The summer of 2015 may become known as the summer of the selfie stick across Europe. In Italy, whether you’re crossing Venice’s Rialto Bridge or lounging on Rome’s Spanish Steps, you’re likely to encounter touts brandishing handfuls of shiny sticks. Much like the street vendors of knock-off Gucci purses, these fleet-of-foot entrepreneurs vanish at the first sign of carabinieri but their whispers of “selfie selfie” stick in your head as effectively as a chorus of “It’s a Small World.” Here’s how you can escape the summer hordes and capture some authentic Roman spirit.

Birthplace of Cucina Romana

Rome

Architectural details illustrate
Testaccio’s industrial history as home to Europe’s largest slaughterhouse
Photo: Francisco Javier Sanchez

“You won’t see any selfie sticks here,” says Kate, our guide as we began our Eating Italy Rome Food Tour of the Testaccio neighbourhood. “This is where Romans come to eat.”

Testaccio fills a pocket of southeast Rome tucked beside the Tiber River and the Aventine Hill, the most southerly of the ancient city’s seven hills. The low-lying portlands once held the vegetable gardens of Popolo Romano (Meadows of the People) and after World War II, were transformed into an industrial hub, home to Europe’s largest slaughterhouse.

“In lieu of wages, many workers were paid in the fifth quarter — the offal of butchered animals,” explains Kate. “Their cuisine became known as cucina romana.

Although the massive abattoirs were shuttered in 1975 and replaced by avante-garde cultural spaces, Testaccio has stayed true to its working-class roots.

Rome

Enjoy authentic Roman cuisine and enthusiasm at cafeteria Volpetti Piu
Photo: Eating Europe

We begin our morning as the locals do, with espresso and cornetti (sweet pastry) at Barberini, a café/bar with standing room only near the metro stop named for Piramide Cestia, a marble funerary pyramid built in 12 B.C.

Our next stop is Volpetti Piu tavola calda, known for its pizza al taglio (by the slice).

“Pizza was invented in Naples and, although it didn’t arrive in Rome until the 1940s, now there are more than 5,300 pizza shops,” says Kate.

Volpetti Piu’s award-winning pizza margherita is light and crispy with a burst of basil atop simple ingredients of olive oil, tomato and mozzarella. While eating, we gawk at the hot table packed with Roman specialties such as pajata (suckling goat or lamb intestines) and castagnole (fried ricotta balls).

Street Cred

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You’ll find plenty of atmosphere in the cafe-bars carved into the slopes of Monte Testaccio
Photo: Francisco Javier Sanchez

An authentic Roman morning wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio, the newest of Rome’s food markets. Originally located in Piazza Testaccio, it relocated to its current modern space in 2012.

“Fans of the original market were upset with the move, but now business is thriving,” says Kate, who knows each of the butchers, bakers and produce vendors by name.

We build our own bruschetta with fresh-cut tomatoes from Paola and Francesca, learn the secrets of a happy marriage from meat vendors Lina and Enzo Lazzerini, and discover Roman delicacies such as trippa (cow’s stomach).

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Make your own bruschetta during a Taste of Testaccio walking tour
Photo: Francisco Javier Sanchez

Another intriguing scene lies hidden within the ancient caves of Monte Testaccio. This towering, terraced mound is composed of the crushed shards of millions of terracotta olive oil jars disposed of during the early Roman Empire. Carved into its cool interior is a collection of family-run restaurants, wine cellars and cafes.

One beloved eatery is Flavio al Velavevodetto, where you can enjoy traditional Roman cuisine such as oxtail stew, fritti and spaghetti carbonara, surrounded by the archeological remains of early Roman commerce.

Another locale with a loyal following is Giolitti, an intimate bar that’s been serving gelato since 1914. Unlike the frothy mounds in the tourist areas where fake gelato is pumped full of air and chemical stabilizers, this cool treat is denser and richer. It’s also muted in colour.

“Natural ingredients aren’t neon coloured,” explains Kate. “Real pistachio should be pale green.”

Historic Haven  

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Rome’s Coliseum will serve as the backdrop to the upcoming 007 movie
Photo: Francisco Javier Sanchez

We wrap up our afternoon with a stroll along leafy Lungotevere, tracing the winding banks of the River Tiber back to central Rome. To the east is the Palatine Hill where Romulus founded Rome in the 8th century B.C. and beyond, the Arch of Constantine, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.

These famous landmarks will serve as a photogenic backdrop for Spectre, the newest James Bond flick, starring Daniel Craig and Italian bombshell Monica Bellucci. To be released in November 2015, the upcoming 007 adventure will include high-speed car chase scenes featuring a silver Aston Martin DB10 and a Jaguar C-X75 racing around Rome and Vatican City.

Yet, that evening as I fling open the wooden shutters in our suite at Hotel d’Inghilterra, a boutique hotel with a posh décor of gilt antiques and opulent furnishings near the Spanish Steps, it’s easy to look beyond the drama of Rome’s monuments and feel connected to the rhythm of a still-living neighbourhood.

Offering views of nearby vine-draped balconies and Rome’s skyline, the 16th century Palazzo di Torlonia has long been a guesthouse hideaway for aristocracy, high society and famous figures such as English Romantic poet John Keats. Although the surrounding cobblestone streets are now best known for the flagship shops of designers such as Prada, Armani and Versace, by nightfall, its timeless piazzas are the territory of young lovers, elderly residents walking well-coiffed dogs and Romans out for a late-evening dinner.

Not a selfie stick vendor in sight…

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Traditional Roman hospitality at the boutique-sized Hotel d’Inghilterra
Photo: Hotel d’Inghilterra

Travel Planner

Taste of Testaccio Food Tour: This 4-hour walking tour features nine stops and 12 food tastings as well as cultural, historic and archeological highlights of the Testaccio neighbourhood. www.eatingeuropetours.com

Hotel d’Inghilterra: Located near the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, Hotel d’Inghilterra’s 88 unique rooms and suites offer an elegant retreat in Central Rome. Join the Club at Small Luxury Hotels of the World and you’re eligible for complimentary upgrades and other perks. www.niquesahotels.com/hotel-dinghilterra

Getting there: Both Air Canada and Air Transat offer direct flights to Rome from Montreal.

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Restaurants carved into Monte Testaccio are top spots to enjoy Cucina Romana
Photo: Francisco Javier Sanchez

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Testaccio’s Pyramid of Cestius is an often overlooked treasure
Photo: Francisco Javier Sanchez