Category Archives: Eating In Testaccio

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Three pairs of tights and two books. I can remember exactly what I bought, because I then left the whole lot under the seat on the train I took from Kings Cross station to Harpenden. Two penguin novels and three pairs of Wolford tights that cost an arm and a leg. I realized my hands felt empty as, standing on the platform, I watched the tail of the train disappear into the dark distance on its way to the next station. I stood for quite some time on the cold platform, my breath white, feeling bereft and furious with myself. Of course the ticket office was closed and anyone who could help long gone. Back at my parents, a recorded message informed me that the lost property office was closed until nine o clock on monday, by which time I would be back in Rome, without any Wolfords. I just hoped whoever found the bag appreciated they had found sixty flipping pounds worth of tights that, if washed by hand, would retain their shape and make legs look good for years to come.

I’d bought both books and tights from Selfridges on Oxford street. It must have been late 2006 because I’d been living in Rome about a year and a half and was just about able to distinguish the roman intonation of the assistant helping me choose between matt opaque and silky effect. In between discussions about investing in good quality tights and stomach support, we talked about her home town and my new home, Rome. Quickly the discussion turned to food, or rather the assistants longing for a suppli and plate of cacio e pepe from Felice on via Mastro Giorgio in Testaccio. Via Mastro Giorgio was where I lived I told her, three buildings up from Felice. By the time we reached the cash desk, the helpful but initially cool assistant almost had her arm around me, a gesture which seemed to sum up so much about Romans and their relationship with Roman food. As she put the tights in the bag, she asked me to eat a plate of cacio e pepe from Felice for her.


Cacio e pepe, cheese and pepper, is one of Rome’s iconic primi piatti, a pasta dish that sums up the simple, thrifty brilliance of the city’s traditional cooking. Pasta tossed vigorously with grated pecorino romano cheese, black pepper, pasta cooking water and possibly olive oil until the ingredients come together into a pale creamy sauce flecked with black that clings seductively to the pasta. Simple yet disconcertingly difficult to get right – there is a fine line between clump and cream – but utterly delicious when you do.

Like most Roman dishes, opinions and about how to make cacio e pepe are strongly held, the addition of olive oil being a particularly contentious point. There is also a very good chance whoever you are talking to, their mother, their grandmother, or their brother makes the definitive cacio e pepe. Feelings are just as strongly held about where good cacio e pepe is served. The girl who helped me choose tights and my wise friend Laura think trattoria Felice makes a fine plateful. My neighbours don’t agree. Their favorite, after their own, is to be found at the trattoria with frosted glass windows on via Marmorata, Perilli. ‘Perilli oh no‘ howled another friend in disagreement! ‘Go to Flavio Al Velavevodetto for cacio e pepe‘.

Cacio e pepe advice has been particularly plentiful for us, living as we do, in the heart of opinionated Testaccio just three doors down from Felice, a corner away from Perilli, 200 metres from Flavio, two corners from Agustarello and three from La Torricella. In short, bang in the middle of a cluster of historic Roman trattorie all serving up opinion stirring cacio e pepe with opinion stirring service. We tried them all, and slowly I began to get a sense of cacio e pepe. Over time I realised I favour long pasta coated with enough creamy sauce to allow the strands to twirl easily around the fork and tongue, just enough freshly cracked pepper to catch the back of your throat and extra pecorino dusted on top. These days I tend to avoid Felice, the cacio e pepe may be good, the service less so. I have soft spot for the cacio e pepe at Flavio and Agustarello (even though Sandro can be a tricky.) Leaving the confines of my cheese shaped quarter I also really like cacio e pepe (and the service that accompanies it) at Cesare al Casaletto and Armando al Pantheon.


Eating out is all very well, however most of the time we eat in, so I wanted to make my own cacio e pepe, which proved much harder than I imagined. You need a teacher Vincenzo said, a good one.

So a week last Tuesday, I stood in my small kitchen with my roman friend Paola, who happens to be a chef, and she showed me how she makes cacio e pepe. First she laid out the equipment: a large bowl, a metal fork , a ladle, a small frying pan, pestle and mortar and a large pan for cooking the pasta. Next the ingredients. ‘The black pepper is vital‘ Paola said holding out a handful of Sarawak black peppercorns bought from the Emporio delle spezie almost underneath my flat. ‘Eat one‘ she urged. So I did, a whole peppercorn popped in my mouth like a sweet. Once bitten it was softly fragrant and almost tea-like until the spicy heat hit the back of the mouth and a fragment got caught in a molar. For pasta, Paola had chosen a long dried pasta made in a small independent pastificio (dried pasta maker) called Lagano here in Rome. Last but not least, there was the pecorino romano from Antica Caciara in Trastevere, which was exactly how you hope it would be, creamy, muttony and a bit impertinent.


I have always enjoyed watching other people cook, especially those who are confident but gentle about the way they do things. Paola toasted the peppercorns in an iron pan until their fragrance opened up and swirled into the kitchen. Then she crushed them into speckled powder by hand in my make shift bowl/rolling-pin pestle and mortar, which she noted worked extremely well.  While the Pasta cooked in well-salted fast-boiling water she grated the pecorino into a soft, pale mound that just begged to be pinched. Once the pasta was about half way there, she ladled a surprisingly generous amount of pasta cooking water, by now cloudy and slightly thick with starch, into the large bowl. To the water she added a golden glug of good olive oil and then whisked the two together quickly with the fork. ‘It needs to cool a little’ she noted. ‘Or it will make the cheese seize and clump.’ Once the pasta was ready, she lifted it into the water and oil mixture. Then came movement: with one hand Paola began a firm beating/swirling movement with the fork, with the other she added the cheese, handful by handful, followed by a generous amount of pepper. The vigorous beating continued for at least a minute, the strands of pasta, pasta cooking water, cheese and pepper swirling, around the bowl until they all came together, emulsified into a sauce. Plates, piles of pasta, a little more pepper, a tavola!

The sun streamed and the noise of the traffic and kids piling out of the nearby school crept through the window into my small kitchen as we sat at the kitchen table eating cacio e pepe. We talked about Rome and roman food and how with dishes like this it is all about practice, about trying, possibly failing and trying again in order to discover how much pasta cooking water, how much cheese and pepper, how vigorous is vigorous. In short, finding your way of doing things. Paola was keen to remind me this was her way of making cacio e pepe, that she toasts her peppercorns while others don’t, that she adds olive oil while others don’t, that she mixes in a bowl while others prefer a pan, that she likes dried pasta while others favour fresh. In short, Paola, like the seven generations of her Roman family before her, has found a way that works for her. It was absolutely delicious.


Paola’s cacio e pepe

I needed to fail at making Cacio e pepe in order to succeed – seeing how the cheese can clump and harden into strings (which is usually because the pasta or cooking water is too hot) allowed me to find a smoother way. Since our lesson I have tried this recipe three times with fine results.  You really do need to beat and toss the cheese, pasta and pasta water together boldly – think of the movement as a combination of whisking egg and and tossing salad – for quite some time – it took a good minute the other day. Don’t be put off  if you see a clump: keep on, adding a little more pasta cooking water and cheese and mixing as if your life, or rather your supper depends on it. You can of course try without olive oil.

  • 100 g long dried or 130 g fresh egg pasta per person (Tonnarelli is a favorite in Rome)
  • 40 g finely and freshly grated pecorino romano cheese per person
  • 2 tablespoons good extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • good quality, whole black peppercorns
  • coarse salt

a large pan, a large bowl, a grater (I like my microplane), a large fork, a ladle.

Bring a large pan of well-salted water (10 g of coarse/kosher salt for every litre) to the boil.

Meanwhile toast the peppercorn gently in a small frying pan until the fragrance and essential oils open up. Crush the toasted peppercorns in a pestle and mortar. Grate the cheese, finely, onto a plate.

Once the water is boiling, added the pasta and make sure it is submerged. Check the pasta cooking time and the clock. Once the pasta is half-cooked lift a ladleful of pasta cooking water into the bowl, add two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and whisk the two together vigorously.

Once the pasta is a minute off its cooking time, lift it into the bowl, ideally using tongs or a sieve. Swirl the pasta in the water and oil. Now using one hand to beat the pasta with the fork, use the other to start adding the cheese, handful by handful. Keep beating and swirling the pasta with the cheese until you see a cream starting to form. Once the cheese is all added, add a teaspoon of the crushed pepper. Keep beating. Add a little more pasta cooking water if necessary. Divide between plates, top with another pinch of pepper, a dusting of cheese and eat.




Filed under cheese, cucina romana, Da Cesare al Casaletto, Eating In Testaccio, food, fresh egg pasta, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, Testaccio

Drowned in caffè


It takes me a long time to leave the house. Keys, phone, purse, sunglasses are never where I left them and then a sort of departure tick means I need to do something just before I go out the door; round-up the shoes littering the hall, wipe the kitchen table, push the chairs in properly even though the rest of the house is chaos. The door needs to close before I realise I’ve forgotten something, usually the knotted bag of rubbish ready to go and weeping onto the kitchen counter. As I return to collect the rubbish I notice the dead flowers that really should be taken out too, which involves unknotting the bag. As I pick impatiently at the knot I decide the vase the flowers were in needs washing with bleach because it reeks, and so it goes on. When I finally slam the front door behind me, sending a shiver up and down the lift shaft, my landlord has requested I fuss with two keys one of which requires six clunking turns. It takes me a long time to leave the house. Unless we have run out of coffee.

Having flung on clothes and scooped-up things and Luca, we were out the door and blinking in the surprising brightness of Via Galvani in record time. We walked as we do every morning past the pet shop, the canestro, the tabac, the bank and then into Barberini, the bar I have visited most days for the last nine years. Despite familiarity I will always be a straniera, a foreigner, a term I don’t mind anymore, after all, I am. Luca however, is not, he has grown up here, this is his bar. He pummels his fists on the front of the glass counter for a maritozzo, a sticky, yeasted bun and then pummels on my leg so I lift him up on to the lip that runs around the sickle shaped bar. I have barely touched the 10 centesimi coin and the receipt on the counter and Paolo puts a cappuccino in front of me, it’s frothed milk schiuma thick and resting in promising folds. Luca is given an espresso cup of the same creamy folds which he eats with a teaspoon. Here it is, one of the best moments of the day and one of the things I love most about living in Italy; standing at the bar in a Bar with a coffee before me. I drink in the moment and the contents of the cup quickly while Luca offers the man next to us a bit of half- chewed bun. Caffeine seeps into my system. Four others; a young woman, two young men who’ve clearly been up all night and a tall man who looks like Christopher Lee are all deep in breakfast contemplation at different points around the bar, together but alone. Luca disturbs the calm with a chorus of goodbye and ciao which everyone, even almost Christopher Lee, reciprocates. Then it’s over and we are back on the street blinking in the sun and it is only 8 am, on Sunday.


Needless to say several more espressos followed, the last of which which was made at home after lunch in my well-seasoned, well-loved Moka Pot. However instead of drinking it, I tipped it over a spoonful of fior di latte gelato for something Italians call affogato al caffè or drowned in coffee, a state I am familiar with. The effect of pale and dark, of hot meeting cold, of sweet and lactic meeting a full, tannic espresso is fantastic and one of my favorite ways to end a meal. Time is of the essence, you can’t waste time taking pictures or other such nonsense, you need to plunge your spoon in quick so as to appreciate the contrast between hot and cold and the still distinct flavors before the cream melts into the dark liquid and you are left with a toffee coloured inch to be drunk from the glass.


By the way, I am now on Instagram, where you can see more repetitive overhead pictures of my lunch and a filtered view of life in Testaccio – R


Filed under caffè, Eating In Testaccio, gelato, icecream

all mixed


‘Eat your greens’ is something I’ve never needed to be told (cajoled or forced) to do. As a child I happily ploughed my way through large servings of cabbage, brussels sprouts, spinach, spring greens, chard and broccoli. If they were glistening with butter, all the better. I was one of the few who ate the ambiguous heap of so-called greens whose odor lingered (like us) in corners and corridors around the school and appeared on every school lunch plate. ‘What a good little eater‘ relatives and dinner ladies would say. Which confused me, surely they meant what a good big eater? Later I would become a bad little eater, which relatives and dinner ladies had lots to say about, mostly in hushed tones with rolling eyes; bad, sad, spoilt, neglected, attention seeking, perfectionist, pain in the bloody neck. But even during those years, when I had a reputation of restriction to uphold (I was the only one interested in this reputation) I ate my greens.

Lately we have been eating something called misticanza, a mix of leaves and greens prepared by my fruttivendolo Gianluca that is somewhere between delicious and effort. I will come back to this. Now traditionally misticanza, which means a mixture of things, is assortment of leaves, field herbs and aromatic shoots collected at the first signs of spring from the fields surrounding Rome and eaten as a salad. Gillian Riley reminds us this habit of collecting wild plants is a holdover from the days when the poor, unable to afford a doctor, were cared for by countrywomen and their collections of wild plants possessing medicinal qualities.


Far from seeming medicinal, true misticanza, which often includes young borage, sorrel, wild chicory, dandelion, salad burnet and poppy greens is a flavoursome delight, sweet and bitter, mostly tender but occasionally robust and just a little hairy. Which far from being unattractive means it’s full of character and delicious, at least I think so (I feel much the same about several other things.) You could of course opt for a smoother, more clean-shaven misticanza, the gathering is up to you, whether it be in your garden, field, or in my case local market.

These days in Rome the term misticanza is also used for an assortment of wild and cultivated greens  that need to be boiled in order to be edible. The quality of the misticanza depends on the source. Kind and reliable Gianluca often has a opinionated mix of properly hairy, slightly prickly borage, sweet escarole and chard, dandelion, wild chicory and a woody green that I still don’t know the name of. Having plunged the well-washed rabble into a pan of well-salted fast boiling water for a few minutes, you then drain it and saute it in plenty of garlic scented extra virgin olive oil.


Normally I eat this more substantial misticanza just so, I adore the deep-green engaging substance of it, a textured, oily tangle scented with garlic. In fact I often sport a tuft of chicory between my front teeth all afternoon to prove it.  Yesterday however, having bought a slice of pure white,  properly fresh ricotta di pecora from my norcineria, we ate the misticanza with pasta.

This dish is a nice illustration of three things I have learned since living in Italy. The first, is insaporire, to give flavor, which I have written about before. By cooking the peeled and gently crushed garlic in olive oil over a low flame until fragrant and just turning gold the olive oil is given the sweet and savory flavour of the garlic. The garlic is then removed. The second is ripassare, to re-cook, on this occasion the boiled, drained misticanza in the garlic scented olive oil so the soft, rag-like greens can absorb the olive oil hungrily. The third, is using a little of the pasta cooking water, cloudy and slightly thick with starch, to thin the ricotta, parmesan and black pepper mixture thus making a cream which coats and then brings the ingredients together into a soft but substantial and unified whole. Eat your white and greens…not that you need telling.


Rigatoni with ricotta and greens

You can of course use whatever greens you like. I like the combination of sweet and bitter greens and the different textures they offer. You know your greens I’m sure. Keep in mind the greens are boiled,  so quite substantial leafy ones work well. Keep very tender, delicate greens and leaves for salad.

serves 4

  • 300 g mixed greens (borage, escarole, radish leaves, chicory, spinach, chard, rocket. sorrel, chervil)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • 300 g ricotta (ideally sheep’s milk)
  • 40 g freshly grated parmesan
  • black pepper
  • 450 g rigatoni

Wash the greens thoroughly and then boil them for a few minutes in a large pan of well-salted boiling water. Use tongs to remove the greens from the pan into a colander. Keep the water for the pasta.

In a large warm bowl (I run mine under the hot tap and then dry it) mash the ricotta with the parmesan, plenty of black pepper and a couple of spoonfuls of the (slightly green) cooking water then beat it into a soft cream.

Bring the water back to a fast boil and add the pasta. Squeeze all the water from the greens and then chop them coarsely

Meanwhile in a frying pan over a low flame, saute the garlic – you have peeled and gently crushed with the back of a knife – in the olive oil until it is just turning golden and fragrant. Remove the garlic. Add the chopped greens and cook for a few minutes, stirring so each leaf is coated with oil. Remove the pan from the heat.

Once the pasta is al dente, drain, reserving a cupful of the pasta cooking water and then tip it onto the ricotta, add the greens and then toss the ingredients together thoroughly, adding a splash more of the reserved cooking water if the mixture seems stiff. Serve.



Filed under cucina romana, Eating In Testaccio, food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, vegetables

Reciprocal roasting


Of course I thought Rome was glorious, but I didn’t want to stay. A month, three at most, then I’d take a train back to Sicily, finish the clockwise journey I’d interrupted, before moving even further southwards-somewhere. Then about halfway through that first reluctant month, April 2005 to be precise, urged by my architect friend Joanna, we visited possibly the most Roman of Roman quarters: Testaccio

Approaching Testaccio for the first time as we did by bus, lurching from Lungotevere into via Marmorata then swinging sharply into Via G. Branca, I was caught off guard. Linear and grid-like, the blocks of undistinguished looking 19th-century buildings seemed hard, passionless even, after the delectable warren of terra-cotta hued medieval alleys, the exhilarating sprawl of imperial ruins and the curves, courtyards and staircases of Borromini we’d been lost in.


Disoriented, we stepped off the bus into broad and busy Via G. Branca. Joanna was already engaged, her eyes darting eagerly, words like ‘Public housing, elevations, detail, brickwork, internal courtyard, community, fascinating’ tumbling from her lips. We walked, wandered really – the best way and invariably a happy adventure in Rome – down tree-lined vie, past tenement blocks and clusters of chattering signore, peering into vast internal courtyards, sneaking up well ventilated stairwells, pressing our noses up against the frosted glass windows of local tratorrie, all the time Joanna mumbling and making notes.

The hard lines seemed to soften and the streets – although always neatly aligned – narrowed and relaxed as we moved into the heart of Testaccio. We watched a wicker basket being lowered from a fifth floor window, shopping deposited within, before the basket was hauled back up and swallowed by lace curtains. Just as our eyes were becoming accustomed to the distinguished late 19th century architecture, four arches of an ancient edifice, as if forlorn giants, loomed up before us. We gazed upwards at the sculpture of a winged god punching out an innocent bull atop the defunct slaughter-house and downwards at the expanse of cobble stones between which were wedged innumerable cigarette butts. We were jostled and elbowed, awkward tourists we, by the commotion and the rowdy market life of Testaccio. We sat at one of the small round tables outside Zia Elena and drank ill-timed cappuccini while Joanna confirmed what I was starting to suspect, Testaccio was charismatic and captivating, rudely real and remarkable, that I should find a flat here.


I’m still here of course. Once that English girl, now very much (and quite happily) that English woman, less idealistic and romantic but no less enamoured with my adopted home. My mum is visiting this week and at this very moment pushing my small boy, a half Testaccino, around the same streets Joanna and I pounded. Meanwhile I sit here at my red table looking out onto the cavernous courtyard of my building, which just happens to be the first building I noted as the bus swerved into Testaccio almost eight years ago to the day.

Lately I’ve been having nice conversations about why I came to Rome, why I stayed and why I cook and write in the way I do. My answer is almost invariably, Testaccio. I stayed in Rome even though I’d no intention of doing so because of Testaccio, a quarter with an identity and character stronger than anyone I know. Of course I’d cook wherever I was, but I cook in the way I do because I’m here and influenced by the very particular cooking of this very particular area, by the local market and the shops I visit every day. Before you roll your eyes at this, I should note that many of the shops and most certainly the market itself – which has recently moved – are a far cry from any rustic, whimsical or mediterranean idyll you might imagine, for although charming, they are straightforward, traditional, ordinary.


Straightforward, traditional, ordinary, such pleasing words and appropriate ones too when it comes to describing Roman food. Another thing that’s kept coming up in our conversations this week, is how aspects of Roman food have much in common with northern English food, the food my parents were raised on and an important part of my kitchen heritage. Both are straightforward, traditional, ordinary. I like ordinary. Homely cooking rooted in tradition. Cooking that makes good use of lesser cuts which require thought, resourcefulness and skill if they are to be transformed into something sustaining and satisfying. The enterprising use of the other parts of the animal, parts that would otherwise be wastefully and scornfully discarded: tripe, tails, feet, sweetbreads, liver, lungs (don’t squirm they are absolutely delicious if cooked well.) There is a nice symmetry for me that the iconic Roman dish: Coda alla vaccinara, braised ox tail with celery, bears an uncanny resemblance to a Lancastrian dish, a taste of my childhood and culinary heritage: ox tail stew.

I am waiting to make Coda  alla vaccinara with Leonardo so that was out. We considered boiled beef, one of my favourites and another dish with which to observe this Roman / northern English connection – cooking for me is all about making connections. Do you know the recipe I have for Roman Lesso is almost identical to the recipe for boiled beef and carrots my northern family would make? Then the sun came out and the discussions turned to spring, Easter, and celebratory lunches in both Rome and Manchester. Not that it was Sunday. Mum reminisced and I ruminated while we walked from my flat in via Marmorata to the market. By the time we reached my butcher we had decided: roast lamb with potatoes on Wednesday it would be.


Alice would have roasted half a leg or half a shoulder, English lamb being older, bolder and larger. In Rome the lamb roasted with potatoes is – more often than not – abbacchio or suckling lamb. A small, slim leg with ribs and kidneys attached is perfumed with fresh rosemary and garlic, then cooked in slow oven with pieces of potato anointed with strutto (lard) or olive oil until the potatoes are golden and crisp, the meat tender and falling from the bone.

We English are mocked for our plate piling and tempestuous sea of gravy, especially on Sundays. My Granny Alice, my mum’s mum and my second namesake, was not a fan of such plate chaos. She would have served her lamb as they do in Rome, a nice slice or two, beside it a couple of burnished potatoes, over it a spoonful of the juices from the bottom of the pan.


I’m almost certain you have your own recipe for roast lamb with potatoes, this post is nothing more than a long-winded reminder. Below is the way I cook lamb, that is: in a rather Roman manner with distinctly British sensibilities. On Easter Sunday we will start with fave e pecorino followed by a modest slice of lasagne ai carciofi and then, for secondo, this simply roasted lamb. We will then adopt somnolent postures on the nearest soft furnishing, cover our faces with the Observer and doze.

Abbachio al forno con le patate    Roast lamb with potatoes

Adapted from the recipe in La Cucina Romana by Roberta e Rosa D’Ancona and Jane Grigson’s recipe in English food and Simon Hopkinson’s sage advice.

serves 4

  • 2 kg very young, lamb. Ideally leg with ribs and kidneys
  • lard or extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • several sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1k g potatoes

In Rome they slash the leg of lamb deeply (but not cutting through entirely) creating thick slices.

Lay the lamb in a roasting tin large enough to accommodate it with the potatoes. Peel and slice the garlic and break the rosemary into small sprigs. Rub your hands with lard or olive oil and then massage the lamb inserting the slivers of garlic and sprigs into the slashes as you go. By the time you’ve finished the lamb should be glistening and scented with garlic and rosemary.

Smear a little lard or oil on the base of the tin and then lay the leg skin side down. Season with salt and black pepper leave to rest for 30 minutes or so.

Set the oven to 180° / 350F.

Peel the potatoes and cut them into quarters, rub them with lard or olive oil (hands are best) and then arrange them around the lamb. Season the potatoes with a little salt.

Slide the lamb into the oven. Cook for about an hour – basting every so often and turning the leg twice – or until the meat is very tender when prodded with a fork. Very young lamb might need less, older lamb more. Some people like to pour a glass of white wine over the lamb half way through the cooking time, In this case I don’t

Allow the meat to rest, covered loosely with foil, for at least 10 minutes before serving in thick slices with a potato or two and a spoonful of the sticky juices from the bottom of the pan.



Filed under Eating In Testaccio, food, lamb, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes

How do you like it

On observing my weary disposition and puffy eyes, a perky Northern-European neo-mother at my Wednesday morning mum-in suggested I had a shot of wheatgrass. I was poised to tell her I was allergic to chlorophyll and perkiness but she’d already moved on and was busy informing the Mamma of the baby that looks like a mini Billy Joel, that she should give up sugar and take up Bikram yoga. Later that same week I met my Venetian friend Francesca. After commiserating each other on our continuing sleep deprivation and being extremely uncharitable about perky Mothers, green juice and sweaty yoga, Francesca suggested I had a shot of Tiramisù. 

Tiramisù, well made, is a fiendishly good pudding. A sort of extra-boozy, fruitless, caffeinated trifle dredged with cocoa. It’s prepared – constructed really – by alternating layers of Savoiardi or sponge biscuits soaked in espresso and dark rum with a soft, pale cream made from mascarpone cheese, eggs, sugar and more booze and finished with an extremely liberal dusting of unsweetened cocoa powder. Literally translated Tiramisù means pull-me-up or pick-me-up. It is a pick-me-up of considerable force, but one that shouldn’t impose or sit heavily. Rather it should delight and leave you wanting more more more.

After gelato – which isn’t really a pudding, more a way of life – Tiramisù is (probablyItaly’s most popular and ubiquitous dolce! You’ d be hard pressed to find a restaurant or trattoria that doesn’t have a vast cocoa dredged tray (to be served in much the same way as lasagna) or a cluster of individual Tiramisù in their fridge. It is however a relatively recent invention. Apparently – and who I am to doubt it – the original was created in the 1970’s at the restaurant Le Beccherie in Treviso. The idea caught on, and today there are as many recipes, tips and Tiramisù secrets as there are Tiramisù cooks.

I’m no native, but I’ve eaten my fair share of good, indifferent and downright bad slices, pots and glasses of Tiramisù.  Two of the good ones were in fact eaten in my neighbourhood: Testaccio. One, a properly boozy, well dusted, neat, squat bowlful, at Perilli. The other, an altogether more chaotic, tumbling affair served al bicchiere at the osteria built into a hill of broken pots: Flaviovalevodetto. Purists may need to look away, my recipe is a muddle of both these fine pick-me-ups along with a healthy splash of advice from Francesca, Russell Norman, a sweet guy called Josh I met on a tour and a woman I bumped into on the 30 bus.

Begin as you do your day, by making coffee: a strong, dark espresso. You need 150 ml for the Tiramisù, so make 200 ml and inhale a double. While the coffee is cooling, make your cream by gently whisking together the egg yolks with some of the sugar and a good glug of Marsala wine before adding the mascarpone and the mounted egg whites. Set the cream aside. Now stir the rest of the sugar and the rum to the warm coffee. From here on it’s all about assembly. I work one glass at a time.

Now I’m going to be long-winded – which is nothing new I know – because it matters. For each glass you will use two biscuits. Submerge a biscuit in the coffee mixture until it is sodden but not collapsing. Gently break the biscuit in two and tuck half in the base of the glass. Spoon over a tablespoon of your cream before placing the other half of the biscuit gently on top and covering it with another spoonful of cream. Using a fine sieve dust the surface with cocoa powder. Take another biscuit, dunk it in the cream and eat it. Take another biscuit and soak it, again break it in half and then place both halves side by side on top of the coaca dusted cream. Cover the surface with more cream. Repeat this process with the other 5 glasses. Store the glasses in the fridge for at least 8 hours, at least, so they are absolutely set. Before serving dust the surface of each pot very liberally with more cocoa powder. Eat.

I’m not sure why, but Tiramisù tastes better when eaten from a glass! Ideally a stout tumbler. The modest depth and sloping sides provide a perfect vessel for the six graduating layers (sponge, cream, sponge, cream, sponge, cream.) Actually nine layers if you include the cocoa, which can be sprinkled on top of each of the three layers of cream. A glass tumbler is also the perfect way to both display your imperfect layers and contain the inevitable chaos as you plunge your teaspoon down to the bottom of the glass in order to get a perfect spoonful. The perfect spoonful being: a soft clot of coffee and rum soaked sponge, a nice blob of pale, quivering cream, a good dusting of cocoa and just a little of the coffee and rum pond at the bottom of the glass.  Are you still with me? No! Maybe you need a shot of Tiramisù?

Notes. The espresso should be strong and freshly brewed. The Rum and Marsala needn’t be particularly fine, but obviously not rough-as-hell. That said, better quality booze makes for a finer pick-me-up. If you can’t find Marsala then you can replace it with a tablespoon of Rum. Mascarpone is a soft, rich cream cheese made by curdling thick cream with citric acid. It is lactic loveliness itself. If you have never used it before, I suggest you start now, with this recipe.

I am indebted to Russell Norman for his Tiramisù making technique in his super-stupendous book Polpo! By dipping each biscuit individually in the coffee and rum mixture you ensure each one is well soaked but not too sodden. His instructions for how to break and layer the biscuits  – again purists may need to look away – are great so I have included them almost word-for-word. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m feeling a little jaded! I think I might just need a little something to pick-me-up. Wheatgrass, I mean really!


Inspired by Tiramisù at Perilli and Flaviovalevodetto in Testaccio. Adapted from Polpo with advice from Francesca, Josh and a nice woman at the bus stop.

Makes 6 glasses (Ideally 150 ml Duralex tumblers)

  • 150 ml strong, warm espresso coffee
  • 2 tbsp dark rum or brandy
  • 130g caster sugar
  • 12 Savoiardi biscuits /sponge fingers
  • 3 eggs
  • 250 ml mascarpone
  • 80ml Marsala
  • excellent cocoa powder for dusting liberally

Mix the warm espresso coffee with the rum and 50 g of sugar and stir until the sugar has dissolved.

Separate the eggs – yolks in one bowl, whites in another.  Add the Marsala and the remaining 80 g of sugar to the egg yolks and whisk until the mixture is light and fluffy before adding the mascarpone and stirring it in carefully. Whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Gently but firmly fold the egg whites into the yolk mixture with a metal spoon.

For each glass you will use two biscuits. Submerge a biscuit in the coffee mixture until it is sodden but not collapsing. Gently break the biscuit in two and tuck half in the base of the glass. Spoon over a tablespoon of your cream before placing the other half of the biscuit gently on top and covering it with another spoonful of cream. Using a fine sieve dust the surface with cocoa powder. Take another biscuit, soak it, again break it in half and then place both halves side by side on top of the coaca dusted cream. Cover the surface with more cream.

Repeat this process with the other 5 glasses. Store the glasses in the fridge for at least 8 hours, so they are absolutely set. Before serving dust the surface of each pot very liberally with more cocoa powder. Eat.


Filed under cream, Eating In Testaccio, food, In praise of, Puddings, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes


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.

And eat.

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.

AgustarelloVia 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 valavevodettoVia 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….


Filed under Eating In Testaccio, Perilli in Testaccio, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Testaccio