It’s no secret that food and spirituality are closely linked. Think of all the religious holidays, for example, that have special dishes associated with them, from the Jewish Seder to the feasting surrounding Christmas.
On a recent trip to Rome, I got the chance to reflect on some of these connections during a Vatican Area Tour for Foodies. It’s one of a wide variety of food tours offered by Eating Europe, a company established in 2011 that operates in five European cities.
“We started offering these tours in Rome because so many people visit the Vatican but never get a sense for the surrounding neighborhood,” said Toni Brancatisano, who frequently leads the Vatican Area Tour for Foodies. “And I think there’s no better way to get to know Rome than through its foods.”
Toni proved the perfect person to lead our tour. Born in Australia, she moved back to her father’s homeland in 1998. Leaving behind her former career as a nurse, she spent 14 years in Tuscany before coming to Rome. She’s served as the host of several TV series on the Italian food channel and is the author of a book on cake decorating (learn more about her varied culinary career at Toni Brancatisano).
“My passion is food—and no one does food like the Italians,” she said. “I love helping people gain insights into the culinary riches of my adopted home.”
Our tour began at 10 a.m. at Pergamino Cafe near the entrance to the Vatican Museums. Bob and I were joined by Elena Sergeeva, a lifestyle and food blogger from Greece (see her Passion for Hospitality), and her mother, Marina. As we sipped our coffees, Toni gave us our first lesson: how the Romans do breakfast.
“We’re not big breakfast eaters—instead we often eat standing at the counter of a local coffee shop,” she said. “Just a coffee and maybe a small sweet gets us started on our morning. And we tend to go back to our favorite shop every day because it’s the best place to keep up with what’s going on in our neighborhood.”
As we set out on foot to our next destination, Toni pointed out some of the features of the Prati neighborhood, which includes wide boulevards, Art Nouveau and nineteenth-century Umbertino architecture, and government offices. It reminded me a bit of Paris, a surprising contrast to the sometimes gritty neighborhoods of Rome.
“People are often surprised by Prati, but this is as much a part of Rome as the older parts of the city,” Toni said. “And one of the advantages of living here is that it’s a real neighborhood—tourists pass through, but not in the numbers that can overwhelm you in other parts of the city.”
For the next two and a half hours, we followed Toni like obedient, hungry ducklings. At each stop, she was greeted as a friend in the bakeries, grocery stores, and restaurants of her neighborhood—and because we were with her, we were welcomed as friends too.
This being Italy, we didn’t need to worry about having dessert first: homemade cannoli, a Sicilian specialty served by a smiling woman at a shop named L’Involtino. Though she spoke no English, her message was clear as she gestured us to eat more.
“The secret to great cannoli is that both the shells and the filling must be fresh, and they should never be filled until just before they’re eaten,” explained Toni. “The filling is a sweetened ricotta, often dipped in toppings like candied orange peel, shaved chocolate, or pistachio nuts.”
Licking the filling off my fingers—it was good to the last morsel—I followed our small group out the door and around the corner. Our next stop was Panificio Lintozzi, a bakery where we learned how to order a lunchtime portion of Roman pizza (just tell the shopkeeper how big a piece you want sliced off of the rectangular pizzas on the counter). The thin-crust pieces with just a few toppings weren’t nearly as filling as a typical American pizza, but had beautifully blended flavors.
A block away, we stopped at Franchi Gastronomia, a gourmet delicatessen where the owner demonstrated how to cut razor-thin slices of prosciutto, a dry-cured ham that comes in many variations in Italy. Toni pointed out the stack of wrapped sandwiches piled high on the counter. Filled with prosciutto, grilled vegetables, and artisan cheeses, they proved that in Italy, even fast food is good food.
After taking a seat in the deli, we were served suppli, one of Rome’s favorite street foods. The fried rice balls are filled with warm, stringy mozzarella, making it an easy snack perfect for on-the-go workers or tourists.
Next we visited Castroni, an international grocery store where Toni pointed out some of her favorite products.
“They have branches throughout the city and stock items you can’t find anywhere else,” said Toni.
From there we headed to Mercato dell’ Unita, an Art Deco-style, covered market bustling with people. As we strolled its aisles, we passed by overflowing baskets filled with herbs, flowers, fruits, and vegetables, with eager clerks offering us samples of their wares.
“Italian cooks build their meals around what’s in the market that week,” said Toni. “That’s one of the major reasons why food here tastes so wonderful. You’d never plan a dish with asparagus in the autumn, for example—instead that’s the time of year to cook with mushrooms. You only eat what’s at its peak.”
At a shop called Moliseatavola, we were served a selection of cured meats and aged cheeses accompanied by glasses of white wine. As we ate, Toni told us the story of her friend Mimo’s business and how he’s been selling his wares in the market for many years.
At our last stop, Be.Re., we savored one of Rome’s hottest new street foods: Trapizzino, a triangle-shaped piece of pizza bread that holds a savory filling. I could see that the quick and nutritious meal would be easy to eat as you walked. It tasted especially good paired with samplings of several craft beers brewed on site.
“Italy is known for wine, of course, but our craft beer scene is starting to blossom as well,” explained Toni.
As we dined, Toni gave us some final recommendations, from specific restaurants to visit in other parts of the city to some general tips on dining in Rome:
- Look where the locals are dining. Avoid places that have a lot of tourists.
- Don’t eat in a restaurant with a big, printed menu. You want a place that changes its dishes with the seasons and concentrates on doing a few things well. Their menus are usually written on a chalkboard.
- Don’t even consider eating in a place that has sample plates of food on display.
- And most important: Don’t get fooled by fake gelato. Pass by the places with big mounds of brightly colored gelato (it’s almost certainly artificially flavored). This quintessential Italian dessert should be made in small batches with real ingredients.
By the time we said goodbye, I felt like I’d been given an introduction not only to the foods of the Prati neighborhood, but also to what it would be like to live as an Italian. I realized I would have missed something essential if I’d visited only the holy sites of Rome without knowing something about its culinary traditions as well.
Toni sent us off with warm hugs. “In Rome, once you share food, you become friends,” she said. “Come back again—there’s a lot you missed!”
IF YOU GO: The Vatican Area Tour for Foodies is 59 Euros per person (about $73). In Rome, seven other tours, classes, and food-oriented walks are offered. In Florence, Eating Europe offers three food tours and a cooking class. Visitors to London, Amsterdam and Prague can also sign up for tours, which range from a sampling of the culinary treasures of London’s East End to explorations of the historic Jordaan neighborhood in Amsterdam.