Italy: When in Rome, eat with Romans

By Josh Martin

When Rome's tourist traps got a little tiring, Josh Martin found a boisterous table with locals was only a few clicks away.

Tourists and locals gather at Trastevere's popular restaurants after dark.
Tourists and locals gather at Trastevere's popular restaurants after dark.

Colosseum, check. Trevi Fountain, check. Day two in Europe's first megacity and I was already feeling jaded.

It may have been the herds of loud tour groups or scaffolding scarring every snapshot. But it was more likely the realisation that the romanticised Europe from the movies is just a big yarn, or at least reserved for those who could muster more than our attempts at the language.

Nobody had invited us to sit down and chat about European politics, art or Freud and Nietzsche over espresso. Nobody had talked to us at all. Nobody, except the tourist hustlers, hotel noddy-smilers and the ever-present gypsies offering "help" - while hoping to rob us.

Sure, our very bad Italian could evoke pity from Roman restaurant patrons, but we had neither time nor patience.

But a true(ish) Italian family dinner experience can be purchased online. Apparently, we're late to the party; already thousands of travellers and hosts had come together for meals to combat the plague of solo or couple travellers sick to death of their own, or each other's, company.

EatWith, a social-media dining website was our shortcut to gathering around a table with new friends in a new city. Our host, 50-something Roman Barbara hosted the hottest ticket in town.

"We booked about six weeks ago, it's the best of the Rome options and had the best reviews," said one of our fellow diners, Melissa, partway through the puttanesca entree.

Her foodie boyfriend Ryan couldn't believe we managed to score two seats just a few hours before first guests arrived at Barbara's two-bedroom loft above Trastevere's laneways.

The fellow travellers desperate for a Roman dinner party were mostly savvy 30-something Americans, but the guests of honour were Barbara's two local friends, Alexandre and Mirabella. They got a free meal for injecting any typical tourist chit-chat with insider info and passionate hand waving.

Mirabella acted as sous chef and Alexandre a sometime-interpreter for Barbara as the eight-course meal progressed.

"I'm sorry, my English is not so good after my second glass of wine," she apologised.

It didn't matter and the evening soon shook off the generic first-date question lines as the wine flowed.

"Oh you're from New Zealand? You're so lucky!" agreed our American diners, as we clicked champagne upon arrival.

By the time Mirabella topped the glasses up the second time, conversation had turned to Obama's record and Italy's struggle out of the recession.

The latter gave rise to Barbara's EatWith popularity, as she turned to full-time hosting after losing her public relations job.

"She's perfect for EatWith," said a guest between mouthfuls of the pork cheek gnocchi main, "it blends the events industry with her obvious flair for rustic Roman cuisine."

From the stove, Barbara insists we could easily make all of the market-fresh meals, as she rattles off family recipes. White wine and olive oil manage to sneak into every recipe. Nobody complains. In fact, because everyone's a stranger we're on our best behaviour - there were no bores or braggers, common to more organic social gatherings - around this rowdy roundtable. It also meant they were obliged to laugh at my dumb jokes, even if some were lost in translation.

Apricot, banana and custard parfaits were quickly devoured in between diners offering Barbara advice on studying options for her son.

Our host was so inquisitive about our backgrounds and so open with her own it's obvious this was more than just a job.

"I love playing host. I love putting love into my food and sharing it with old friends and new," she had said early in the night, while serving Roman rice salad. Surely a sales pitch she repeated to every dozen diners, but before the decadent tiramisu was served I was completely convinced.

The obligatory shots began, both of the photographic and limoncello variety. We had swapped bucket lists and accent impersonations and compared national health systems.

The clock inched towards midnight and our hosts hinted at lounge-floor dancing - our cue. We departed, full and fulfilled.

Bustling riverside night markets and boisterous restaurants spilled out on to Trastervere's cobblestones. Friends shouted. Fingers punctured every syllable of Italian.

These revellers hadn't paid $63.50 a head for food and friends for the evening. With only two days in Rome, our forced forum at Barbara's lacked their romantic serendipity, but it excelled with far better food and company - and the same "we'll never see them again" nostalgia the day after.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has daily flights from Auckland to Rome with a stopover in Hong Kong.

Further information: See eatwith.com.

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a3 at 16 Sep 2014 17:34:23 Processing Time: 821ms