We were in Rome a few months ago for our first (non-Ireland) post pandemic trip. It was just the burst of colour, flavour and sunshine we needed, and without discussing it out loud at any point, we ended up treating it as if it was a food trip, a scavenger hunt of different tastes.
Sure, we went to the colosseum and the Pantheon and the forum and the Trevi fountain, and of course we mooched about looking at nice squares. All good, all highly recommended, after all we’re not smarter than Rome as we kept reminding ourselves!
But the usual tourist roster didn’t feel like the focus of the trip; the sights felt somewhat incidental to our mission. Instead our dinner plans oriented our exploration; tracking well-reviewed snacks was the second priority. Finding a nice place for a nice drink a close third.
I think we always travel a bit like this, but this trip felt unusually laser focused on food. Maybe it’s because eating out has been such a palaver over the last two years that this was the bit of normalcy we had craved so much and then subconsciously prioritised for the trip.
We had been in Italy for the last trip abroad previous to that too, to Venice in January 2020, and it was a good reminder just how different the food cultures are across even these two cities. To boil it down, and you may find this an oversimplification, but here it is anyway. Venice – highly focused on what you have before the meal (cicchetti); seafood; squashy foods. Rome – highly focused on the meal; meat; pasta; crispy foods.
And oh those crispy foods. Deep-fried artichoke in the old Jewish Ghetto; battered courgette flowers filled with heavy blobs of lemon spiked ricotta or stringy lactic mozzarella; shards of jagged focaccia in restaurants; finger burningly-hot arancini, straight out of the fryer and into the gob.
We had lots of great meals in Trastevere, where we staying (notes below), but the highlight of the trip – crispy focaccia for lunch in Testaccio market on our last day, suitcases trailing behind us – actually happened as an accident.
We’d been planning to go to a fancy pool in Gianicolo, which is a strange hilltop area on the outskirts of the city. You know the sort – beautiful views, lots of diplomat residences, slightly odd vibe.
But after our taxi driver had left us at the gate of the hotel (having raced through the city, giving an insight into how the roads really work there by thanking pedestrians at zebra crossings for letting him speed through the crossings instead of letting them cross; happily making the link between us being Irish and Conor McGregory being in the city at the same time, having broken someone’s nose in a bar the night before), we were told by the rather stern hotel manager that the pool was obviously now closed, quite crossly I’d have to add, the subtext being that we were lunatics to want to use an outdoor pool in blissful 20c sunny, early October heat.
So at this point I was feeling a bit defeated and probably but not definitely suggested we just go to the airport early instead and read our books for the rest of the day.
But Ryan pushed for a trip to the Testaccio market, which had originally been our go-to, must-see destination before we got distracted with everything else Rome had to offer.
I had been wanting to visit the market for years from following Rachel Roddy’s stunningly evocative blog & Guardian column about life in Testaccio, a quiet suburb of Rome that was once the old slaughterhouse district.
The old market that she blogged about when she first moved to Rome from England is now gone. It was replaced with a bright, white, spaceship of a building, full of food, locals and a shared seating area where you can enjoy the food from the market.
It has become more popular with tourists in recent years, but it felt like it was still in a nice balance, not oppressive, the tourists there being ones who were actually very interested in food.
The atmosphere still felt local. And it had a nice egalitarian feel to it; the shared seating space allowing all walks of life to enjoy some nice food in a civilised way, to chat with their neighbours, no sniffiness.
There was also a bottle shop offering glasses of cold, fizzy prosecco at 2 or 3 euro a pop, which did a lot to sedate my stress from the earlier part of the day. That and the crispy foods.
Oh the crispy foods. This time we focused on the topped focaccia rather than the deep fried bits (although we did have a massive arancini too that almost knocked Ryan out; that one was maybe mistake).
But back to the focaccia, because it was the best thing we ate the whole trip. Cut by the gram, we chose three options – 1, a sandwich: thin slivers of porchetta, crispy wilted ice berg lettuce and I think a little mayonnaise, this was next level. 2: Crumbly oily garlicky potato topped with a little blue cheese and rosemary – too good. 3: a classic pizza combo of tomatoes and mozzarella which was not quite at the heights of the other two but still exceptionally good.
So basically I’ve had focaccia on my mind since then. We used to have a bakery nearby that sold giant tea-towel sized wodges of it, but then they shut up shop, so it was down to me to make it.
I had tried making it before but I think I had been too cautious with the oil and too stingy with the rises, so it wasn’t that great on previous attempts.
This time I used Bon Appetit’s popular no-knead recipe and it was great. I ended up actually cutting the oil a bit in mine, and I didn’t use the garlic butter they suggested, but it was fab. Very, very easy to make, you just need to leave plenty of time across the day to make it, and it will be even better nicer if you could start it the day before for its first rise, leaving it overnight in the fridge.
2.5 teaspoons dried yeast
2 teaspoons runny honey
5 cups (625g) strong white flour
4.5+ tablespoons olive oil
Any toppings you want to bake on top or add after as garnishes
Mix the yeast with the honey and 2.5 cups of lukewarm water and leave to sit for 5 minutes in a large bowl. It should start to foam/bubble. Add the flour and 1.5 teaspoon of salt and mix till you have a shaggy dough. If it’s too dry add a splash more water then bring it together into a ball with floured hands.
Pour 2.5 tablespoons of oil into a large bowl (you can use the same one you started with if you tip out the flour), and then add the dough ball. Turn it over in the oil. Cover the bowl with cling film and either refrigerate overnight or if you’re planning to cook on the day, leave it at room temperature. Leave to rise till it’s doubled in size – this can take anything from an hour to 4 hours depending on the temperature of your room.
Butter the dish you’re planning to bake it in. The dish can be a high sided baking tray or even a wide Le Creuset. The butter will help you get it out of the pan easily later. Add 1 tbsp oil to centre of the pan also. When your dough ball has doubled in size, knock the air out of it and transfer to the buttered dish. Pour any oil left from the rising bowl over the dough ball. Let it rise again at room temp until doubled in size. Again, this could take between 1 and 4 hours, depending on how warm the air is. To check if it’s ready, press it. If the dough springs straight back it’s not ready. If it rises back up slowly it is.
Preheat your oven to 200c. Press the dough out to take up the full size of your dish, dimpling it with your fingers, pressing down hard (you should just about feel the dish under the dough with each press). Drizzle over another tablespoon of oil and sprinkle with salt (flaky salt if you have it). Add any soft toppings at this point – sliced potato, red onion strips, halved cherry tomatoes, grapes etc (herbs can go on later, they don’t taste great if they burn).
Bake for 25-30 mins or until golden brown and crisp on the bottom. If it looks a bit dry, add another drizzle of oil. Top with any fresh herbs you like and serve.
Carbonara – the tip I have read is go anywhere where it’s not offered with spaghetti! Apparently it should only be served with a chunky pasta like rigatoni.
I think this tip is actually a bit harsh as there are good spaghetti versions around – like Tonnarello’s version, which is heavy on sheepy pecorino and highly crisped guanciale. Cacio e pepe is lovely too but I think the carbonara tastes next level compared to what you can get in the UK or Ireland.
We had a really great version and lots of other incredible food at Da Enzo Al 29 in the lower part of Trastevere. It’s a very, very popular restaurant but v worth visiting – either get there for first sitting or be prepared to queue. Not so bad if you can get an aperol spritz nearby to have while you wait!
If you can’t get a table here, there are other good restaurants close by – either one square up, or in the main Trastevere area. Osteria Zi Umberto’s was also good.
One harsh tip I will stand over – don’t eat anywhere there is a plastic meal outside as advertising.
Fried things – deep fried artichoke (carciofo alla Giudia), mozzarella or ricotta filled battered courgette flower, deep fried cod croquettes
Oxtail stew (coda al sugo) – comforting, hearty, meaty
DO A walking tour of the Jewish Ghetto – either food focused or not. Before you do the tour, have a coffee and a gorgeous filled croissant or breakfast toastie at Caffè Roscioli. There are some interesting ancient ruins to look around nearby also. Have a snack of crispy tomato-covered focaccia at Antico Forno Urbani, or if you’re in the mood to try some Roman Jewish specialities, try one of the restaurants on Via Del Portico D’Ottavio. We tried Su Ghetto, but many of the menus looked quite similar. Be advised that these restaurants keep kosher, so many don’t serve milk products, but you can get drinks.
Head to the Pantheon from there – you’re not too far. Expect to wait around 30 mins to get in, the huge snaking queue moves quickly. From there, head up to the Trevi fountain via Pizza Navona. Get some ice cream and grab a pic beside the fountain but note that you can’t actually eat the ice cream on the steps – same with the Spanish Steps, it’s a new law, and it is enforced.
There are some good gelato bars nearby both sites.
The main tip for identifying is it a good place to try or not – check what colour the pistachio ice cream is. If it’s a natural, pale sage/khaki green, that’s a good place to go! If it’s illuminous green, walk on.
If it’s hot, visit one of Rome’s outdoor pools for the day. They are quite expensive but I think the experience overall would feel like good value, as some of them are really lovely spots, with poolside bars etc. Ring before visiting to ensure it’s open! The one at Gianicolo would combine nicely with an e Bike cycle to see great views of Rome.
Make sure to visit Testaccio market and try food from as many stalls as you can. We LOVED Casa Manco, but follow your nose and you’ll do fine! And don’t forget to bring some fresh pasta home!