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Emma Wallis, RomeJanuary 3, 2013

Food tours are taking off in the Italian capital. Our hungry reporter, Emma Wallis, joined a tour in Rome to sample some of the city's finest cuisine.

Inside Volpetti in Rome with Alessandro and Emilio: Salamis hanging in Rome's Volpetti gourmet food store, Rom 2012; (Photo: Kenny Dunn)
Image: Kenny Dunn

Food and Italy go together like, well, pasta and sauce. Their national flag has been turned into a pizza, you can't get more foodie than that. In Rome, foodie delights lurk literally on almost every corner. Gelato, pizza, pasta, fresh bread, gourmet wines, 100-year-old balsamic vinegar, trees bursting with lemons and oranges, plump ripe eggplant, crunchy zucchini, soft purple figs, golden orange orbs of kaki or Sharon fruit. Every season, every region, has its specialty, and all are treated with reverence.

So it was with some surprise, that I discovered that food tours weren't yet big business in Italy. "In the US, there is almost one in every city from Milwaukee to Michigan," says Kenny Dunn, twinkle eyed, behatted, American, resident of Rome, and owner creator of the "Eating Italy" food tours. He felt there was a definite gap in the market in Italy, and one which he jumped to fill. "No one was really offering what we do, a real taste of Rome food tour, where you meet the real people in a real neighborhood, and get to eat lots of real food." And he's not lying. A walk with Kenny or one of his guides, is a feast for all the senses, and you leave with a full stomach and a happy heart.

Kenny on the food tour in Rome: Kenny Dunn, the creator of Eating Italy food tour takes tourists on a tour of Testaccio (Photo: Kenny Dunn, Rom 2012)
Kenny and clients on the food tourImage: Kenny Dunn

"In high season," Kenny tells me, "we do three tours a day." Kenny calls himself "the man of many hats," and he's certainly had a varied career. A graduate of development studies, he came to Rome with his Mexican wife, and worked for the UN, at, you guessed it, the World Food Program. Before that, he worked as a cook in New Zealand, an "urban farmer" in Australia and Colombia, and a project manager on a TV pilot about the world's open air food markets. But it was in Rome, that he really found his calling. "The tours," he explains, "combine his love of theatre, comedy and writing and really understanding the people who sell the food." That's why his tours are based around the people who have been working with it for a lot longer than him. Like Aunty Lina and Uncle Enzo, married for 42 years, and selling prosciutto (ham), and formaggio (cheese) in Testaccio market for 25 years, or Cesare, the butcher.

All sorts of people and ages join Kenny's tour, "If you like food, come on board" says Kenny cheerily. The guides inform, encourage, but don't condescend.

Cesare the butcher in the market: Cesare the butcher cutting meat in the market in Testaccio (Photo: Kenny Dunn, Rome 2012)
Cesare the master butcher in the marketImage: Kenny Dunn

As we head off together, Sarah Rose, our guide, explains that "Italians love to see that you like what you're eating." She teaches the word "buonissimo" (delicious or very good) to visitors and how to fan yourself appreciatively from your stomach to show that you are overwhelmed by the feverish excitement at the delicious flavors. New gestures and words in place, she goes on to outline the history of Testaccio itself, its prominence as a fishing port for Rome and the empire, and the site of Europe's largest meat market from the 1800s until its closure in 1975. "Food and family go hand in hand here, because family is a big theme" she tells us, and in this traditionally working class neighborhood, many of the people we visit, are third, fourth, fifth or even more generations in their business.

The proprietors seem to enjoy the visits of the food tourists; Kenny says he is often overwhelmed by people in the market clamoring to attract the tour, even when they have nothing to do with the food business, so popular has he become in Testaccio. For 65 euros for adults, and 45 euros for children, you get four hours of fun interesting history, and a delicious tasting menu of at least 10 different foods, including a full lunch of three different pastas, washed down with red or white wine.

Pizza on the food tour in Rome: Posing with the Pizza a Taglio maker in Rome (Photo: Kenny Dunn Rom 2012)
'Pizza a taglio' on the Roman food tourImage: Kenny Dunn

Each tasting comes with some great tidbits of information. For instance, "Did you know," says Sarah, "that it takes 600 liters of milk to make one wheel of 'the mother of all cheeses' parmesan, and the only other thing that is in that cheese, which has, by law to age for 1-4 years, is salt, or that white truffles can cost about 5,000 euros a kilo, or that 100-year-old balsamic vinegar sells for near 1,500 euros for a tiny bottle?" As Sarah says, "Italy is a food paradise" but tours like these teach you to eat like an Italian with reverence, but most of all, enjoyment.

Sarah in the market for the food tour: Sarah one of the guides in Testaccio market for the food tour (Photo: Kenny Dunn Rome, 2012)
Sarah Rose, our guide on the food tour at a market stall in TestaccioImage: Kenny Dunn

I head off with two bags full of Panettone, pasticcini, prosciutto di San Daniele, and Parmigiano della Vacca Rossa, the red cows of Reggio Emilia which has been aged for two years before reaching my mouth.


Well, when in Rome …