Our meeting point was in Piazza Testaccio which was surprisingly easy to find after we'd braved the crowded Metro from Cavour to Piramide. Sarah was our enthusiastic guide, giving us lots of background information about this character filled district of Roma (the original port area and food market and distribution centre for the ancient city) and a passionate insider's view of the best food on offer in this city.
Our first stop was Barberini, a pasticceria and caffe on Via Marmorata......and an introduction to the traditional Italian breakfast: cornetto (looks like a small croissant but much lighter and smaller - flavoured with vanilla bean) dipped into a small cup of cappaccino. We rounded this off with a "pick me up" - a tiny serve of luscious tiramisu served in a tiny dark chocolate "cup" - all edible!
Next stop was E. Volpetti, also on Via Marmoranta, a most amazing deli where we sampled prosciutto di San Daniele (melt in your mouth), salame al Borolo (wine flavoured), a Sicilian sheep's milk cheese with pistaccio and a beautiful aged parmigiano reggiano (and a whole lesson on what we should know about this most amazing cheese - that we often eat such a poor commercial version of). We were also privileged to taste genuine aged Modena balsamic vinegar - a 5 , 10 and 15 year old version. I just wish we could source these things in Australia - and be able to afford to use them all the time!
Then it was onto Volpetti Piu (cousins of the deli Volpetti's) in Via Alessandro Volta who serve some of the best pizza in Roma (according to Il Messaggero). It was a great setting to hear all about the history of the pizza - how it came from Naples, then to Roma after the second world war, why Napoli pizza bases are thick and why Roma pizza bases are thin (the thinner the better). We also learnt the story behind how Pizza Margherita came into being. Queen Margherita was the first queen of unified Italy and the traditional red (tomatoes) green (basil) and white (mozzarella cheese) pizza in the colours of the Italian flag was made for her by a Neapolitan pizza chef in the late 1800s. She liked it a lot - and the rest is history!
Pizzerias in Roma are not allowed to fire up their wood fired ovens until after 7.00pm, so no point in asking for one before that if you want it wood fired. Volpetti's make slabs of pizza for the work crowds during the day, baked on stones in a gas fired oven. Their Pizza Margherita tasted pretty wonderful to us.
We enjoyed a short break from the food sampling in Testaccio's non Catholic Cemetery, a rather beautiful space below the walls of the Pyramid of Cestius - now forming part of the old Roma wall that delineates this district.
There's quite a few famous people (foreigners and non-Catholic of course) buried here, and the Bulgari tomb looks suitably luxe.
I was intrigued by this headstone for the English poet John Keats who died, unrecognised, poor and suffering TB in Rome on February 24th 1821. The headstone reads: This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET Who on his Death Bed in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies Desired Words to be engraven on his Tomb, Here lies One Whose Name was writ In Water.
John Keat's headstone doesn't even have his name on it!! We did so enjoy Jane Campion's "Bright Star" film which tells the story of the last years of John Keat's brief life.....and it all ended here like this in the Testaccio cemetery!
Next stop was the Testaccio covered market and many introductions to the families who have been running the same family businesses at the markets for 3-4 generations - butchers, fruiterers, bread and pasta makers......
We had a great lesson in making bruschetta al pomodoro: toast the bread lightly first, then add a little oil, toast again. Rub with garlic to taste. Top with a selection of the most unbelievably fresh, chopped Sicilian tomatoes, mixed with olive oil, salt and pepper - wonderful!
Probably my favourite tasting of the morning was the FRESH buffalo mozzarella from this little Momma and Poppa stall - served with insalata caprese. I am never likely to be able to taste that again in Australia as real buffalo mozzarella can't be refrigerated and only lasts a day or two after it's been made.
At the stall next door we had the chance to taste freshly filled Sicilian canoli (the only way to eat canoli)!
Then it was outside the covered market and into the grounds of the old Roma Slaughterhouse. All the old buildings are intact - but now they've been converted into art galleries, music schools, design offices etc. Sarah explained to us some of the history...how many of the locals worked in the huge old slaughterhouse (serving all of old Roma), very poorly paid, but allowed to take home at the end of the day the parts of the animal that didn't go to market (lamb's heads, ox tails, stomach linings etc etc). Their good Roman wives quickly learnt how to make delicious meals out of these left overs and over time they became part of the Roma culinary tradition.
Just opposite the old slaughterhouse is the remarkable Monte Testaccio - a small mountain that was formed in ancient times when it was used as a dumpsite for the terracotta amphoras that could not be recycled (namely the ones that had contained olive oil) after they had been unloaded at the old port of Testaccio.
The amphora jars have been layered very neatly, filled with soil and then broken pieces of terracotta filling in all the spaces around them. If you dig into the sides of the "mountain" now you can create an ideal environment for storing wine because it maintains such an even temperature. There's now wine cellars and restaurants lining the base of the "mountain".
We visited Flavio Al Velavevodetto on Via del Monte for "lunch" - a lovely hole in the wall restaurant where the layers of terracotta in the cave it had been dug into were still clearly visible.
We tried 3 pasta dishes here: a Carbonara - like I have never tasted before - nicely rendered down pancetta and NO CREAM.
..a simple fresh Penne Margherita and my favourite, Cacio e Pepe (hand made spaghetti with pecorino cheese and black pepper) - a real traditional Roma dish.
And still there was more...a short walk to 00100 Pizza on Via Giovanni Branca to sample their suppli alla genovese (fried risotto rice balls filled with a rich meat and vegie sauce) - much more delicious that it sounds. 00100 Pizza is one of the top ten Pizza places in Roma according to The Guardian.
To end off we stopped at Giolitti, the oldest (and best) gelateria in Roma - for a lesson in what makes authentic gelato - and then 2 serves of our choice of flavours of the best gelati I have ever eaten. Unfortunately Coogee's Gelatissimo just won't seem as good anymore.
At the end of this wonderful experience we stayed talking to Sarah and the Americans about all the great foodie places in Roma and ended up spending another hour or so with the Americans (New Yorkers) walking along the side of Roma's Tiber River, past Tiber Island, towards Portico D'Ottavia and the old Jewish ghetto area of Roma.
With email contacts exchanged and promises of their hospitality when we're next in New York we left them eventually and headed up Via Paganica, past the ruins opposite Largo di Torre Argentina.
until we eventually reached Piazza della Rotunda where the noise and the crowds announced to us........
that we'd arrived at...
Roma's beautiful Pantheon.
We were amazed at how good this building looks given that it is not far short of being 2000 years old. It certainly doesn't look like it has deteriorated any more since we last saw it all those years ago. It still looks quite fresh and new inside. I like the way the Catholic church has commandeered this pagan temple - as one of its own; and I had not remembered that Raphael's tomb is in the Pantheon too, in a very revered place. Old Vittorio Emmanuelle 11 is a presence here too as well (his tomb is here). He obviously had a real Napoleon complex that man!
By now it's the time of the day when we're feeling like we've been walking a long time so we walk a bit further - but back to Via de Ciancaleoni this time after a wonderful first full day in Roma.