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How a “weird” sandwich won our picky eater teen’s heart and palate in Rome—and set the mood for the whole trip

“What is this brown stuff inside?” our grumpy jetlagged teenager wrinkles his nose at a trapizzino—a Roman pizza-pocket sandwich. “It’s coda alla vaccinara,” explains our guide Lauren Caramico of Davvero Italy (Authentic Italy) who runs street food tours of the Italian capital. “An oxtail stew.” I am not sure her explanation helps. “It’s looks weird,” Leo insists. “Can we just get a burger?”

This is our first post-pandemic trip out of the US and Leo’s first time in Italy, where his family comes from on my husband’s side—from Rome, to be exact. Plus, Leo had turned 16 the day we landed, so we wanted this voyage to be extra special. We are foodies, so I had thought that the best way to explore the Eternal City would be through some delicious bites, but my expectations didn’t exactly pan out so far. The local pizza specialty we tried was without cheese—just crispy bread and tomato sauce. Maritozzi, Roman buns with whipped cream Leo deemed “too fluffy.” Now, the oxtail stew is “weird.” It’s not exactly an auspicious start of a long-awaited and painstakingly planned trip. I’m really worried about our dinner reservation at Settimo, a high-end restaurant on the rooftop of Sofitel Villa Borghese, where we’re staying, known for its high-end traditional cuisine. I spotted zucchini blossoms on the menu—would my teen ever eat that? Teens are picky eaters and Leo is no exception. I can count on my fingers the type of foods he’s agreeable to eating. Add jetlag into the mix and it’s a recipe for disaster. What was I thinking?

“Leo, you promised to try your heritage foods,” I remind him gently, but he’s not listening. “How do they make it?” he asks our guide. “They cook it for nine hours until it becomes super tender,” Caramico replies and tells us the full story. Turns out, trapizzino was dreamed up by a former Alitalia flight attendant who wanted to preserve heritage Roman dishes, once popular in Testaccio, Rome’s  blue-color neighborhood, known for its meatpacking business. Historically, the pope and the elite took the best meat cuts, so the poor got the bones, the tails and other less desirable parts, doing the best with what they had. Trapizzino became a modern version of the iconic dish–a pizza dough pocket sandwich stuffed with the stew.

As she talks, Leo’s face changes—he loves history. “My ancestors were smart and thrifty,” he concludes, suddenly biting into his trapizzino. My husband and I hold our breaths, waiting for the verdict. “Actually, it’s not… bad,” Leo says, chewing. “It’s… good. Uhm, really good.” Our foodie fate finally turns around. At the next stop we try arancini—a Sicilian rice ball, which Leo, who loves rice, thumbs-up instantly, and then a gelato, which he immediately falls in love with.

Relieved, I keep our reservation at Settimo, which means seven—for the seven hills of Rome. My decision proves right. We enjoy a magical evening of watching the sun set behind Rome’s skyline while savoring delectable local specialties. Leo surprises us with his suddenly bold choices—he picks beef tartare and baked chicken with parmesan potatoes. “When in Rome, eat like the Romans, right?” he tells me, offering a smudge of his appetizer. He passes on my zucchini blossoms but steals a bite of grilled octopus from his dad. We take turns photographing and posting each other’s dishes, each of which looks like a work of art.

When we return to our room, all three of us are surprised to find a beautiful cake for the birthday boy and a bottle of champagne for his parents. As we toast to so many things at once—our son’s 16th, the return to the joys of travel, and a family heritage trip, Leo surprises us once again. Looking out the window at the brightly lit Italian capital, he suddenly says: “I love this city. I want to live here when I grow up. Thank you for bringing me here.”

A “thank you” from your teen? It’s priceless. I’ve done something right, haven’t I? But perhaps more importantly, I know I’ve got a great travel companion that I can take along again and again.

Lina Zeldovich is an Award Winning Science Journalist. Author of “The Living Medicine” and “The Other Matter.”