Testaccio Food Tour
Testaccio…is it a neighborhood, a culinary treasure, or both?
One of the obvious reasons that we love visiting Italy is the amazing food. I talk and write about it a lot, and won’t deny that I’m a bit obsessed with Italian cuisine. The other thing that Glenn and I appreciate about Italy is the way that we can bump up against history at every turn, and sometimes not even realize that we’re looking at an amazing story of the past. During our visit in 2018 we signed up for the “Taste of Testaccio” food tour, and we got not just heaps of great food but generous servings of local history as well. And in the odd way that stories and people and places weave together, our colorful tour guide Domenico remains firmly etched in our memory, years later.
On previous visits we had explored the area southwest of the city center, Trastevere, but this time we headed southeast, to the Testaccio neighborhood. A short taxi ride from our hotel brought us to the Piazza Testaccio, where we were to meet up with our fellow foodies.
The only proper way to begin this story is to introduce our tour guide. At first, we weren’t sure that he was the tour guide. Our group was gathered outside of Pizza al Taglio, a pizzeria that was to be the starting point of our adventure. As we mingled and exchanged pleasantries, a very colorful character with a flaming orange scarf and matching shopping bag entered into our circle. In a stroke of what the Italians would call colpo di fortuna, or “good luck”, this was our guide for the day, Domenico Scola. As we would later learn, leading food tours was just a side gig for him; his true calling was performing classic rock & roll tunes, which he and his band the Tram Tracks performed nightly, on a trolley whizzing through the streets of Rome.
Domenico started us off by directing our attention to the very interesting and unusual fountain in the middle of the piazza, telling us that it was the perfect introduction to the history of the neighborhood. The focal point of the fountain is a collection of amphorae, or ancient jars. As we would learn, the ancient Romans used a lot of olive oil.
The oil came from all over the Roman empire, and was brought by cargo ships to the docks on the Tiber River. The large terracotta pots that the oil was transported in were called “testae” in Latin, and were generally not reused, possibly due to the fact that the oil seeped into the pores of the pottery, making it unfit for any other use. For whatever reason, the pots were considered “single use only”, and were discarded in a landfill on the east side of the Tiber. The name “Testaccio” itself actually translates as “broken pots”.
Over time, a veritable mountain of broken pots emerged, known to us today as Monte Testaccio. I enjoyed writer Spencer McDaniel’s description of Monte Testaccio as “a physical testament to the sheer extent of ancient Roman consumption.” Yep, they used a lot of oil.
More on the pot shards later. For now, back to the food.
We began at Pizza A Taglio. It was a quick stop to get our bearings and to begin guzzling some water. This was a walking tour, and it was hot, and there was potentially a lot of wine involved, so starting with and staying hydrated with H2O was important.
Our first stop for real food was Masto, which was warm and welcoming. We were presented with various apertivo, a pre-dinner combination of wine to “open our palettes” and a variety of tasty appetizers.
From there we began our walk to the Mercato di Testaccio, or the Testaccio Market. Along the way we got another local culinary history lesson from Domenico.
It’s almost impossible to keep Roman history brief, but I’ll do my best to summarize. Back in the late 1800’s, the Testaccio neighborhood was home to the city of Rome’s municipal slaughterhouse, or mattatoio in Italian. The working class residents were sometimes paid not in money, but in food scraps that were known as the quinto quarto, or “5th quarter” of the animal. From Great Italian Chefs:
Even during the early twentieth century, Rome still operated a system whereby meat was distributed among citizens depending on their social status. Animals that came into the mattatoio would be broken down into quarters – or quartos in Italian – depending on quality. The primo quarto consisted of the very best cuts and would go to the nobility, and the rest of the animal would be allocated accordingly – the secondo quarto would go to the clergy, the terzo quarto to the bourgeois and the quarto quarto to members of the army. As for the rest of Rome’s inhabitants, they were left with the quinto quarto, or ‘fifth quarter’. These were quite literally the leftovers, the bits that the rest of Rome deemed unfit for consumption – brains, feet, intestines, lungs, hearts and more. Nose-to-tail eating is very much in vogue today – we delight in the novelty of eating chicken hearts on skewers or bone marrow on toast. In Rome, however, this was a way of life, necessitated by the simple need to eat and survive. The city’s poor would scoop up the unwanted leftovers from Testaccio, and with typical Roman resourcefulness, use them to make something delicious.https://www.greatitalianchefs.com/features/quinto-quarto-inside-rome-offal-obsession-testaccio
And so in a somewhat stunning triumph, Roman chefs turned the offal, or usually unused portions of the animal, into a culinary trend, with Testaccio still creating specialty dishes from the quinto quarto to this day.
The Testaccio Market is a multi-story, open-air wonder, filled with a huge variety of vegetables, fruits, meats and cheeses. (To me it seemed to be a less pretentious version of Campo di Fiori, across town.)
We made a stop at “Food Box”, one of the food stalls at the market, to sample a pick-me-up beverage and some of those delicious suppli, a combination of rice, sauce, and mozzarella.
Our last stop on the tour was a full meal at the amazing Flavio al Velavevodetto, a restaurant that is actually built into the mountain of broken pots that the neighborhood was named after. Apparently, in another stroke of colpo di fortuna, the terracotta pot shards are an excellent insulation for wine bottles, and a collection of restaurants and nightclubs have sprung up around the base of Monte Testaccio. The ability of Romans to recycle never ceases to amaze me.
I’m thinking that four years out, I probably missed a couple of other stops that we had on the tour. I do believe that there was gelato involved at the very end, but it’s tough to sort through the mix of sights, sounds and smells (all good!) that we encountered on that day.
There is a postscript to this day that involves a waiter named Enzo, at the Da Vincenzo restaurant in Positano, but that is another story.