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Rome less traveled: Great Neighbourhoods

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

I'm so happy we had time to explore some less visited Rome neighbourhoods in addition to seeing the big attractions. It was nice to escape the lineups and crowds and see different sides of the city.

For bike rides and shady picnics: Villa Borghese Gardens

This is one of Rome's largest parks, and it's a wonderful green refuge from the busy city streets. It's the Roman version of Central Park, featuring a number of galleries and museums within its borders. But we went for the shady trees and pathways. The grass was a bit patchy (not surprising, given Rome's hot summers), but there were lots of benches for relaxing.

biking in Villa Borghese Gardens park in Rome

At one of the rental stands, we passed over the pedal rickshaws and segways, opting for bikes instead. We rode along the paved and gravel paths past sculptures, fountains, an outdoor theatre, outdoor cafe and a kiddie area with a small zoo and carousel.

For a break, we stopped at a round gazebo built in the style of a temple. We lounged in the shade, enjoying some fresh fruit we had bought at the market that morning. Nearby was an interesting statue of the poet Goethe surrounded by characters from Faust and some of his other works.

We pedalled for about an hour, at which point it was starting to get hot. We turned in our bikes and entered the air-conditioned cafe at one of the galleries for iced cappuccinos. Ahhhhhh.

For authentic food traditions: Testaccio

Since one of Jackson's #1 priorities for our trip was food, we signed up for Eating Italy's Taste of Testaccio walking tour. Not only did it include 12 different food tastings, but our lovely guide Valentina took us to a couple of interesting cultural stops in this historic food-producing neighbourhood.

treet art on a wall in Testaccio, one of the more interesting and less touristed Rome neighbourhoods

Our small group of 11 met at a set of shady picnic tables outside a bar, where I started with my first Italian cappuccino, made to order by the barman. I wasn't a coffee drinker before the trip, but this was darn good stuff -- smooth and aomatic with just enough punch to be energizing. While sipping it, I noticed that the neighbourhood was much quieter and more laid back than anywhere else we'd been.

By way of introduction, Valentina asked us to share our favourite foods in Rome so far, and she added some interesting facts about each answer. We learned that some dishes are traditionally made on certain days; for example gnocchi has historically been a Thursday item, and still is in many Italian restaurants. She also explained that 'pizza romana' is typically thinner than Napoli pizza, and crisp all the way through vs soft in the middle. Since Rome was not wealthy when pizza was popularized, rolling the dough out thinner helped to spread the food farther.

pizza tasting in Rome's Testaccio neighbourhood

With some savoury knowledge under our belts, it was time to commence the food tastings. We walked between various cafes and shops to try various treats. Our first three stops were:

  • Barberini for sweets. First was a cornetti - a light, sweet, crispy-on-the-outside Italian version of a croissant. Along with a cappuccino or espresso, this is the typical Italian breakfast. Which is exactly what lots of locals were having at the  busy standup coffee bar. Before leaving, we were each given a mini tiramisu in a dark chocolate cup -- so very decadent.

  • Pizza at Volpetti Pio, rated as one of Rome's top 10 pizza al taglio (by the slice) places. There was a traditional margherita and a more modern variety with zucchini flowers. The perfectly crispy crust and flavourful toppings were delicious.

  • Volpetti (the sister shop of the pizza place) for cheese and cured meat tastings. We tried truffled peccorino cheese, parmesan reggiano, prosciutto, and salami infused with barolo wine.

Next was a cultural stop at the Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome. Buried there were Protestants, Jews and people of 'sinful professions' who took their last breath in Rome. Apparently poets, philosophers and actors fell into the unsavory profession category, along with prostitutes. Notable graves include those of poets Keats and Shelley and a large marble-covered pyramid tomb dating back to the first century BC.

From the cemetery, we walked to Testaccio Market, noticing some colourful street art along the way. The market is now housed in a modern building that recently replaced an old outdoor location, to the dismay of some vendors and locals.

Our stops in the market included:

  • A produce vendor for their specialty - bruschetta. We were each given a small piece of garlic to rub over our toast before topping it with a salad of tomatoes, olive oil, arugula, salt and basil.

  • A deli stall where the proprietor added fresh buffalo mozzarella to our leftover bruschetta mixture, transforming it into a nice caprese salad. Valentina explained that this mozzarella was truly the freshest we could buy; only 6 hours old. Tradition dictates mozzarella should be eaten within a day of being made. It was the softest, creamiest mozza I've ever tried.

  • A pastry stand where our treat was a Sicilian mascarpone-filled cannolo 'cone' dipped in pistachios. It was the perfect combination of crunchy, creamy, cool and slightly sweet.

bruschetta, Caprese salad and cornetto Sicilian pastries at the market in the Testaccio neighbourhood of Rome

We left the market and crossed the street to visit an abandoned meat processing site. It's gradually being transitioned to a collection of modern warehouses, but we could still see fenced grazing area and the system of overhead tracks where carcasses were moved along and.

Valentina told us that the most traditional type of Roman cuisine is called quinto quarto, or 'fifth quarter.' The name refers to dishes using the innards and other offal like tripe, heart, heads, etc. Ewwwww. But the origin is interesting: slaughterhouse workers were paid in part with a share of the offal, so they learned how to cook with it. Still, ewwwww. Thankfully, we were not tasting any of those 'delicacies' on the tour.

Valentina pointed out a large hill nearby and explained that it was made of pottery shards. For ancient Romans, the terracotta jugs they used for transporting food were basically disposable. They would break used jugs into pieces, spread the shards in a layer and then pour concrete over top. This continued for centuries, with the hill growing in height every year.

Many years after the practice was discontinued and the hill was grown over with grass, locals realized that if they dug into it, the interior was very cool. Someone got the idea of carving wine cellars into the hillside. Now restaurants and bars line the perimeter, each with a cellar in the back.

We headed to one of these cellar restaurants called Flavio al Velavevodetto where we enjoyed 3 types of pasta. The dishes were served family-style at a long table, along with jugs of wine. We sampled:

  • Spaghetti Carbonara (an egg-based sauce and bacon)

  • Penne Amatricana (tomato sauce and parmesan cheese)

  • Rigatoni Cacio e Pepe -- a wonderfully creamy pasta made with only cheese and pepper. No milk is used, but rather a special technique using some of the pasta cooking water to create a creamy texture.

tasting 3 kinds of pasta at a restaurant in Rome's Testaccio neighbourhoo

The restaurant owner scolded Valentina for being a few minutes late, because pasta is supposed to be served and eaten immediately when it's ready. We all thought it was perfectly tasty anyway, but that's how seriously Italians take their food.

Even though we were nearly stuffed, we had two more stops to go. The first was a modern fast food place called Trapizzino for street snacks called 'supplis '- savoury fried risotto balls with tiny bits of veal.

And finally -- of course -- gelato. Valentina assured us that the 100-year-old 'Fratellio Giolitti' was the best gelato in Rome. She said that 80% of gelato sold in the city is fake -- or at least, not fresh -- made from powder mix and pumped up with air. What?! She gave us some tips for finding the real stuff:

  • The containers of gelato should be fairly level on top, not puffed up in a big airy mound.

  • Colours should reflect the real ingredients; banana flavour should be pale cream like the inside of a banana (not bright yellow), pistachio should be pale green (not dark), and mint should be almost white, since mint oil is used for flavouring as opposed to leaves.

I chose a combination of fig and crema flavours topped with homemade whipped cream. It was delightful, but to be honest, I'm not sure I could tell the difference from the other potentially inferior stuff I might have had previously. All gelato tastes pretty sweet to me!

There were a couple of other neighbourhoods on our list of possibilities, but we ran out of time. If I ever go back, I'd like to visit both of them

For the 'real' Rome: Trastevere

The Jewish proprietor of the shop where Jackson bought his stylish Italian dress shirt urged us to visit the Jewish Ghetto, part of the Trastevere neighbourhood. He told us the synagogue is beautiful and the area feels more like a small town or village than part of a big city. Jewish citizens of Rome are no longer forced to live there, as they were for a few hundred years, but many of them have stayed as others of all faiths have moved in to create a vibrant community.

Trastevere is also home to one of Rome’s oldest churches, a charming piazza and a Renaissance villa. It's a former working class area that's now becoming trendy, and reportedly a great people watching spot with an excellent food scene.

For early Christian history: The Appian Way

A friend told me that her family enjoyed visiting this area, which includes two different sets of catacombs. The Appian Way was an ancient highway running from Rome to the port of Brindisi. Today, visitors can walk or bike segments of the remaining road, lined with various tombs and ruins. The catacombs themselves don't sound as creepy as I first imagined. There are no bones; only burial niches, underground carved chapels, frescoes and ancient Christian graffiti.

Rome has so many interesting neighbourhoods, but of course you can't see them all in a day, or even in one short stay. It will always lure visitors back. I suppose that's why they call it Eternal.

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