Join us as we eat our way through the Eternal City on the best food tour Rome has to offer - and learn some important lessons about Italian cuisine along the way.
We were granted media passes to LivItaly's Rome food tour at no cost and we thank them for their support. All research, writing, and opinions are our own. Note that some links in this post may be affiliate links, which means we are paid a small commission should you make a purchase.
Are you ready for a culinary lesson, straight from the best food tour Rome has to offer? Here goes! There are three important things you should know when it comes to buying olive oil. First, always knock a year off the suggested 'best before' date. Freshness really matters when it comes to olive oil. Next, you should store it far away from your stove. While it might be convenient to have it nearby while cooking, proximity to heat can affect the quality of the oil over time. Finally, know that you usually get what you pay for. It's impossible to get a high quality olive oil for $7 a liter. Single source, cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil, a foundation of Italian cooking, is well worth paying a premium for.
If you're suddenly craving a loaf of crusty bread and a saucer of pungent oil for dipping, you aren't alone. It's delicious! So would it surprise you to learn that I didn't once try olive oil during our LivItaly small group Rome food tour? Everything I learned about olive oil came from a conversation with our tour guide, Dario, over glasses of wine and a platter of local cured meat, cheese, bread, and honey.
I'm not exactly sure how we got on the topic of olive oil but once we started asking questions, we couldn't stop. And we soon learned that the mark of a great food tour is that you're so busy chatting you scarcely notice the food at all, no matter how delicious it is. Within minutes, we weren't studious culinary scholars. We were noshing with a new friend and it felt like old times.
Read on to learn more about the wine, food, and conversations that flowed!
Forget tomatoes. Rome is all about artichokes!
While discussions about olive oil around a platter of prosciutto, salami, and three kinds of pecorino cheese sounds oh-so-very Italian, not everything we tried throughout the tour struck me as being a classic Italian dish. Which shows you just how little I knew! For instance, at Il Giardino Romano restaurant, we sampled carciofo alla Guidia, filetto di baccala, and fiore di zucchine (that's Jewish style deep fried artichokes, fried filet of salted codfish, and battered fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with anchovy.) Um, where's the giant plate of spaghetti and meatballs? Maybe a little fettuccine Alfredo?
Turns out I was in dire need of an education about Italian food, Roman style. Dario has some experience himself with North American style Italian food, so we had a lively conversation comparing different menu items. As we'd soon find out, what passes as carbonara in Ottawa bares little resemblances to that made in Rome! The fare served at the average North American Italian style restaurant has little in common with Roman cuisine. Rome is like a lasagna, layers of history and culture coming together to make the city what it is. Tomato sauce is just the beginning!
Il Giardino Romano is situated in Rome's historic Jewish quarter and specializes in Jewish-Roman cuisine. You can still find pasta and bruschetta on the menu here, but the delicious deep fried treats are the real stars of the show. In particular, we both loved the Jewish style artichoke, right down to the stem, which Dario reminded us not to miss. A full glass of Venetian prosecco and a bottle of mineral water were the perfect accents to wash down the exquisite bites.
Coming to terms with carbonara
Now let's chat about that carbonara I mentioned. In Canada, carbonara is a creamy, garlic-y affair, laden with bacon, Parmesan cheese, and sometimes mushrooms or peas. When I heard it was an unofficial Roman staple during our first visit in 2015, I couldn't wait to try it. Inhaling one of my favourite pasta dishes AND being able to justify it all as cultural exploration? Yes, please!
No one was more surprised than me when I HATED the dish I was served. The rigatoni, cooked very al dente, was so hard it was inedible. And instead of creamy sauce, the traditional Italian carbonara recipe of egg and pecorino cheese was dry and unpalatable. In lieu of bacon, there were chunks of guanciale, or cured pork cheeks, that were nothing but rubbery bits of fat. Could this be the dish that was so beloved by Romans? Oh dear!
When I heard we'd be sampling carbonara on the food tour, I won't lie. I was filled with dread. Would I be able to fake enough enthusiasm to save our host from offense?
To my tremendous relief, the carbonara we tried on the LivItaly food tour was nothing like my first introduction. Instead of rigatoni, spaghetti was served. It was prepared in the classic Italian al dente style but it wasn't nearly as tough as my previous encounter. The sauce was much creamier and the guanciale was crispy, meaty, and perfectly balanced out the dish.
I'm happy to report that the bad blood between carbonara and myself has been resolved and I wouldn't hesitate to try it again. However, I must confess - this is one recipe where I prefer the North American incarnation, complete with the usual heaps of Parmesan and plenty of rich cream mixed into the sauce. Please don't hate me, Italian friends! Some cheese based habits are apparently hard to change.
No night on the town is complete without pizza and beer
If you're thinking that the portion of spaghetti alla carbonara we received was rather generous for a food tour, you're not alone. And check out the pizza Ryan is posing with above. We each had three slices of pizza this size! This isn't your average Rome food tour filled with samples, small bites, and nibbles. It's a full, multi-course meal spread out over multiple stops. There's also plenty of wine to complement all that you eat! At one stop, a hip pizza shop called Alice Pizza, glasses of beer were a refreshing change of pace.
Alice Pizza has a great energy. It's packed with locals, students, and tourists. Frugal foodies, take note - at Alice, pizza is sold by weight so if you want an inexpensive snack or a more filling meal with several flavors, it's an excellent place to check out. There are ample vegetarian and vegan options as well.
'Pining' for gelato
With plenty of miles and meals under our belts, there was one final stop on our Rome food tour. Time for gelato! Rome's glorious gelato has not been overrated and Dario told us that Punto Gelato was one of the very best shops in the city. I'm no novice when it comes to gelato and I have to say I agree with his assessment.
But the evening couldn't conclude without a few final foodie lessons. My initial order of Indonesian cinnamon gelato and pine (yes. PINE!) gelato was squashed by both Dario and the store staff. They vehemently said that two such strong flavors did not belong together. I altered my order and settled for a just sample of the pine flavor. (Spoiler: It was DELICIOUS! Definitely give it a try).
I also learned that American visitors in particular are very, very partial to mixing coffee gelato and pistachio gelato, a combination that Italians find baffling. Americans are also extremely suspicious when they learn that the mint chocolate gelato is not bright green. My big takeaway? Ask the staff for recommendations. They'll help you branch out from your comfort zone but won't let you make any flavor missteps.
A few final insider tips so you'll enjoy your Rome food tour as much as we did
Normally, I recommend that you arrive several minutes early for a tour to protect against delays or getting a bit lost. But in this particular case, it's also so you can take a moment to really appreciate the loveliness of the meet up point. Some thing not to miss...
As the saying goes, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. That means strolling, sipping wine, eating home style food, and indulging in passionate conversations - and a bit of gelato too. We can unreservedly recommend this tour. It offered excellent value and a fantastic foodie experience and it made us fall in love with Rome even more than before.
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