Travel writer Julia Hammond takes us on a culinary journey through one of Rome’s most characterful neighbourhoods, Trastevere.
Gelato is the Italian word for ice cream. But if you thought gelato and ice cream were the same thing—join the club!—then you’re mistaken. It wasn’t until I joined a food tour in Rome that I found I’d been getting it wrong for years.
Trastevere has working class boots but a high-class stomach. This bohemian neighbourhood straggles south from Vatican City along the west bank of the Tiber. It’s packed full of trattorias (informal restaurants), delicatessens and, of course, more than the odd gelateria. To discover the food that makes the locals happy, I needed expert help, which came in the form of our delightful tour guide, Sebastiana.
Lesson 1: Always eat something when you go out drinking!
She led us, first, to a tiny trattoria called Da Enzo al 29, the kind that looks so unassuming you’d walk right by if you didn’t know any better. As her rapt audience munched on creamy burrata (a semi-soft cheese made with mozzarella) and chunks of refreshing melon, Sebastiana talked us through the long-standing tradition of the early evening aperitivo. Pouring us a second glass of Prosecco, she explained that Italians never ever consume alcohol without food. I thought it best to grab a bit more cheese, just to be on the safe side.
Lesson 2: The best restaurants appear where you least expect them to
Sebastiana prised the glasses from our hands and shooed us out the door with the promise of even tastier food. She led her band of willing foodies along backstreets and down alleyways before stopping in front of a building covered in Hebrew writing.
Stepping inside, we followed her into the basement of what was once a synagogue. Now a restaurant, it served up slow-roasted pork known as Maiale di Mazio, cooked according to a recipe which had been used by the cook to Julius Caesar. A dish with such a pedigree couldn’t fail to hit the mark.
Lesson 3: Learning to count
“Un etto, due etto,” I chanted, repeating what Sebastiana had told me. School language classes had never been this fun, but then again the reward for being understood had never been a paper bag full of biscotti. The deli which was our next stop had been in the Innocenti family for decades, its precious biscotti recipes passed from generation to generation.
For anyone with a sweet tooth, this was heaven, though the names they’d chosen sometimes left a little to be desired. Brutti ma buoni sounded so much better in Italian than the English translation “ugly but good”, though I had to concede, the latter was an accurate description.
Lesson 4: Who needs a restaurant when the street food’s this good?
I was getting a little full when Sebastiana described what we’d be eating at our next stop. Supplì are deep-fried rice balls stuffed with cheese and cooked in tomato sauce. Eaten straight out of the paper, I pondered why back home we make do with greasy kebabs and burgers when our street food could be this good. I’d have been tempted to have another, but our restless guide was on the move again.
Lesson 5: The most important lesson of all
We came to the end of our tour and, perched on the edge of a stone fountain, Sebastiana gave us the most important lesson of all: how to tell real gelato from the imposters. You see, gelato is made with milk, not cream. Because of this, it doesn’t need to be churned as much and contains fewer air bubbles, giving a denser, creamier consistency.
Fatamorgana’s had some pretty out-there flavours: pink grapefruit with horseradish, ginger and lemon peel, pecorino cheese with honey and chestnuts, and avocado, lime and white wine. I chose zabaglione, a throwback to a dessert my mother used to make when she wanted to impress dinner guests.
Coming out of the gelateria, it was the first time I’d actually looked at the ice cream I was about to eat. Dipping my spoon in, I savoured the first mouthful. Sebastiana was right. It did taste better than the fake stuff.
To book this tour for yourself, visit the Eating Europe website.
[Editor’s note: Just so you know, this company is not affiliated with us in any way, and this is not an advertisement; we just thought the tour sounded so much fun that you might like to replicate the experience for yourself!]