page contents

Rome, Italy: Food, food, Keats & Shelley

Rome, Italy: Food, food, Keats & Shelley

If you do not like to eat, and eat well, then you may want to consider another destination. Since the beginning of time, food has been an important part of the daily life of Romans.

Ancient Roman cuisine was influenced by the Greeks and, as the empire expanded, the citizens of Rome were exposed to many new, provincial culinary food opportunities and cooking techniques.

In the beginning, social class did not determine what to eat. Disparities developed as the empire grew and by the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries), Rome was known as a center for high cuisine and some of the best chefs of the time were employed by the popes. Of special note was Chef Bartolomeo Scappi who worked for Pope Pius IV in the Vatican kitchen. The Scappi cookbook, Opera dell’arte del cucinare was published in 1570. The book includes 1000 recipes of Renaissance cuisine and describes cooking techniques and tools, and is the first known picture of a fork.

The Romans spent lots of time eating and the Medici family is considered to have developed the foundation for modern gourmet cuisine. The rich ate their meals on plates of wood, metal and later fine porcelain instead of hard bread like the poor. The rich also used exotic spices and enjoyed pasta, polenta, venison, pheasants, rabbits, quail, and swans.

Wine was important to the rich and Rome was ultimately responsible for introducing wine throughout Europe and recognized for bringing the grape to France. Technological progress in wine production and a sound infrastructure meant that Rome could produce large quantities of wine wherever they went.

In addition to lavish villas, wealth was displayed by the abundance and cost of the food presented at banquets. Breakfast (frequently accompanied by wine) was served in the master’s bedroom. Lunch started at 11 AM and cena – the main meal of the day, was served in the late afternoon or early evening. If there were no guests, cena lasted about one hour. When guests were present – the event frequently spanned four hours. The last meal of the day was eaten just before bedtime and included bread and fruit.

The Original Doggie Bag

The wealthy would never eat in public commercial places that sold food and the taverns were only frequented by the poor. The rich took great pride in the food prepared in their kitchens. A banquet at a rich man’s villa was exotic, expansive and expensive. Sauces were important and they gave the host and the cook the opportunity to add excitement and entertainment to the dining experience. A sign that the dinner was a success was when guests asked for bags to take home dishes they had enjoyed.

Kenneth Dunn, Founder, Eating Europe Tours

Eating Rome Today

While the dining options in Rome today may not include roasted swans or peacocks, the vast selection of goodies, small specialty food shops and gourmet restaurants can be overwhelming. An excellent way to be introduced to the food of Rome is to join a group of like-minded foodies and explore the city with Kenny Dunn and his team of food tour guides who happily and professionally introduce visitors to a handcrafted selection of the best dining options in multiple sections of the city.

Dunn is an experienced traveler having visited and eaten his way through over 60 countries –so he is personally attuned to understanding the travelers’ wants/needs and offers visitors the opportunity to discover the culture and customs of a country through their palates and their stomachs.

Dunn is American by birth and Italian by choice. After taking visiting friends on tours of his neighborhood, he realized he had the embryo for a business. Eating Europe Tours began in 2011 in Dunn’s neighborhood and five years later it is one of the largest food tour operators in Europe with operations in Rome, Florence, London, Amsterdam and Prague. Over 70,000 clients have been introduced to the delicious options available in the cities and countries in which he operates.

Walking Through a Taste of Testaccio

Ghyslaine Archer. Eating Europe Tour Guide

On the day, I joined one of Dunn’s eating safaris, the tour focused on Testaccio, a charming (off the radar) neighborhood in Rome. It is considered an original foodie center and is the home of cucina romana (Roman cuisine) that is also known as the “heart of Rome.”

At one time (19th century), Testaccio was noted for its slaughterhouse and the residential community was home for poor farmers and peasants. The area was industrial, flood-prone and a mecca for mosquitos. The slaughterhouse employees were paid, in part, with unwanted offal or the Quinto quarto (the fifth quarter). Recipes for pig’s trotters, brains and genitals of animals were carefully cooked and spiced and coda alla vaccinara (oxtail cooked in the way of the butcher) remains one of the city’s most popular menu selections. The local trattorias became expert at transforming the undesirable cuts of meat into delicious morsels – and they still do it today.

Where to Go

Café Barberini (opened in 1955)

Locals start their day at this coffee/café where they fuel up with espresso and cappuccino and pastries, especially cornettos, a croissant filled with flavored cream. The Tiramisu cups are also recommended. There is standing room only; however, there is a nearby park for a picnic or just a place to set and enjoy the goodies.

Volpetti (Opened 1973)

Volpetti (specializes in meats and cheese) offers a wide array of food that you want to take home. The shop was started by brothers Emilio and Claudio Volpetti. From gourmet oils, the freshest of meats and a global array of cheese, breads, pastries, homemade pizza, preserves, honey, dried mushrooms, fresh truffles, pastries and wines this shop makes a delicious contribution to enhancing the palates of gourmets and gourmands. Balsamic vinegars (artisanal) that sell for approximately $1500 are beautifully displayed for purchase. I would be lucky to have this shop in my Manhattan neighborhood.

Volpetti Piu

Ottavio Melarangi owns Volpetti Piu – and it is not just a pizza shop, it is considered to be among the 10 most important pizza restaurants in Rome (and this is in a city with over 4500 pizza options).  Pizza was born in Naples but became a Roman staple in Rome at the end of WW11.  Volpetti Piu also offers sumptuous tavola calda (canteen style buffet) that includes eggplant, pasta, meats, soups, and vegetables.

Rest in Peace

The Dunn tour offers more than food, and includes insights into the history of the locale. A memorable stop (for a rest and reflection), is the Protestant Cemetery, Cimitero Acattolico.

At the cemetery visitors are directed to the remains of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Keats, who was not recognized during his lifetime, stated, “If I can’t be remembered as a poet I would rather be forgotten,” and as such his actual tombstone doesn’t have his name on it; a friend, buried nearby, had Keats’s name added. Shelley’s grave features a verse from The Tempest – appropriate, as the play starts with a shipwreck, and Shelley himself died at sea.

This cemetery holds possibly the highest density of famous and important graves anywhere in the world. Goethe’s only son, rests here, as does Antonio Gramsci, a founding father of European Communism. Also, look for the tombstones of Giorgio Bulgari (1890-1966), the grandson of Sotirios Bulgari, the founder of Bulgari and Richard Manson, (1919-1997), the British author of The World of Suzy Wong.

Whether you are in Rome for a few hours, or a few days, it is a worthwhile investment (of time and money) to join one of Dunn’s walking tours. When you do attend, remember to wear comfortable shoes and bring along a bottle (or two) of water…walking and eating makes you very thirsty.

For additional information, click here.

This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.

Tagged with