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Grape Balls of Fire, ‘International’ cuisine and my very first Flavor Tour of Rome

So, this past Saturday I was invited on something called a Flavor Tour of Rome. I had heard of them before but never actually gone on one.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau puts these on the second Saturday of each month and how it works is people sign up for each tour and they’re driven around downtown Rome in that little Roman Chariot golf cart.

It’s a guided tour and you get to sample food and drinks from four or five restaurants.

Ok so on Saturday I show up for this tour right at noon and there were six of us. So we hop on the Roman Chariot and the tour guide — his name is Nic — drives us to our first stop with is Jamwich. I’m just going to list the places we went and what we had.

Jamwich — This was the very first stop and I was already impressed. The owner had a table reserved just for us and we were served these tiny bottles of Coca-Cola (which is the way to my heart) and then they brought out these little sausage balls called Grape Balls of Fire. It’s like a hot sausage ball made with a type of jelly. It was FANTASTIC. Apparently it’s not on the regular menu but it’s on their catering menu. Someone said that they’d consider adding these to their main menu if enough people asked for it. If that’s true, then y’all please ask them to add it permanently because you’ll want to order them. Trust me. Then they also served delicious hot dates stuffed with goat cheese, strawberry jam and basil, all wrapped in bacon.

Let me add here that after leaving Jamwich the Roman Chariot broke down and wouldn’t start. I’m not making that up. It lasted one stop on the tour. Charlene Mathis who’s the gift shop and visitor center manager was also on the tour and she offered to chauffer us around in her car for the rest of the tour. Her sun roof is a little jacked up but other than that we had a blast riding around in her car.

Doug’s Deli — I think the restaurants are asked to supply samples or just small appetizers for the tour since there are several stops. Well someone didn’t give Doug’s Deli the memo because we were served what I would normally eat for a full meal. We had a chipotle chicken wrap, a loaded potato soup and broccoli salad. My friends Blake and Blaine Kirby had introduced me to the broccoli salad there and I love it. Everything was delicious.

The Foundry — The next stop was the Foundry Growler Station. I really like this place so I was happy it was on this particular tour (not all the tours are exactly the same). Gorg Hubenthal, the owner, had us each select two beers we wanted to sample. I’m a sucker for anything with the words “Kentucky” or “Bourbon” so I had a Kentucky Old Fashion and I also had a Service Savannah Banana. They were both good and I was pleasantly surprised by the Savannah Banana. The Foundry also serves food. Gorg brought out these delicious pretzel bites with an in-house mustard that had a kick to it. I highly recommend it if you haven’t tried it.

Loco Mex — Here’s where the day took an interesting turn. Just like Doug’s Deli, Loco Mex’s idea of a sampler was three large street tacos — pork, steak and chicken. They were pretty flavorful and the staff was very friendly. But the best thing about this stop was that they served us samples of their margaritas. Now I’m not a margarita guy but I guess if it’s flavored I’ll give it a shot. They brought out three types. There was the traditional, the pink sombrero (my favorite) and a blue one called the “Dirty Mexican.” While margaritas are usually made with tequila, the server told us that the blue one was made with GOLDEN GRAIN. Yes, the very same golden grain you remember from years ago when you drank it and almost died. Well lemme tell y’all.... it’s pretty dang good in that margarita. But it’ll put some hair on your chest. Well the other people on the tour tasted theirs and sipped a little but didn’t finish all and I didn’t want the people at Loco Mex to be insulted that we didn’t drink their margaritas so I selflessly offered to drink all the leftover margaritas.

Miniyar’s International Food Court — First of all......let me just say that I felt like I should have brought my passport to this stop. It’s like I was being whisked away to exotic destinations across the globe where one could sample such international cuisine as Philly cheesesteaks. Yes, I’m being sarcastic. I guess when I hear the word “International” I was expecting maybe a Thai restaurant, Indian or Pakistani food, maybe Vietnamese or Caribbean fare. But anyhow, the gentleman who brought us our food was extremely friendly. He brought us each a box containing a Philly cheesesteak called “The Bus” as well as fried wontons and a crab angle (I think it’s called) which is like a crab rangoon you’d get at a Chinese restaurant with cream cheese fried in a little shell. The Bus was good. It had a lot of flavor. I wasn’t a huge fan of the fried wontons (I prefer them steamed), and the crab thing was really good. It came with a sweet dipping sauce.

Honeymoon Bakery — At this point in the tour we were all pretty much stuffed...and I was a little tipsy from the Golden Grain. Honeymoon Bakery’s chocolate mousse was the final thing we’d sample and to be honest I was afraid I just couldn’t eat anything. HOWEVER, this thing is amazing. It’s looks like half a ball of smooth chocolate. It’s a thin layer of chocolate cake with whipped chocolate mousse on top and a thin layer of chocolate ganache and which chocolate on top. It sounds like a lot but it’s extremely light and perfectly delicious. I usually get the creme brulee here but I might be switching to the chocolate mousse from here on out.

The tour took about two-and-a-half hours and I have to say I was really impressed with it and would definitely go on another one. The guide, Nic Diaz, was very knowledgeable about food in general and I actually learned a lot about downtown Rome as well as the individual restaurants and food items we sampled.

I’d definitely recommend this for out of towners as well as Rome residents. It’s a great little outing for a group of friends or family members. Each tour has a maximum of 10 participants and the cost is $35 to $45 depending on the tour. It’s well worth it considering all the food you get to sample.

I believe there are two tours coming up on Feb. 10 for Valentine’s Day. One is a couples-only tour.

My only recommendations are that the Tourism Office invest in a new Roman Chariot (apparently this one is older and has broken a few times before) and to do a tour of beers, wines and liquors. They could call it Spirits of Rome. Make sure those margaritas are on there.

Severo Avila is features editor for the Rome News-Tribune