During our most recent visit to Rome, old friends Serenella and Mario Franchi asked my husband and me to dinner.
"Where to?" we inquired, and the unequivocal answer was, "In Testaccio, of course."
Of course. How silly of us.
Until a decade or so ago, Testaccio was a quiet, unassuming quarter of blue-collar workers in the southern part of town. It has since become a fashionable destination for the Roman (and foreign) culinary intelligentsia and a hopping spot of late-night clubs and pubs.
The district takes its name from a hill of amphora shards called Monte Testaccio, all that remains of an active, world-class fluvial trade that supplied foods to Rome. Oils and wines came in terra-cotta amphoras; from 140 BC until about AD 250, long before anyone dreamed of recycling, the pieces were dumped onto a hillock that reached 118 feet high and formed a perimeter measuring about three-quarters of a mile.
Testaccio is small, bound to the west and south by the Tiber and to the north by the elegant Aventino Hill. To the east is the World War II British military cemetery and the cemetery where Keats was laid to rest, as were Goethe's son, Julius, and Shelley's heart. (The rest of him was cremated.)
Few old guidebooks consider Testaccio interesting enough for a mention. The real engine for the sleeping quarter's resurgence was the Mattatoio, the city's huge slaughterhouse built in 1890 in what had been the outskirts of Rome, just outside the city walls.
It employed many vaccinari — cowhands, skinners and butchers who came to live nearby. These humble workers received, as part of their pay or as a bonus, portions of the cattle's quinto quarto, or "fifth quarter."
Butchers "quarter" cattle into various valuable cuts; the fifth quarter is an elegant euphemism for entrails and less worthy pieces. This practice has given birth to the culinary style of Testaccio, in which liver, heart, tripe, tongue, intestine, glands, oxtails and all the other lesser cuts are turned into appetizing dishes, out of necessity or sheer cooking inspiration.
Dishes such as coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stew with tomato sauce and celery), trippa alla romana (tripe in tomato sauce with pecorino cheese and a hint of mint), coratella coi carciofi (lamb heart, lung and liver stew with artichokes) and testina di vitello (veal cheeks) in a parsley sauce became part of the local menu.
By the time the Mattatoio closed in 1975, small, family-run trattorias specializing in fifth-quarter dishes had sprouted all over the neighborhood. These dishes eventually were adopted by the whole of Rome, but the cognoscenti continued to come, with good reason, to the source: Testaccio.
Handed-down traditionsDuring that visit last fall, the Franchis took us to Trattoria Perilli. It was founded in 1911 as a trattoria and has grown into a large restaurant, among the best and busiest in Testaccio.
Mario chose the place because of an old family connection: In the 1940s, his uncle, a theater impresario, loved to eat at Perilli — almost daily. At the time, Perilli was just a locale for slaughterhouse workers to play cards and get a glass of wine to go with their quinto quarto. But the uncle loved the trattoria so much that he began to conduct his business there with actors, dramatists and other theater people. At the beginning, their table was screened off from hoi polloi, but later it became fashionable to be seen there, a kind of culinary slumming. Politicians and movie stars came to dinner at Perilli and other local establishments.
Owner Luigi Perilli, now in his 80s, had known Mario's uncle. He greeted us warmly and before long our table was covered with a huge variety of Testaccio dishes. We agreed that the animelle alla griglia (grilled sweetbreads) were the tastiest and most tender we had ever eaten, and the bucatini all'amatriciana (big hollow spaghetti with a sauce of tomato, onion and pork belly) was flavorful and perfectly al dente.
For those who might feel a bit squeamish ordering cow stomach and veal cheeks, there is always the wonderful abbacchio al forno (baby lamb roasted with rosemary), saltimbocca alla romana (sautéed veal topped with prosciutto and sage) and other dishes that might be more appealing to less adventurous American palates.
U.S. travelers unfamiliar with Testaccio may recognize the name Trastevere, another working-class and artisans' quarter that, since the 1980s, has become fashionable. Observers of the Roman social scene suggest that some of Testaccio's action is spillover from Trastevere, which lies across the river. Many predict the next hot spot will be Garbatella, once a simple working-class neighborhood too, which lies to the south.
Spurred on by the scrumptious evening at Perilli, we headed for lunch the next day to Agustarello, a tiny place near Testaccio's main piazza, Santa Maria Liberatrice. Antonella Antonelli, our waitress and co-owner with her husband, chef Augusto, informed us, sadly, that we could not have one of our favorite dishes, rigatoni with veal intestines. Since the outbreak of la mucca pazza (mad-cow disease), she said, restaurants throughout Italy have been forbidden to use veal intestines.
She insisted that we try all her husband's specialties instead: tonnarelli cacio e pepe (square spaghetti with pecorino cheese and black pepper), spaghetti con seppie (spaghetti with tiny calamari and pecorino cheese), coratella con carciofi (tiny chunks of heart, lung and liver stewed with artichokes) and his version of the oxtail dish, to which he adds pignoli (pine nuts), raisins and a spoonful of cocoa.
Antonella was particularly proud of the desserts she made, and we understood why. Her ricotta cheesecake with Marsala was molto molto buona.
Testaccio's culinary renaissance has also produced ancillary spots such as the Volpetti Salumeria, perhaps the best supplied gourmet deli in Rome. No one could begin to enumerate the prosciutto, salami, exotic cured meats and varieties of fresh and seasoned cheeses that are stacked from floor to ceiling — except perhaps Emilio Volpetti, who owns the store with his brother, Claudio. We were barely in the door before Emilio began plying us with shavings of his pecorino and Parmesan cheeses, slices of luscious prosciutto and the scent of the most aromatic white truffles from Alba, selling at more than $3,100 a pound.
Around the corner is Volpetti Più, a self-serve cafeteria-pizzeria run by the Volpetti brothers. They informed us that the best filetti di baccalà fritti (fried salt cod) in the city was served here. Also interesting, in a land of wines: the Oasi della Birra (the Beer Oasis), two blocks from the main square, where more than 500 kinds of beer from around the world are available.
Smack in the center of Testaccio is a large covered market. Its stalls deal in greens and vegetables, fruits, cheeses, fish and the full contingent of poultry, lamb, pork and beef. From early morning until 2 p.m. you can hear the fishmongers and the vegetable vendors belting out a description of their goods. People come from all over town to shop at this lively market, considered one of the best in Rome.
Nearby is a wonderful family place called Luna Piena (Full Moon). We had eaten here years ago when few outside the neighborhood knew of it. Now, chef-owner Mauro Frontelli said, most evenings are so crowded, he advises reservations. Sunday dinner, served around 1 p.m., is especially fun — if you like the company of large, noisy Italian families. Among the draws are a delicious antipasto of raw seafood and two specialties of the house: rigatoni alla boscaiola (rigatoni with a mushroom, cream and pea sauce) and farfalle Luna Piena (butterfly pasta with a sauce of tomato, pesto and pine nuts). For us, Luna Piena's version of that Roman favorite, lamb with rosemary, is one of the best in the city.
Moving on, we found Il Cantinone to be a large, elegant trattoria that looks more like a bona fide ristorante, with two spacious rooms, flowers on the tables and a big fire in the wood-burning pizza oven. The menu offers a long list of Roman specialties. Our favorites: pappardelle di cinghiale (wide noodles with wild boar sauce) and fettuccine ai funghi porcini (fettuccine with wild mushrooms).
Our finale was a visit to Checchino dal 1887, the most upscale restaurant in Testaccio, built right into the monte, across from the abandoned Mattatoio. Checchino was founded in 1887, hence its name, and is touted as the inventor of Rome's beloved oxtail stew. The establishment has been in the Mariani family for five generations and is the largest eatery in Testaccio — 95 seats inside, 20 outside. Brothers Elio and Francesco showed us their extensive wine cellar carved out of Monte Testaccio's amphora shards. Upstairs the signature dish is abbacchio alla cacciatora, boned and diced suckling lamb sautéed with anchovies, garlic, oil and vinegar and hot peppers.
Even if the fashionable people move toward Garbatella, we are betting that the glow of this area will last. So when in Rome, head for Testaccio.
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Inside Testaccio, the fifth-quarter district
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To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (international code), 39 (country code for Italy), 06 (area code) and the local number.
WHERE TO EAT:
Trattoria Perilli, 39 Via Marmorata; 574-2415. Among the best in the neighborhood. Closed Wednesdays. Average check $35-$45, excluding wine.
Agustarello, 98 Via Giovanni Branca; 574-6585. Wonderful spaghetti dishes and excellent desserts. Closed Sundays. Average check $25-$35, excluding wine. No credit cards.
Luna Piena, 15 Via Luca della Robbia; 575-0279. A boisterous place that's popular with families. Lunch Thursdays-Mondays; dinner nightly except Wednesdays. Average check $25-$35, excluding wine.
Il Cantinone, 31 Piazza Testaccio; 574-6253. An elegant space with a long list of Roman specialties. Closed Tuesdays. Average check $30-$40, excluding wine.
Checchino dal 1887, 30 Via di Monte Testaccio; 574-6318, http://www.checchinodal-1887.com . The most upscale of the bunch, run by the same family for five generations. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Average check $50, excluding wine.
Non-restaurant stops include the gourmet deli Volpetti Salumeria, 47 Via Marmorata, 574-2352, http://www.volpetti.com ; and the cafeteria-pizzeria Volpetti Più, 8 Via Alessandro Volta, 574-4306.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Italian Tourist Board, (310) 820-1898, http://www.italiantourism.com .
— Gwen Romagnoli
Gwen Romagnoli spent years in Italy and now lives in Watertown, Mass., with her husband, Franco, whose most recent book is "A Thousand Bells at Noon: A Roman Reveals the Secrets and Pleasures of His Native City."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times