UK / Europe

Formaggi e vini – a foodie’s guide to Rome

Local flavour... Campo de' Fiori

Amy Hughes

The 84-year old, shrinking signora hunches over as she sets our frothy cappucini down on the Formica table.  She was born in the back of this latteria, or milk store, and took over the family business years ago.  It’s small, and empty, save for the refrigerated milk and Coke bottles, and a few pastries behind a glass counter.

Elizabeth Minchilli, an American expat living in Italy the last 40 years, has brought me to Latteria di Vicolo del Gallo, named for its street address, to begin one of her exclusive food tours around Rome.

The latteria, she explains, is one of a dying breed; rare because it’s an old fashioned coffee bar, resistant of restoration.  Instead, it’s like a step back into the 40s or 50s – and in a place you’d least expect it.  Located just off the Campo de’ Fiori, this is some of Rome’s most expensive real estate.

The latteria may be at the heart of a tourist attraction, but few know about this treasure.  And that’s where Elizabeth comes in.  She knows quite a few of these places, and not just in Rome, but also Florence and Venice.  Minchilli authored three restaurant apps, but food is actually a second career for Elizabeth.

Architecture and design were her original areas of expertise, having written several books about recreating rustic Italian style in a non-Italian home, and through years of contributing articles to Architectural Digest, the New York Times and others.

But about four years ago, she got tired of writing about furniture, and switched the focus of her blog to food. Soon, Minchilli’s readers wanted to know whether she would show them the places she wrote about, and that’s how her small (only 1-4 people maximum), bespoke tours began.

Tours can be tailored specifically to client requests; today Minchilli takes me on her tour of Campo de’ Fiori and the Jewish Ghetto.  It’s a touristy area, but one with a rich history.  We walk through the market talking about the stark contrast of exotic produce, like blue potatoes flown in from Peru, to the first wild asparagus just in from Umbria, both selling at a stall where there are no prices listed.

If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.  And Minchilli tells me it’s so local, there are prices for friends, and prices for strangers.  I learn it’s bad form to patronise more than one vendor (unless they sell different things).  And who would want to offend their produce supplier?  Just opposite, stalls sell rainbow coloured pasta in phallic shapes, and pink limoncello; items no Italian would go near.

The place for pizza... Forno de Campo de’ Fiori
The place for pizza… Forno de Campo de’ Fiori

The first stall, with its expensive, unusual inventory is for the wealthy residents whose homes line this legendary square.  Minchilli fills me in on the history of the area, explaining that years ago, after the war, many who lived here were desperate to escape to the calm of the suburbs, for more greenery and more space, but those who remained now hold some of the city’s priciest property.  They’re the ones buying the Peruvian blue potatoes.

We step into Forno de Campo de’ Fiori, a bakery known for its pizza bianca which is like focaccia, just drizzled in olive oil and salt.  The key, Minchilli says, is to eat it fresh; within 45 minutes of it coming out of the oven. The owner comes from a family of bakers and we compare this pizza to that of Roscioli, owned by the same family and just around the corner.  They’re both excellent.  Roscioli is a bigger bakery, filled not just with bread, but cakes, and Panini, whereas the Forno concentrates more on its pizza.  You wouldn’t go wrong hitting either, or both.

There’s a quick stop at I Formaggi di Gianni e Paola, across the street, to buy mozzarella di buffalo and burrata for a tasting over cocktails at Caffe Peru.  I learn all hard cheese is called “formaggio,” while soft cheeses simply go by their names, like mozzarella, ricotta, or stracchino.  Our midday aperitivi tasting goes beyond Campari.  I taste Aperol, a similar drink, but with half the alcohol.  It tastes of bitter oranges.  Then there’s Crodino, a non-alcoholic adult soda made with blood oranges.  Apparently it’s hard to match wines with mozzarella as the tannins get in the way.  Perfect excuse for cocktails.  When children take the tour, Minchilli replaces the cocktails with craft beer and soda, offering kids a natural fizzy pop tasting.

Norcineria Viola is busy as people pile in to try plates of pork in various forms.  The fennel sausage is delightful and we eat it with unsalted bread to balance the salty meat.  A cold, red, farmhouse wine goes down too easy given its not even lunchtime.

Simple living... Beppe e i suoi formaggi
Simple living… Beppe e i suoi formaggi

We’re making our way to the neighbouring Jewish Ghetto, and just on the border sits Beppe e i Suoi Formaggi.  It’s the main event for me; the wine and cheese tasting, we sit at a lovely table in an old wine cellar.  Beppe began life as Rome’s first ever wine bar.  It originally opened as a wine shop, and evolved because most stores closed during the day for lunch.  Beppe’s owner thought there was a market for serving food, and asked his wife to prepare simple, “non-cook,” dishes to offer.

The idea took off and has been replicated all over the city. Over time, Beppe has turned into more of a boutique wine shop, stocking vintages that go well with cheese, mostly from the north.  I try a Nebbiolo that could keep me here all day.  The concept here is simple: fantastic, affordable wines, champagnes and cheese to purchase, with table service for both, and one hot dish a day, as well as fondue.  I’m told they serve cheese you won’t find anywhere else in Rome.  I think I could live at Beppe.

Instead, we’re off for a “proper” lunch in the Jewish ghetto, at Da Gigetto.  Here, we eat deep fried artichokes, a Jewish Roman dish one shouldn’t try at home.  Like most fried food, it just doesn’t work as well without a serious deep fryer.  The highlight is vigna rola, a seasonal stew only available for about four weeks a year because all three ingredients are in season: artichokes, fava beans and peas.  It’s light, wholesome flavour is a welcome treat.

We’ve skipped pastries and finish with gelato at Alberto Pica, another classic latteria, where the ingredients are fresh and natural.  Gelato di riso, a signature flavour with a creamy base and real grains of white rice is both slightly strange and delicious all at the same time.

A day with Elizabeth begins at 10.30am and finishes at 3pm, with 10 stops and I can guarantee you won’t be hungry for dinner.

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