An odyssey into deepest Trastevere leads us to a rustic Roman gem – 9/10
As a former Classics student, Rome will always hold a special place in my heart. The fact that I have only been once before, aged 15 on a dorky school trip, is a travesty I was happy to remedy in December. Rome arguably gave us the world’s first cookbook, Apicius, a collection of recipes named after a famous Roman gourmet in the first century AD. He may not have actually written many (or any) of the recipes, but his name became synonymous with luxurious food in ancient Rome.
There is plenty of good food to eat in modern Rome. The trick is to pick it out of all the tourist traps, which can be a difficult task even for a seasoned foodie. On our first night, we endure bland amatriciana and claggy carbonara at a Trastevere trap, which spur us on to find something better. We aim for La Tavernaccia da Bruno, in the very southern part of Trastevere between the Ponte Testaccio and Roma Trastevere train station.
It’s a crisp winter’s evening, so we decide to walk from our hotel near the Ponte Sisto and stop at a bar or two along the way to keep ourselves warm. This turns out to be a huge mistake. Not only is it much further than we thought, but most of the bars we pass are closed for Christmas – one appears to be having a book club gathering to which we are not invited, so we back out slowly. We continue wandering through the streets, even optimistically crossing over into Testaccio hoping to improve our odds of finding an alcoholic beverage, but to no avail whatsoever.
Forty minutes into our odyssey. Alcohol deprivation now bordering on hysteria. Hunger level registering in the danger zone. Chance of impending argument about who is to blame for our lack of direction increasing. Then suddenly, like an oasis materialising through the desert haze, Trapizzino appears. A cute bar serving organic wine and craft beer. The adjacent shop serves its namesake trapizzino – a portmanteau of tramezzino (an Italian triangular sandwich) and pizza (a pizza…) – which has already spread internationally to the US and Japan.
We grab a couple of little plastic cups of red wine and head to the counter next door. It’s the perfect snack food – a thick corner of bread, crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, filled with your choice of delicious meats and sauces. Some are distinctly Roman (tripe or tongue) and some are more exotic (an Eritrean stew I’d never heard of called zighinì). Bearing in mind both our state of hunger and the fact we are still on our way to dinner, we share the polpette al sugo (giant herby meatballs in tomato sauce). It’s phenomenal. The impending argument subsides.
Sugo al pomodoro is the simple tomato base for a lot of Italian pasta sauces, including the famous Tuscan ragù. Each Italian family I know has its own recipe for sugo, the kind of recipe that is passed down through generations from nonna to nonna, being tweaked and refined as it goes. I once had an Italian flatmate, who would make his own every Sunday in preparation for the week’s cooking. Sadly for me, he (rather selfishly) decided to get married, so I’m no longer lucky enough to have a pot of it laying around the kitchen for whenever I fancy making pasta. One day I’ll convince his nonna to share the recipe with me.
We finally make it to our destination, a lovely family-run place with wood-burning ovens as you enter and a real Italian mamma behind the counter. First up, a trio of bruschette: ciauscolo (a kind of soft sausage smoked over juniper branches), asparagus draped over soft cheese, and lardo brushed with honey. The thick slices of bread have a satisfying home-baked crunch.
Next, a full plate of salumi: prosciutto, bresaola, ciauscolo (again) and various others I couldn’t name. The highlight is a pâté-like sausage flecked with almonds. The table next to us also has a cheese plate, which we eye with envy.
Rigatoni all’amatriciana is as simple and rustic as it should be. The best pasta dishes, like the best pizzas, often only use one or two ingredients, but maximise the flavour of those ingredients. Here, Italian tomatoes are the star: slightly sweet and reduced to a thick sauce that coats the fat rigatoni. Chunks of crispy pancetta hide underneath.
Pappardelle al cinghiale is even better. The wild boar ragù is rich and hearty and sticks to the thick pappardelle – a name which comes from an Italian verb meaning “to gobble up”. We do just that.
Finally, for secondi, we choose one of the house specialties: roasted maialino (suckling pig) with a heap of herby, salty potatoes. Two cuts arrive – ribs and a sliver of shoulder (I think) – both topped with a burnished layer of crackling. Not a green vegetable in sight, but it doesn’t matter. The pork is juicy and tastes of smoky woodiness from the ovens at the front of La Tavernaccia.
I have no idea how the Italians frequently manage antipasti, primi, secondi and dolci. I have a substantial appetite, but this time the suckling pig completely defeats us. The group of Israeli businessmen at the next table laugh at our pitiful attempt to finish it. We join in, knowing that we’ll have the last laugh. A little piece of Rome comes home with us in our suitcase…
Dinner at La Tavernaccia cost us €125, including a €64 bottle of 2014 Ettore Germano Barolo Serralunga d’Alba. A wonderful, authentic Roman meal – just take a taxi.
A Moveable Feast