Rome: Testaccio #2 – foodie tour with Eating Italy
Continued from this post.
My second visit to Testaccio was on a food tour with Eating Italy. On a rainy day in January we took an Uber black car to the meeting place in Piazza Testaccio and met our guide Bethany who was keeping dry under a blue umbrella outside Zi Elena Bar Gelateria. Bethany is an America living and working in Rome, fluent in Italian and usually does the tours in Trestevere where she lives. She gave us a coffee voucher and we went inside to have a cappuccino and wait for the rest of the group to arrive.
Piazza Testaccio is centered around the Fontana delle Anfore (Fountain of the amphorae), a motif that stands as a symbol of Testaccio’s heritage. Testaccio is situated along the river where centuries ago clay amphoras containing oil, wine and food supplies were brought in by the waterways and stored in storage rooms along the river. Once emptied, the containers could not be used again and were broken into fragments. The broken pieces were piled in an orderly fashion one on top of the other on a circular area nearby and this continued practice over the years created a 35 meters tall mountain made mostly of broken amphora fragments that today is known as Monte Tetstaccio. More on that later.
Once everyone arrived we left under a canopy of umbrellas and followed Bethany to our first destination, Pasticceria Barberini on via Marmorata 41, not far from the Perilli restaurant I talked about in the first post. Barberini has been in continued operation since 1925, serving locals with coffee and pastries and also afternoon tea and cake ever since. We had flakey cornetti filled with creamy yellow custard and mini tieramisu in chocolate cups. In Rome people stick to their own neighbourhoods when it comes to coffee bars, pastry shops, bakeries and shopping. I have read in Rachel Roddy’s book My Kitchen in Rome that this is her “regular” place to stop for coffee and pastry (she lives in Testaccio) and on Elizabeth Minchilli’s blog that she doesn’t make it to Barberini too often even though her neighbourhood, Monti, is not very far. Local in Rome means truly local.
From there we moved a couple of door down to Salumeria Volpetti on Via Marmorata 47, a local institution founded by the two Volpetti brothers from Umbria Claudio and Emilio and run by their families. This is a food lover’s heaven and the place was packed. They have cheeses, meats, breads, oils, vinegars, honey, preserves, pasta, wines and much more. At every counter you are offered a tasting and there was no way I could take it all in in a few minutes. We tasted a few cheeses and salumi and then had a tasting of their special balsamic vinegars, some over a hundred years old. It’s impossible not to buy something in this store so go prepared.
We then moved around the corner to Volpetti Piu, (meaning “More Volpetti”) a more recent addition to the Volpetti enterprise where they offer tavola calda (hot table meaning hot food). Bethany ordered for us pizza al taglio, or pizza by the slice. I mentioned in previous posts that Romans wouldn’t dream of ordering a whole pizza for lunch. Pizza for lunch means pizza by the slice cooked in a gas oven and sold by the weight. Pizza for dinner means a whole pizza cooked in wood burning oven. Volpetti Piu is a lunch hotspot for locals where they can choose from a number of mouth watering dishes that include several beautiful vegetables, pasta, some fried foods, legumes and more. Everything looked wonderful and if my hands weren’t occupied with umbrellas, iPhone and camera I would have bought a few of the dishes to take home. We tried a couple of the pizzas, one margarita and one with mushrooms. The crust was crispy and chewy and the toppings full of fresh, uncomplicated flavour. “We don’t use a lot of spices to mask the flavours” says Bethany, “too many things mask the freshness of the tomatoes and mozzarella.”
Along the way we were getting educated in all things Italian. Bethany mentioned that in Italy food was truly regional and back in time you could only get pizza in its birthplace, Napoli. “The first time pizza was found outside of Naples was in 1905 when the first pizzeria outside of Naples was founded in NYC” she says. “Immigrants to USA from the south of Italy missed their food and tried to create it in the new world. Pizza didn’t come to Rome until after WWII. Before that the only food you got here was Roman cuisine.”
Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Testaccio
We now headed toward the new Testaccio market but en route stopped at a unique non-catholic cemetery at the edge of the community, where a number of world famous people are buried. The cemetery is set in a beautiful garden with cyprus and pomegranate trees and, if you have to be buried somewhere, this would not be a bad place to be, but it is completely full. The earliest graves date back 300 years to 1716. Dominated by a pyramid incorporated into the Aurelian wall on one side, this cemetery’s population is culturally diverse, containing the graves of artists, scientists, diplomats, writers and poets from many religious and cultural backgrounds, including Christians, Jews and Muslims. John Keats and Percy Shelley are buried there along with other literary luminaries and scholars. Gregory Corso, an American poet from the post WWII Beat Generation is there along with Giorgio Bvlgari, the founder of the Bvlgari fortune and August Goethe (Goethe’s only son). My favourite grave was that of William Story, an American sculptor who is buries with his wife under his own sculpture of the angel of grief, symbolizing the suffering he endured from losing his wife. Very romantic. It is a beautiful, peaceful cemetery not to be missed if you are in the neighbourhood.
From there we continued to Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio (the new Testaccio market). The old market at the Piazza Testaccio where we begun our excursion was shut down a few years ago and moved into this new, large and airy permanent facility indoors. I love outdoor markets for their authenticity and pleasant chaos and wish I had seen the old market before it was moved. The new market is a modern four level structure, two underground and two above ground. The lower levels contain parking and an archeological site, the main floor houses the market. The market has over 100 stalls with a wide selection of produce, baked goods and more. It was clear that it is central to the community and people go there for shopping, eating and socializing over a glass of wine and a bite of food.
We walked through the vegetables stalls watching the vendors trim the artichokes and prepare the puntarelle for salads. Bethany bought a few beautifully ripe tomatoes and we took them to Da Artenio, a bakery that provided grilled bread for us to rub with garlic and assemble our own bruschetta. We continued to a husband and wife team at Prosciutteria di Enzo e Lina for a taste of fresh buffalo mozzarella which we enjoyed with the same tomatoes we used for the bruschetta. The buffalo mozzarella here is nothing like you taste elsewhere. It is much creamier, rich and kept unrefrigerated to be consumed within a day, not more that two. It was a special treat.
After the market we walked over to a historical part of Testaccio that used to be a slaughterhouse. It was originally built in the late 1800s and architecturally is a remarkable modern structure of some 100K square meters that expresses a transition from classist architecture to modernism. Today the structure holds MACRO, a contemporary art museum that fits perfectly in the architecture of the former slaughterhouse.
The slaughterhouse workers in late 1800s were the poor. As part of their pay they were often given the ofal, or parts of the animals that were to be discarded, including organs, tail, tongue and more. Generally an animal has four usable quarters – two front, two back. Because the ofal makes up about a quarter of the animal’s weight, it has come to be known as the quinta quatro, or the fifth quarter. The workers took these parts home, where the wives found ways to use them for cooking their food and ofal cooking has become a trademark of the food of Testaccio in particular and Rome in general. This tradition continues in Rome to this day. It is interesting to note that this concept, known today as head to tail, is practiced at the best restaurants worldwide.
From the slaughterhouse we turned back to stare at a mountain rising in front of us. This is the amphorae fragment mountain I talked about in the beginning of this post, built over the centuries by mounting broken amphorae pieces in an orderly fashion until this 35 meter high mountain was formed. It’s quite a sight. Built into the mountain were wine cellars now turned into restaurants and we went into one of them for lunch. We had more food on this tour than on other tour I have been on.
The restaurant Bethany picked is Osteria con Cucina Flavio Velavevodetto, or Flavio “I told you so”. The restaurant is built right into the amphorae mountain and you can see the symmetrical layer of clay through three arched windows at the back of the restaurant. The story of the restaurant’s name tells that Flavio had no restaurant experience and in spite of nay sayers open a restaurant that eventually became very successful, hence the “I told you so” in the name. They serve Roman cuisine of authentic local dishes in a casual osteria setting. Casual though, does not preclude the customary table cloth and all the trimmings of beautifully set tables. Bethany ordered three large platters of pasta: cacio pepe, amatriciana and carbonara with red and white wine and water and we sat down for a full lunch that was delicious and fresh. If you haven’t had cacio e pepe you must order it as soon as you sit down to eat in Rome. It’s a pasta with sauce made only with pasta cooking water, grated pecorino and a little olive oil, generously sprinkled with pepper. Simply perfect, but not that easy to reproduce at home.
You would think that after all this the tour would be over but nooo, Bethany still had two more stops in mind, and I am glad she did. The first stop was at a Trapizzino, a new form of Roman street food that I have already written about in my Street Food Roman Style post, so I will only say here that the trademarked invention of chef Stefano Callegari in the form of triangular, stuffed pizza-like pockets freshly made to order was one of the foods that we kept going for again and again during our six week stay in Rome (he has another location in the Prati where we stayed). The crisp bread with chewy centre and variety of delicious fillings were too good to pass. They also have a rather special suppli, another street food similar to rice croquet wrapped around a piece of mozzarella and fried.
Finally, the last stop and of course it had to be gelato. Who would have thought that Bethany would take us to a gelato place in an obscure location in Testaccio that I think may offer the best gelato in Rome? We walked into Gellatteria Giolitti, a place you could easily miss walking by on the street. This busy little shop opened in 1914 and I can tell you the gelato is amazing. Soft, creamy, pure flavours, perfecto. You can choose two flavours from a large selection, but they may direct you towards the ones that are compatible, like pistachio e malaga, chocolate and zabaglione, coffee and hazelnuts and so on. One caveat: they will ask you “con panna?” and you must say “si”. This means they will mound a dollop of freshly whipped cream on top of your gelato, it’s perfection and I think there is some law that says you must have it that way. If there isn’t such law, then there should be.
This ended our tour of Testaccio. We ate a lot, learned a lot and loved everything. Eating Italy offers similar tours in other neighbourhoods and I look forward to my next tour with them.