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Episode #169: How to find authentic restaurants in Rome

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Eating in Rome can unquestionably be a wonderful experience, but as with any popular tourist destination, it is, unfortunately, a place where you’ll find tourist traps and places that serve dishes that would make any Italian despair! Luckily there are some signs to look out for to help tell if an eaterie is good or bad. We learn from a Rome food expert to always follow the locals and about some staples of Roman cooking and eating. With a little knowledge and effort, you can make sure you avoid the tourist traps and find the real gems in the Eternal City. 

Show notes
We are joined by food tour host, chef, sommelier, and all-round food and drink guru Nesim Bekalti of Full Belly Tours. Nesim grew up in the Testaccio district which is known as the kitchen of Rome. Having lived and worked all over the world as a chef he has now returned to his old neighborhood and is keen to share its treasures with others. He not only has a wealth of knowledge but an infectious passion for the cuisine of Rome and Italy. Nesim offers immersive tours in the Testaccio neighborhood: Experience Testaccio includes a delicious breakfast as well as tasting your way around the famous Testaccio Market, with a local. Testaccio Full Immersion includes 12 or more tastings of many of Rome’s traditional delicacies and can be enjoyed in the daytime or as an evening tour, both ending with a trip to Nesim’s favorite childhood (and the neighborhood’s oldest) gelateria. Nesim can also do private and custom tours for you. Untold Italy can attest to how great Nesim’s tour is – how much he can teach you and how mind-blowingly good the food he finds for you is. In this episode, Nesim shares his tips on how to find the best and most authentic eateries for a true and delicious Roman experience. We talk plastic picture menus, pigeon-pleasing display tables, the peculiarity of parmesan wheels, and how walking a little further away from the tourist center or heading down mysterious alleyways can be the key to finding the Eternal City’s greatest food treasures. 

Meet Nesim…

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Nesim was working as a food tour guide working for another tour operator when Katy and he first met in 2019. After the pandemic hit and all tours had stopped, when things started to pick up, Nesim started to work for another tour operating doing historical golf car tours. This particular operator wasn’t doing any food tours so sent some people to Nesim. This is when he got a taste (pun intended) for food tours, mixing his passion, knowledge, and background in food and drink with his love of people. He loved building his own itineraries and choosing what and where to eat. This led to him starting Full Belly Tours and he hasn’t looked back since
  2. Nesim comes from a cooking background and he’d hear people say “if you do what you love in life, you don’t work a day in your life”. While that can apply in kitchens, it’s also a high-pressure environment – it’s physically taxing and stressful work, so it definitely feels like you’re working. Doing food tours, he can’t believe his luck – he gets to meet interesting people from all over the world that love food and gets to talk incessantly about food and drink, which is what he does on his own time anyway
  3. Nesim’s father is from Tunisia (Nesim means ‘the breeze’ in Arabic) and his mother is French, though raised in the US. Nesim was born in Washington DC and shortly after his parent moved to Rome, where he grew up. So he is both a foreigner and a Roman simultaneously. When he speaks Italian, he has a thick Roman accent, so is always recognized by Italians as Romano! For 2 decades, Nesim’s two passions of cooking and traveling led to him living all over the world and working in restaurants.  Traveling the world has meant he has a great understanding of different cultures, sensibilities, and sensitivities, so he has a unique skill set where he can relate to people from all over the world while relating to the locals – because Romans love Romans. He can help bridge that gap between the various cultures while keeping things light and entertaining
  4. Nesim offers tours in Testaccio (find out more here), as well as offering private and custom tours. Testaccio is a very important neighborhood to Rome when it comes to food. In ancient Rome, it was like the warehouse district, with food being brought in from every corner of the Roman Empire and stored before redistributing throughout the city. Testaccio also gave birth to what we know as traditional Roman cuisine – so it’s a dining destination for all Romans who come specifically to eat. Neism grew up in Testaccio and also lives there now, so the places that you visit on his tours are the places that he goes to eat and shop on a daily basis. They’re basically the best of the best because they’re the best places in the best neighborhood in Rome to eat. It’s like visiting friends from Nesim so there’s always lots of hugging, kissing and joking – lots of fun for everyone involved
  5. There are three main categories of Italian restaurants – trattoria, osteria, and ristorante. A trattoria is entry-level with no fuss. It’s just good home-cooked, stick-to-your-ribs style food with paper tablecloths, not particularly attentive service, which are all seen as good things in Rome. An osteria is a step up. It’s slightly fancier than a trattoria – a midway point between a trattoria and a ristorante. Osterias started out as local watering holes. The name ‘osteria’ comes from the Italian word ‘osti’, which means ‘host’. So you’re being hosted to have a good time and you would go there, hang out with friends, drink wine, and eat simply – maybe some bread and cheese, or maybe they would cook one dish for the day. It was like the local pub. A century ago, people didn’t generally have things like plumbing and living rooms at home – you had multiple generations of families living in very cramped quarters. So the osteria was where you would go and drink your worries away, have fun, and relax. The osteria has now morphed into an eatery that is a fancier affair than a trattoria.
  6. It can get confusing because, for instance, what is widely acclaimed to be the best restaurant in Italy (if not the world) is Osteria Francescana, the three-star Michelin restaurant run by chef Massimo Bottura – which is obviously is more high-end though at the end of the day, you are being ‘hosted’ there. So Osteria doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not super fancy, but it’s normally going to be less fancy than a ristorante, which is going to be a more formal setting. Usually, a restaurant will have a white tablecloth, the waiters will often be in three-piece suits with ties. Nesim advises you’ll tend to find the best food in Italy in trattorias and osterias. When Italians start fussing with food, plating on larger plates with squiggles of sauce, tweels, and other paraphernalia, they lose that magical, soul-satisfying quality that classic Italian food has. So when in doubt – go for a trattoria and osteria
  7. The more rustic an establishment looks, the better. If it looks like they haven’t renovated the place in over 70 years, then that’s a very good sign. These places seem to always have one main focus. If that focus is on food, they’ll make really good food and won’t feel the need to fancy up the environment because if the food is delicious – it says it all
  8. As well as decor, marketing is also usually not the main focus. The chances of them having a website is quite slim. it is more common for businesses to have a Facebook page instead of a website. You’re not going to find these places on Google which is why it’s really important to get these top tips on how to find great, authentic eateries.
  9. If you’re trying to call any Italian business and they don’t answer their phone, it by no means implies that they’re closed. There’s just a different approach to customer service in Italy – Nesim says (half-jokingly) that the customer is rarely right in Italy. If no one answers your call, just keep trying or perhaps just go and show up in person
  10. Many people’s trips begin and end in Rome, or they will spend some time in Rome. Sometimes you can luck out and stumble on a great restaurant but it’s often you’re led to somewhere that’s not so great. There are lots of places that have done a decent job of their marketing but are not the greatest for food. For example, places that you’ll easily find online, in media articles and are famous on Instagram. There is a very famous sandwich shop that’s just opened behind the Pantheon called All’Antico Vinaio which is a sandwich shop from Florence. It’s very famous on Instagram for its very large sandwiches and people queue up outside this shop. A red flag that no locals are there is that Romans don’t really queue. If they do, it is not in an orderly fashion – they congregate in a large mass outside of the dining establishment, trying to elbow past or catch the eye of the staff. The sandwiches at All’Antico Vinaio are good but probably not good enough to wait hours in line for, especially in Rome as Italian food is super regional. All’Antico Vinaio in Florence is probably going to be slightly better because it’s where it originates
  11. Italy is a fairly new country – it was only unified as a Republic in 1861. Prior to that, it was a bunch of independent city-states that were often at war with each other and didn’t necessarily trade – especially food. You had to be wealthy – the clergy or nobility, to bring in food from other parts of the country. This is food is so regional in Italy – every 10/15 miles, you’ll find a new pasta shape, cheeses, wines, and cold cuts. This is why it’s so great, culinary wise to travel around Italy
  12. No matter where you are in Italy, they’ll of course tell you that the other regions are wrong. On Nesim’s tours, he may tell you all sorts of things, and then you’ll go up to Bologna and they’ll be like, “Oh, that Roman guy has no idea what he’s talking about!”. As long as you listen to the locals, you’ll have the best possible local experience
  13. Rome has a crazy number of visitors each year, which means that unfortunately there are a lot of tourist traps. People prey on visitors who may think “I’m in Italy, everything is going to be good here”. That does usually apply to anywhere where there aren’t crowds of tourists. In any small town you venture to, you’ll eat well because it’s basically Italians cooking for other Italians. When you have the anonymity of the masses or when they’re cooking for visitors they often start using lower quality ingredients and it may even be people that don’t even know how to cook properly. Rome is possibly the hardest place to find good food in Italy
  14. Nesim recommends that if you’re going to the Vatican, or the Colosseum – those tourist hubs, have breakfast before heading out there, and then do a little research and plan to travel to a neighborhood nearby to eat

Red flags & tips on what to avoid

No one wants to eat bad food in Italy, but it is possible in Rome, so check out our tips on what to look out for

  • You need to walk a minimum of five blocks from the closest tourist attraction before you start looking for food. The larger and more important the attraction – the further away you need to walk. If you are within walking range of St Peter’s, chances are that’s not a good place to look for food. There are some small places that have managed to survive, but for the most part, it is tourist traps
  • Rather than heading to a specific neighborhood to go to (although Testaccio is an amazing place to eat) it’s mostly about avoiding the super crowded areas
  • There are also visual queues that you can use to see if places are tourist traps or not. One is the display table. Where you have a sad little table outside of the restaurant, often with a pizza or a plate of pasta sat shriveling in the sun. The more cliche the ingredients you see on a table, the more you should worry. For example, piles of dried pasta, clusters of grapes, cherry tomatoes, garlic or chilies and of course, the fiasco, the fat-bottomed bottle of wine with a straw basket on the bottom. That’s the bottle that Chianti used to be served in decades ago. Chianti is just sold in regular wine bottles nowadays
  • Near the display table, you’ll also often find what’s called the ‘accalappiacani’ – the catcher. That’s the person outside waving a menu in your face and calling out “My friend, Deutsche? Francais? Espanol?” Just smile and keep walking (or scowl and keep walking)
  • The menu can also tell you a lot. A very large menu sitting outside of a restaurant is very suspicious, especially if it has pictures. You should never find pictures on Italian menus. It’s something that in Italy they use mostly for ethnic cuisine, in part because a lot of Italians aren’t necessarily familiar with lots of ethnic cuisine. By law in Italy – you have to have a menu displayed outside, A menu that is just printed on a white sheet of paper with no pictures on the wall or even on a little tripod that’s normal but anything that’s large, eye-catching with pictures – that’s the main thing to worry about
  • Nesim has gotten a lot of flack on various travel groups for this red flag but any mention of gluten-free or lactose-free tends not to be a good sign. Italians don’t cater particularly well or willingly to special dietary needs. Any place that does is catering to locals will do so if they have to, but they’ll never advertise that they do. Nesim himself is gluten intolerant but eats pasta and pizza anyway because it’s delicious – he just try to reduce my intake. Italians of course acknowledge Celiac disease. If you need to find gluten-free products in Italy, you are less likely to find them at the supermarket – you’ll find them in the pharmacy. For those diagnosed by their doctor as being Celiac, the government gives €140 a month to spend on gluten-free products, so it’s taken seriously, but many Italians secretly feel that gluten-free stuff is foreign propaganda because – how could pizza and pasta be bad for you? You can still eat amazingly well if you are gluten intolerant. People are really focused on pizza and pasta, but there are plenty of delicious dishes that don’t include gluten. So rather than looking for it on menus –  investigate those dishes that don’t include pollutant products. That’s why it’s always good to hang out with a local because they’ll be able to tell you. Most trattoria and osteria have gluten-free pasta on the premises, so if there’s a place that you really want to visit, give them a call and ask
  • Another red flag on the menus is the number of languages. Ideally, Italian and one, possibly two other languages can be acceptable, but any more and especially if you see other alphabets normally means that they’re catering to large tour groups, often unloaded by the busload, in which case they really don’t care what they’re cooking because they see it as you’re here once and then you’re off. A good place to see this in action is Piazza Navona. Ideally, in a place with such a beautiful view, amazing food would be the icing on the cake – but sadly, again, there’s that focus on one thing at a time. They’ve got either a beautiful view, a beautiful restaurant, or incredible food. Sit in Piazza Navona and have a drink, but give the food a miss
  • It is very hard to eat in the more crowded areas that have the historical draw. This was not the case when Nesim was growing up, when you could be virtually anywhere in the city and you would find really good trattoria. For a number of reasons, including greater visitor numbers and higher rents – the tourist traps have edged out the smaller places. Trastevere was Nesim’s stomping ground when he was a teen when it was a very local neighborhood. It’s now getting more and more visitors and the same thing is happening. A lot of the small, local trattoria are being replaced by very popular tourist trap places. Already the two most popular places in Trastevere have really long lines and they’re both tourist traps
  • Look out for pasta that is served to you in a little pan, especially if that pan looks like it’s never seen a flame. It’s a gimmick and a sign of a touristy restaurant
  • Despite it being an Instagram favorite, having your pasta dipped in the big wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano is firstly not something locals do and Nesim also points out that from a chef’s point of view, it’s a potential health and safety issue. You’re using the same wheel of cheese that’s just sitting out in the dining room over and over and over and over and over. Where’s that kept at night? Do they even put it in the fridge? The step of mixing pasta with the sauce is called ‘mantecatura’. That’s normally done by the cook in the kitchen and in this case, they’re doing the mantecatura in the cheese wheel. There are restaurants that will do the mantecatura for you, table side, but they just do it in the bowl
  • One of Nesim’s favorite places in the Testaccio is called Da Felice which is one of the most famous places in the city and it’s really hard to get a table there. They will do the mantecatura for you for two specific pasta dishes, cacio e pepe, which is one of Rome’s most iconic pasta dishes and means cheese and pepper. There are only four ingredients in cacio e pepe – pasta, Pecorino Romano, black pepper, and the cooking water from the pasta. The waiter will come out with a large bowl of Tonnarelli (the local fresh egg pasta that is like a squared spaghetti shape originally hailing from Abruzzo) with lots of grated Pecorino on top, some cracked black pepper, and under that will be a little bit of cooking water that you don’t see. They set the bowl down in front of you, grab your fork and your spoon, and start the mantecatura – mixing it really quickly and you see it come together from these four disjointed ingredients into this lovely, creamy, luscious sauce right in front of your eyes

Tips on what to look out for

  • In a nutshell, look out for anything that looks local, although if you’re not from Rome, it might not be so easy to spot them. It might be easier to spot the tourists, you don’t want them to outnumber the other clientele.  The more locals, the better
  • Find a place that looks like it hasn’t been renovated recently
  • Look at the size of the menu. This applies to any eatery anywhere in the world – the more dishes you have, the higher the chances you have of there being ingredients coming from the freezer or y things that have been bought in ready-made. A very small and concise menu basically guarantees that they’re making everything in-house and everything that they’re making in-house is fresh.
  • The same applies to gelaterias. There’s a gelateria behind the Pantheon, whose claim to fame is offering 150 flavors. That’s something to avoid – look for a smaller gelateria that has maybe 10 – 20 flavors – getting lost down the little alleys is one of the best ways to enjoy the city. It’s also where you’ll find small local trattorias that are still around and serve the communities that live around the Colosseum or St Peter’s
  • Older wait staff can be a good sign. Italian waiters are salaried positions, it’s their career and it’s common for a waiter to work in the same restaurant their entire life. There are many places in Testaccio where the wait staff still remember Nesim sitting in a high chair. In Testaccio, around half the restaurants have the same wait staff that they’ve had for over 40 years

Testaccio, the kitchen of Rome

  • Testaccio doesn’t appear on tourist maps. Tourist maps cut off at the Tiber River directly above Testaccio, so most visitors don’t even know it exists, yet it’s actually within walking distance of the historic center. Because there’s not a lot of tourist foot traffic it means that there are no tourist traps, so in all of the places in Testaccio, you can eat far better than your average trattoria in the highly trafficked areas
  • To get to Testaccio you can head down from just behind the Colosseum, past the Mouth of Truth, wander up the Aventine Hill and admire the orange garden, look through the Aventine Keyhole, and then you’ve got the top of the hill, going down again takes you right into Testaccio
  • It’s a really nice, local vibe in the neighborhood. Going with someone like Nesim is a great introduction because he knows everyone there and it’s a lovely way to experience Rome

The four staple pasta dishes of Rome and how they connect

  • The four kinds of pasta that Rome. is most famous for are Cacio e pepe, Gricia, Carbonara, and Amatriciana. Carbonara probably being the most famous
  • There’s an interesting relationship between these pastas. If you start with the 4 ingredients that go into Cacio e pepe – Pecorino Romano cheese, black pepper, cooking water, and the pasta. Then we have an amazing cured pork product called guanciale, which is made from the cheek or jaw of the pig (guancia in Italian means cheek). It’s a bit like pancetta,  but pancetta is from the belly (Pancia means belly) and guanciale is fattier, so you need to render it out for a little longer to get it nice and crispy. The fat you get off is just as important to the final flavor of the sauce as the little crispy bits. 3 of the 4 pasta dishes contain guanciale, and all 4 contain pecorino. If you start with the ingredients that go into cacio e pepe, and you add some guanciale, you get gricia. Depending on what you add to gricia, you can get either carbonara or amatriciana. If you take the ingredients of gricia, you mix the cheese and the black pepper with an egg before adding the pasta and the guanciale, you get carbonara. Take note – carbonara NEVER contains cream. If you want to anger a Roman tell them that you put cream in your carbonara. Using cream is actually a cooks trick so that the eggs don’t scramble but there’s a way to avoid it, so it shouldn’t be necessary. If you take the ingredients of the gricia, but you take the guanciale, render it and cook it in tomato sauce for one to two hours, then you add the pasta and cheese – you get Amatriciana. These 4 pastas are at most 1 or 2 ingredients away from each other, yet they taste so vastly different. It’s a perfect example of how in Italy, one ingredient can completely change the look and flavor of a dish
  • Italian cuisine is based on simplicity and the quality of the ingredient, which is why it’s actually so hard to replicate Italian food outside of Italy. If you don’t have the same quality ingredient, it just won’t have the same intensity of flavor and it just won’t taste the same
  • Italians view Italian products (anything that was raised or grown within this country) as inherently better than anything that was grown or raised anywhere else. This can sometimes have your average Italian be a little condescending when it comes to other cuisines – for instance, many don’t like marinades or sauces because it covers the true flavor of the food
  • Unlike other countries, Italians don’t export the best of their produce and products – they keep them for themselves
  • When Nesim first started cooking he was told that the difference between French and Italian cuisine is that the quality of French food is based on the quality of the chef. If you have a sauce containing 15 ingredients and half of those are not spectacular, a really good chef can still make that sauce taste incredible. With Italian food, however, if you don’t have the same quality ingredients that you have in Italy, there’s nothing to hide behind. The dish will lack the depth of flavor

Join one of Nesim’s tours and check out his collaborations with local food businesses

You can follow Nesim’s food adventures on his Instagram account @fullbellytours. His website fullbellytours.com has details of his tours, Experience Testaccio and Testaccio Full Immersion and he also offers private and custom tours. With food being Nesim’s true passion, he’s experimenting with branching out and collaborating with local businesses. Recently he has collaborated with one of the pizzerias that you visit at the Testaccio Market on his Testaccio day tour – Da Teo. Nesim has devised a pizza with slow-roasted pears, young gorgonzola, and aged balsamic. Join Nesim for a fascinating and delicious food-packed tour with the added bonuses of his wealth of food knowledge, local connections, and fun company!

About our guest – Nesim Bekalti

Nesim was born in Washington DC to a French-American mother and Tunisian father. At the age of 9 months, his parents went back to Rome, where they’d previously been living for 4 years as conference interpreters for the UN.

He grew up (and currently lives) in Testaccio, the neighborhood that gave birth to traditional Roman cuisine.  It is known as the culinary heart of Rome, and it’s where Romans from all around the city come to eat.

After graduating high school he realized his passions in life were cooking and traveling.  To him, this meant that if he became a cook it would pay him to travel the world, and he ended up spending over fifteen years working in restaurants around the globe.

He has a degree in Hotel and Tourism Management from New York University and has lived in Brussels, Madrid, Barcelona, Oaxaca, San Francisco, and New York City. He is fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, and English. He also obtained a sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers while living in California.

His passion for cooking came from being raised in Italy, where absolutely everything revolves around eating.  He moved back here 7 years ago where he’s been working ever since as a food tour guide.

Being raised in Italy by multicultural parents makes him both a foreigner and true Roman simultaneously. His background and travel experience allow him to entertainingly bridge the gap between guests and locals, easily explaining their cultural quirks and intricacies to you, and yours to them!

Ultimately, his passion lies in taking care of people (especially in relation to food), and ensuring their experiences are truly memorable and lots of fun!

You can find Nesim on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Trastevere, Testaccio, Centro – Roman neighborhoods
  • Piazza Navona – beautiful, central piazza in Rome
  • Campo de’ Fiori – literally  meaning “field of flowers”, a square south of Piazza Navona famous for its market
  • Da Felice – famous and delicious Testaccio restaurant
  • Aventine keyhole – unique scene and line of sight through the rooftops of Rome to St Peter’s
  • Da Teo – pizzeria in Testaccio market
  • All’Antico Vinaio – popular (some might say over-hyped) sandwich shop in Rome, originating in Florence

Food & Drink

  • Fiasco – the bottles with straw at the bottom that Chianti wine was served in originally and can be a cliche/red flag for a bad restaurant if displayed
  • Maritozzo – a Roman classic sweet bun
  • mantecatura – the step of mixing a sauce or ingredients in for a creamy consistency
  • Tonnarelli – a Roman egg pasta a bit like spaghetti but thicker and squared off (originally from Abruzzo)
  • Cacio e pepe, Gricia, Carbonara, and Amatriciana – the 4 famous pasta dishes of Rome
  • Guanciale – a cured meat made from pork jowl or cheeks and used in many Roman dishes

Resources

  • Massimo Bottura – incredible chef with a three-Michelin-star restaurant based in Modena – Osteria Francescana
  • Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain’s bestselling behind-the-scenes book on what goes on in a chef’s kitchen

Resources from Untold Italy

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