There’s no doubt about it, when traveling to Italy, you cannot escape making your vacation all about food. During our visit to Rome, that is exactly what we did. We couldn’t help it. As much as we wanted to avoid putting on the pounds, we ate our way through the city and we liked it.
It all started in Testaccio. If you take a walking tour of Rome, chances are you will go to Testaccio. Located on the Tiber River, it was a pleasant stroll from our Rome accommodations in the centrally located Trastevere area. Testaccio was once a poor working class neighborhood but is now a popular residential area filled with nightclubs and eateries. It’s also a place where restaurants are serving the traditional 5th quarter meals.
The 5th Quarter
The latest trend that is taking Rome by storm is the 5th Quarter (“quinto quarto”). Once upon a time, when the abattoir (“slaughter house”) was open, workers were allowed to bring home the undesirable parts of the animal. While royalty, religious leaders, and the rich had the best cuts of meat, the poor working class made due with the 5th quarter -meaning they ate the heads, tails, intestines, and feet. The Italians became experts at turning these not-so-choice cuts into delicious meals. Well you can now sample some of these dishes around the city. Near the Pantheon, at the aptly named, Armando al Pantheon, we sampled tripe for the first time. This dish, made from the stomach lining and intestines of a cow or ox, is surprisingly delicious.
Understanding Restaurants in Rome
Have you ever wondered what all the different types of restaurants in Italy are all about? Types of restaurants like trattoria, osteria, pizzeria, and ristorante? What do they all mean?
Well here is what we learned. A trattoria is traditionally a family-run place that serves a home-cooked meal. Back in the day, people would order their meals made from seasonal ingredients and bring their own wine. An osteria, on the other hand, is considered more of a bar. People went here for a drink and sometimes brought their own food. A ristorante covers it all, serving both a complete food and drink menu. It’s also usually more expensive. And of course we all know what a pizzeria is.
Today these establishments have stayed in line with tradition. You can expect ristorantes to be more more upscale, osterias to focus more on drinks and wine, and trattorias to have a more family-run atmosphere. If you are on a budget, I suggest you keep an eye out for a pizzeria.
Viewfinder Tip: Avoid fixed-price tourist menus and instead go to a trattoria and ask for the specialty of the house.
Chefs and families alike, shop at the market for their daily dinners, choosing food carefully to create the most tantalizing combinations. So when you visit Rome, a visit to a local market is a must. The Trionfale Market is the biggest in town and frequented by locals. Located by the Vatican, it is a great stop where you can step off the tourist path and sample local ingredients.
However, our favorite market was the Testaccio Covered Market. It’s one of the most authentic markets you’ll visit in Rome and it is here that you’ll meet the famous Tomato Poet and taste the creamiest water buffalo mozzarella cheese you’ll ever taste at Enzo and Lina’s cheese stall.
The Testaccio neighborhood is famous for Mont dei Cocci, a giant hill made from clay pots dating back to Roman times. The man-made hill created the perfect atmosphere to age wine. Over time these wine cellars have been turned into restaurants. It is here that you can eat at places like Flavio al Velavevodetto, built right into the side of the mountain, and enjoy a three-course meal. In Rome, meals consist of an appetizer of meats and cheeses, followed by your pasta dish, and ending with your meat and potato dish. Meals are an event and you will eat your fill.
A meal isn’t complete though without sweets, so take a stroll and find a gelato shop for your sweet fix. Be careful though, as not all gelato shops are created equal in Rome. Avoid places where the ice cream is piled high over the containers or where the gelato is florescent in color. If you see bright greens and yellows, it’s artificial flavoring. Look for places that use fresh ingredients. You’ll see the difference when you get there and especially when you take your first bite!
Eating in Rome is an event you will never forget. When you know a few of the basic rules and have an open mind, you’ll discover that eating in Rome is one of the most enjoyable dining experiences you’ll ever have.
What is your favorite Italian meal?