For over a decade we have been doing food tours when we travel to new cities. We found them to be a great way to learn about both the food and the culture. Immediately after booking our hotel and plane ticket to Rome, I knew my next step was to book a food tour.
I’ve been lucky enough to take 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 their clients to exceptional local establishments. Guided by locals knowledgeable about the culture, history and food scene, the experience is always memorable.
This tour was organized by Secret Food Tours, but all opinions are my own.
1. Learn about the local cuisine
First and foremost, a food tour is all about eating all the delicious food in the city you are visiting. I’ve always loved Italian food, so I was exceptionally excited for this tour.
But beyond eating great food, our knowledgeable guide, Robbie, also provided the history and context for each food we sampled. Although I had eaten Italian food all my life, I knew very little about the origin of its most popular dishes.
We started our tour at a classic Italian cafe lining Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s best-known squares. Robbie introduced himself and gave us an overview of the afternoon. We were walking through several neighborhoods and making five food stops along the way.
The first was the pizza stop where Robbie explained that pizza was invented in Naples in the late 1700s. The Roman-style version we sampled was created in the 1950s. thin crust is prepared on large rectangular metal pans, then cut into squares, usually sold by weight. Although there were the fillings we all know, such as sausages and mushrooms, there were also local fillings to taste such as chicory, squash blossoms and fresh artichokes.
Later in the visit, we tried two traditional Roman pastas: cacio e pepe and amatriciana. The first is prepared with butter, parmesan and pepper; and the second with spicy tomato sauce and guanciale (dried pork cheek). We learned that the pasta was originally long and thin and served with olive oil based sauces. When tomatoes were introduced in the 16th century, the popularity of tomato sauces increased and shorter, rounder pastas were introduced.
Our pasta came with fried artichokes, called in Italian carciofi alla giudia. Our spring visit coincided with artichoke season and we had seen them on every menu. Robbie explained that the style of artichoke we enjoy was created in the Roman Ghetto, a Jewish ghetto a few blocks south of the Pantheon, and has since become one of the city’s most beloved dishes.
Pro Tip: This food tour lasted 3 hours and we had more than enough food for a full lunch. Although it’s tempting to eat whatever is provided, I highly recommend going at your own pace.
2. Discover family restaurants
While Rome is full of fabulous restaurants, it also has its fair share of mediocre establishments, many of which are located in tourist-populated areas. One of the perks of a food tour is having a local guide arrange stops at great family-run vendors. In many cases, the places we visited had been in the family for many generations.
Our second stop was at Norcineria Viola, a family run butcher’s shop specializing in pork products since 1890. Hundreds of sausages hung from the ceiling and filled the windows of this tiny shop. Varieties of salami from all over Italy could be seen. We were treated to paper thin slices of these meats with a few cheeses, all washed down with local red wine.
After a few savory bites, we were treated to sweets at I Dolce di Nonna Vincenza, a bakery whose roots go back to the small Sicilian village of Agira. Nonna Vincenza started cooking for her 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 tasted the popular Sicilian pastry, cannolo or cannoli.
Every place on our tour had an interesting story that Robbie shared. Most were located on side streets that we wouldn’t have explored on our own. It was like joining a local on their daily walk around the city as 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 story of a statue, church or street.
From the beginning of our visit to Piazza Navona, we spent a few minutes discovering its history. Long before the construction of the current square, 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 obligatory home for all Jews, this neighborhood has become a foodie hotspot. In the center is a pedestrian street lined with restaurants, all at capacity.
But the Roman ghetto is also the scene of a terrible tragedy. In front of many houses is a small bronze plaque, each a memorial to a Jewish person murdered during the Holocaust. Name, date of birth, date of deportation and Nazi extermination camp are recorded on the plaque. Robbie spent several minutes recounting the terrible 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 with a greater appreciation for 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 travellers. On our food tour, there were only seven of us, plus the guide. Two were from England, two from Israel and one from the United States. Over the course of 3 hours, we enjoyed learning about their hometowns, why they traveled, and what foods they enjoyed the most.
Fellow travelers are often eager to share recommendations for tours, hotels, and restaurants, whether in their current location or in their home country. In return, I was thrilled to share my favorite things to do in the United States for anyone planning an upcoming trip. While it’s certainly possible to meet fellow travelers during any tour, something about breaking bread together encourages camaraderie.
5. Recommendations for the next meals
After our visit, Robbie was kind enough to email us all with a list of additional restaurants he likes, curated by Rome’s most popular attractions. He also recapped the places we had been in case we wanted to return.
Although I use websites like TripAdvisor and Yelp to select restaurants on my travels, personal recommendations from a local are always better. Often these don’t make it to the top of the main sights, but are preferred by those who know the local food best.
Top 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 supplier before booking. Most companies will do their best to provide options, but there are exceptions. Be sure to sort this out in advance so you don’t get disappointed.
Comfortable shoes for walking
Wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to walk a few miles. If you have mobility issues, be sure to contact the travel supplier before booking. Ancient cities like Rome often lack ramps and elevators and can be difficult to navigate.
Various stops along each tour
Keep in mind that the stops on each tour vary. Secret Food Tours does a good job of depicting typical foods, but it’s possible that a restaurant or store may drop out and a substitute needs to be found quickly. The last few years have been difficult for restaurants around the world, and this has subsequently had an impact on tour operators.
Discounts for children
Many companies, including Secret Food Tours, offer discounted rates for children. However, I would not recommend this tour for young children. The amount of walking, brief history talks, and types of food included may not be appealing to them. I think teenagers would enjoy this experience though, especially if they are open to trying new foods.
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