Andrea Batuzzi was tricked by his wife. On some undisclosed pretext, she inveigled him to take her to one of the most theatrical of the old gateways into Rome, Porta S. Paolo. Just in front of it there rises up the astonishing pyramid in which Caio Cestio Epulone, peoples tribune and a member of the College of Banqueters, had himself entombed.

By 21.30, Batuzzi had studied the curious monument enough. He was beginning to get hungry and wondered what his wife was up to. He guessed she was going to take him to one of the nearby restaurants as a treat. He worked at Fiumicino airport and it was his birthday. He was 30.

Just then there was a great rumbling and clattering behind them. They looked around. A tram was upon them, furiously ringing its cracked bell. His wife jumped in front of it, waving her arms. He pulled her back, but the thing juddered to a halt with a terrible screeching of brakes. Batuzzi was alarmed. Then he noticed his wife was laughing. Heads were poking out of all the windows and they were laughing too. Then he recognised his friends colleagues from the airport, students, relatives. He saw he had been truly had and broke down laughing as well.

They had him clamber aboard. There were hugs and embraces, and he found himself among tables set for dinner, with coloured paper tablecloths and napkins, lit by old-fashioned, tulip-like yellow lamps, and his favourite CD was playing through discreet loudspeakers. His friends pulled out a bottle of champagne from a polished-oak bottle rack and there were toasts as the tram rumbled off through the night. After a time, it climbed and stopped in what could have been mistaken for some sylvan clearing in the countryside. Instead, it was the secluded Celio hill overlooking the Colosseum, and the solitary figure waiting for the tram was Batuzzis mother.

Shes an excellent cook, Silvia Romano explained at majestic Porta Maggiore, where she and the rest of the surprise party had waited for tram number 2137, an original built in 1929, refurbished and freshly painted in deep green, the colour of all Romes old trams. Romano liked the idea, she found it very original, but it was Batuzzis mother who had organised the lot. She had known about the so-called Ristotram. The others had not.

We put out no publicity. Its all done by word of mouth, and the trams are full and busy nearly every day, pointed out Lucia Mirabella, who, with her colleague Flavia Baldassare, runs the service from an office in the big tram depot on Via Prenestina.

People hire the trams for birthdays, weddings, receptions after baptisms, first communions, degree ceremonies and working lunches or dinners. Theyre unique in Italy. All sorts of people ride the trams, from teenagers to pensioners. They all think its great fun. The sole brochure she could find showed people dining with the tram actually on the move. It is not so. After all, they are trams. They lurch around a lot. People dont find it comfortable. So the dining takes place on sidings, the favourite of course being in the romantic setting of the Celio. Others are just below the national gallery of modern art near the Biopark, Piazza Risorgimento outside the Vatican, and Piramide, with the starting point always at Porta Maggiore.

There are two party trams. One is a single carriage with seating for 28 people at four big tables of brilliantly polished pinewood and six small tables, equipped in the closed-off rear with toilet, refrigerator and kitchen space. This costs 260 for three-and-a-half hours, exclusive of VAT and catering, the choice of which is left entirely to the customer. Some, such as in the case of Batuzzis party, provide their own food, which can even be pizza. Others hire their own caterers, and some leave it all to the Ristotram staff, who through contacts with (they say) good Rome restaurants, can lay on cooks, waiters, the lot. The other tram is a 1945 twin-carriage affair (number 7021) with room for 38 diners, costing 310.

The service began with a New Years Eve party in December 1999. The man who nursed the project through its three-month preparation was Mario Colantoni who, in the cavernous tram sheds, showed off his immaculate wards.

Drawn up next to the two ristotrams was a so-called Tram Storico, which takes nostalgic tram-lovers in Rome for rides around the city. It is the genuine article from 73 years ago, with two rows of crude, wooden, individual seats in front and long facing benches at the back, complete with the little perch where the conductor sat handing out tickets. Some enthusiasts are so keen, said Colantoni, that they rattle round Rome in it for seven hours at a go. Now being groomed for its first outing is a Tram Meeting for school jaunts and learning tours with roll-down projection screen and sound-system.

Anybody for dinner?

To book contact Lucia Mirabella or Flavia Baldassare on

tel. 0646954695, or preferably fax them on 0646954710, 09.00-16.00.