10 April 2019
In a city founded on seven hills by its first seven kings, the lowest workers, built their own 8th hill, Monte Cocci, made out of shards of terracotta, piled for centuries, and created a kingdom of their own called Testaccio.
Over the years, many journalists and writers have attempted to capture the essence of all that is Testaccio.
To those who know New York City, we could make a simple analogy and say it is the meatpacking district of Rome, a former slaughterhouse district now experiencing an economic resurgence, but that would be an understatement.
Consider that where New York City is 400 years old, Rome is nearly 3,000 years old. Testaccio was founded in the 1st century B.C. as a river port and unloading zone for shipments. Envision buffaloes trudging up the paved riverbanks, hauling barges from sea to Holy See, stacked with marble, grain, olive oil, and wine received at the mouth of the Tiber, to arrive in Testaccio.
The olive oil was stored inside terracotta vessels called “amphorae.” After being worn-out, they would be smashed, discarded, and piled in Testaccio…and for centuries. This landfill hill became so large that it came to be known as Monte dei Cocci (mount of shards of terracotta), the main landmark of Testaccio, a neighborhood dedicated to food throughout the long history of the eternal city.
Over three millennia, the mount had several other historical significance including refrigeration, religious, and military. The Pope and General Garibaldi used the mount in rituals and exercises, but more interestingly, the hill's interior was found to be very cool and ideal for wine storage due to its porous nature. Largely abandoned after the fall of Rome though, Testaccio was little more than a “romantic desert” outside the city walls with only a few houses. Repurposed again in the middle ages, the mount became the scene of jousts, tournaments, and festivities.
Some of Rome’s hippest cafes, clubs and bars are nestled on the side of this archaeological excavation whose designers and builders sought to host and stage the famous nigh life Movida Romana.
Nevertheless, it is the market that nowadays is the heart of Testaccio. Today’s market sits over the ancient market of Rome. And though Testaccio is off the beaten path, it is the historic heart of Rome. The historic center may be more densely packed with monuments and Trastevere, a popular hotspot across the river, it may be prettier abut to experience Rome like the Romans one must visit, shop in the market, and dine in Testaccio.
Indeed, Testaccio is mostly hailed as a bastion of Roman culinary excellence where Michelin-starred chefs compete with their creations alongside both old and new…but often young vendors…with new spins on traditional Roman cuisine.
Testaccio’s cuisine originated about a hundred years ago, when Testaccio housed Europe’s biggest abattoir (a slaughterhouse), which gave rise to the rustic, Roman dishes. The lowest workers were paid with the worst cuts of meat called Quinto Quarto, or “5th quarters”, or “offal” in English. These men, la vaccinara, took their wages across the street to a business.. but not a restaurant.. that would cook it for them. Dishes like Coda alla Vaccinara and Padelotta alla Mascelirai (i.e. Big Butcher’s Pan) were born. They are recipes born out of necessity that originally fed the vaccinara.
As a testament to its quality, that business from the late 1800s still thrives under the name of Cecchino Testaccio. Its descendant and restauranteur, Francesco Mariani, still cooks today these quintessential Roman dishes keeping their recipes alive.
While Testaccio is mostly known as the place of real Roman cooking even if historical trattorias like Da Felice, after turning its egg-rich Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe into a globally desired dish, have undergone some stylish makeover, new approaches to the business, science, and art of cooking are being innovated. The market is more than a place to find fresh fruit and pasta; it is a world-class incubator of culinary invention, structure, and expertise on display daily where they offer their creations directly to the people.
Opened for over a century, the neighborhood’s beloved Testaccio Market has undergone some significant changes in the past six years. The market was first moved from its original, outdoor location in Piazza Testaccio to a contemporary, covered facility, and has recently seen a surge in new vendors. Michelin-starred Chef Cristina Bowerman of upscale restaurant Romeo set up shop last month with “Cups”, which offers gourmet, takeaway dishes. Close by is renowned Chef Marco Morello’s Italian and international street food venture Foodbox. The heart and soul of the market, however, lies in its old school stands: the cult following of Sergio Esposito’s Mordi e Vai (Box 15), sisters Paola and Francesca’s fruit and produce stand (Box 33), and married couple Lina and Enzo’s deli (Box 89) give a glimpse into the pure simplicity of Italy’s food culture.
While Testaccio is considered the heartland of Roman cuisine, and home to some of the capital’s best eateries, it is yet even more. On and around this 8th hill of Rome, working men and women found a rare opportunity to create a better life and home. Today, there is a vibrant neighborhood focused on community, service, and in giving back to others in need and to those with merit.
Once the biggest “abattoir” in all of Europe, Rome’s former “mattatoio”, or slaughterhouse, officially shut its doors in the 1970s, but it left an incredible opportunity and space to be happily reutilized by low-profit and cultural institutions. The former Testaccio Slaughterhouse was built in 1889 in Rome. It hosted the municipal slaughter since 1890 until 1975, when it was moved to an eastern suburb of the city. After its closure as a slaughterhouse, it was mainly used for social and free activities such as the People's School of Music (Scuola Popolare di Musica).
Today, the whole area has been revitalized to offer useful and engaging services to the community, by creating a new section for the MACRO Contemporary Art of Rome, a conference center, an organic market, a theater (run by an NGO of immigrants) that offers a spacious outdoor venue for gigs, flea markets, and social events for youth and families, all comprised inside the so-called Città dell’Altra Economia (i.e. City of Alternative Economy), a mini-city of arts, an anti-commercialist cultural venue in the gentrified ex-trade neighborhood of Testaccio. In their expansive grounds, they aim to create solidarity among people with a common interest in a low environmental impact.
Home to many working-class families, with pride in community, a taste for excellence, charity towards others, and an opportunity to demonstrate their own skill, a point of pride and passion for Testaccioans is that it was also in this neighborhood that the city’s beloved team, AS Roma, had their first football field, and where rowdy locals still gather to this day to take in a match. Earlier in 2017, the undeniable love by Testaccio for this team has pushed a few fans to rename one of the piazzas after Francesco Totti, captain of the last 20 years, and the so-called “8th King of Rome.”
Hence, if food, passion and tradition are not lacking at all inside the neighborhood, Testaccio will keep surprising you with an unexpected place of art, peace, and memory: the Non-Catholic Cemetery, built next to the Pyramid of Cestius, one of the most impressive tombs of Ancient Rome.
With Rome being the mecca of Catholicism, a Protestant cemetery that could rival Paris’ famous Pere Lachaise cemetery where Edith Piaf, Victor Noir, Moliere, and Jim Morrison lay. Rome too is not short of a few famous local and adopted sons and daughters who found their final resting place in Testaccio such as John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Brullov, and the son of Goethe.
After his friend John Keats passed, Percy Bysshe Shelley ironically wrote of the cemetery not long before he drowned and was buried here himself, "It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place." Its towering cypress trees, abundant flowers, and greenery shelter a heterogeneity of elaborate and eclectic graves and monuments, nestled on a slope in the shadows of the Pyramid and guarded by Rome’s ancient Aurelian wall.
Now, we have said much of Testaccio, of its ancient mountain of pots, its marbled pyramid, its society of dead poets, of its active markets, revitalized neighborhood, arts, cultures, and trendy cuisines that have imbued a renewed passion and pride for Romans, and we could say more, but instead we invite you to do in Rome as Romans do, join us on a tour, and discover “the neighborhood that never sleeps”, Testaccio.
“There’s a danger of it being forgotten,” says Francesco Mariani.
The complex spans 3,500 square meters and promotes organic farming, fair trade, renewable energy and green building. A long list of initiatives come together to create the most individual events, live concerts and festivals in the city.