Garbatella, the Roman neighbourhood south-east of Testaccio, is one of those areas that few tourists find.

It’s not far from San Pietro fuori le mure, the great Papal basilica, and it’s the home of Eataly: but these tend to be the only items that make it to the average traveller’s bucketlist.

In reality, Garbatella is a district that everyone should probably visit for its fascinating architecture and culture. Built at the turn of the last century, populated with Art Deco villas in a garden-city design, it was actually born as a kind of social housing project, Mussolini’s vision to reward the workers of Rome with half a villa not far from the centre, decorated with a few metres of green garden.

 Italian traditions: a cooking class in colourful Garbatella, booked via BonAppetour

Those villas still stand today, weaving over curved lanes and down past Fascist-era piazzas in a surprisingly warm architectural homage to Rome’s classical past, softened by terracotta and gold hues and a welcome splash of street art.

Today, it’s also home to an excellent Farmers’ market (actually, the one that used to stand in Testaccio: our loss), as well as a handful of active theatres and music venues, plus a few interesting restaurants.

I love visiting Garbatella, but last week I wasn’t there just to admire the buildings: I went to take part in a cooking class, booked via BonAppetour.

Readers of my blog might remember that I tried a BonAppetour dining experience last year, and loved it: by matching travellers with home cooks, it gives you the opportunity to eat excellent quality home-prepared food usually for less than the price of a restaurant meal – definitely a brilliant way to get under the skin of a city’s culture.

The social eating phenomenon also includes cooking classes, so I was very curious to see if I could learn some new tricks while enjoying a visit to an apartment in the streets of Garbatella.

Italian traditions: a cooking class in colourful Garbatella, booked via BonAppetour

Sandra, my host and teacher for the day, lives in a more modern block in the shadow of Eataly: she told me that while she likes patronising the megastore for the odd ingredient, she’s still a market girl at heart.

‘I know the market holders on the street below,’ she told me, ‘they sell me the freshest ingredients and know the provenence of the produce. That’s still important.’

Before the class, Sandra had asked me if I had any special requests, and I’d said that I love seasonal produce and am partial to fish.

When I arrived at her house, she explained that she had found great fish in the market today, so we would cook a starter from her home region of Tuscany, followed by a Sicilian recipe for the main course. We’d finish up with a dessert loved by all of Italy: panna cotta.

I immediately found that Sandra has a lovely easy manner, and we were soon chatting about all manner of things, although her ready knowledge of food and ingredients shone through.

Italian traditions: a cooking class in colourful Garbatella, booked via BonAppetour

She wouldn’t describe herself as a chef but displayed some serious skills: soon we were transforming a handful of Mediterranean shrimps, mazzancolle, into a delicate fish broth, combining ingredients in the pan and then squeezing out the precious, golden juice in a pestle and mortar.

Next, I was set to work gutting fresh anchovies: Sandra started me off, explaining that the freshest fish can stand up on their own: she wasn’t wrong. I trimmed the fish into butterfly fillets and we soaked and peeled tomatoes, chopped wild fennel, soaked raisins and toasted pine-nuts to prepare the sauce for the pasta. Minutes later, we started to compile ingredients for the panna cotta: softening gelatine, warming double cream and grating lemons.

Italian traditions: a cooking class in colourful Garbatella, booked via BonAppetour


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Soon, we were opening a bottle of white, a Greco di Tufo from the Campania region and crunching deep fried sage leaves in an impromptu antipasto as our stomachs started to rumble. In the final 20 minutes of cooking, everything came together with typical acceleration: we strained soup into bowls, decorated the pasta with fried anchovies, boiled a red-wine syrup to coat the panna cotta, which was chilling in moulds in the fridge.

There was still nearly an hour to enjoy the fruits of our handiwork; a slow and welcome lunch, where laughter was counterpointed with thoughtful munching.

Finally, I emerged into the Garbatella sunshine, satisfied and full of new stories, strolling down through the lotti storici with a few more precious recipes in my head and in my heart.

Testaccina was a guest of BonAppetour. To book a class with Sandra, click here.

I’m also delighted to be able to share a promo-code for your first BonAppetour experience: just type TESTACCINA for 10% off any BonAppetour booking.

I don’t receive payment for this – but am happy to recommend the experience and for my readers to enjoy a discount!

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Read next: Seven reasons to love Barberini, Testaccio’s cult baker and confectioner

© Rome blogger Isobel Lee