Touring

Touring: Rachel Roddy’s Favourite Food Places in Rome

1st February 2018

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

Since Rachel Roddy moved to Rome in 2005, she hasn’t lived anywhere but Testaccio. This working-class neighbourhood, often ignored by visitors to the historic city – though gentrification is steadily creeping in – has more than enough culinary vitality to sustain Rachel’s interest and fuel her weekly food column for the Guardian (she has also written two excellent cookbooks, including Five Quarters, which paints a vivid picture of life and eating in this part of Rome).

“It’s incredibly traditional, incredibly tied to place,” she says of Testaccio. “They talk about terroir in the countryside but I’ve kind of found it here.” Today – the first of our three extraordinary days with Rachel in her adoptive city – we are getting a guided tour of her favourite food spots in Testaccio, though later on we’ll venture further afield in search of wine, a very special butcher’s shop, and dinner, in that order.

We begin with a short walk from Rachel’s flat to the new Testaccio market. It’s a blazing hot September day and we skip from shadow to shadow to avoid the sun. Rachel tells us that this area was pasture land for sheep until the 1890s, when a giant mattatoio, or slaughterhouse, was built next to the river. Council housing grew up around it in tidy grids and Testaccio became renowned for its slaughterhouse cooking, involving liberal use of offal. The mattatoio closed down in the mid-1970s but the appetite for offal remains – we’ll get a chance to sample some of it inside the market.

 

FIRST STOP

Testaccio Market

Time: 10.05am

“I don’t like using the word ‘best’ very much, but I think this is the best sandwich in the world.” We’re standing outside Mordi e Vai, a tiny sandwich shop in the corner of the market where bandanna-wearing ex-butcher Sergio Esposito works miracles with bread and slow-cooked meats. Rachel is referring to the allesso di scottona sandwich, filled with three-hour boiled beef, but we also order one with trippa alla romana for good measure. These are really exceptional creations, though the half-bottle of wine we wash them down with is less so (“It’s wine you can drink or clean your windows with,” is how Rachel describes it).

Also in the market, which relocated here in 2012 from its old spot on Piazza Testaccio, are some of Rachel’s favourite fruit, veg, fish and meat vendors – she visits them on a daily basis. From Filippo, who grows most of the produce he sells in his farm outside Rome, we buy borlotti beans and semi-wild cicoria (he keeps the best stuff for Rachel behind the counter). From the Sartor family, butchers for four generations, we buy a leggy chicken for tomorrow’s lunch. Rachel also points out the archaeological site visible beneath the market floor, which may itself have been a market in ancient times.

What we had: Espressos. Sandwiches and wine from Mordi e Vai.

What we bought: Cicoria and other vegetables from Da Filippo. A chicken from Sartor. Plums from Ottofrutta Mattia & Marco.

What we talked about: The insane seasonality of Roman cooking. The value, for a food writer, of having a very specific focus (e.g. Testaccio). Whether or not Sergio Esposito, with his bandanna, looks like Robert De Niro.

Via Beniamino Franklin, 00118 Roma RM, Italy; +39 06 230540

SECOND STOP

Bar Tabacchi da Rosa e Andrea

Time: 11.40am

Time for a pit stop. Next to the old slaughterhouses is a kiosk containing a café-bar that has been going since the 1950s. Rosa, its ancient and slightly scary proprietor, would once have catered for the thirsty workers at the mattatoio. They have long gone but Rosa resolutely remains, pulling espresso shots potent enough to fuel a jumbo jet. We down the espresso with a grimace, buy a few bottles of water to douse the after-effects, and continue on our way.

What we had: Espressos, water.

What we talked about: The gutting, and clumsy modernisation, of Testaccio’s beautiful old bars.

Piazza Orazio Giustiniani, 00153 Roma RM, Italy

THIRD STOP

Volpetti

Time: 1pm

Leaving Rosa’s, we do a loop around Monte Testaccio, a manmade hill composed almost entirely of broken oil pots, or testae, from the time of the Roman empire (one estimate puts the number of amphorae at 53 million). By the time we’ve come to terms with this bizarre feature, we have arrived at our next stop – one of Rachel’s favourite food shops in Rome.

Volpetti was started in the 1960s by two Umbrian brothers who ran it until a couple of years ago; now it’s under new ownership. It’s like your dream of a perfect Roman grocery, crammed with cheeses, olives, breads and bottles of wine and oil, and overhung by serious-looking cured meats. Co-owner Matteo Tomljanovich greets us on the shop floor and plies us with samples of cheese (fontina, toma dell’Alpe veglia), all the while explaining – with great intensity – his intention to build a network of very small producers across Italy, thereby minimising any industrially-made produce in his shop.

Volpetti also extends to a taverna next door. We return here a couple of days later for wine and antipasti – including a salt-free cheese called Pannerone di Lodi, one of the strangest things I’ve ever eaten. Everything else is delicious, not least the desserts – and there’s a really good wine list too. Rachel says she recommends this place to everyone and I would definitely second that.

What we bought: Alfredo Cetrone olive oil. Parmesan made from the milk of Modenese white cows. Acetaia San Giacomo red wine vinegar.

What we talked about: Rachel’s greatest food extravagance (olive oil, with wine a close second). The glory of simple pasta dishes (with anchovies, with ricotta and pepper, with broccoli, et cetera).

Via Marmorata, 47, 00153 Roma RM, Italy; www.volpetti.com

FOURTH STOP

Panificio Passi

Time: 1.15pm

When Rachel first moved to Testaccio, she lived above this family-run forno, renowned as one of the best in Rome, and she would awake each morning to the smell of pizza bianco fresh out of the oven. The bakery still going strong today: as we enter, the place is packed with locals sorting out their afternoon bread, biscuit and cake requirements.

Rachel dishes up a useful pizza-related tip. “In Rome, you can only light wood fires in the evening,” she says, “so during the day you should avoid round pizzas, because they’ll be cooked in an electric oven. Instead, you eat slices which are cooked in the bread oven.”

We grab a selection of biscuits, a few slices of pizza bianco, and head back home for an afternoon nap – there’s a long evening ahead.

What we bought: Bocconcini del nonno. Ciambelline al vino rosso. Pizza bianco.

Via Mastro Giorgio, 87, 00153 Roma RM, Italy; +39 06 574 6563

FIFTH STOP

Les Vignerons

Time: 4.50pm

A few hours later, we head over to Trastevere to visit Rachel’s favourite wine shop, crossing the Ponte Sublicio bridge and passing Nanni Moretti’s Cinema Nuovo Sacher along the way. We’re greeted at Les Vignerons by Antonio Marino, the co-owner, who moved the shop here from a suburban location in 2016. For anyone with a passing interest in natural wine, this is a really good place to be: bottles from exciting small-scale producers around Europe fill the shelves – and there’s a very creditable beer selection too.

To call Antonio a wine obsessive would be putting it mildly – he’s been drinking the stuff since he was five, he says, though it’s only in the past 12 years that he’s got really engaged with low-intervention wine-making. From the fridge he pulls a bottle of Pét-Nat from La Sorga, a Languedoc producer, and ushers us outside to drink it in the sun. Leaning against the shop front, we pop the cork, fill our glasses and soak up the afternoon rays as we sip – not a bad way to pass a Saturday afternoon.

What we had: A bottle of La Sorga Belzebrut.

What we talked about: The effect of chemicals on wine. The divisiveness of natural wine.

Via Goffredo Mameli, 61, 00153 Roma RM, Italy; www.lesvignerons.it

SIXTH STOP

Bottega Liberati

Time: 6.10pm

As we’re finishing our drinks at Les Vignerons, Rachel’s partner Vincenzo pulls up in his tiny orange Fiat and, when we’re ready, he whisks us off to a very special shop across the city in the suburb of Tuscolano1. According to Rachel, Bottega Liberati is notable for its “absolute excellence in meat. It’s the best butchers in Rome, all the new-generation restaurants get their meat here. Roberto, who runs it, is incredibly fussy – he also has excellent flours, pastas, capers and wines.”

Unfortunately Roberto isn’t around when we visit, but it’s clear from the selection of produce here that he really knows his stuff. The friendly staff hand out samples of meat and cheese – I try a particularly delicious ricotta – and we leave with an array of goodies to take back with us to London. While we’re in the area, we decide to check out the old Roman aqueducts at the nearby Parco degli Acquedotti, getting there just as the sun is going down.

What we bought: Pasta, capers, vinegar.

Via Flavio Stilicone, 278/280/282, 00175 Roma RM, Italy; +39 06 7154 4153

SEVENTH STOP

Trattoria da Cesare

Time: 9pm

It’s been a long day and it’s time to sit down for a proper meal. First, though, we’ve got to get to Da Cesare, which is two tram rides away from Testaccio in the far west of the city. The trek is more than worth it: this is an ideal neighbourhood restaurant, relaxed in atmosphere but very serious about its food and wine (full disclosure: I’ve been here before but was very happy to go back).

Da Cesare is celebrated for its fritti, particularly the fried squid which comes in a yellow paper cone, but in truth everything here is good. We order a generous amount (okay, we wildly over-order) and for the next few hours a parade of marvellous dishes arrives at our table, polpette, gnocchetti, ravioli, baccala – the full list is below. If you’re going to Rome for the first time and want to splash out on one really good meal, I would recommend Da Cesare.

It’s after midnight by the time the parade finally ends and we totter out of the restaurant. Despite the 4km to Testaccio we decide to walk it, reasoning that it’ll be good for digestion. The final stretch, after crossing the river, takes us through the old Testaccio slaughterhouses, the hulking semi-derelict buildings looming over us as we tiptoe about in the dark, looking for the way out. And with that, we’re back where we started some 15 hours earlier, magnificently well fed and very much ready for bed.

What we had: Fritti. Polpette de bollito. Gnocchetti cacio e pepe. Ravioli alla gricia. Rigatoni all’amatriciana. Baccala alla romana. Spezzatino di vitello alla cacciatore. Crema catalana. Lemon sorbet. A bottle of amazing Piedmontese white wine I forgot to make a note of. Some extremely bitter amaro.

What we talked about: The humiliations of public speaking. Brexit as perceived by Italians.

Via del Casaletto, 45, 00151 Roma RM, Italy; www.trattoriadacesare.it

Follow Rachel: Guardian column | Twitter | Instagram

Rachel’s books are Five Quarters and Two Kitchens

Read our full interview with Rachel

  1. To continue the cinema theme, it’s very close to the famous production studios at Cinecitta.

Posted 1st February 2018

In Touring

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

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