Tasting Testaccio

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No, this is not a report of erotic adventures with sexy Italians.  It is simply a report of a walk through a relatively unknown – to the rest of the world – part of Rome.  It took over four hours, 5 kms, and a lot of food tastings, as well as some historical information about the quarter.  Of course, you will see that our motive for taking the tour was entirely educational.

And this is what we learned at Food School (aka Eating Italy Food Tours):

  • Testaccio is next to the river, and even 2000 years ago, this was Rome’s port.  Almost all produce came through this area. Even over the last hundred years or so, still 85% of the city’s food made its way through Testaccio, establishing an amazing food tradition in the district.  This explains why the streets are lined with mainly food shops, and why Romans will travel to Testaccio to shop, and to eat.  And of course, when in Rome …
  • The large slaughter-house that was next to the port provided employment for 5000 workers, when it was established in the late 19th century.  They weren’t paid much, so they were allowed to take meat home.But not the good cuts.  They were paid in the bits no-one else wanted.  The workers took the scraps home to their wives, who probably sighed, rolled their eyes, and had to be inventive with it.  And so, much of traditional Roman cuisine was born – with a high concentration on offal, oxtail, heads, and any other bits no-one else wanted to eat.
  • Thin-crust pizza is Roman, thicker crust pizza is from Naples.  In Rome, the thinner crust the better.  Pizza has only been eaten regularly in the last hundred years or so, the first shop opened in Naples in 1889.  Pizza should be baked in wood-burning ovens.  But wood-burning ovens can only be used after 7 pm, by law.  So those round pizzas you get for lunch?  Fake.
  • Parmaggiano Reggiano is to the rest of parmesan cheeses what champagne (from Champagne) is to the rest of the sparkling wines).  Anything else?  Fake.
  • More bad news.  Buffalo mozzarella has a higher fat content than regular cow’s mozzarella.  It always seemed lighter, more like ricotta or cottage cheese, and so I assumed it was better for us.  It’s not.  So that caprese salad – maybe not quite so healthy after all.
  • There is however good news.  We all know that pasta should be cooked al dente.  I’ve never quite understood why, but apparently, al dente pasta has a lower glycaemic index than over-cooked pasta.  In fact, al dente pasta has a lower glycaemic index than rice.  Ergo, eat pasta!
  • Gelato is gelato, whether it is made with dairy or is dairy-free (we would call it sorbet).  Gelato is made with milk – not cream – and so has about 67% less fat than typical ice-cream.  (This is why the flavours are so intense, whereas cream with its higher fat content can mask other flavours).  It also has very little sugar – only about 80 grams for an entire commercial tub.  Which is why giving up gelato, or rationing it when you are in Italy, is pointless.  Good-bye, then, to our “gelato only every second day rule.”

And that’s what we learned in Food School.

Here’s what we ate in Food School:

    • A cornetto (Italian-style croissant, though we must never ever call them croissants here) that is flavoured with vanilla, and a cappuccino.  Actually, the cappuccino was really a tiramisu in a chocolate cup.
Tiramisu for breakfast?  Why not?

Tiramisu for breakfast? Why not?

  • Prosciutto di San Daniele.  This most delicious prosciutto impressed us so much that after the tour we went back to Volpetti’s, the gourmet deli where we sampled this (and the next three items), and bought some for dinner, along with a few other gourmet goodies.  They used to have a bottle of aged balsamic that cost approximately 1400 euros (give or take a euro).  But they’d sold out!
  • Salami made with Borolo (a red wine) – meaty and strong
  • Parmagiano Reggiano, salty deliciousness
  • Pecorino – a sheep’s milk cheese in this instance flavoured with truffle.

    Cheese salami prosciutto

    Cheese salami prosciutto – sometimes the eating meant we forgot about the photography

  • Pizza by the slice – crispy, light, almost crumpet-like dough, with my favourite, cherry tomatoes on top.  Ranked #3 out of all Roman pizza by the slice, at Volpetti Piu just around the corner.
    Perfect rustica pizza - this isn't thin crust, because it is pizza by the slice

    Perfect rustica pizza – this isn’t thin crust, because it is pizza by the slice

    Point at how much you want, they'll cut a slice and you pay by weight.  Two small slices with filling faced inward are the perfect "to-go" snack

    Point at how much you want, they’ll cut a slice and you pay by weight. Two small slices with filling faced inward are the perfect “to-go” snack

  • Bruschetta, with lightly toasted (but twice-toasted) bread, tomatoes, olive oil (but not too much) and rocket, made for us at the Testaccio market, built over 2000 year old food warehouses
  • 10 hour old buffalo mozzarella with caprese (tomato) salad
  • Cannoli – a crispy sweet tube (sometimes made with red or white wines), filled with a creamy ricotta cheese with chocolate chips, dipped in chopped pistacchio (spelled the Italian way) nuts.

    Cannoli should always be filled in front of you, so the pastry tube doesn't go soggy

    Cannoli should always be filled in front of you, so the pastry tube doesn’t go soggy

Delicious cannoli, from an old Sicilian family recipe

Delicious cannoli, from an old Sicilian family recipe

  • Three pastas at lunch – rigatoni carbonara (eggs, cheese and pancetta – absolutely no cream, that’s a French addition), tonnarelli cacio e pepe (the sauce is simply cheese and black pepper), and rigatoni amatriciana.  All this in a restaurant built into a mountain of ancient amphora shards, and named Flavio al Velavevodetto, which apparently means Flavio (the name of the owner who finally reached his dream at 50) I-told-you-so!
    Cacio e pepe tonnarelli (Cheese and black pepper pasta)

    Cacio e pepe tonnarelli (Cheese and black pepper pasta)

    Rigatoni Carbonara - no cream in the Italian version

    Rigatoni Carbonara – no cream in the Italian version

  • Suppli – risotto flavoured with meat and stock, crumbed and deep fried.  Divine.  But no photo.  That’s how divine it was.
  • Gelato at one of the oldest gelaterias in Rome, Giolitti.  Yes, we were full, but there’s always room for gelato.  We were warned – the owners might disapprove of our combinations, so we had to choose carefully.  I had chocolate fondant (dark chocolate), and black cherry.  Darryl had milk chocolate, and pistacchio.  I also really wanted to try the fig, the apricot, the lemon.  Maybe we’ll have to go back.
Gelato - and in Rome, by law, the whipped cream is free

Gelato – and in Rome, by law, the whipped cream is free

The company also runs an evening tour of Trastevere, with wine tasting, which sounds appealing.  We’re thinking we might have to do that.  But we’re running out of time!

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8 responses »

  1. Sounds wonderful. I’ve actually made tonnarelli cacio e pepe (except with spaghetti). I like the idea of wider noodles though so will try this pasta if I can find it here.

  2. I’m so glad I’m eating a very good lunch while I read this. Is the pizza rule only Roman? That is, was my lunchtime pizza in Verona fake? I don’t much care if buffalo outfats cow. Great news on the pasta/glycemic index. Great news on gelato too, but it’s not like bad news would affect my decisions. I want some salami made with Borolo.

  3. Oh, yummy! We can’t get buffalo mozzarella (without a 1/2 hour trip to a specialty supermarket) around here, so we substitute fresh mozzarella for our caprese. It’s not as good, but it works – and apparently is lower in fat!

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