Rome’s new foodie neighbourhood is also one of its oldest. Lee Tulloch meanders through Testaccio, and makes more than a few flavoursome pit stops.
When in Rome – eat trapizzino. This utterly decadent snack was unknown to me until I took a culinary walking tour of the city last summer with a local guide from Eating Europe.
I’m a great fan of culinary walking tours. Whenever I hit any new city, I like to spend my first hours strolling non-touristy neighbourhoods with a guide who not only knows the best places to dine, but can weave a story about how food, culture and history blend to forge that city’s identity. If you want an intimate glimpse of a society, the easiest place to find it is in the food its people eat.
Small-group walking tours are a way of slipping into the vibe of a place effortlessly. If I want to eat well and avoid the tourist clichés, it’s crucial. A good guide will happily share tips on language, culture and customs, how to use the subway, and pretty much anything you’re aching to know before you head out alone.
Rome is actually quite intimate if you treat it as a series of neighbourhoods, rather than trying to tackle the entire metropolis. I was interested in the relatively unknown (to me, at least) working-class neighbourhood of Testaccio, which was once home to the city’s largest slaughterhouse, but is becoming increasingly gentrified. That slaughterhouse, dating from 1888, has been transformed into the MACRO Museum of Contemporary Art, which is open 4-10pm every day except Mondays. Art enthusiasts need to eat and fashionable restaurants are appearing amongst the traditional neighbourhood favourites.
Testaccio is not as gentrified as, say, popular Trastevere across the river, so it’s still relatively unexplored, although it’s not far from the historical centre. There are still a number of public housing buildings and families who have lived there for generations. The main square, where we start the tour at 5.30 on a gorgeous, golden afternoon, is lined with trees, with a large fountain covered in boisterous children in the centre. Like most raffish neighbourhoods it’s also one of Rome’s nightlife hotspots. Our guide, Eric, a young Roman, tells us that people generally drive around for 30 minutes at night looking for a parking spot. But in the late afternoon it hasn’t reached peak craziness. It feels slow-paced, languid, from an earlier era.
Romans dine at 8 or 9pm and it’s traditional to start the evening with an aperativo (mean- ing ‘to open’), a drink that always has a bitter component to aid digestion. We cross the road to the cute Tram Depot cafe, via Marmorata, and have an impromptu picnic, as there are no tables, on an Astroturf lawn under a shady tree, sipping a spritz, the drink apparently first created by Austrians, who thought Italian wine was too dry so spritzed it with water. The Aperol Spritz was invented in Venice in the 20th century. Two parts Prosecco and one part Aperol, “it’s almost a religion,” Eric says. The Romans also make their spritzes with Campari.
Our second stop is at Mastro Donato, via Luca della Robbia 21/23, a simple pizzeria where we’re served an appetiser before dinner fritti, or crispy fried vegetables, which are washed down with Prosecco. The vegetables, traditionally artichokes, zucchini, cauliflower, beans and onions, are served in a paper cornetto. The tour peaks early – this ends up being my favourite dish of the night. It’s a very old Roman recipe, dating back to the Middle Ages, and it’s delicate and light as air.
Pizza is then brought out, to everyone’s delight. The classic pairing with pizza, we are told, is beer. The original pizza invented in Napoli is thicker and fuffier than the Roman version. This pizza is made with natural yeast that is fed every day with more water and flour to create microorganisms that make the pizza easier to digest. So, even though we’re in for a night of eating, we are encouraged to dig in. The owners hardly need to convince us.
A meat course follows at our next stop. We stroll to Masto, via Galvani 39/41, which is a bar behind a charming old grocery store, both run by the Polombi family since 1917. In cool, dark rooms we’re served Frascati with delicate layers of salty charcuterie and hunks of cheese served on rustic cutting boards. In an anteroom an eye-watering selection of bar food is laid out, but we have been warned that a lot more food is to come, so I restrain myself.
“…Just when we thought we’d had enough, a bowl of meatballs is proudly brought out. I can’t help feeling our Italian hosts are rather unhappy when the mostly non-European group pleads they’ve had sufficient. It isn’t very Roman of us to turn down a second helping.”
It’s hard to believe the lovely Ristorante Angelina, via Galvani 24a, with its rooms full of shabby chic furniture, glassware and antique linens, was once a butcher’s shop, dating back to 1890. The sloping timber floor is the only clue. It’s here that foodies flock for authentic quinto quarto (offal), coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) and trippa alla romana (tripe). We’re served huge bowls of tripe in tomato sauce with hints of mint and oregano, and oxtail with a touch of dark chocolate, served with a red wine from Puglia. Just when we thought we’d had enough, a bowl of meatballs is proudly brought out. I can’t help feeling our Italian hosts are rather unhappy when the mostly non-European group pleads they’ve had sufficient. It isn’t very Roman of us to turn down a second helping.
It’s not even dessert time. Our next stop is Trapizzino, via Giovanni Branca 88, a little hole-in-the-wall famous for its eponymous trapizzino, a thick, triangular pizza bread pocket filled with a stew of chicken steeped in white wine and rosemary.The chicken dish is a classic of cucina povera, humble peasant food, and someone truly diabolical worked out that it would be delicious stuffed in a pizza crust. It is, but it’s not kind to the waist- line, especially when it comes after the offal course. Next time – and I will go back – I want to eat it when I’m starving and it’s freezing cold outside.
Perversely, when gelato is suggested, I suddenly have room for a scoop. We drop into Giolitti, via Amerigo Vespucci 35, which has served up some of the city’s best since 1914. The trick with choosing a gelato, Eric explains, is to avoid those admittedly luscious-looking mountains of coloured ice. They’re just inflated with air. The best gelato is kept in canisters and the colours are consistent with the original ingredients. (Blueberry should not be Smurf-coloured.)
The only thing to do now is to walk off the walking tour.