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Hidden Rome

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Photo: Ruven Afanador

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.

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