For over a decade, we’ve been taking food tours when we travel to new cities. We’ve found them to be an excellent way to learn about both the food and the culture. Immediately after booking our hotel and airfare to Rome, I knew that my next step was to reserve a food tour.
I’ve been fortunate to enjoy food tours with a few different companies, but one of our favorites is Secret Food Tours. Now offering tours in 25 countries, they pride themselves on introducing guests to exceptional, locally owned establishments. Guided by locals well-versed in the culture, history, and food scene, the experience is always memorable.
This tour was hosted by Secret Food Tours, but all opinions are my own.
1. Learn About The Local Cuisine
First and foremost, a food tour is about eating all the delicious cuisine in whatever city you’re visiting. I’ve always loved Italian food, so I was exceptionally excited for this tour.
But beyond eating good food, our well informed guide, Robbie, also provided the history and context of each food we sampled. While I’ve eaten Italian food my entire life, I knew very little about the origins of its most popular dishes.
We began our tour at a classic Italian cafe bordering Piazza Navona, one of the best-known squares in all of Rome. Robbie introduced himself and gave us an overview of the afternoon. We would stroll through several neighborhoods and make five food stops along the way.
First was the pizza stop where Robbie explained that pizza was invented in Naples, sometime in the late 1700s. The version which we sampled, Roman-styled, was created in the 1950s. This thin crust pizza is made on large, rectangular metal pans and then cut into squares, typically sold by weight. While there were the toppings we are all familiar with, like sausage and mushrooms, there were also local toppings to be sampled like chicory, squash blossoms, and fresh artichokes.
Later in the tour, we tried two traditional Roman pastas: cacio e pepe and amatriciana. The first is prepared with butter, parmesan cheese, and pepper; and the second with spicy tomato sauce and guanciale (cured pork cheek). We learned that pastas were originally long and thin and served with olive oil-based sauces. When tomatoes were introduced in the 16th century, the popularity of tomato sauces grew and shorter, rounder pastas were introduced.
Accompanying our pasta were fried artichokes, known in Italian as carciofi alla giudia. Our visit in the spring coincided with artichoke season, and we had seen them on every menu. Robbie explained that the style of artichoke we were enjoying was created in the Roman Ghetto, a Jewish ghetto just blocks south of the Pantheon, and has since become one of the city’s best-loved dishes.
Pro Tip: This food tour lasted 3 hours and we had more than enough food for an entire lunch. While it’s tempting to eat everything provided, I definitely recommend that you pace yourself.
2. Discover Family-Owned Restaurants
While Rome is full of fabulous restaurants, it also has its fair share of mediocre establishments, many of them located in the areas populated by tourists. One of the benefits of a food tour is having a local guide that curates stops at excellent family-owned purveyors. In several cases, the places we visited had been in the family for many generations.
Our second stop was at Norcineria Viola, a family-owned butchery specializing in pork products since 1890. Hundreds of sausages hung from the ceiling and filled the glass cases in this tiny shop. Salami varieties from all over Italy could be seen. We were treated to paper thin slices of these meats along with a few cheeses, all washed down with local red wine.
After some savory bites, we were treated to sweets at I Dolce di Nonna Vincenza, a bakery that traces its roots to the tiny Sicilian village of Agira. Nonna Vincenza began baking for friends and family in the 1930s and continued throughout her life. The family tradition continues in three bakeries located in Catania, Milan, and Rome. We sampled the popular Sicilian pastry, cannolo, or cannoli.
Each place on our tour had an interesting story which Robbie shared. Most were located on side streets we would not have explored on our own. It was like joining a local on their daily stroll through the city while they visited their favorite spots.
3. Explore The City’s History
Between food stops, we were treated to leisurely walks through Roman neighborhoods. Periodically, Robbie would stop and share the history of a statue, church, or street.
Since our tour began in Piazza Navona, we spent a few minutes learning about its history. Long before the current piazza was built, it served as a chariot racetrack. Today, the focal point of the square is the Fountain of the Four Rivers, commissioned by Pope Innocent X and unveiled to the public in 1651.
The most memorable stop along the way was the Roman Ghetto. Once the required home for all Jews, this neighborhood has become a hotspot for foodies. In the center is a pedestrian street lined with restaurants, all of them at capacity.
But the Roman Ghetto is also the scene of tremendous tragedy. In front of many homes is a small bronze plaque, each a memorial to a Jewish person murdered during the Holocaust. The name, birthdate, date of deportation, and Nazi extermination camp are recorded on the plaque. Robbie spent several minutes chronicling the awful treatment of Jews in Rome, first by the Catholic Church and later by the Nazis.
While I always leave a food tour feeling full, I also leave better appreciating local history and culture.
4. Meet Other Travelers
In my experience, food tours are small, rarely more than 10 guests, making it a great way to meet other like-minded travelers. During our food tour, there were just seven of us, plus the guide. Two were from England, two from Israel, and one other person was from the United States. Over the course of 3 hours, we enjoyed learning about their hometowns, why they were traveling, and which foods they most enjoyed.
Fellow travelers are often eager to share recommendations for tours, hotels, and restaurants, either in the current location or their home country. In return, I’ve been excited to share my favorite things to do in the U.S. for anyone with an upcoming trip planned. While it’s certainly possible to meet other travelers during any tour, something about breaking bread together encourages camaraderie.
5. Recommendations For Future Meals
After our tour, Robbie was kind enough to send us all an email with a list of additional restaurants he likes, organized by Rome’s most popular attractions. He also recapped the places we had been in case we wished to return.
While I use websites like TripAdvisor and Yelp to select restaurants while traveling, personal recommendations from a local are always better. Often these don’t make it to the top of major sites, but are preferred by those who know the local food best.
Best Food Tour Tips
If you’ve never booked a food tour before, here are some planning tips.
Dietary Restrictions And Food Allergies
If you have any dietary restrictions or food allergies, be sure to contact the tour provider before booking. Most companies will do their best to provide options, but there are exceptions. Be sure to work this out in advance so you’re not disappointed.
Comfortable Shoes For Walking
Wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to walk a couple of miles. If you have any mobility challenges, be sure to contact the tour provider prior to booking. Ancient cities like Rome often lack ramps and elevators, and can be challenging to navigate.
Various Stops Along Each Tour
Keep in mind that stops along each tour will vary. Secret Food Tours does a nice job of outlining the typical foods, but it is possible that a restaurant or shop will stop participating and a substitute will have to be found quickly. It has been a tough few years for restaurants all over the world, and it has subsequently impacted tour companies.
Discounts For Children
Many companies, including Secret Food Tours, offer discounted pricing for children. However, I would not recommend this tour for young children. The amount of walking, the short history talks, and the types of food included may not be enticing for them. I do, however, think teens would enjoy this experience, especially if they are open to trying new foods.
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