In 1888 the city of Rome made a decision that would change the way its denizens ate: It built a massive slaughterhouse, the biggest in Europe at the time, in the gritty, blue-collar Testaccio neighborhood.
Today the area is filled with bars and restaurants — some salt-of-the-earth, some stylish — serving up Roman dishes inspired by the slaughterhouse, which was in operation until 1973.
Romans are stodgy eaters. See for yourself: Ask an old, lifelong Roman what they consider “foreign” cuisine, and you may not hear “Chinese” or “Mexican” in response, but rather, “Tuscan” or “Neapolitan.”
And he might consider fusion cuisine to involve blending tomatoes from Campania with basil from Liguria.
But head to Testaccio and you’ll find no fusion fare — of any kind. Just pure Roman cuisine in this relatively off-the-radar district, a must-see, essential eating spot for the food crazed.
But First, the Fifth Quarter
As a “perk” of their job, the slaughterhouse workers, known in the local parlance as scortichini, would be gifted a portion of the slaughtered animals. And not just any part. They’d get what was called the “quinto quarto,” or “fifth quarter”: those parts of the pig or cow that no one else really wanted.
So workers would leave work carrying bags of intestines, tails, nerves and all the offal that could be offered up. It gave new meaning to the heart of Roman cuisine! The workers would return home, hand the the bags to their wives to cook something up, and thus, Roman cuisine was born.
Take a Deep Breath
The results are now classic Roman plates: coda alla vaccinara (braised oxtails), trippa all Romana (stewed tripe) and — get ready for this — pajata, calf intestines with the mother’s milk still inside.
Before you turn on your heel in disgust and head back to the historical center, these Roman staples are much better than they sound, especially in Testaccio, the neighborhood that birthed them.
Testaccio isn’t the prettiest neighborhood in Rome (for that, head to Trastevere, across the river). It’s made up mostly of underwhelming 19th-century apartment buildings. But what it lacks in physical aesthetics, it more than makes up for in flavor and taste on the palate.
Start your Testaccio food tour at Da Felice, a classic trattoria that has been slinging Roman staples since 1936. That’s when owner Felice Trivelloni first fired up the burners at this spot.
Felice was famous for kicking hungry diners out of his restaurant if he didn’t like the look of them (which was apparently often).
Now his son runs the place, and everyone is welcome to tuck into bowls of classic Roman pasta dishes, like bucatini all’Amatriciana and spaghetti alla carbonara, or try more adventurous dishes such as bollito misto, a stew of veal, chicken and tongue, or pajata al sugo, calves intestines in a tomato sauce.
Some diehard Roman foodies say that Da Felice isn’t what it used to be. So there are other great options in the neighborhood, too.
Take, for example, Piatto Romano, a tiny, salt-of-the-earth establishment that does excellent riffs on rigatoni con pajata, roasted lamb and oxtail stew. Servers often recite the menu verbally, so it might be good to brush up on your Italian food vocabulary.
After you’re sufficiently stuffed, take a stroll around the neighborhood and gawk at Monte Testaccio. Due to its location on the banks of the Tiber River, the neighborhood once had docks used for loading and unloading products from abroad.
For many centuries wine and olive oil arrived in clay pots. Workers would have to break open the pots, and they’d eventually toss the pottery shards into a large pile. Over time that pile became a small mountain, filled entirely with millions of pieces of pottery.
Today Monte Testaccio is surrounded by trendy bars and clubs, such as the casual wine-centric lounge Trentare Testaccio.
And don’t miss the new Testaccio Market. After moving to a new, modern location in the neighborhood in 2012, the market boasts food vendors, restaurants and cafés and makes for a fun hour or two of wandering around, taking in the sensory overload that is a Roman food market.
If you want to see where it all started — Rome’s original food revolution — head to the erstwhile slaughterhouse. Today, instead of workers slaughtering pigs, you’ll find works of art, as the space is now Rome’s contemporary art museum, called MACRO.