The way I see it, there are two camps of people: those who love food tours, and those who have no idea what a food tour is. It’s not exactly rocket science — I’m sure the latter group could figure out what a food tour entails — but I feel it is my duty to elaborate on the wonder that is The Food Tour, so we can all join hands, sing “Kumbaya” and enjoy God’s good creation to a fuller extent.
You’re welcome, humanity!
Here’s the nutshell explanation: Food tours are part of a hot new trend known as Culinary Tourism, where travelers immerse themselves into a new city and/or culture by learning about its food through cooking classes, wine tastings or tours that involve sampling the local cuisine. The last example is the one that I’m referring to, and one that is gaining momentum. It’s similar to a historical walking tour in that participants familiarize themselves with the area on foot, under the guidance of a local guide who teaches them the history of the area. But these tours are even better because they involve hands-on (mouth-on?) activity: five to seven stops at restaurants or food stores where tour-goers get to try everything from balsamic vinegars to hand-dipped chocolates and made-from-scratch hotdogs. From Paris to Chicago to New York City, food tours are popping up worldwide, but the best news is there are two excellent options right here in RI: Savoring Rhode Island on Federal Hill and RI Red Food Tours in Newport.
The top three reasons why you ought to add these to your must-do list:
1. They’re great to do with friends and family who are visiting.
Everyone leaves happy, educated, and full.
2. You’ll discover restaurants you wouldn’t have found otherwise.
Even though living in the small state of RI makes us feel like we’re locals to the entire state, there will be restaurants on the tour you haven’t been to before, or more likely, didn’t even know existed.
3. It’s a fun and creative birthday gift/anniversary/Tinder date idea.
It’s more bang for your buck than dinner and a movie, and way less cliché.
I recently had the opportunity to attend these two tours, and here’s why they are both wonderful, and wonderfully different.
RI Red Food Tours debuted in Newport in April 2015, and owner and tour guide Paula Silva has hit the ground running. As a graduate from the Food Tour Pros course in Chicago, Silva has created a fun, off-the-beaten-path glimpse into Newport life.
We began with a round of introductions. Half of the tour goers were from Rhode Island; the other half were visiting relatives and food enthusiasts who were visiting Rhode Island for the first time. We were given a detailed map of our food tasting locations, historical monuments we’d visit and a list of additional restaurants and shops that Silva recommended in the area. Even though we were promised six tasting locations, Silva surprised us with a seventh location, a newly opened clam shack, where we sampled authentic Rhode Island clam chowder and clam cakes.
The emphasis of this tour was eating. Our menu included the “Great White” pizza, deliciously unique with a crust rivaling those of the pizzas I ate in Italy; a freshly baked oatmeal raisin chocolate chip cookie, still warm from the oven; sticky pork ribs marinated in Coca-cola and brown sugar that fell right off the bone; a locally brewed beer while overlooking Cardines Baseball Field; and a made-from-scratch hotdog that put all other hotdogs (sorry, RI Weiner) to shame.
Within the eating umbrella, our theme was “where the locals go.” We avoided the overcrowded, overhyped tourist streets of Thames and Bellevue and explored the neighborhood side of Newport. As the original capital city of Rhode Island, and — of course — a port city, Newport is rich in history, complete with America’s Oldest Tavern (where we ate a fabulous NY Cheesecake eggroll and learned about the resident ghosts), and Silva did a great job of pointing out historical buildings and landmarks I would have otherwise missed.
After the tour I didn’t want to eat again for 24 hours, but I was happy to know the secret spots to return to this summer.
Savoring Rhode Island has been running on Federal Hill for over a decade, and it’s clear that the tour guide and business owner, Cindy Salvato, has camaraderie with everyone in each shop and bakery we visited. My favorite part of this tour was the behind-the-scenes talks and demonstrations from the owners themselves.
We began at Antonelli’s, where we saw live chickens (thankfully only the “before” version, as chickens are slaughtered on the spot for purchase), including my very first RI Red sighting. Owner Chris was anything but shy, and his and his staff’s gregariousness was enough to detract from the occasional wafts of chicken-scented air. I learned that restaurants (like the one next door) use chicken bones to create a broth, or “secret sauce,” to add flavor to many of their dishes. This was about the time I realized this tour was about the food itself — where to buy it, how to prepare it, and how to create a truly authentic Italian experience.
From Venda Ravioli I learned how to make the perfect hamburger, and at Scialo Brothers Bakery (pronounced “shallow” — we even got Italian lessons!), I learned how one fills a pie inside a brick oven. I learned that the first wines imported to the US from Italy arrived at Gasbarro’s Wines, and I learned that everyone who works in that district has a history and a pride for what they do.
The take-home message from this tour is just how authentic Federal Hill can be when one has a relationship with the people and knows where to go, and I certainly plan to return. The food we sampled was delicious and light— at the end of the tour I was ready to take advantage of the shopping list and coupons Salvato prepared for us and loop back to all the stores we visited. Even though I can barely toss together a salad, I felt inspired to make my own pasta di cacao with a rehydrated mushroom cream sauce and chocolate shavings. (Sadly, that will never happen.)
If it weren’t obvious to readers, I have a strong affection for food, and I tout that as the highlight of my adventures. But in all honesty, the best part about food tours is the way in which they connect people to a new place. They bridge the gap from where a person originates to where he or she is visiting, whether that be across the Atlantic Ocean or across the East Bay. Food is the link between the history of a place and the people who live there, and while Paris and New York are, indeed, glamorous destinations, Rhode Island sure is one awesome place to be a local.
RI Red Food Tours: rhodeislandredfoodtours.com
Savoring Rhode Island: savoringrhodeisland.com