about… they guarantee that what you’re eating is a local Italian delicacy, not an imitation!
DOP is short for Denominazione di Origine Protetta (literally “Protected Designation of Origin”). As the the name suggests, this certification ensures that products are locally grown and packaged. And it makes a promise to the consumer: It’s a guarantee that the food was made by local farmers and artisans, using traditional methods. In fact, by law, only DOP products like balsamic vinegar can carry the word “traditional” on their labels, because they adhere to local traditions.
So the DOP label may bring a higher price tag with it. But it also promises the highest quality!
How does a product become DOP?
Italian specialties get DOP recognition by following a strict set of guidelines: Every step, from production to packaging, is regulated. Of course, not all local Italian specialities are recognized as DOP. Even more confusing, though, you have to always look for the DOP label to ensure the product is DOP. For example, mozzarella di bufala (buffalo mozzarella) is a DOP product. But only certain brands carry the seal. Other types of mozzarella di bufala, therefore, aren’t necessarily made in the traditional way, with the traditional ingredients; only the DOP varieties are.
What about IGP?
“DOP” isn’t the only label. You may also find the IGP, Indicazione Geografica Protetta (“indication of geographical protection”), label on Italian products. While also well-respected, this certification is less strict than DOP. It traces food specialities back to their geographical origin to at least one phase in production, but not to all phases, like DOP.
What are some famous DOP foods, and how do you find them?
Mozzarella di bufala (Campania, Lazio): Considered to be more creamy than mozzarella made from cow’s milk, buffalo mozzarella is a true Italian delicacy.
Balsamic vinegar (Emilia Romagna): DOP balsamic vinegar, from Modena and Reggio Emilia, has a thicker consistency and richer taste than most other vinegars on the market—and can be aged for over 12 years.
San Marzano tomatoes (Campania): Long in shape and bittersweet in taste, these tomatoes are harvested by hand. They’re later crushed, canned… and used to make dishes like pizza and pasta taste out of this world!
Olive oil (Abruzzo, Calabria, Campania, Emilia Romagna, Lazio, Liguria, Lombardia, Puglia, Sicily, Tuscany, Veneto): This staple has the largest number of DOP varieties of any Italian food specialty, and it comes from many different Italian regions. Some regions even have multiple DOP oils from different areas!
Wine labeling is similar but they use DOC or DOCG.The letters DOC or DOCG on an Italian wine label mean Denominazione di Origine Controllata (Denomination of Origin), and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (Denomination of Origin as assessed by the Government), the latter superior to the first. They refer to government guarantees of the wines’ origins.
About 300 wine growing regions in Italy have the DOC designation, while only 21 have a DOCG label. The DOCG wines conform to DOC laws and in addition are quality tested by government-appointed inspectors. However, this doesn’t mean that non-DOC wines are bad. On the contrary, some wine makers have broken away from the DOC restrictions to experiment with blends of grape varieties. These ‘new’and often very expensive wines in Tuscany have become known as “Super-Tuscans” even though they only bear a Vino da Tavola (table wine) label. Some of these Super-Tuscans are being produced in the Livorno Province in the Bolgheri area.
Another denomination, IGT, means that a wine is guaranteed to come from a specific wine-producing area.
Italy is home to some of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world. Italian wine regions are known for their rich variety of wine styles. Italy, closely followed by Spain and France, is the world’s largest wine producer by volume. Its contribution is about 45–50 million hectolitres per year, and represents about one third of global production. Not only is Italian wine exported around the world, it is also extremely popular with Italians. Italians rank fifth on the world wine consumption list by volume with 42 litres per capita consumption. Grapes are grown in almost every region of the country and there are more than one million vineyards under cultivation.
The term “aceto balsamico” is unregulated, but there are three protected balsamic vinegars: “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena), “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia” (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia), and “Aceto Balsamico di Modena” (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena). The two traditional balsamic vinegars are made the same way from reduced grape must aged for several years in a series of wooden barrels, and are produced exclusively in either the province of Modena or the wider Emilia region surrounding it. The names of these two vinegars are protected by the European Union‘s Protected Designation of Origin, while the usually less expensive Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (Aceto Balsamico di Modena) is made from grape must blended with wine vinegar, and produced exclusively in either Modena or Reggio Emilia, with a Protected Geographical Indication status.
Must is freshly crushed fruit juice (usually grape juice) that contains the skins, seeds, and stems of the fruit. This must is then aged in barrels to be used in the production of balsamic vinegar.
We tried some Reggio Emilia gold label which indicates the vinegar has been aged for 25 years or more. A red label means the vinegar has been aged for at least 12 years and a silver label that the vinegar has aged for at least 18 years. It was dark and rich and tasted a bit like maple syrup.
Balsamic vinegar is “a regional family tradition some have turned into a business.” These traditions are passed down through the generations. One hundred litres of grape juice is required to produce six litres of balsamic vinegar so this along with the time required to age it explains why the authentic stuff is so expensive.
Next up Luca talked to us about truffles – no not the chocolate ones but the wild mushroom ones 😊. We tried some truffle oil with the cheese – it has a very concentrated flavour, hence you don’t need a lot of it which is just as well as truffles are very expensive. It is very difficult to farm or cultivate them but it has been done – the initial investment and maturity delay (7 to 10 years) makes it a high risk business.
Pigs and dogs have been used to find truffles. Both the female pig’s natural truffle-seeking, as well as her usual intent to eat the truffle, are due to a compound within the truffle similar to androstenol, the sex pheromone of boar saliva, to which the sow is keenly attracted.
In Italy, the use of the pig to hunt truffles has been prohibited since 1985 because of damage caused by animals to truffle’s mycelia during the digging that dropped the production rate of the area for some years.
Our next visit was to the Trionfale Market. The Trionfale market is considered the first corner market in Rome and with its 273 stalls is the biggest in town, and among the biggest ones in Italy and even in Europe. Open on Giulio Cesare Avenue at the end of ‘800, for years it has been a transit spot for those going out of town or hunting and stopped with carriage or horses to refuel. At that time, it was countryside all around.
Then, in the 30’s, it moved to Andrea Doria Road, in what used to be a working-class neighborhood and has later turned into a stylish area. These two souls actually live together in the market as of today, making it very cheap on one side, but also refined thanks to a number of stalls selling early fruits and vegetables and other rare goods.
On March 11 2009, the new Trionfale market was officially opened in a huge glass and cement building, an underlying parking with 420 garages and 320 car spaces, including a post office and aiming at becoming a full services center, with a library, a nursery and some university facilities which still need to be opened.
The market was actually very quiet when we visited as a lot of the stall holders were on holiday – August is the month when the Italians go on holiday. The cheese stall was open though and we were able to sample buffalo mozzarella from Amalfi. Buffalo mozzarella should be eaten fresh and at room temperature – this means between 1 and 3 days after it is made. It is preserved in salt water. Quite unfortunately for the “buffalo mozzarella lovers” spread in the world, the diffusion of this specialty outside the production area is limited by a severe intrinsic constraint: “real” mozzarella loses its wonderful flavor very soon. People living within the production area would in fact typically refuse as “too old” a mozzarella made only two days before! For this reason, the taste of mozzarella must be enjoyed in the region where it is produced.
These water buffaloes are treated like royalty – they are treated to classical music, a buffalo wash not too dissimilar to a car wash and get milked when they want to be milked – demand milking. They are happy and endure no stress in their lives, hence they produce this magical product. And it sure was magical and paired with the sweetest tomatoes really was a match made in heaven.
We also tried some pork products at the market. Italy has been the worldwide pioneer in the techniques of curing meats since ancient Roman times. Curing is the age-old process of preserving fresh meat through salting, smoking and air-drying Italian Meats. Pork is the most common cured meat in Italy, although other meats such as beef, venison and wild boar are also cured. Each region of Italy is known for its own cured meats, known as salumi, based on local customs. Spice plays an important role in the curing of Italian Meats. Typically, Italian Meats from the south tend to be spicier than those from northern Italy.
Cured Italian Meats fall into two basic categories: cured meats that have been taken from whole cuts of meat, and cured meats that have been molded from ground meat and stuffed into casings. Cured meat plays a prominent role in the Italian antipasto, meaning “before the meal”. An antipasto is a first course, traditionally consisting of foods such as sliced cured meats, cheeses and vegetables.
Types of Cured Italian Meats:
Bresaola: This cut of air-dried beef originally from Aosta is deep red in color and delicately flavored. Bresaola is delicious when sliced thinly, coated with olive oil and drizzled with lemon juice and capers. Like most Italian Meats, its production has spread beyond its original area of development to other parts of Italy and is also made by manufacturers of Italian Meats around the globe. Cacciatore: This cured sausage, the smallest form of all Italian Meats, translates to “Hunter’s Salami”. These sweet, dry sausages are characterized not only by their small size but also their boisterous, spicy flavor. Cacciatore Salami are great for picnics or antipasto.
Capicola: This Italian Meat is perhaps more popular in the US than in southern Italy where it was first produced. Capicola is called for in most American recipes for an Italian Hoagie or Italian Sub. Made from pork shoulder butt that is brine soaked then cooked, Capicola is seasoned with hot pepper flakes, salt and garlic. Like many Italian Meats, it has a marbled appearance and a rich, bold flavor.
Coppa: This famous Italian cut of ham is a salted, seasoned and dry-cured thinly cut pork shoulder or neck. Coppa is a typical addition to an antipasto plate, served alongside other cured Italian Meats and enjoyed with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Cotechino: An example of the best of northern Italian Meats, Cotechino is closely reated to a similar salami called Zampone. This boiled Italian sausage originated in Modena in the early 1500s, and its production soon spread throughout all of Emilia-Romagna and into neighboring Lombardy and the Veneto. Typically served with lentils as a celebratory dish at New Year’s, Cotechino is now enjoyed year round in Italy and by fans of Italian cuisine around the world.
Culatello: One of our favorite Italian Meats from Parma, Culatello is to Prosciutto as Filet Mignon is to steak. The most famous variety is Culatello di Zibello, hailing from the town of the same name. Culatello is banned from import into the US because of health concerns arising from its production methods. This prime cut of ham is first seasoned and salted, then it is inserted into a pig’s bladder and shaped with twine into an oblong form. This most elusive of all Italian Meats is then cured for up to 12 months in specially designated aging buildings near the Po River where the river mist stimulates molds on the walls and ceiling, imparting the meat with a flavor that simply cannot be duplicated.
Guanciale: Although not an Italian Meat that belongs on the classic antipasto platter, Guanciale excels as a cooking ingredient. Guanciale is made of cured pork jowl and is used like Pancetta to add flavor and richness to pasta, risotto and stews. This traditional Italian Meat has a good amount of flavorful fat with striations of meat running throughout. Guanciale is often flavored with black pepper, garlic and rosemary mixed into its cure. Cubed up and fried until crispy, Guanciale is most often encountered in the classic dish, Pasta all’Amatriciana.
Lardo: While not technically a meat perhaps, Lardo is a salt-cured cut of pork back fat, spiced with black pepper, nutmeg and other savory additions. Locally popular in the Valle d’Aosta and other regions of the northern part of Italy, Lardo is served in a similar fashion to salami – sliced and included in an antipasto course or on a sandwich.
Mortadella: Mortadella is one of the most famous Italian Meats worldwide. It was first produced in Bologna and is the ancient ancestor to what Oscar Meyer simply calls Bologna Meat in the US. Unlike ordinary Bologna meat, This cured pork sausage boasts the addition of pork fat and numerous flavorful spices to its recipe. In Italy, Mortadella is often used in sandwiches or as part of the antipasto course.
Pancetta: One of the most traditional Italian Meats, this salted, spiced and dry-cured pork belly is served thinly sliced or diced for recipes. An excellent substitute for bacon, Pancetta is perhaps best known for as a key ingredient in Pasta Carbonara.
Pepperoni: Pepperoni is type of Salami that is made from lean, coarsely chopped pork and beef. A quality Pepperoni should not be overly spicy, but still robustly flavored with paprika, a mildly hot, somewhat smoky spice. Pepperoni is great as a pizza topping and in sandwiches.
Porchetta: Originally cretaed in the Lazio region of Italy, home to Rome, a discussion of Italian Meats would be incomplete without addressing Porchetta. This boneless pork roast is salted and heartily spiced with garlic, rosemary, fennel, oregano and black pepper. Porchetta makes a great sandwich meat or can be served as an entree as well.
Prosciutto: Also known as Parma Ham, Prosciutto (technically Prosciutto Crudo) is a specialty dry cured (uncooked) ham that undergoes an intensive curing process. The dry curing replaces the need for any cooking. Prosciutto is a ham from the hind leg of a hog or boar, air dried for long periods of time (at least 210 days) under specific climate controls. Prosciutto di Parma is a specific type of Prosciutto from Parma. Another high quality Prosciutto is called Prosciutto di San Daniele. Among the most famous, and versatile, of all Italian Meats, Prosciutto is usually sliced thinly and served in sandwiches, as part of an antipasto course, or used in recipes.
Salame: In America, the word Salame is almost synonymous with the phrase Italian Meats. Just about every region of Italy lays claim to its own particular salame, but the most famous are Genoa, Calabrese, Milano, Varzi and Abbruzzi. This Italian favorite may be made from a one or more of a variety of meats (pork, boar, beef, venison, etc.) and seasoned with ingredients such as herbs, spices, salt, pepper, wine or vinegar. Salami (the plural form of Salame) is made by stuffing the ground meats and seasonings into a casing and then hanging it to cure. In addition to the Salami defined by regional heritage, some other popular variations of Salami include Casalingo (Salami of the House), Sopressata (Pressed and Flattened Salami), Piccante (Spicy Salami), and Cacciatore (Hunter’s Salami).
Sopressata: Sopressata is one of the most traditional cured Italian Meats. It is usually a flattened shape (its name incororates the Latin root for pressing), and can be any length from 8 inches to several feet long. Sopressata Salami are often shaped round today, but this flies in the face of tradition. Historically, Sopressata was only produced in the fall when the family’s hog was scheduled to be butchered. A classic Sopressata made use of all the cuts from the pig that were left over after the most expensive cuts had been sold off, thus its nickname “poor man’s salami.” Today, the name Sopressata is simply be applied to any coarse grind, moderately spiced Salami.
Speck Alto Adige: Speck is an Italian bacon from the South Tyrol region of Italy. This Italian Meat is rubbed with spice mix of salt, pepper, juniper berries and various garden herbs. To make Speck, it is first dry cured to preserve the meat. The Speck is then lightly cold smoked over beechwood chips, producing its signature flavor. The Speck is then stacked in aging cellars, where it is slow dried. This maturing is important for this noteworthy Italian Meat to become truly tender.
Can you believe after all the food sampled so far we were now off to have lunch – I knew I would be rolling back to the hotel after this tour!
It made sense though – we hadn’t yet learnt about or sampled Italy’s other staple – pasta! The restaurant chosen for this part of the tour has been around for about 80 years. “Al Giardino del Gatto e la Volpe” was founded in the ‘40ies, getting to its maximum success a few years later, thanks to Nando and Angela, who decided to share their true passion for good food, with anybody who loved simple and healthy cuisine.
Afterwards, with love and experience, they involved their children, who refined their culinary and gastronomy art, by creating during the following years a very familiar and peaceful location, a pleasant atmosphere, also warm, welcoming, and marked by a continuous search of quality; a place in which customers can always taste typical Roman food, cooked with elegance and love, always by using genuine ingredients.
The restaurant is named after the cat and the fox in the story of Pinocchio – the restaurant was originally started by Nando and a male friend – the cat and the fox – before Nando’s wife Angela came along.
We enjoyed some gnocchi and spinach and ricotta ravioli – so good. When many of us think of pasta we think of Italian food, and most people believe that it originated there. While pasta is traditionally Italian, it actually has a very ancient history that makes it almost impossible to know who came up with the dish first.
The history of pasta is difficult to trace for several reasons. The word itself translates to “paste” in Italian. This is a reference to the dough, made from a combination of flour and water or eggs – all simple components that have been around for centuries. This makes it hard to differentiate pasta from other ancient dishes made from the same ingredients. In addition, since pasta has long been a food of the common people, it has not received as much attention as more extravagant foods… a pity, since it’s one of the most popular foods on the planet!
When we talk about pasta, we must first define the term. The word pasta is generally used to describe traditional Italian noodles, which differentiates it from other types of noodles around the world. Pasta is made from unleavened dough consisting of ground durum wheat and water or eggs. The use of durum wheat sets pasta apart from other forms of noodles. Durum wheat’s high gluten content and low moisture make it perfectly suited to pasta production. The durum wheat dough is pressed into sheets, cut into a variety of shapes, and cooked before serving.
While we do think of pasta as a culturally Italian food, it is likely the descendent of ancient Asian noodles. A common belief about pasta is that it was brought to Italy from China by Marco Polo during the 13th century. In his book, “The Travels of Marco Polo,” there is a passage that briefly mentions his introduction to a plant that produced flour (possibly a “breadfruit tree”). The Chinese used this plant to create a meal similar to barley flour. The barley-like meal Polo mentioned was used to make several pasta-like dishes, including one described as “lagana” (lasagna). Since Polo’s original text no longer exists, the book relies heavily on retellings by various authors and experts. This, combined with the fact that pasta was already gaining popularity in other areas of Italy during the 13th century, makes it very unlikely that Marco Polo was the first to introduce pasta to Italy.
A food tour in Rome just woudn’t be complete without a trip to the geletaria. Luca took us to one of the best geletaria’s in Rome – Fatamorgana’s. Luca taught us how to spot a real gelato versus a fake one – the key things to look for are noted below.
Fatamorgana was founded by Maria Agnese Spagnuolo. There are 8 stores in Rome and the first store outside Italy was opened recently in LA. A fatamorgana is an unusual and complex form of superior mirage that is seen in a narrow band right above the horizon. You can just imagine being stranded in the desert and seeing a mirage of gelato!
All of Fatamorgana’s gelato is gluten-free and made without processed ingredients because Maria has celiac disease and wanted to make ice cream she could eat. Her dream was to become an actress, but her father insisted that she have a backup plan, so she studied food chemistry in college. Her acting career never took off and after a weekend where she found herself battling depression, she wanted to make herself a treat. Creating gluten-free gelato without thickeners, stabilizers or additives changed her life.
To create the authentic Italian gelato, artisans use much less fat in the mixture compared to ice cream, and churn it at a slower speed so that less air gets mixed in. This contributes to a denser texture and more intense flavours than fluffy, whipped ice cream. Gelato is also served at a slightly higher temperature than ice cream, allowing the flavours to shine through.
The key things to look for prior to indulging in this heavenly treat:
They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but you should absolutely judge gelato by the container it’s served in. Look for flat metal tins, which may have lids on them. Plastic tubs are a definite no, but metal tubs don’t always guarantee quality on their own.
Lids are always a good sign, as it shows the gelato is being carefully kept at the right temperatures – and that the gelateria is respected enough that it doesn’t need to draw in customers with bright colours and fancy decorations.
The denser texture of gelato as compared to ice cream also means that flat, metal ‘spades’ are better tools than curved ice cream scoops, so take a look at how the ice cream is being served.
For a quality gelato, you want one with a high proportion of natural ingredients, and that means no (or very little) added colouring. A quality gelato will never have very vibrant colours, but natural ones, for example, pistacchio should never be green like you might think, but brownish. For berry colours, look for deep, muted reds rather than shocking pink, and lemon should be white rather than yellowy.
Gelato should also never look shiny – that means there are too many sugars, or that it’s oxidized, which means it’s old.
Remember how a key difference between gelato and ice cream was that the former has less air and a denser texture. Consider the height of an ice cream in the container; if it is piled up too high and doesn’t melt, it means it is rich in vegetable fats and emulsifiers.
Even if you know exactly which flavour you’re going to order, it’s worth seeing which other options are on offer, as this can give a valuable clue to the gelato’s quality. Tourist favourites such as cookies and cream and bright blue bubblegum (usually called ‘puffo’, which means smurf) are generally a bad sign – though good gelaterias might still offer them as a crowd-pleaser in addition to quality flavours.
You might also spot the exact same flavours and labelling in several different stores, which is a giveaway that this isn’t artisanal gelato but mass-produced, either delivered in bulk or made from a mix. Fruit flavours which are out of season show that they probably aren’t using fresh ingredients. In a good gelateria, you won’t find any fruit that can’t also be found at local market stalls that month.
We were now well and truly stuffed! It was time to say goodbye to our fellow foodies and go and have a lie down. This tour is one of the best tours we’ve ever done – we learnt so much and Luca was superb. If you’re in Rome we can’t recommend this tour highly enough – go forth and eat!
Luca recommended a roof top bar near by so the lie down was postponed 😜. The view over the Vatican was pretty good from the Atlante Star Hotel 👍🏼.