Testaccio is east of Rome’s historic center near the banks of the Tiber, the Porta Portese flea market and a short distance from the city center. In the evening the neighborhood lights up with young people going to clubs, or food lovers looking for a great meal. Its spirit though is middle and working class, which translates into the lovely fact that most everyone knows and cares about each other, even the stranieri (foreigners) who have migrated there.
Historically it was the garbage dump of ancient Rome where clay amphorae, after they had been emptied of their grains, wine and olive oil, were trashed. The pottery shards, in Latin testae, gave this place its name and when archeologists discovered the hill made of discards – later called Monte Testaccio – they learned much from these fragments about how Romans lived and ate centuries back.
Since it was historically a marginal neighborhood, it wasn’t developed as a residential area until quite late, particularly during the years when the Mattatoio (slaughterhouse) was functioning there. The abattoir built housing for its workers and their families at the turn of the 20th century, particularly the area’s case popolari, or housing projects, which to this day still characterize the neighborhood and the generations that inhabit them.
Testaccio is still relatively untouched by mass tourism and a visit to the covered market or the open-air farmer’s market on Sunday provides a pure sense of place.
Some of the most typical Roman cuisine is found in Testaccio, which comes out of the traditions connected to the vaccinari (butchers and meat packers) whose pay was often integrated with leftover bits of offal, which at home were cooked into rich and nourishing dishes. Much traditional Roman cuisine is based on the concept of the quinto quarto or fifth quarter: the leftovers of an animal after it has been butchered, for example tripe, liver, tongue, oxtail, etc. Though it’s not for everyone, it is inexpensive and was the sustenance of the workers. Trends now have quinto quarto and offal culture raised to a higher level by modern Roman chefs but it still remains substantial comfort food also prepared by homemakers.
There are also pockets where great fish can be found in Testaccio, a reminder that once the nearby river Tiber provided that too. One seafood destination in Testaccio is La Torricella, which prides itself on fresh fish, seafood, pasta and boasts an atmosphere that is simple and friendly. Their specialties are fried anchovies, which are light, fluffy and never greasy, their moscardini (a type of baby squid) fried and then marinated in exquisite Apulian olive oil and vinegar, and fried cod croquettes for starters. The pastas are fantastic, for example the gnocchi with clams or the paccheri with calamaretti, which are tender chunks of baby calamari. And, if there’s room, Torricella regulars will enjoy some roasted fish with seasonal vegetables on the side. The wine is the kind you’d find in a simple, family-run Italian restaurant so if you’re looking for a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, it’s not for you.
La Torricella in Testaccio is filled with families from the neighborhood and sometimes there can be a raucous atmosphere that adds to the charm. It unfailingly serves simple, delicious homemade food with an ambience that feels like nonna’s house. I love going with my friends to unwind, laugh about and discuss life’s pleasures and complexities. The welcome is warm, the service can be a bit uneven but the experience always feels good. An authentic Roman adventure for sure.
Via Evangelista Toricelli 2/12
Tel. +39 06 574 6311