Testaccio, the 20th rione (district) of Rome, is shaped like a large wedge of cheese, Via Marmorata and Viale di Campo boario being the two cut sides and the Tevere river the sweeping curve. Tucked between L’Aventino, the river and the Aurelian city wall, Testaccio is home to an ancient hill made of broken terra-cotta, the single arch of an aqueduct rising forlornly before a modern tenement block, a pyramid, a secret garden, a bold cooking style named Quinto Quarto and the best places to eat it, an abandoned slaughterhouse, a thriving market and – respectful hush – the A.S.Roma supporters club. It’s an area old in history but defiantly young in spirit and still dominated by Romans rather than tourists, particularly those in search of good food. Testaccio has also been my adopted home for nearly eight years.
In much the same way that I was an accidental tourist in Italy and a consequential one in Rome, I stumbled upon life in Testaccio. I was living on the other side of the city in an odd, stale flat that smelt of damp blankets on a noisy and charmless street near my language school in piazza Bologna. Of course I wasn’t going to stay in Rome, but while I did, I fancied myself living simply and pretentiously, throwing basil and writing poetry in a room in a faded and intriguing palazzo in the Ghetto or an exquisite vine flanked one half way up one of Monti’s cobbled backsteets.
It was my oldest friend and curious architect Joanna who led me to Testaccio. During her visit, she was as eager for us to visit Testaccio’s abandoned slaughterhouse, austere futurist post office, iron and glass food market and the courtyards and stairwells of its late 18th century tenement blocks as she was to visit the Renaissance fountains, Corinthian columns, domes, frescos, and palaces of the Eternal City. I was reluctant.
But not for Long. Testaccio covered market was closing, but through the gaps in the corrugated iron hatches, and despite the half-light within, it was clear why most people agreed that this was the city’s best and most authentic market. The large, square tenement blocks and the rabble of shops occupying their ground floors hummed with life, a fierce sense of community and a robust, workaday attitude I hadn’t sensed in other parts of the city. The litter strewn ruins on the bank of the river below were, on closer examination, Ancient Rome’s dock and warehouses for wine, oil, grain. The scruffy, disconcerting mound looming forlornly above Testaccio turned out to be composed entirely of broken terracotta amphorae – accumulated and meticulously stacked for nearly 500 years – from the Roman Republic. The numerous bars and jaded, cavernous trattoria filled with voracious Roman families seemed straight from a Fellini film. Backstreets were punctuated with metal workshops, artists studios, sleeping nightclubs and vacant shops filled with plastic tables at which longtime Testaccini were playing cards. As Joanna urged me to enter yet another – clearly private – courtyard to take pictures of another ingenious stairwell, I decided: this is where I want to live.
‘Vagare e mangiare come un Napolitano‘ a man in Naples once told me. ‘Wander and eat like a Neapolitan.’ Sound advice and indeed the best way to experience Naples! Or Palermo or Bari or Leece, anywhere for that matter! Wander and eat like a local is advice I swallowed greedily and followed needily and nowhere more so than Rome, especially in Testaccio.
Of course I’m not going to tell you where to wander, that would defeat the object and the happy adventure that is wandering. I will however remind you of the shape of Testaccio, the wedge! You can’t walk all the way round, but with a little weaving and a map (even wanderers need a map) you can get a sense of the lay of the land. The same with the mound, the ancient one with rather temporary looking restaurants and nightclubs built into it. It’s disconcertingly scruffy at first glance, but wander a little more and look carefully. It’s true also for the Mattatoio, the abandoned slaughterhouse, a vast sprawling complex, the bloody gut of Testaccio from the 1890’s until the early 1970’s, now part modern art gallery, part music school, part fair trade supermarket, part wasteland. It’s a disturbing and marvelous place that makes for quite extraordinary wandering, be bold. Walk past the futurist post office on Via Marmorata and into Via Caio Cestio, walk through the gate to discover the epitome of a secret garden. But most importantly wander the streets of Testaccio, block after block – in the morning if you can – Via Evangelista Torricelli, Via Galvani, Via Branca and Via Mastro Giorgio.
Breakfast at Cafe Barberini, Via Marmorata 45. Or the vast, unapologetically Roman, pleasingly chaotic Linari, Via Nicola Zabaglia 9. Head to the cash desk first and get a receipt for your order before lining up at the bar. A 10 cent coin placed strategically on the receipt should help catch the waiters eye. ‘Cappuccino e cornetto simplice’ is my breakfast of choice.
To market. The market has moved, which is extremely sad and Testaccio will never be the same again. If you’re coming to Rome in the next couple of weeks you may well see them pulling down the old structure to make way for a new piazza. However visit the very new, very white market between Via Galvani and Via Allessandro Volta. The structure may be new but the stall holders with their glorious greens, fine fruit and marvelous meat are familiar. Giancarlo at Stall 32 for fresh produce and Lina and Enzo at stall 87 for pancetta and mozzarella di Bufala.
My Lunch. Figs and tomatoes from Giancarlo at Testaccio market, prosciutto di San Daniele and Olive nere al forno from Volpetti, lariano bread from Passi, Mozzaralla di bufala from Lina and Enzo at Testaccio market.
Should you feel the need for something mid morning! May I suggest a thin slice of Pizza bianca brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt or maybe piece of scrocchiarella (a very thin, very crisp, wavy flatbread) from the bakery Panificio Passi, via Mastro Giorgio 87. Or a small trapizzino – which is pouch of pizza bianca filled with a Roman speciality such as pollo alla Romana (chicken with red peppers) Lingua con salsa verde (tongue with green sauce) or Coda alla vaccinara (oxtail, roman style) from oo100, Via Giovanni Branca 88. Alternatively, maybe you’d like a soft almond biscuit or three and a gaze at the cassata in Sicilia e duci, Via Marmorata 87/89.
Food shops. Peer into the back of Gatti – Pasta all’uovo, via Branca 15 and watch Massimo Venturini and his girls prepare fresh egg pasta: Tonnarelli, fettuccine, ravioli, Agnolotti. The enoteca Palombi, Piazza testaccio 38-41 is a cavernous and handsome wine and beer shop. Beer by the bottle and wine by the glass are also served – with cheese and salami if you so wish – at one of the tables inside, or outside on the pavement terrace.
And then there is Volpetti, via Marmorata 47, a gloriously old-fashioned, beautifully appointed gastronomia, maybe Rome’s finest, run elegantly and shrewdly by two brother Emilio and Claudio Volpetti and their numerous and knowledgeable white-coated assistants ranked behind the counter. A modest sized (not priced) shop, standing in Volpetti feels like being in the midst of the most exquisite but slightly hallucinogenic food jigsaw as floor to ceiling shelves, the ceiling itself and long glass counter are impossibly but impeccably crowded with oils, vinegars, truffles, olives, capers, tuna, porcini, wine, preserves, chocolate, 150 types of cheese and 150 types of salami and prosciutto. If you are renting a flat or fancy eating in park, shopping for lunch in Volpetti is recommended. The assistants can be very persistent, so a firm ‘Basta, Grazie‘ (which means ‘Enough/that’s all thank you’) is useful.
If you want to sit down for lunch – but not for too long – there is Volpetti più Via Allesandro Volta 8, the somewhat spartan and functional but excellent Tavola Calda /pizza al taglio of the Volpetti Food emporium. I am extremely devoted to Volpetti più, particularly the pizza margherita, vegetable lasagna, pomodoro col riso and the braised rabbit. If there is a large bowl of pears in red wine syrup have one.
If a sit down lunch is in order, then I have three suggestions. But first, I should mention the style of cooking – called Quinto Quarto – particular to Testaccio. A style of cooking that was created by the slaughterhouse workers in the early 19th century. Quinto Quarto means fifth quarter and refers to the parts of the animal: the tail, the organs, the nerves, the intestines (the stuff of uneasy, squirms and sniggers) that couldn’t be sold. Worker’s pay was supplemented with this Quinto Quarto which they then took home to their wives who in turn transformed these undesirable and poor cuts of meat – the offal – into bold, delectable and delicious dishes. Cast your preconceptions aside and be as bold as a plate of my favorite Roman dish Coda Alla Vaccinara (oxtail stew.) There are, of course, numerous Roman dishes which are not offal based.
I’d also like mention the five noted Roman pasta dishes. All three places I am going to suggest for lunch – and dinner – are pastmasters . Cacio e pepe – pecorino romano and black pepper. Alla Gricia – pecorino romano with guanciale or pancetta. All’amatriciana – pecorino romano, guanciale or pancetta, tomatoes, white wine. Arrabbiata – pecorino romano, guanciale or pancetta, chilli, fresh tomatoes. Carbonara – pecorino romano, eggs, parmesan, guanciale or pancetta.
But lunch Where?
Perilli, Via Marmorata 59. Luca had his first taste of Rigatoni alla carbonara at Perilli last Sunday. It was an important and messy moment for Luca. It was also important for his Dad, Giampiero, who ate carbonara with his father at Perilli when he was a boy. Perilli does indeed feel a little like being in a Fellini Film, cavernous, exciting, perennially packed, with its cummerbunded waiters, starched white cloths, ancient and incessant kitchen buzzer, frosted windows and slightly surreal wall murals. The food is traditional and excellent especially the carbonara, amatriciana, the sweetbreads (note Ben Roddy), abbacchio (lamb) and the Tiramisu. I adore Perilli and wish I had the money to be a real regular. If you can, get a Roman to book you a table.
Agustarello, Via Giovanni Branca 98. I began my education in Roman food in the small, spartan trattoria Agustarello. It doesn’t look like a particularly promising address, but rest assured it is. If you pass in the morning and the frosted glass door is open, you might catch a glimpse of Alessandro in his kitchen stirring a vast pot. The food is robust and stoutly Roman: amatriciana, cacio e pepe, artichokes, coratella and coda alla Vaccinara (oxtail stew) are all superb. If you happen to go during fresh broad bean season ask to be brought some fave fresche along with some salty, piquant pecorino romano as a starter. Booking is advised.
Flavio al valavevodetto, Via di Monte Testaccio 97. Flavio is built into Monte Testaccio, the ancient mound of broken terra-cotta you will have probably wandered around before Lunch. The back wall of both dining rooms have glass panels through which you can marvel at the heart of the mound, the intricately stacked pieces of ancient amphorae. The food is just excellent, fiercely Roman but with a certain youth and vigour about it, a little like Testaccio itself really. Begin with the Mozzarella di Bufala or – in season – carciofi alla Giudia (deep-fried artichokes Jewish style). Follow with a pretty perfectly executed plate of cacio e pepe or carbonara. For secondi (in which case I’d share a pasta) Cotolette d’abbacchio panate e fritte (breaded lamb cutlets) or Maialino al forno (oven roasted pork). To finish (you off) Tiramisu’ al bicchiere. Flavio is – deservedly – very very popular so book ahead.
Basta! Done! and quite frankly I think we both deserve a drink after that! Make mine a large Campari bitter on ice. And I still haven’t talked about where to eat Roman pizza cooked in a wood oven, pasta e ceci, where to have an aperitivo, what to have for an aperitivo, where to have your dry cleaning done, where to go and listen to a little night music, where to eat Gelato. Next time! Which won’t be for a while I promise. Meanwhile I hope you will tuck this post away until the time is right.
Back next week with a recipe that involves walnuts. I’ve already posted a picture on FaceBook for those of you who do. Meanwhile Luca and I are off for a gelato and then a wander on the hill above Testaccio, Aventino! Now there’s a part of Rome I’d like to tell you about….