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RESTAURANTS

Eight of Rome’s most tantalizing foreign food gems

Delicious and modestly priced though it may be, the traditional Italian fare served up at thousands of Rome's restaurants is not always what you're after.

Eight of Rome's most tantalizing foreign food gems
There are plenty of tacos to be found in Rome. Photo: Sacofat/Flickr

If you're craving ethnic flavours, here are eight of the best foreign eateries in the capital, all of which cost no more than the average Italian restaurant.

Eat Ethiopian – Mesob

Via Prenestina, 118

Located at the edge of Rome's Pigneto district, visitors to this cosy and atmospheric restaurant can smell the spices wafting out of the premises a good five metres before stepping inside.

The restaurant serves highly spiced and aromatic Ethiopian stews with meat and vegetables. The stews are served on top of large platters of injera, a flat fermented bread made from the traditional Ethiopian grain, teff.

It's an authentic experience. No cutlery is provided; instead, each platter is designed to be shared between three or four people, who tear off hunks of bread and use them to tuck into the food.

Make it Mexican – Tacos & Beer

Via del Boschetto, 130

At the heart of Rome's trendy Monti district, the colourful and informal Tacos & Beer is a new addition to Rome's restaurant scene, offering excellent Mexican fare.

The eatery serves up a limited, but traditional, menu of Mexican tacos and burritos and nachos, which are packed with fresh flavours. The dishes all include authentic Mexican ingredients like cactus pads, jalapenos, black-beans and lashings of fresh guacamole.

Eating at Tacos and Beer is a rapid affair –  you will probably be in and out within half an hour – having washed your chow down with a glass of beer or a Margarita.

Chow on Chinese – Hang Zhou

Via Principe Eugenio, 82

A stone's throw from Vittorio Emmanuele metro stop in Rome's Chinatown, Hang Zhou offers some of the best Chinese food the city has to offer.

The menu is typical for a western Chinese restaurant but the quality of the cooking and ingredients used sets Hang Zhou apart from its numerous competitors in the city.

The low-key restaurant is ever popular among locals, so book in advance if you plan on eating at peak times, or you might find yourself queuing up outside while you wait for a table.

Craving Curry – Sitar

Via Cavour, 256/A – Closed Mondays

A short walk from the Colosseum, Sitar offers traditional north Indian dishes which are sure to hit the spot if you're craving a curry.

The restaurant's flavourful and authentic dishes have made it a mainstay among Rome's Indian community.

It is located below street level and the informal atmosphere and friendly staff ensure dining is always a laid-back affair.

After Arabic – Zenobia

Piazza Dante, 23

Zenobia's menu serves up the classics of Syrian and Lebanese cuisine.

If you're after a fix of tabbouleh, stuffed aubergines, falafel or hummus, there's no better place in Rome. But the menu also includes some lesser known dishes with tastes that might just give you a new culinary experience.

Between the excellent nosh, Arabic style decor and steaming shisha pipes that fill the restaurant, its easy to forget that you are dining in the centre of Italy's capital.

Eritrean eats – Africa

Via Gaeta, 26. Closed Mondays.

Smack bang in the city centre,  not far from Termini, Africa is a hidden gem serving up Eritrean and Ethiopian food at very modest prices.

As with the Ethiopian restaurant Mesob, mentioned above, there is no cutlery here. Instead meals are eaten by picking up food with hunks of torn injera bread.

Africa distinguishes itself from Mesob in its slightly wider menu, including more vegetable and fish dishes, which make it a better fit for vegetarians.

Savour South Tyrol and Austria – Cantina Tirolese di Macher Manuela

Via Giovanni Vitelleschi, 23

Okay, so this entry is questionable as South Tyrol lies on Italy's northernmost border.

However, its Austrian-style cuisine is a world away from the saltimbocca and fiori di zucca which characterize Roman cuisine.

The Cantina's menu offers things like fondue, Viennese goulash, schnitzle and South Tyrol's traditional pasta variety – spatzle.

Located between Castel Sant'Angelo and St Peter's Basilica, the restaurant is decorated in typical Alpine style, with waiters and waitresses serving tables dressed in traditional South Tyrolean garb.

More Mexican – La Taqueria

Via Giacomo Boni, 26

La Taqueria, located near Piazza Bologna, serves up freshly made Mexican street food, much like Tacos & Beer, mentioned above.

The menu revolves around tortillas, burritos and nachos and the place is a good shout if you're after vegetarian or a vegan-friendly option. The menu is low on meat and even offers a soy chilli.

La Taqueria also offers desserts like churros and dulce de leche, but be warned, the place is popular and small, so can get very crowded at peak times during the weekend. 

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DISCOVER ITALY

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are ‘fake’ – and how to pick the best ones

Italy's countless sagre, or food fairs, are an autumn highlight. But how do you find the best events - and avoid the more commercial ones? Reporter Silvia Marchetti explains.

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are 'fake' - and how to pick the best ones

Italy’s renowned food fairs are one of the most exciting events during autumn and winter, particularly the coldest months when we’re looking for culinary weekend distractions. 

For the uninitiated, sagre are key gourmand exhibitions mixing local food, premium products, cheeses and olive oil – all the ‘excellences’ of the area – but lately I find some are just, well, fake. 

READ ALSO: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

Instead of selling traditional indigenous delicacies, vendors sell a little bit of everything which they think appeals to foreigners and city people desperate for a rural break. 

Last weekend I went to the sagra at Osteria Nuova, near Passo Corese in Lazio, and found mozzarella from Naples and limoncello from Amalfi: now what do those have to do with the Rieti countryside?

It was sad and disappointing. Even though it takes place in an area which is famous at this time of the year for exquisite porcini mushrooms and chestnuts there was not even one single vendor selling these. Instead, there was codfish from Venice and porchetta from the Castelli Romani.

Up until a few years ago the Osteria Nuova food fair was very genuine and appealing: it was actually a real farmers’ market where animals were sold: not just rabbits and hens but cows, horses and donkeys. It was a vibrant event. 

Now the cages that once kept the animals are empty. And people just go there to stuff themselves with huge sandwiches and hotdogs. It’s always hell finding a parking spot because the fair is very close to Rome, luring day trippers on a ‘scampagnata’.

Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

My advice is to avoid visiting food fairs which are too close to big cities and towns, but pick offbeat villages or unknown rural spots where the sagre are small and with local producers selling authentic, ‘indigenous’ products. Choosing the remote hillsides, where traditions tend to survive, is of course better than the touristy areas. 

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

Also, it’s best if the food fair is not too heavily sponsored or advertised in national newspapers. The best thing to do is search online for all food fairs in the area you plan to visit during the weekend or even during the week, and ask friends and locals as word of mouth can often be more reliable. 

Among the authentic sagre I would recommend the porcini mushroom food fair in San Martino al Cimino in the pristine hills of the Tuscia countryside in Lazio, where the woods are dotted with porcini. 

At the fair not only bags of huge porcini are sold but you can also buy a lunch ticket and taste various mushroom dishes sitting down at wooden tables. Last time I was served a delicious potato and porcini soup which inspired me to replicate (successfully) the recipe at home. 

However, the best thing is to search for the weird and unknown – food fairs with funny names and showcasing products that sound and look really bizarre. So forget about the usual truffles, mozzarella, limoncello, ham and pasta-filled events. I suggest opting for quirky food festivals in never-heard-of-before villages where the culinary adventure comes with a cultural jolt. 

Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

When I hear about something amazingly off-the-wall and tasty, with a particular story or legend behind it, my curiosity and taste buds tingle.

Last weekend I was surfing the web and came across the Ciammellocco festival in the tiny hamlet of Cretone, Lazio, which immediately aroused my curiosity. 

READ ALSO: 14 reasons why Lazio should be your next Italian holiday destination

As I had never heard of it before, I jumped in the car the following day and ventured out to an isolated woody area with a few small dwellings, where one single bakery makes this huge, funny-sounding, highly-nutritious sweet-salty doughnut with fennel seeds which has been around since at least the middle ages. Housewives used to make it for their husbands as a substitute for lunch when they went off working in the fields. 

Even though I have tasted similar ciambelle in my life none come close to ciammellocco, crunchy and tender at the same time, made with eggs but light.

Next I heard about the Sagra della Papera in Carassai, Marche region, offering succulent duck meat dishes with pappardelle pasta and roasted duck breasts, and given duck isn’t something you’d normally find in Italian restaurants, it makes the cut for authentic food events. 

Vegetarians can’t miss the Festival degli Orapi in the village of Picinisco north of Naples where guests are treated to platefuls of a unique, delicious spinach variety which is made exquisite by the fact that it grows beneath goat poo, a natural fertilizer. Locals actually roam the countryside with a knife to scrape away the poo and extract the orapi.

In Pedagaggi, Sicily, local housewives organize the Sagra della mostarda di fichi d’india, with gourmet dishes made from exotic-looking prickly pear mustards. 

READ ALSO: ‘La scampagnata’: What it is and how to do it the Italian way

Other curious sagre include the Festa del Gorgonzola set in the town of Gorgonzola in Lombardy which is the real birthplace of Italy’s iconic blue cheese. Huge pentoloni of steaming pots of gorgonzola in the middle of the piazza lure pungent cheese addicts. 

Also Diamante’s festival del peperoncino in Calabria is a must stop for lovers of strong, authentic hot dishes spiced up with chili peppers (there’s even a peperoncini eating marathon).

Real sagre tend to showcase one premium native product rather than a myriad with overlapping origins.

The more ‘local’ you dive into the deepest, remote corners of Italy full of tradition and folklore, the more genuine the sagra and the more satisfying the gastronomical experience.

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