The past appears almost nonchalantly in Testaccio, a Roman neighborhood both centrally located and a world unto itself: a 2,000-year-old arch props up a restaurant wall; dodgy nightclubs burrow into a hill made entirely of broken terra-cotta amphorae; and concert halls and art museums have colonized a shuttered slaughterhouse that was, for a nearly 100 years, the quarter’s bloody beating heart.
Given the dazzling array of monuments and masterpieces in Rome, an antique rubbish dump and a shuttered slaughterhouse are not obviously appealing landmarks. But Testaccio’s layers of history, so unevenly buried, are profoundly Roman. When you tire of hoofing from famous site to famous site, spend a day here absorbing the rhythm of daily life.
Bounded by the busy Via Marmorata on one side and the ancient city wall on the other, with the Tiber river providing a deep curve, Testaccio’s shape resembles a large wedge of cheese. Despite the neighborhood’s struggle with change and gentrification, many residents still are direct descendants of the first inhabitants, veri testaccini, who at the turn of the 20th century moved into a pre-planned grid of homes, shops, and schools built for industrial and slaughterhouse workers. The neighborhood still functions like a tightly knit, gossipy village rather than the center of a capital city. Geographic isolation and the residents’ deep roots have also ensured the survival of traditional cuisine, especially the offal-based, or quinto quarto, dishes thought to have been pioneered by slaughterhouse workers and their families.
Start in the morning at one of the 19 bars which punctuate Testaccio (bar means coffee shop with a bar or counter; caffè means espresso.) Some of Testaccio’s bars are functional, working places that really don’t serve much beyond espresso and cappuccino, a few spirits, and maybe a sandwich so old its edges are curling. Bar Tabacchi da Rosa e Andrea, standing alone in front of the old slaughterhouse, is a wonderful time-warp.
Other bars, like Testaccino, once a workaday place that never had any ice, have been smartened up and now serve goblets of luminous Campari spritz to locals and me. No matter where you go, the routine is the same: Pay at the cash desk first, place the receipt on the bar with a winking 10-cent coin to catch the barista’s eye, order, wait, and drink standing up.
If you’d like to sit down for breakfast, Barberini is a fine patisserie. Consider their cornetti (an Italian croissant usually filled with a splodge of jam, crema, or chocolate), genovese (a pastry dome filled with sheep’s milk ricotta and sometimes cherry jam), or maritozzi (a sweet yeasted bun that is sometimes eaten plain but best split longways and filled with cream). A pastry breakfast is part of the Roman pursuit of small everyday pleasures, summed up for me when a friend’s father, an eminent international lawyer, got cream on his nose while expressing his frustration at some recent political crisis, then said, “I always save that bit for last!”
For a morning snack there is Il Panificio Passi, a perennially busy bakery and slice of Testaccio life, with counter attendants in white jackets and demanding habitual customers. It has a good selection of breads, including the typically Roman rose-shaped bread rolls called rosette soffiate, soft almond biscuits, and scrocchiarella, a very thin, crisp flatbread. Those who know wait at the back counter for pizza bianca, hot and glistening with olive oil and salt. The meter-long lengths, somewhere between a normal pizza, flatbread, and a focaccia, are cut al taglio, by the slice, the size of which you specify.
A few streets away the delicatessen Volpetti also sells bread alongside a superb and extensive selection of salami, cheeses (especially good is the ethereal sheep’s milk ricotta), preserved fish and vegetables, oils, vinegars, and wines. It is where I buy my cheese and prosciutto when I feel flush, like the smart ladies from the Aventine Hill nearby running up large bills and the tourists wondering how much vacuum-packed pecorino they can stuff in their suitcase. At Taverna Volpetti next door, the cheese and salami platters are so delicious I forgive the fact they are served on heavy squares of slate.
Like every quarter of Rome, Testaccio has a neighborhood market. Unlike many other quarters, whose markets have been bruised or ruined by change, Testaccio survives and occasionally thrives. Its bright and modern new location, hovering over an archeological dig, is the opposite of the dark and bosky old market that once anchored the neighborhood, but its spirit remains the same. A jostling selection of stalls sell shoes and more shoes, household goods, bras, and tablecloths; fresh and cured meat, fish, and cheese; and, of course, fruits and vegetables, for which shopping is both a joy and competitive sport. The combination of climate, volcanic soil, and proximity to the coast means Roman produce is remarkable, especially winter greens; spring artichokes, peas, and favas; and summer tomatoes and blushing soft fruit. The market is not just a window into how Romans eat, but also a clue as to what to order at a trattoria.
In the back of the market 10 stalls sell takeout food, two of which are notable: FoodBox for stuffed rice croquettes called supplì and Jewish-style artichokes, carciofi alla giudia, which are fried whole until they resemble a bronze flower with crisp petals and velvet heart; and Mordi e Vai, where ex-butcher Sergio Esposito cooks up Roman classics such as boiled beef and tripe braised in tomato sauce, and stuffs them into rolls — a messy, delicious business and good way to try quinto quarto classics. In Testaccio during the last century, the slaughterhouse workers were paid in kind with the cuts of meat and offal — stomach, tail, tongue, tendons — usually discarded. Back home and at the local trattoria, cooks invent ingenious and delicious ways to prepare these cuts, building on a style of cooking now prevalent throughout Rome. Classic dishes include simmered tripe or intestines with tomato; pork rind with beans; oxtail with celery; and tendons and tongue with herbs. Born out of necessity, these dishes have persisted as a very ordinary way of eating because they are bloody good.
My choice at Mordi e Vai is always allesso di bollito, beef braised until soft enough to be served with a spoon, with a cushiony roll dipped in deeply flavored broth. It’s especially good when eaten outside the market and inside the retired slaughterhouse looking up at the wilderness of wild greens, trees, and grass on top of Monte Testaccio.
North of the market, on Via Giovanni Branca just after the church and an old barber shop (its owner, Massimo, is notable for his tight jeans, shirt, tie, and speed), is Trapizzino. A relative newcomer thriving in an area often resistant to change, Trapizzino is a collision between two good things: pizza bianca and hot sandwich. Plump pizza pockets are filled with Roman classics like chicken with rosemary, braised tripe, spicy beef stews called picchiapò, burrata and anchovies, or sweet-and-sour pumpkin. There are also excellent rice supplì and a beer store next door. Trapizzino is open from midday until 11 p.m., useful in a city where many places keep defined lunch and dinner hours.
On the same road, the ever-popular Pizzeria da Remo is only open at night. There are no promises of 72-hour risen dough or well-sourced ingredients here. Instead, find paper tablecloths, fried starters, heaps of atmosphere, and locals who have been coming here all their lives for decent thin Roman-style pizza cooked in a wood oven. Classic is best: margherita, Napoli, capricciosa, zucchini flowers and anchovies, and sausage and broccoli, eaten while piping hot, with a beer.
But do not leave the neighborhood without visiting a trattoria. Within the traditional menus at these family-run establishments, you’ll find traces of 2,000 years of cuisine, breaking through at odd angles like the neighborhood’s ruins. Pasta and chickpeas can be traced back to the ceci e lagana of ancient antiquity, as can salted anchovies; the grilled lamb with wild herbs goes back even further, to the region’s first shepherd-settlers. Chicory and artichokes have been foraged for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.
The city’s slightly more recent history is even more evident on a typical trattoria menu. An informal weekly recipe calendar, established centuries ago and based partly on religious tenets and lean days, rotates through: rice and curly endive on Monday; pasta and chickpeas on Tuesday; gnocchi on Thursday; Sabato trippa, or Saturday tripe. Dishes developed by the city’s Jewish residents after they were forced into a ghetto in the 16th century now define much of Roman cuisine: Classic dishes like fried zucchini flowers and artichokes, anchovy and endive, sweet-and-sour zucchini, and pumpkin and salt cod all have roots in this era. Thrift animates many of the city’s tastes: The quartet of Roman pastas — carbonara, amatriciana, gricia, and cacio e pepe — are all variations on a pecorino and/or guanciale theme, because those were the cheapest ingredients for the trattorias where these dishes made their first appearance about a century ago. The various bean and pasta soups are more resourceful dishes that are still beloved.
Almost every Testaccio trattoria is family-run, and more akin, maybe, to a very good English pub than a restaurant in spirit. Allow the menu, waiter, and season to guide you, and you will eat well, especially on a return visit. There are no can’t-miss, headline-grabbing stars like Roscioli or Mazzo in Testaccio, though there are a few leading ladies, whose reputations wax and wane according to who you talk to. I like Perilli for its Great Gatsby-style decor and lamb cooked hunter’s style, braised with garlic, wine, and anchovies. Near the slaughterhouse is Checchino dal 1887, notable for its faded elegance, vintage cheese trolley, and excellent oxtail stew. Flavio Al Velavevodetto, partly burrowed into Monte Testaccio — the mountain of discarded terra-cotta vessels — does a terrific cacio e pepe.
My local is Piatto Romano on Via Giovanni Battista Bodoni, because it is near and the food good. It is a single room, functional but comfortable, with sunny yellow tablecloths, proper napkins, and stocky glasses. The owner is amiable. Stuck in our ways, to start is usually the excellent fritto misto romano — battered and deep-fried artichoke, brain, and sweetbreads, the latter two of which are more like ricotta than meat and really do melt in your mouth. Unless there is spaghetti with tiny clams or gnocchi with oxtail sauce, it is straight to secondi here for salt cod cooked with prunes and pears or apricots, and veal breast baked in the wood-fired oven until extremely tender, served with pan juices and a tangle of bitter greens on the side. To finish, a slice of ricotta-and-cherry tart is always a good idea, especially if it has just come out of the oven. Don’t have espresso at Piatto Romano — instead, go to one of the 19 bars, and then sit in the piazza and watch the life of Testaccio pass by.
Bar Tabacchi da Rosa e Andrea, 00153 Rome
Testaccino, Via Mastro Giorgio, 58-60, 00153 Rome
Barberini, Via Marmorata, 41, 00153 Rome
Il Panificio Passi, Via Mastro Giorgio, 87, 00153 Rome
Volpetti, Via Marmorata, 47, 00153 Rome
Taverna Volpetti, Via Alessandro Volta, 8, 00153 Rome
Mercato Testaccio, Via Beniamino Franklin, 00118 Rome
FoodBox, Mercato Testaccio, Via Beniamino Franklin, 12/C, 00153 Rome
Mordi & Vai, Mercato Testaccio, Via Beniamino Franklin, 12/E, 00153 Rome
Trapizzino, Via Giovanni Branca, 88, 00153 Rome
Pizzeria da Remo, Piazza di Santa Maria Liberatrice, 44, 00153 Rome
Perilli, Via Marmorata, 39, 00153 Rome
Checchino dal 1887, Via di Monte Testaccio, 30, 00153 Rome
Flavio Al Velavevodetto, Via di Monte Testaccio, 97, 00153 Rome
Piatto Romano, Via Giovanni Battista Bodoni, 62, 00153 Rome
For more on Roman neighborhoods, head here.