Our family has been to Rome several times which means we have already done many of the major tourist sites. However, we haven’t spent time in any of Rome’s atmospheric neighbourhoods. On our most recent visit we decided to change that and signed up for a ‘Twilight Trastevere Food Tour’ with Eating Europe in Rome. One of the best ways to get to know a city is through its food so we always try to squeeze in a food tour whenever we travel.
The ‘Twilight Trastevere: Timeless Traditions’ food tour’ was the perfect way to explore a different part of Rome and indulge our love of good food at the same time. If you are looking for a foodie tour you can enjoy as a family, this Eating Europe Italy Food Tours one is hard to beat. Our guide was Francesco, a lively Italian who had grown up in Trastevere and still lived there today. In addition to being an expert on the local cuisine, Francesco also knew everyone at the restaurants and had loads of entertaining anecdotes about his charming neighbourhood.
Our teenage son sympathised when Francesco explained how all the locals knew each other and would keep an eye on him and his friends when he was growing up. The minute they saw Francesco getting up to anything that looked even remotely like mischief, they would tell his Mum. We especially enjoyed this tour as Francesco made sure our son was included in the experiences and the conversations throughout the tour. Even though he was too young to drink alcohol, he got to sample locally brewed Italian softdrinks and special mineral waters from the surrounding area. Trastevere was only a 15 minute walk from our Airbnb near Campo di Fiori market but we quickly discovered it was a world away from Rome’s bustling centre.
The atmospheric medieval neighbourhood with its winding cobblestone streets was once a popular place to live for Rome’s working class. It has since become a hipster hangout where locals come to enjoy Trastevere’s lively nightlife. However, it hasn’t lost its charm. Many families like Francesco’s, who have lived in Trastevere for generations, help to retain the area’s original character. It still has the feeling of a local suburb where people live and work. We didn’t just get to eat some wonderful food, we also got an understanding of what it was like to live in the heart of Rome.
The Twilight Trastevere Tour began in front of the Church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola which was easy to find. We were early but Francesco was already waiting for us and he had some good news. We were the only people booked on the tour which meant we had a private guide. This could happen to you as well if you visit Rome in one of the low season months such as December which is when we were there. After we had a chat about the upcoming tour, we got started as we didn’t have to wait to anyone else to arrive.
After stopping to take a photo of sunset over the Tiber River, we headed to the first stop for an aperitivo at one of Trastevere’s most loved trattorias, Da Enzo Al 29. This humble family run restaurant doesn’t look fancy but it’s considered one of the best places in Rome to enjoy authentic Italian cuisine. You won’t find a printed menu at Da Enzo Al 29. Instead, the day’s dishes are written on a chalk board and change depending on what is in season and what looks good at the market.
We really enjoyed visiting these local restaurants before service began as we got to see the chefs at work and get an insight into the authentic food culture of Rome. Everyone was joking and laughing while they did pre-prep for the service that night and we could see how authentic and hands-on the cooking process was. You won’t find a bank of Thermomixers or similar fancy high-tech gadgets at an authentic Roman restaurant like this.
Francesco opened a bottle of Prosecco and we tucked into fried artichokes which was one of many tour highlights for me as I had always wanted to try them but it hadn’t been the right season on our previous visits. Even our vegetable-averse 15 year old son dived in, finished his entire artichoke and declared it ‘Excellent!’ He ordered these again later in the trip at another restaurant when he saw them on a menu. It was the first (and I suspect the last) time I’ve seen him order a vegetable dish for dinner.
Francesco also gave us some excellent general tips for dining in Rome to increase our chances of ending up at a great restaurant like Da Enzo Al 29, no matter where we were in the city. These were:
1. If a restaurant has a menu outside in multiple languages, avoid it (we knew this tip already)
2. If a restaurant is open for dinner before 6.30pm, keep walking. It might not look like a tourist restaurant but no restaurant in Rome that’s worth visiting opens for dinner before this time.
3. If you see spaghetti bolognaise on the menu, eat elsewhere. This classic meat sauce is never served with spaghetti in an authentic restaurant. Italians don’t call it bolognaise either; the traditional meat sauce English speakers call bolognaise is known as ragu in Italy.
These tips saved us the evening before we left on our cruise on Holland America Line’s Nieuw Statendam. We spent our final night in Rome at a hotel in a fairly touristy area where our transfer to the ship left from. That afternoon we looked online to see what restaurants were open nearby. Only one opened at 6.30pm; all of the others opened much earlier and/or had spaghetti bolognaise on the menu. We got one of the final reservations and had to accept a 6.30pm sitting or miss out as the restaurant was fully booked later.
When we arrived it was already filling with local diners and others who didn’t have a reservation were being turned away at the door. Francesco’s tips paid off as it was the best meal we had when we were in Rome. Our next stop on the tour was Spirito di Vino, a restaurant housed in a historic medieval house. It used to be a synagogue and you can still see the Hebrew characters carved into the marble above the door. The building has also been used as a convent, foundry, private residence, warehouse, and it is now a restaurant where you can visit the basement which remains as it was in Roman Republic times. Guess where we had our wine tasting and my favourite dish of the tour?
It was amazing walking down to the basement and then being able to listen to Francesco’s stories about the space where we were sitting while we sipped local wine. I won’t spoil the surprise but you’ll find out an amazing historical fact about a famous sculpture while you’re down here. You’ll also get to try an Ancient Roman recipe that was a favourite of Julius Caesar. The restaurant’s famous pork shoulder cooked in red wine with apple, onion, honey, vinegar and spices is prepared according to recipe of Gaius Matius, Julius Caesar’s friend and cook.
Next it was our son’s most highly anticipated stop on the tour, the Innocenti biscuit factory. The factory isn’t named Innocenti because it is ‘innocent’ but because Innocenti is the name of the family who own the bakery. We discovered that all biscuits are called biscotti in Italy, not just the crunchy Italian biscuits with pistachios that we call ‘biscotti’ in Australia. If you are offered biscotti in Italy, it might not be what you’re expecting.
However, if it’s from this factory which opened in 1929 it will definitely be delicious. The equipment at Innocenti is original and made us feel as if we were stepping back in time when we went inside. The owner gave us some biscuits to try and they were delicious. At this point we were thankful that we didn’t lick the bowl at Spirito di Vino as we were starting to get a little full. However, being the food loving family that we are, there was always room for more.
Next we walked to Antica Norcineria Iacozzilli, a deli which has been in the same family for generations, to try what is considered by locals to be some of the best porchetta in Rome. It was so busy at this popular little shop that we had to keep an eye on who was coming in and out to ensure we didn’t get in their way. Here the grown ups sampled a local Italian beer. I gave the beer a try but I’m not a beer aficionado (wine, however, is a different story).
Next we headed to I Suppli, another local favourite, which is famous for Rome’s favourite street food snack, suppli. This ‘eat it with your hand’ snack is made of rice and stuffed with mozzarella and is best known as arancini in Australia. I Suppli also had a fabulous vibe thanks to the guys behind the counter who were related and teased each other mercilessly. You can really see the family resemblance in the photo below. They were a lot of fun and Francesco and the other customers were obviously very fond of them. We enjoyed the suppli but it was the pasta at our final savoury food stop which knocked my socks off. We tried both of the specialties here – tonnarelli cacio e pepe (pasta with cheese and pepper) and a classic amatriciana which was my favourite.
The tonnarelli was definitely authentic (read: very spicy). I love spicy Asian food but that pepper had some serious kick! We also drank mineral water from the Lazio region, bottled not far from where we were sitting. Francesco explained there are ‘local’ mineral waters in Italy, the same as there are local wines which can be found in certain regions. Italians won’t just order mineral water, they will order the mineral water they like best and/or drink the local mineral water when they’re somewhere new.
Our final stop was Fatamorgana, a gelato shop that’s famous for bringing gourmet and organic gelato to Rome. This store is also famous for its unusual flavours such as avocado, liquorice, and pear and gorgonzola. They also have plenty of regular flavours too. I was really keen to try the latter, which I did, but ended up opting for a scoop of liquorice and one of black rice & rose petal. Both of these were delicious but I have to confess to enjoying the richer, more traditional style of gelato at Giolitti.
However, it was great to finally try Fatamorgana as it’s been on my to do list for ages. Even better, Francesco explained the difference between the two different stores and how they encapsulate the ‘new’ and ‘old’ styles of gelato which are now available in Italy. If you want to eat fabulous food, learn about Rome’s food culture, enjoy great company, meet interesting people and explore one of the most charming and atmospheric neighbourhoods in Rome, the Twilight Trastevere Food Tour is for you.
Disclosure: The writer was a guest of Eating Europe. Her husband and son paid for their tour and were equally impressed.