Stuff I've been reading, thinking & eating

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In my opinion there is nothing more Roman than strolling through the Piazza Navona with a gelato in your hand. So it came as something of a shock to discover that 80 to 90 percent of the gelato sold in the Italian city is fake – made from a powdered mix rather than raw ingredients. I know! Terrible! However, thanks to my guide on the Eating Italy Tour I know the fake gelato from the real thing. Plus I can tell you where to find the best cornetti in Rome, the most delicious pizza sold by the slice, and much, much more.

The Testaccio area where the tour takes place is a working class neighbourhood off the obvious tourist track. Here they are as mad about food as they are football. The longtime home of a covered food market, which has recently moved to a smart new building, it’s not the most picturesque part of the city but has its share of history.

It pays to arrive in Testaccio with an appetite for there is a lot worth tasting, both traditional and new, and the Eating Italy tour includes a dizzying amount of food sampling. It starts with breakfast at the Barberini pastry shop where Romans have been stopping for their morning bite since the 1950s. There is a marked difference between the Italian cornetto and the French croissant although they’re the same half-moon shape. I prefer the Italian version, lighter and less buttery, with a hint of vanilla.

Another very Roman food tradition is pizza al taglio or “by the slice”. There are around 5,000 places selling it in Rome and our next stop, Pizza Volpetti Piu, has been voted among the top 10.

Right round the corner from their pizza shop the Volpetti family has opened the most gorgeous gourmet food store I’ve ever visited. For many visitors to Rome the Sistine Chapel and the Coliseum are the must-sees…for me E Volpetti is one of the city’s real treasures. Hung with sides of prosciutto and salami, lined with shelves laden with seemingly infinite varieties of cheese, just the smell of the place is heaven. It’s here I taste for the first time proper aged balsamic vinegar, rather than the cheap stuff flavoured with caramel that I buy at home. Its sweet and complex, rather like a good wine.

The market itself was closed on the day I visited because the stallholders were on strike so sadly I missed a stall selling nothing but different varieties of tomato as well as tasting buffalo mozzarella at Enzo & Lina’s Alimentari. While I was disappointed I can’t imagine how I’d have fitted in any more food.

As part of this tour there’s a sit down lunch with wine at a restaurant, Flavio Al Velavevodetto, that’s renowned for its carbonara pasta but also curious because it provides a glimpse of the layers of broken amphorae that make up Monte Testaccio. This terraced hill is essentially a dump where the ancient Romans piled up old pottery oil containers into a great mound– there are said to be as many as 53 million amphorae as part of this amazing construction.

Fortunately there are a couple of pauses in the eating on this tour. Testaccio is home to the non-Catholic cemetery, a tranquil spot with elaborate gravestones and the resting place of the English poets Shelley and Keats. We also get to see the old slaughterhouse. Once central to the Testaccio neighbourhood, it inspired the classic Roman dishes of oxtail and tripe and is now converted into a museum of contemporary art.

After that there are more food stops and, even though I’m flagging, I manage to eat an entire suppli – a rice ball filled with a savoury meat mix. Then comes the final treat. On the steps of the Giolitti gelato shop is a businessman clutching his cone who tells us that the zabaglione here is the best in Rome. And yet the gelato appears quite modest at first glance. It’s held in simple steel containers rather than piled up in extravagant mounds and t

he colours are muted. Our guide Luna explains that these are the two telltale signs that what we’re getting is the real thing – artisan-made gelato created from fresh ingredients rather than a packet mix. And yes, it’s good. You can even have fresh whipped cream piled on top that comes from a machine Giolitti have been using since 1936.

I might have gone to all these places under my own steam I suppose but, aside from the fact I’d never have known about them or their specialities, this four-hour walking tour provided all sorts of interesting snippets about the city’s food, culture and history. Plus I was given a guide to other restaurants and gelateria worth visiting in Rome and the dishes to look out for so I could continue to enjoy the real thing rather than the fake for the rest of my visit.

*For more information about the food walking tour go to