It has been nearly two years since the market moved. Two years since the stall holders shifted to the luminous and angular new market on the other side of Testaccio, and the weary iron and glass structure that housed the atmospheric old market was pulled to the ground. Two years that piazza Testaccio, retired from the responsibility of being a market square, has remained in a sort of building site purgatory, netted-off on all four sides while work didn’t take place inside. “Che fanno là dentro?” “What are they doing in there?” a little girl asked her mum, words tugging in much the same way that she tugged at her sleeve. “Niente di niente” “Nothing of nothing” replied the mum tugging the little girl away from the hole in the net.
Then three months ago, in a moment that reminded me of Charlie and the Chocolate factory when after a long silence the factory chimneys start pumping smoke and mysterious figures are seen at the windows, work on the piazza began again. Not oompa loompas, but men in white protective clothing that looked rather like bee keeping suits, bringing first pieces of La Fontana delle Anfore, The Fountain of Amphorae, back to the place for which it was intended: the center of piazza Testaccio.
Testaccio may be a quarter in the heart of a big city, but living here is like living in a village: a small, involved, mostly reassuring but occasionally claustrophobic village. The lack of work and now work has – quite rightly – been the subject of opinionated discussion conducted in the piazza, over small cups of strong coffee in the local bars and in front of the school gates I now stand at each day at 4. “Would it ever be finished?” “Was such a laborious and expensive project realistic for a city whose finances were ruinous?” “How many benches would there be?”
Our flat is right next to the piazza, and I am the mum of a little boy who finds both holes and diggers irresistible, so each day for the last three months we have chosen a hole ripped in the thick, green netting and watched the reconstruction of the fountain. For weeks the dozens of carefully numbered pieces were laid-out as you would a jigsaw when you are starting out: with splattered logic. The splattered pieces made sense though: the fountain is familiar, having spent the last 80 years a couple of hundred meters away just near the river. It is an elegant and functional fountain consisting of four bowls at the base which rise into a column like cluster of slender travertine amphorae. It was designed by Pietro Lombardi, inaugurated in piazza Testaccio in 1927, but then moved in 1935.
The motif of an amphora, Testaccio’s symbol, reminds us this part of Rome was the ancient Roman port. It was here amphorae, vast terra-cotta containers filled with olive oil, wine and grain were docked, unloaded and the goods decanted into smaller containers. Once emptied the amphorae that had contained oil couldn’t be used again, so were smashed and piled nearby in quite an extraordinary way. Two thousand years later this 35 meter high, kilometer round mound of shards (cocci) known as Monte die cocci (Hill of shards) gave this relatively recently constructed part of the city its name: Testaccio. The mound still rises nonchalantly in the heart of Testaccio just seconds from our flat, into its broad base burrowed some of the cities most famous and infamous trattorie and nightclubs. Ancient and modern coexisting in the most brilliantly ordinary way.
Yesterday morning, as December sun flooded via Mastro Giorgio and the piazza, we found our hole in the net. We were joined by Antonio the owner of the bar opposite and two ladies from our building. We all stood like linesmen observing the significant progress. “I remember when the fountain was moved from here” said one of the ladies in thick Roman. “I was 7 years old.” There was a minute of silence as some of us did the maths. The fountain was moved in 1935, so 79 years ago, plus 7: the lady smoking a cigarette next to us was 86. “E’ giusto che la fontana stia qua, verrà proprio una bella piazza” “It’s right that the fountain is coming back here, we’re going to have a beautiful piazza.” said Antonio as a crane lifted a piece of fountain into position.
Antonio is right, it is going to be beautiful. It is also beautiful to see something being re-constructed so meticulously in a city that so often feels neglected, corrupted and as if it’s falling apart. It does look as if it might to be finished in time for Christmas, an elegant and functional heart for a handsome tree-lined piazza. Suddenly the older woman turned to me. “Ma tu sei straniera?“”But are you a foreigner?” she asked in a way I am familiar with: a question that feels like an accusation. “Yes” I replied. “My son Luca was born here though, and his dad is Roman” At which her face changed completely. “Ecco un piccolo testaccino!” (Here’s a little testaccio boy) She then turned to Luca and asked him if he would like to play in the piazza as she did 79 years ago. He replied with suspicious narrow eyes and go away which made me feel like a crap mother. Not that the signora seemed bothered, she simply sent a curl of smoke into the cold sunny sky. We watched a while longer before saying goodbye to the Signora and the digger then walking from the old to the new market to get the ingredients for lunch.
Which brings us to today’s ingredients and recipe, for polpette, or meatballs, again. Again, because since observing in my last recipe that when you ask an Italian about meatballs one thing is (almost always) certain; that their mother, their grandmother or their aunt made the best polpette, I have been (happily) inundated with polpette advice. Most advice concerned meatballs in tomato sauce. However this recipe, from my friend and excellent cook Eleonora is distinct and to put it bluntly: bloody marvelous. Over the last two-weeks I have followed this recipe in much the same way they we have been following progress of the fountain: often and with dedication.
These are small walnut sized polpette made from a mixture of twice ground beef and pork, fine breadcrumbs, chopped parsley, grated parmesan, two eggs, salt and pepper. Having kneaded the ingredients together vigorously, formed and rolled, you then roll the polpette in fine breadcrumbs. These are polpette in bianco, which means meatballs in white as opposed to red (meaning tomato). They are fried first in olive oil scented with garlic and then sizzled with white wine. Being small they don’t take long to cook: a few minutes in olive oil and then about 5 -7 more with the wine, which sends the most delicious savory scent swirling up and around the kitchen. There is a moment of stove alchemy when the escaped breadcrumbs, meat juices, wine and olive oil come together into a thickish gravy that clings to the tiny meatballs. Served just so on a wide platter, the gravy poured over the top, possibly a handful of parsley, they make for an immensely pleasing dish.
The day Eleonora came round and taught me how to make them, we ate our Polpette with leafy broccoletti dressed with salt, olive oil and lemon and topped with ruby-red pomegranate seeds that matched Eleonora’s dress and flaked almonds – another dish I have been making repeatedly. It was such a good lunch.
Eleonora’s Polpette – serves 4
Here is a taste of Eleonora’s childhood and summers spent in Puglia where her grandmother would pile platters high with these polpette. The recipe was a family one, until she shared with me, then in this lovely post on her blog. As she suggested, I have tried the recipe several times and made it my own, which is what I suggest you do too. A few notes – if possible, mince the meat twice. The breadcrumbs need to be fine, dry ones. Eleonora suggests removing the meatballs from the pan after frying them, blotting away excess oil and then returning them to the pan after adding the wine. I found it easier not to do this as there didn’t seem to be too much oil and it was so tasty, but you might like to.
- 250 g ground beef
- 350 g ground pork
- 75 g fine, dry breadcrumbs plus more for rolling
- 75 g finely grated parmesan
- a heaped tablespoon of finely chopped parsley
- 2 eggs
- salt and black pepper
- 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 200 ml white wine – you may need a little more.
Knead together the meat, breadcrumbs, parmesan, parsley, eggs, a generous pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Work the mixture, kneading and then squeezing the ingredients together into a soft, consistent mass.
Pour more breadcrumbs on a plate. Take walnut sized balls of meat mixture and then roll them firmly between your palms into a small, neat balls. Roll the balls in breadcrumbs and sit them on a clean wooden board.
Warm the olive oil in a large, deep frying pan. Add the peeled, gently crushed but still intact garlic to the pan and fry gently until it is golden and fragrant which should take a minute or so. Remove the garlic and then add the meatballs. Fry the meatballs, increasing the heat a little, moving them with a fork and spoon until they are brown on all sides. This will take about 6 minutes.
Add the wine – which will sizzle vigorously – and a good pinch of salt. Continue to cook the meatballs, nudging them around with a wooden spoon. As the wine reduces into a thickish gravy, scape it down from the sides of the pan and keep the meatballs moving so they cook evenly. You may need to add more wine, After about 5 mins taste a meatball to see how it is cooking. You may need to cook a little longer, you may not. Adjust seasoning if necessary and stir again.
Once cooked, turn the meatballs onto a warm platter, scrape over the gravy from the pan and sprinkle over a little more finely chopped parsley. Serve just so, with greens, salad, rice or mashed potato and a glass of wine.