There are certain places which evoke such romance that you swear they aren’t real. Instead, they are just too picture-perfect to fit into this commercialized and all-too contrived world.
“I feel like this is Disneyland,” is usually my default comment when I just can’t believe where I am.
Trastevere, Rome, is one of those places.
Cobblestone streets. Narrow, curving alleys. Old and tattered buildings with colorful paint peeling off to reveal the old stone foundation. Trastevere is as perfect as neighborhoods get, and I couldn’t get enough.
Although ancient, Trastevere isn’t stale. The young university students are gentrifying the area and breathe life into its narrow, winding veins. The bars are full and the trattorias are crowded, all with people ordering course after course of pasta and pizza. People wander around hand in hand with no rush in the world, browsing the handicrafts on sale at the outdoor market. And once the night is over and it’s time to go home, there is always room for one last gelato to close out the day.
Today, even with two American Universities located nearby and large chains like McDonald’s and Subway creeping in, local businesses reign supreme. Hearing such a large amount of English being spoken in an Italian neighborhood is also a bit strange, but the two groups seem to live peacefully side-by-side.
It’s beautiful, it’s romantic, it’s atmospheric and it’s exciting. To me, it was a modern Rome which I only thought existed in the movies.
The History of Trastevere
Separated from Rome by the Tiber River, Trastevere is close enough to the center to be easily accessible, but distant enough to feel like its own community. To the ancient population, is actually was, and Trastevere was basically another country. The people of Trastevere had their own dialect and even ate spicier food than the Romans.
Originally belonging to the Etruscans, Trastevere later transformed into a fishing and sailor area in the outskirts of Rome. By the time of Julius Caesar, wealth in the Imperial Age brought money to the region. Caesar himself built his own villa in Trastevere were he lived with Cleopatra for a time.
You don’t get more impressively historical than that.
Today, some locals refer to themselves as being native to Trastevere itself, not Rome. They come from a long line of people who have flourished in the area and are most likely of Roman, Greek or Jewish decent.
They are proud of their unique and beautiful village, and want to keep it that way.
As you walk around the neighborhood, medieval houses line the 15th century cobblestones beneath your feet. Although uncomfortable to walk on and sometimes a bit wobbly, the cobblestones remain as a true symbol of the neighborhood’s legacy. Invented by Pope Sixtus V and made from volcanic material, the cobblestones are still hand placed today. Although a modern inconvenience, the stones are strong and allow for drainage between the cracks during periods of heavy rain.
Eating in Trastevere
One sad misconception is that the food in Rome is the worst in Italy. I can confirm that this is far from the truth! Roman food is delicious and unique, given you do a few things: know where to look and avoid all tourist establishments. Luckily, we had the help of the fabulous people at Eating Italy Food Tours to point us in every right direction.
While staying in an apartment in Monteverde, just a 10-15 minute tram ride south of the center, we found ourselves exploring Trastevere each night for dinner. It was the most anticipated part of my day.
Some of my favorites from Trastevere: Jewish artichokes
Jewish-style artichokes or “carciofi alla giudia” are one of the best known Jewish-Roman dishes. A specialty in the Jewish ghetto, these deep-fried artichokes are also fabulous at Da Enzo al 29, where we had them on our tour. On the outside, some leaves are crispy, making them almost like potato chips. Beneath the leaves is the meaty and tender steam and heart, which was my favorite part.
Cacio e pepe
We stumbled into Enoteca Ferrera randomly one night and it was such a pleasant surprise! The stuffed zucchini flowers and homemade cacio e pepe (a simple Roman dish of pasta, pecorino cheese and black pepper) were to die for. We did make one fatal mistake at the restaurant though, and ordered wine based on our dishes without even asking for the price.
Hey, all wine in Italy is cheap right? Wrong.
Although probably one of the best glasses of wine I’ve ever had, I don’t think I’ll be repeating the €10 charge for one glass again for a while. I’m on a budget!
The best carbonara in Rome
We also ate a lot of carbonara in Rome (another Roman specialty), but it was this one that I still dream about. It was gooey, creamy, cheesy egg-yolky perfection. The crispy pieces of ¨guanciale¨ (pork cheek) were a meat lovers dream and put every piece of bacon I’ve ever eaten to shame.
You can get this carbonara, and the artichoke above, at Da Enzo al 29. Reservations are a must and are only taken for 7:30pm. After that, it‘s a matter of luck if you can arrive right when someone is leaving. They are too busy to take down names! (Strange, I know.)
Who knew that “biscotti” is actually just the word for cookies in Italian, rather than that rock hard oblong piece of crap at the Starbucks counter. Here at Biscottificio Innocenti, another stop on our food tour, we were transported back to the 50’s. The inside decor remains exactly the same as it did six decades ago and the traditions in cooking remain the same, too. Every cookie we tried was delicious and oh-so far from what I thought biscotti really was.
Wondering where the gelato is in this article? Well, that’s for a whole other post.
If you are headed to Rome, don’t miss getting to know beautiful and delicious Trastevere. Be careful though, it’ll capture your heart and won’t let go.
Additional Info: I took the Twilight Trastevere Tour with Eating Italy free of charge, but of course, my opinions are my own. I would highly recommend it for visitors who love eating and want to get to know this beautiful neighborhood. We enjoyed a long night of pure gluttony, incredible history and unique experiences. What sets this tour apart from others, in my opinion, is their “secret location”. To me, it was such a fabulous experience and took me back to another time. I’d tell you what it was, but then I’d ruin the surprise!
*We also ate at Ristorante alle Fratte di Trastevere after reading so many amazing reviews on TripAdvisor. While the wine was cheap, the dishes were just okay. We had much better pasta in other restaurants around Rome.*