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Hidden Rome

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Photo: Ruven Afanador

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.


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