Offal in Rome
There is something intensely unnerving about living in Rome but working in a cubicle. The textured green walls of my Monday to Friday seem deeply at odds with the crumbling ochre palazzi of the Eternal City a few miles down the road.
Working in an office means that I miss the traditional Roman markets that close by 2 pm. Saturdays, when I can manage to make myself presentable in the early hours, are the only day I have to stop for a caffè at the small tabaccheria by the ex-slaughterhouse (ex-mattatoio) and wander slowly through the Testaccio market.
Until very recently, Testaccio was a solidly working class neighborhood. The rapidly gentrifying district is my adopted home in Rome, where we live in a building that was originally constructed as public housing for the families who worked a few blocks away at Europe’s largest meatpacking factory.
Roman cuisine has been deeply influenced by this corner of the city. In the late 1800s, the slaughterhouse workers were paid their regular wages plus offal. Unable to afford more delectable cuts of meat, the Testaccini took home the quinto quarto: the fifth quarter. Back in the unadorned buildings, surrounding internal communal courtyards, the families transformed tripe, cartilage, and oxtail into slowly cooked, richly satisfying meals.
Today, the ex-mattatoio is completely decommissioned and the slaughtering floors are being slowly reclaimed by urban renewal. The complex is now home to a contemporary art museum, a motley farmer’s market, and an admittedly low-key Michelin-starred restaurant.
Testaccio’s beloved fresh market is changing as well. For nearly 100 years, it was located in the center of the neighborhood and slightly resembled a tarp-covered shantytown. In 2012, it moved several streets over to a new white-and-orange building that felt large and empty.
Then Sergio Esposito moved in and opened a small sandwich stall in the Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio. Having spent most of his career as a butcher, Sergio’s panini are portable versions of Roman classics: tripe, boiled beef, and even carbonara, slathered on bread and eaten on the go.
A typical Roman breakfast consists of a previously frozen pastry (cornetto) and a slightly burnt coffee. But even after six years in Italy, I can’t shake my American affinity for the occasional large and meat-heavy breakfast.
Moving slowly towards the market stalls, Sergio spots me and begins to uncover his Saturday offerings.
“Trippa?” he asks hopefully.
I stare at the tomato-stewed intestines, but as the immovable heat of summer simmers over the market, tripe feels like a bit of a stretch at 9 am.
We negotiate the appropriate morning meat choice and settle jointly on ITALsalsicciaITAL, sausage.
“Con broccoletti,” Sergio insists, as he ladles out some au jus to soften the bread and spreads a layer of mashed Romanesco broccoli across the bun.
The plastic wrapped sandwich is consumed immediately, standing and dripping on the market floor. It is a fortifying meal, and enough to keep me fueled for a day of dodging motorini and remembering exactly why I made the move to Rome in the first place.