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Hidden Rome

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Photo: Ruven Afanador

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.

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