Published: May 2009
By Gary Shteyngart
Esquilino and Testaccio may not be the prettiest neighborhoods in Rome, but they’re two of <em>Gary Shteyngart</em>’s favorites—where artists and butchers mingle with immigrants and intellectuals, and everyone eats very, very well.
Someone call il medico. In Rome, Stendhal syndrome is real. I’m talking about the numbness, fatigue, anxiety of seeing one more Caravaggio swaddled in a church’s cheap electric light, of one more oculus beaming the brilliant Roman sun into your eyes, of one more imperial aqueduct commanding you to snap your neck back and admire, of one more set of sculptured B.C. buttocks practically begging you to lean in for a squeeze. Native Romans take these things in stride, but when I recently spent a year in Rome along with some other wide-eyed foreigners, I got the feeling that every day and in every way Rome conspired to make fools out of all of us.
I left Rome thinking that perhaps beauty should have its limits, that a kind of visual poverty often yields unexpected riches, like the sight of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona rising amid a sea of ugly modern apartment buildings. The two Roman neighborhoods I love the most, Esquilino and Testaccio, will never blister your camera finger. You will not be escorted to the nearest mental health facility babbling about baldacchinos and nymphaea. But these neighborhoods—the first an immigrant enclave, the second a working-class wonderland—will make you appreciate contemporary Rome at its most interesting, at its most global, at its most youthful, and, when it comes to two (perhaps three) of the city’s best restaurants, at its most satisfying.
"There’s something decadent about Esquilino," my friend Anna, a filmmaker, tells me between exhales of sexy cigarette smoke (in Italy, even watching women ruin their health is alluring). If you’ve ever stayed in a cheap hotel near Termini station then you might disagree with her. But the past few years have seen an influx of new energy into this once most tired of Rome’s seven hills. On Piazza Vittorio, Esquilino’s enormous green heart, the late-19th-century apartments are not the most beautiful in Rome, but they do have sunny views of the Alban hills in the distance and ceilings that seem to rise nearly as high. These once second-rate flats have been snapped up by some of the city’s most interesting residents—I once found myself at a dinner party with an Italian television actor, an economist, and a Hungarian porn star, where the conversation flowed as easily as the inky Sicilian wine, and the porn star’s 12-year-old daughter was molto simpatica.
After my girlfriend and I check in to the futuristic-looking (and atrociously designed) Radisson SAS Es Hotel in Esquilino, we quickly immerse ourselves in the gossip, which seems—along with tourism and the Italian government—to be an important Roman industry. The stereotype is true: everyone in Rome looks good, as if the ugly people have been exiled to Elba, and the talk at our first party is about who’s doing what to whom, along with tales of unplanned pregnancies, inauthentic-looking breast jobs, and the latest excesses of the hated Silvio Berlusconi ("He looks like an orange ball, no?"). But as much as we love the gossip, we crave food, and Esquilino quickly delivers.
We head past the gate of Porta Maggiore (where an ancient Roman baker built himself a commemorative oven the size of a town house) to Osteria degli Artisti, a restaurant celebrating the cuisine of the southern Campagna region. The appetizers alone are enough to jolt me out of my antiseptic North American life and into a world of fresh escarole mixed with golden raisins, pine nuts, and capers, all soaked in a deep-yellow pool of olive oil. The grouchy owner slaps his hands, says, "Allora, signori," then launches into the pastas of the day. We decide to take a detour from carbohydrates and go for the tender anchovies, lightly battered, just asking for a pinch of lemon or two, fish with bones so fine they melt away. The freshness of the ingredients and that vaunted Southern Italian simplicity settle my stomach and make me content. That night I dream I have died and been admitted to the farthest reaches of heaven, where Hungarian porn stars and alluringly dressed Cinecittà actresses form an impromptu ladies’ choir, and Berlusconi himself humbly serves us Campari and soda, his orange head bobbing above a cheap rented tuxedo. When I lived in Esquilino a few years ago, I ate at Osteria degli Artisti nearly every week, and half my diary was composed of dreams like this.
And yet many Romans have a different, less affectionate view of this part of their city. Even the most Marxist of them will complain about i cinesi, the Chinese immigrants who took Esquilino by storm several years ago. "I don’t like the Chinese people," one Italian woman tells me. "The Africans I like. They have gestures, expressions, smiles." What the Chinese have, on the other hand, are shops. Small, mysterious little enterprises that spiral in every direction from the Piazza Vittorio, each containing several mannequins forlornly gazing at small piles of unsold clothes. I have never seen a single customer enter or leave any of the establishments, which leads to many angry speculations on the part of the locals—about everything from drugs and prostitution to the warehousing of black-market tigers. But take any of these streets to Piazza Vittorio, the neighborhood’s center, and you will see a different spirit prevail. The piazza, with its endless salmon-hued arcades, was laid out by the Turinese after Italy’s unification in the 1870’s. Now, at the start of the 21st century, all that rational Northern planning has given way to a melting pot that would make New York’s Lower East Side proud.
The palm-studded green piazza—arguably the biggest in Rome and home to a sculpted pair of monstrous dwarfs guarding the procedure of transmuting base metal into gold (I’ve tried; nothing so far)—has the energy of a Moroccan souk. When the sun shows its face, immigrants from nearly every corner of the globe gather here to kick around footballs, aim their cell phones toward Dhaka, sing about their homelands, and sometimes overdose. Older Italian men sonorously flirt with Ukrainian domestics, while beneath the colorful arcades South Asians sell knock-off baby shoes and weird mechanical squawking animals to each other. The piazza has three other claims to fame. There is the Piazza Vittorio Orchestra, an inspired collection of 16 musicians from almost as many countries who seamlessly integrate instruments from the Arabic oud to the Brazilian cavaquinho. There is the ghetto-fabulous MAS discount superstore, frequented by poor day laborers and savvy Italians alike, where five euros buys you a fine Bill Cosby–style sweater. And there is Maria Pia, the best fortune-teller in all Rome. Look for her on the corner of Via Carlo Alberto—she’s the woman in the black beret next to the drunk. Maria tells me that Egypt is calling me and that my next novel will be an unqualified international triumph. What makes Maria Pia so prescient, according to my artist friend Angela, who lives in a gorgeous sun-filled apartment right above her, is that she regularly talks to aliens.
Terrestrial or not, Rome has always been a place for exiles, and after witnessing the hurly-burly of Piazza Vittorio, I head to Via Palestro, where above the small Russian Orthodox Church I find Princess Elena Wolkonsky, the charming descendant of one of imperial Russia’s most powerful families (her grandfather was Pyotr Stolypin, the prominent and controversial prime minister during the reign of Czar Nicholas II). Princess Elena lives in one high-ceilinged pastel room overlooking the balcony where the Russian priest sups with his parishioners after services while some of his five children play soccer in the dusty courtyard below. She talks about Russia, her family, and, in particular, her English governess, Miss Bannister, who also happened to be a governess for the Tolstoy family and helped the Wolkonskys escape the Russian Revolution. I feel as if I’ve entered a brightly lit Nabokovian repository of memories, but my Roman-born hostess is not exactly an exile. Although she is no longer in the first flush of youth and has some difficulty ambulating, once she gets into her little Renault and starts zipping through city streets shouting "Dai!" ("Come on!") at the younger, slower drivers, I realize that she is gleefully, breathtakingly Italian.
Lunch in the Eternal (or Internal) City often lasts so long that I find myself merely biding my time until the next meal. After lunching with the princess and taking a restorative two-hour nap, my girlfriend and I head to another part of Esquilino to have dinner with Anna in one of my favorite Roman restaurants. Trattoria Monti, just off Piazza Vittorio, is known to some of my friends for its waiters, the brothers Enrico and Daniele, who are the kind of tall, dark, well-browed, and gentle creatures many would like to take home. Whatever your amorous interests, there is no denying that some very serious food is served within this airy-but-intimate barrel-vaulted space. The cuisine of the Marches region, located in the central part of Italy’s eastern coast, takes pride of place here. I daydream of its mixed appetizer platter, a testament to the delights of crisp, light frying—stuffed fried olives, fried artichokes, ethereal fried vanilla cream, and ciauscolo, a soft, lardy, spreadable sausage taken from the pig’s belly, ribs, and shoulder. We are knocked senseless by a codfish carpaccio with red onions and truffles and a tagliatelle al ragù marchigiano, whose intense meatiness we match with a strong, fruity Sardinian Santadi. But my most beloved dish has always been the fried lamb brains with fried zucchini. Here are brains without peer—creamy and soothing—the ultimate comfort food. "My parents fed me this to make me smart," says Anna, who is certifiably brilliant, as she adds a squeeze of lemon. "Mmm, childhood," echoes her fiancé, Serafino. We finish with a fairly pornographic persimmon mousse with toasted almonds and pistachio cream, but Anna makes us order a second dessert. "After making love all night," Anna says with perfect lascivious timing, "you should eat zabaglione cream, because it gives you back your strength."
The next day, after following Anna’s advice, we end our Esquilino sojourn at my favorite church. A fitting representation of the neighborhood as a whole, Santa Bibiana is squeezed in between a tunnel and a smokestack, fronted by tram tracks and facing the Cobra adult-video store. The façade was the first architectural work of Baroque wonder boy Bernini, and the interior is a tiny jewel. Even my agnostic friends sometimes attend mass here, and senior lovebirds come to renew their 50-year-old vows. The intimacy of the space contrasts with the gilded overdrive of Rome’s more famous churches, and the beatific Bibiana holding the palm leaf of martyrs (she was, um, flogged to death) fills this little church with kindness and calm. I am most pleased to find out that Bibiana is the patron saint of people with seizure disorders and those suffering from hangovers. We’ll need her mercy where we’re going next.
The ghosts of a million calves float over Testaccio, perhaps the most authentic neighborhood in Rome. The enormous mattatoio, the city’s main slaughterhouse until it closed in 1975, was the center of Testaccio’s economic life for about a century. The sculpture of a winged god punching out an innocent bull atop the building pretty much says it all. The last trendy thing to be built here was the 90-foot-tall Pyramid of Caius Cestius, circa 12 B.C. This seemingly misplaced monument made out of white Carrara marble was commissioned by a self-loving Roman functionary after the Cleopatra–Mark Antony love scandal made the Egyptian style de rigueur. For the next 2,000 years Testaccio played the role of a salt-of-the-earth backwater, but today it has become the address of choice for those who want to eat an animal or simply party like one.
Testaccio is located in the southern part of central Rome, across the river from Trastevere, its better-known, more polished rival with a West Village vibe and crowds of carousing American expatriates ("Yo, Deb, check out dis, like, guy"). Testaccio, a neighborhood of undistinguished 19th-century buildings, some of which are shabby enough to be in Naples, isn’t quite there yet. Instead it is the home base for the real cucina romana, embracing the so-called fifth quarter—the leftover parts of the animal (tripe, nerves, Adam’s apple) that used to be part of the slaughterhouse workers’ pay—along with Jewish and regional country favorites such as artichokes and anchovies. After dining in a leisurely fashion on a piece of intestine and a glass of cheap red, everyone heads to Monte Testaccio, a bizarre mountain built entirely out of discarded amphorae that is now the scene of half of Rome’s youthful couplings.
To show me the real Testaccio, my friend Flavio takes me to the kind of place that used to proliferate throughout Rome—an "old man bar" where a euro-and-a-half will pay for a mezzo litro of the most common Frascati wine. In this much too bright Formica canteen on Via Galileo Ferraris, senior Testaccini with the kind of features that used to inspire foreign painters (one missing an eye, the other a slice of nose) and who speak only the local dialect, play cards and scarf down prosciutto. Like most of Flavio’s own family, they are retirees from the slaughterhouse, and one can certainly say these gentlemen are rooted in place. I literally have to climb over a patron, muttering "Permesso, permesso," to get to my seat.
The slaughterhouse is gone, but its spirit lives on in the Testaccio covered market, acknowledged by many to be the best in Rome. The tomato man with the ponytail and corncob teeth will explain which tomatoes go with which kind of pasta. At the Pasta all’Uovo shop there are ravioli and tortellini di zucca (with pumpkin), which are like little wrapped gifts you give yourself. The fishmonger at La Boutique del Pesce serenades his tuna, "Tonno bello, tonno bello," while a neighboring stand shows off anchovies with blood-red heads and live eels kicking their last. "How good is my fish?" asks the fishmonger rhetorically. It’s not bad at all.
Flavio’s uncle Cesare and aunt Delia run a butcher stand in the northwest corner of the market. Chummy, smiling Cesare in his butcher’s smock and woolly cap is a huge Beatles fan, and keeps a magnet depicting the group and a picture of himself as a youngster in a Beatles-esque band behind the counter. The family stand has been around since 1918, he tells me over a display of little skinned rabbits and a glossy, beautiful lamb’s head. The loose, fatty salsicce he sells practically dribble over the tongue. For a helping of vegetables, I head for the nearby stands stacked with perfectly shaped lunar-domed mushrooms and fresh zucchini flowers, which look like giant tulips and taste like paradise after a short bout of frying.
A dedicated aficionado of Roman cuisine would do well to rent an apartment near the market, supplementing the fresh produce with trips to the famed Volpetti deli on Via Marmorata. Inside Volpetti’s cramped premises, meats, cheeses, olive oils, and other edibles gather from across Italy to tantalize and overwhelm the casual visitor. On this trip, we assemble a sweet-and-peppery basket of gorgonzola piccante, boar sausages no bigger than my thumb, and a spicy ’nduja, a salami from Calabria that tastes like an angrier, in-your-face cousin of the French andouille.
After gorging is complete, a walk to the pleasant grounds of the Cimitero Acattolico (better known as the Protestant Cemetery) is in order. Built outside the city walls in accordance with Vatican strictures against burying non-Catholics within the city, the cemetery is a peaceful collection of souls of all denominations, a quiet, sun-dappled oasis of palms and cypresses where the diversity of the entombed speaks of Rome’s centrality to the world. Here are the graves of prominent Americans, Russian royalty, Rome-besotted Muslims and Jews, and, of course, the daisy-strewn grave of Shelley in the shadow of the outlandish Cestius pyramid. Lovers of Keats can also bid their farewell here, while leftists should, against their better judgment, take the path to the right, where they will find the simple grave of Antonio Gramsci, the father of Italian communism. Wherever you turn, cats glower at you from their tombstone perches, and the sweet rot of flowers and serenity reign. This is the only place that I’ve ever visited—other than the Garden State Mall in Paramus—that has made the cessation of life seem appealing.
But dinner approaches, and it is time to rejoin the living. This is where the vegetarian reader may want to part company with me for a while. Testaccio’s trattorias will not win any awards for ambience and décor, but these noisy, overlit places offer an encounter with an animal that you will find in few places. I spend an entire week eating in almost every restaurant in the neighborhood and grilling, so to speak, the natives on their favorite choices. The talk of the hood is Da Felice, which once looked like a cafeteria with fluorescent lighting but is now a typically Euro-smooth wood-and-brick joint. The owner used to be ridiculously selective, refusing entrance to anyone who didn’t look as if he or she had just tussled with an ox or happened to be Roberto Benigni, who lives nearby. Now Da Felice is no longer selective and the food has gone south. Only Roberto Benigni remains, eating quietly with his wife, his trademark goofy face floating above his pasta. The one bright spot is the creamy, voluptuous artichoke. As for the dry veal roll, I almost choke. "Benigni’s gonna beat you up if you don’t finish," the waiter scolds me. It’s a chance I’m willing to take.
Far better is Da Bucatino, an old-school, wood-paneled place on a raucous street corner that pretty much detonated when the A.S. Roma soccer club took the 2001 Italian Cup. The bucatini all’amatriciana, as Roman a dish as there is, is divine here, featuring smoky pieces of pig cheek and thick, hollow bucatini you could flog a small child with. Look out for a very garlicky puntarella salad, the tangy, bitter chicory roots soaking up the fresh anchovies and vinegar.
But most of the locals, my friend Flavio’s butcher uncle included, talk up Augustarello. A spare room; working-class local clientele; a bottle of decent Sangiovese on the table; a fat proprietor who micromanages the daily pasta selections—this is what a Roman trattoria should be like. And unlike many other places, they really do charge only half the price for a mezza porzione, allowing you to pick through many delicious options. Salsicce con fagioli, for example, are the best franks and beans in the world, highlighted by delicate, succulent chunks of pigskin. An understated rigatoni alla carbonara avoids the cardinal sin of carbonara—too much egg—leaving just enough yolk to gently coat your fork. And then there are the tender animelle (sweetbreads), grilled to perfection, along with a chewy, lightly fried pajata, a Roman specialty: a baby lamb’s (or calf’s) intestines still stuffed with its mother’s milk. When I lived in Rome, my American guests would invariably have a moral crisis over this dish, but one taste would set them straight. The Augustarello version—salt, pepper, olive oil, intestine—leaves nothing to chance. Holy or not, this is real communion with an animal.
Those seeking a more refined wine list with their Testaccio meal should head to the old stalwart Checchino dal 1887, located inside a congenial cave bored into Monte Testaccio. After passing the gauntlet of outstanding cheeses by the door, try the scottadito, or "finger burners," spit-roasted baby lamb chops that you are allowed to eat with your hands. But the real fun begins in the cavernous wine cellar, which still shows shards of ancient amphorae. Francesco Mariani, the restaurant’s burly host, steers us toward a Tenuta Belguarda from Tuscany, a Cabernet Sauvignon–Sangiovese whose notes and structures were so complex I had to go back to our hotel room to think about them.
There is more exceptional wine to be found—not to mention a respite from Testaccio’s innards frenzy—at Bottiglieria DOC, on the dead-quiet Via Beniamino Franklin. This recently opened subterranean wonder zeroes in on fresh pastas and seafood. We are served the lightest potato gnochetti, followed by grilled tuna and squid topped with olives and capers and bathed in olive oil with lemon and freshly ground pepper. After a crisp, buttery Sicilian wine, I got the pleasant feeling we were leaving old Testaccio behind, bound for warmer, quasi-African climes.
By now you will be fat. The question is what to do with the newly found treasure around your waist. The man-made Monte Testaccio, atop which live pigs were once packed into barrels and rolled downhill during pre-Lenten celebrations, is now a magic mountain of sorts, home to Rome’s most interesting selection of dance clubs. The chill, knowledgeable crowd goes to Metaverso, a small, pleasant white cave festooned with some kind of Keith Haring–type graphic art. Reggae, electronica, and drum ’n’ bass rule the night here, and there’s something oddly inspiring about middle-class Italian boys in dreadlocks trying to drop the Jamaican dance-hall steps, even if they do look like they’re digging a hole.
Down the street, at Zoobar, there’s an older scene, with good live shows, random bands, and a complete lack of pretension. The woman of your dreams might be wearing a gaudy belt, tight cutoffs, and high boots; the man-child you crave may be sporting Vans, tight pants, and a shag haircut. The music will be eighties and beyond, with a profusion of Talk Talk, Madonna, and maybe a foray into early Daft Punk. If all else fails, there’s a new branch of the macro modern-art museum, housed inside the old slaughterhouse, open from four in the afternoon to midnight, late enough to accommodate art-minded clubbers. Meat conveyors overhead, cobblestones beneath your feet, stables to the left and right—it’s just the venue for group exhibitions with a focus on multimedia.
From calf slaughter to blockbuster art—the presence of macro is a sure sign that Testaccio is changing, a transformation some welcome and others bemoan. Directly to the south lies Garbatella, a neighborhood that looks even worse than it sounds but whose decrepit markets will soon be converted into a Rem Koolhaas postmodern extravaganza called the City for Youth, which will feature the usual mix of shops, restaurants, and "cultural" institutions. Rome has clung to its traditions with far more ferocity than any other major Mediterranean city, and this traditionalism has, over the years, coated it with a provincial gloss. Testaccio’s youthful energy and Esquilino’s driven immigrant population point the way to an entirely different, if not yet settled, future. But Rome isn’t Bilbao or Berlin. The Rem Koolhaases come and go, but the city endures, its surface serving as a palimpsest while the locals carry on with their feasting and loving and scheming. Before departing, we visit friends, an American/Italian couple who are about to have a baby boy. I look out their tiny bathroom window, which captures the rump of Esquilino’s Santa Maria Maggiore cathedral, where one can confess in Ukrainian, Czech, Norwegian, and Tagalog. I can’t imagine what a spanking-new infant will make of it all, but I’m guessing that now more than ever it’s a heady time to be a Roman bambino.
WHEN TO GO
In the neighborhoods of Esquilino and Testaccio, chances are you’ll be safe from summer’s stampede of tourists, but you’ll still have the heat to contend with. Avoid both by visiting in late fall or early spring.
WHERE TO STAY
Casa Howard Affordable design hotel a short taxi ride from Testaccio and Esquilino. 18 Vin Capo Le Casa, Piazza del Popolo; www.casahoward.com; 39-06/6992-4555; doubles from $186.
Radisson SAS Es Hotel 171 Via Filippo Turati; 39-06/444-841; www.rome.radissonsas.com; doubles from $132.
WHERE TO EAT
Osteria degli Artisti 6 Via G Sommeiller; 39-06/701-8148; dinner for two $50.
Trattoria Monti 13 Via di San Vito; 39-06/446-6573; dinner for two $106.
WHAT TO DO
Chiesa di Santa Bibiana 154 Via Giovanni Giolitti (near Termini).
MAS store 11 Via dello Statuto (off Piazza Vittorio).
Piazza Vittorio Orchestra www.orchestradipiazzavittorio.it.
WHERE TO EAT
Augustarello 98 Via Giovanni Branca; 39-06/574-6585; dinner for two $66.
Bottiglieria DOC 9 Via Beniamino Franklin; 39-06/574-4236; dinner for two $60.
Checchino dal 1887 30 Via di Monte Testaccio; 39-06/5740-6318; dinner for two $90.
Da Bucatino 84/86 Via Della Robbia Luca; 39-06/574-6886; dinner for two $65.
Da Felice 29 Via Mastro Giorgio; 39-06/574-6800; dinner for two $80.
Sora Rosa A typical "old man bar," with simple Italian fare. 7 Via Galileo Ferraris.
Volpetti deli 47 Via Marmorata; 39-06/574-2352.
WHAT TO DO
Cimitero Acattolico (Protestant Cemetery) 5 Via Caio Cestio; 39-06/574-1900.
Metaverso 38A Via di Monte Testaccio; 39-06/574-4712; www.metaverso.com.
Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Roma (MACRO), Mattatoio A branch of Rome’s modern-art museum, housed in a former slaughterhouse on Monte Testaccio. Piazza Giustiniani.
Pyramid of Caius Cestius Piazza di Porta San Paolo.
Santa Maria Maggiore Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore.
Testaccio market One of Rome’s liveliest. Piazza Testaccio.
Zoobar 1 Via Bencivenga; 39-06/272-7995.