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Episode #142: Tale of 3 Cities: A Food Tour Adventure in Italy

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Food tours are a wonderful experience during your trip to Italy. Not only do you get to eat incredibly well, but you get to try new food – things you may not have considered before or been brave enough to order on your own. Food is such an important connection to the land, the people, and the culture of Italy, so you get to not only taste delicious food and produce but learn the history and stories behind them and share in the local’s passion. 

Show notes

We talk to Lauren Aloise, the co-founder of Devour Tours, an award-winning food tour company.  Lauren and her company’s ethos is all about the diversity, the passion for food, and how it connects to a city’s history. Food is a constant topic of conversation in Italy and a food tour is an extension of that. Food tours are a special way to get immersed in the culture, discover wonderful local produce and dishes, and to meet new people, and make some special connections. 

 

 

About our guest – Lauren Aloise

Lauren Aloise is the co-founder of Devour Tours, the award-winning food tour company that is part of City Experiences. She grew up in an Italian-American household where food was a constant topic of conversation. With a background in hospitality and tourism management, a passion for food and culture, and a strong belief that tourism can be sustainable, Lauren started leading tours herself in Madrid, Spain in 2012. Devour Tours grew quickly to other food destinations, including Barcelona, Rome, Paris, and Lisbon. In 2022 the company expanded to Florence, Venice, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston. In her “spare time” Lauren recently fulfilled a lifelong dream to become a certified chef at the Hofmann Culinary School of Barcelona. She’s also a mom to three-year-old twins, and her goal is to improve her homemade pasta-making skills!

You can find Devour Tours on these channels:

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. When Lauren, who’s an Italian American, went to Italy for the first time, to Rome, she was surprised not to find any of the food she had grown up with. She later went to Naples and saw the cross-overs, but still nothing like the Italian-American fare she was familiar with. She was also surprised by just how a country the size of Italy – smaller than many states in the US,  could be so varied from one region to another, and even town to town when it comes to food. You’ll get people who hadn’t heard of a dish, or a certain way of doing a dish from a nearby town, or who would argue passionately about the use of one ingredient against what they use in a town just up the road! These kinds of discoveries in early trips to Italy and Europe sparked Lauren’s interest in food and lead to her co-founding Devour Tours to help share the delicious food and food culture
  2. The Devour Tour model is not like some other food tours, where you might get to eat 8 tasty things – which is great – but Devour Tours go a lot deeper. They stumbled upon the word devour, to name the company many years ago and they loved that word because, of course, you think first and foremost about devouring food, but you can also devour art, you can devour history. The tours are about the passion to devour and delving deep into something
  3. Food has always been a connector. It’s can connect people socially, connect the present day to something in history, to a story from the past. With Devour Tours, while the food is, of course, an important ingredient(!), they also have strong connections to the people who provide and produce the food. They want them to be involved in the experience as much as possible – to interact with their groups. The tour and guides can help bridge that gap, where in somewhere like Italy, there can be a language barrier and where people want to be respectful and so although they’re very curious, they don’t want to pester someone. A guide is able to facilitate a conversation, and enable that connection, which is really special
  4. The narrative and the story are also a huge part of a food tour experience. It might be just the history of a neighborhood or the food history of a city like Rome, but Devour Tours always tries to make connections to the past and the present and explain why the food is the way it is, and try things that have a story (as well as being delicious)
  5. Katy and her family recently did the Devour Tours Street Food Tour in Rome. They tried different foods, and visited lots of different restaurants, but also learned about the history of Rome as a city and how food is so important to the Romans – what connects the people of the city to the food, to their culture, and to their history. They did pizza making with a Pizzaiolo (master pizza maker). He showed them skills that they can take back home with them – those hands-on moments, like learning exactly how to roll the dough
  6. A food tour also means you can share the experience with your friends and family who may not travel, or who maybe wouldn’t take a food tour. There are so many interesting things to pass on. And to those who are traveling to Italy, you can recommend the best things to seek out to try, and some great restaurant recommendations – instead of them going the tourist traps. That kind of knowledge is really hard to get from just the guidebooks these days
  7. The amazing thing about Italy is it’s so diverse, and the most important thing is to seek out the dishes that come from the specific area you are in, because that’s what they specialize in. It’s a very different food culture from what we might be used to in the US or Australia. It’s something that’s so ingrained in Italian history, to eat what grows in your area –  to make things from those ingredients
  8. In Florence, there is almost a simple food culture – amazing olive oils, hearty bread, the famous Florentine steak, but it’s really a place where you want to try to taste some of those raw ingredients. It can be hard to do that on your own, and a food tour often can facilitate that. Nowadays you have places that do olive oil tastings etc, but lots of the ingredients you can easily miss out on – if only eat in restaurants or you’re not staying in an apartment where you can bring stuff home (if you can work out how and where to buy it in the first place). You can easily miss out on those opportunities to just try a chunk of cheese, a mouthful of amazing cured meat, or a few different varieties of olive oil
  9. Venice has a fascinating food history, due to it once being a center of trade and power. There’s the incredible seafood and because for so long they were involved in the spice trade, the dishes are so different in origin and taste from the rest of the country
  10. It’s easy to try to simplify explanations of food in Italy. In Venice, they have Cicchetti, which are the little bites. Some people like to say they’re Italian tapas, but there’s definitely a bit of a controversy around that and it doesn’t go down well in Venice. It is a great place to do a food tour because it really lends itself to small bites and moving around the city and in and out of the tiny alleyways. On the Devour Food tours, they don’t just want you to taste 8 amazing Cicchetti – they want to involve you in the Venetian experience of crawling through the city to these different places – standing, eating, and drinking. It’s so unique and it’s the kind of thing that builds the memory that their guests go home with and remember forever – instead of just “I ate some tasty things”  – it’s an experience that goes way beyond the food
  11. Rome is often the first stop for those visiting Italy for the first time. When Lauren was a teenager and visited there it was a huge surprise for her as an Italian American.  She was expecting a lot of the kind of Naples-style food that she’d grown up with. Manicotti and other things that she’d had in her Italian American household. Instead, there were these heavy carbonaras and the delicious bacon-like guanciale used in so many of their dishes. She’d never seen those on a menu growing up or if they were, like say carbonara, it was a very, very different interpretation of the dish
  12. When Katy did their Devour Food tour recently in Rome, she was totally surprised to be taken down a secret tunnel in the heart of Rome that she didn’t know existed – despite it being in the area she always stays. You never know it all and opening yourself to finding not only new things but new special places is exciting. Being a tourist or traveler, you can get stuck into a certain rhythm which can actually turn into a bit of a rut and it’s good to disrupt your mode of doing things. Katy’s guide, the amazing Denise, took them to a gelato shop which from the outside, looked like a tourist trap, with the big, brightly colored cone out the front – so Katy would have avoided it on her own. She’d walked past this gelato shop many times, but being taken in she was blown away by how incredibly good their gelato was. It made her realize she needs to make some changes to the way she travels herself so as not to miss out on gems like that
  13. A food tour is great to try things you wouldn’t normally think of. Lauren is still not a huge fan of some of the stews and the offal that you can find are popular in Italian cities, but the history and the fact that they are so beloved is so interesting and she’ll always try some on a tour
  14. No matter how well you know Italy it will continue to surprise you with every trip – new cities, new regions, out in the countryside, for the variety and all the wonderful dishes that aren’t famous, basically, because you can just find so many of them unless you go to that particular place
  15. If you’re not someone that is not massively into history or art, on a deep level – a food tour can be a great thing if you’re looking for an activity in Italy because it actually combines those things but in a light and fun way in the story-telling
  16. A food tour can also work out pretty economical too. On a normal tour, you’ll work up an appetite to enjoy (and pay for) a hearty meal afterwards, whereas on a food tour, you’ll eat enough to cover one, if not two meals
  17. Food tours are great for solo travelers. When Katy used to travel solo most of the time, she would always do a food tour on the first night in the city, because you always meet really interesting people and it’s a really convivial atmosphere. It generally feels quite natural and relaxed when you’re on a food tour. You can be having a glass of wine, tasting some food, with everyone getting to know each other. You might make some friends, may even someone to share a meal with
  18. During your tour, you can get some great tips on the city but also on other places you might be heading to. From your guide of course, but also from other people on your tour. People on that tour are likely going to like food in a big way, so it can be great to hear what they liked/where they went in another place. The guide provides a lot of tips, both officially like – at Devour Food they send you an email after the tour that has suggestions for other things that you could do, see and eat in the city. But also unofficially, if you ask for something specific, like “Where can Ithe best oxtail in Rome?” – they’re going to have the answer for you
  19. Food tours are also a great way to discover restaurants and bars that you’ll want to go back to. You can follow your own list of recommendations of places to eat – but you can only have so many meals. On a food tour you’re having small portions in lots of places, so getting a bigger scope of places you may like to go back to. It’s also a lot of money eating at a lot of different places on your own and trying dishes which you may not even like. This is why it’s great to do a food tour early on your trip because you can learn the things you really like and want more of
  20. You’re going to get the best example of a dish on a food tour. You may order a dish you wanted to try in a restaurant on your own and find you don’t like it – but it could be because the restaurant is not so great. The places you will be taken on a food tour will enable you to know exactly how a dish should be. For instance, on Katy’s Rome tour they had Rome’s famous artichoke. She’d had it before and been underwhelmed and was surprised by how amazing the one they had on the tour was – juicier and even a different texture
  21. As well as regionally, food in Italy can change depending on the season. When you’re on a Devour Food tour they will always cover the classic dishes – like certain pasta dishes, but then there are also parts of the tour that can change depending on the season. They are really keen to give the vendors they work with, the opportunity to change out food, like cheeses, based on seasons. You don’t automatically associate cheeses with differing seasons, but the animals eat different things in different parts of the year, which presents a different flavor in the cheese. A good cheese-monger can explain exactly what something is going to taste like in one month versus another
  22. Devour Food operates in larger cities, but it’s also able to connect people to some of the more rural areas that they might not get a chance to visit on their trip. In Rome, you might have some produce that comes from the countryside outside, and the guide or shop owner can explain or show you what it’s like in that area
  23. You can maybe get inspired by what you learn to go visit the places you learn about. It’s interesting to stop and think about where your produce has come from, who’s making it, and what the processes are that have gone into it. This can really appreciate the food a lot more and make you curious for more
  24. In Italy, if you go into any market, if you can communicate with the vendors, they’re going to tell you what is in season, or what they just got in, and even what not to buy from them! It’s a really nice relationship that is built on trust. This can be difficult to do yourself, especially with language barriers, so watching these interactions on a food tour is a great first step. Katy feels that she’s built up more confidence going to the market from watching the interactions she’s seen on tours
  25. The Devour Food Testaccio tour is one of Lauren’s favorites. It’s going to a lesser visited, wonderful neighborhood and is really comprehensive. It visits a local market, it goes off the beaten path and family-run places that you just wouldn’t stumble upon on your own.
    Testaccio market is amazing and the area generally has been the food bowl of Rome for a long time, thanks to its position on the river. The Romans used to bring in food from all around the Empire, in these Amphorae. In the daytime, many of the residents are at work, so it’s quiet and relaxed – there are just people doing their shopping, grabbing some lunch
  26. In contrast, one of their Trastevere tours is the Evening Gourmet Food and Wine Experience and Trastevere at night is buzzing – you see all the people going to eat, there are sparkly lights everywhere, and it looks so romantic. You can have a totally different experience and vibe depending on where you go and when you go
  27. There are lots of food tours on the market, but it can be interesting to look around and see ones that are a bit different from the standard, especially to get into a particular type of food and experience, like street food– enjoying an oozy cheese-filled Suppli in Rome, exploring  the fish market in Venice or seeking out the wine windows of Florence
  28. The people who host food tours aren’t your typical tour guides generally. They have lots of knowledge, so there are crossovers with other tours,  but their love of food is the overriding factor of why they do these tours. They are people who love to host and are really passionate about food and wine. Some of Devour Food’s guides are chefs, some are descendants of things like olive oil farmers or prosciutto factory makers. You’ll find them to be really interesting people who have a connection to food and will tell you the stories about their own upbringing, where they buy their food – their nonna’s food! Intimate stories – you’re not learning big historical events and dates, but you’re catching a glimpse into someone’s world by their food

Food & Drink

  • Guanciale – a cured meat made from pork jowl or cheeks and used in many Roman dishes
  • Bistecca alla Fiorentina – steak made with a young steer or heifer of a the Chianina cow 
  • cicchetti – little bites you get in Venice. Read more in our Venice food guide
  • Suppli – Roman street food of a rice ball with a tomato sauce, stuffed with meat or oozy cheese
  • Manicotti – an Italian American dish of large pasta tubes – stuffed and baked

Places mentioned in the show

  • Rome – the capital city of Italy, known as the eternal city
  • Florence – Rennaisance city in the heart of Tuscany
  • Venice – the city of islands in Northern Italy, once its own Republic
  • Fatamorganafamous gelato stops in Rome
  • Testaccio & Trastevere – neighborhoods of Rome, south of the river

Resources

  • Pizzaiolo – a pizza maker, specializing in making pizzas as a craft
  • Amphora – a Roman container that would be roped together and brought in by boat

Resources from Untold Italy

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Transcript

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