Testaccio: A Taste of Rome
My first thought on my last short visit to Rome was, why did we never live here? Florence is only an hour and a half away by train but Rome feels like another planet away. It’s a different region, a different lifestyle, a different set of people and traditions. Different food.
I have to admit, my main reason for wanting to spend a few days in Rome a couple of weeks ago was purely to indulge myself in its tasty food, and more specifically in its tasty offal. Don’t turn your noses up until you have tasted it, but Romans really know how to make anything taste incredible.
I was lucky enough to be staying with some friends who live on the edge of Testaccio, Rome’s rustic little slice of gastronomic heaven. It wasn’t always seen that way though. At the end of the nineteenth century, Testaccio became the home of Rome’s slaughterhouse, a huge structure of 25,000 square meters. Rome’s poor farmers and peasants became the hard workers and residents of the industrial, flood-prone and mosquito-ridden area. The slaughterhouse workers were given part of their salary in the unwanted offal or the quinto quarto (the ‘fifth quarter’). In turn, the local trattorie became well-practised at turning the undesirable cuts of meat into delectable, hearty and delicious dishes, which they still do today.
It is a fascinating area, not only for its market, undoubtedly the favourite of the city (though, controversially, to be moved to a new structure of the old, converted slaughterhouse soon), its fantastic gastronomie, trattorie and food culture, but also for its unique “mountain”.
More a hill than a mountain, and more an archaeological site than a hill, Monte Testaccio is an artificial hill made up of somewhere around 25 million carefully broken up and carefully placed terracotta vessels that once held olive oil, wine and grains that came off the boats delivering at the nearby port. The amphorae are still clearly visible around the sides of the hill and many of the restaurants and bars that circle it have glass-covered niches or walls displaying the unique insides of Mount Testaccio.
It’s somehow a fitting backdrop – these layers of history that Rome is unavoidably full of – to this somewhat unglamourous but entirely characteristic neighbourhood that feels miles away from the acchiappaturisti restaurants of the centro storico.
It’s here that I’ve come to meet Katie Parla for a chat about the local food and a taste of delights such as suppli – arancini-like balls of rice, meat and cheese, crumbed and deep fried – and the so-called ‘trapizzini’ at 00100. A hybrid between a pizza and a tramezzino, the ‘trapizzini’ are filled with Roman stews like manzo garofolato (clove-scented beef), coda alla vaccinara (oxtail, a Roman classic) and lingua (tongue) con salsa verde. What strikes me most about Roman food is that every dish, from is packed with absolute flavour.
Katie is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to Roman food and a fellow offal enthusiast, so I know she is the one to ask about the main thing I have come to Rome to try – pajata, the intestines of milk-fed veal which reveal a tasty, cheese-like cream inside when cooked. They are either simply grilled or tossed through rigatoni and tomato sauce. Katie directed me, amongst others that she suggests here, to Flavio Velavevodetto. It did not disappoint.
The next night, around the corner, we dropped in on Elizabeth Minchilli’s favourite spot in the city for carbonara, where a stracciatella soup – comfort food that I cannot say no to – and lamb sweetbreads also went down very well too.
Luckily it’s never too late to rule out living in Rome one day.