Testaccio Tackles the Taste of Rome
As with other great food cities—Paris, say, or Hong Kong—Rome's most profound gastronomic triumphs often lie buried, like ancient ruins, beneath a welter of dishes imported from other regions of the country, and other parts of the world. Sure you can get great pizza, pesto, caponata, and even shish kebabs and sushi in the Eternal City, but what is the real essence of its cooking?
Testaccio seeks to answer that question. This newish Italian lurks in Long Island City, just off the first stop on the 7 train. Billing itself as a modern Roman trattoria, the place takes its name from a neighborhood in southern Rome anchored by Monte Testaccio, a mountain composed of garbage left by the ancient Romans, the site of innumerable archaeological digs. More recently, the neighborhood has been home to a working-class population famous for its nightclubs, butcher shops, and restaurants specializing in some of the city's funkier meat delights.
A case in point—and a highlight of Testaccio's menu—is trippa in umido ($14), a crock of flayed bovine stomach braised in tomato sauce and mantled with Pecorino cheese. What's that strange undertaste, you wonder as you chew? Gradually, it dawns on you: mint. It's the last herb you'd expect to find in Italian food, but one surprisingly good at masking the faint tang of digestive juices that always accompanies a bowl of tripe. Another typical Roman recipe is coda alla vaccinara ("butcher's oxtail"): bony, gelatinous chunks of beef cooked in white wine with assorted vegetables. Testaccio's version ($17) is studded with caramelized cipollini onions and is hence a little too sweet, but the serving is abundant and the meat slides off the bone right into the gravy.
The restaurant is narrow, dark, deep, and decorated with historic black-and-white photos of the Italian capital. As you enter, you'll pass a few sidewalk tables, a bar with tables, a beehive wood-burning oven opposite more tables, and a rear dining room. Up one flight of stairs is a further dining room, and down another is the kitchen, from which waiters in black uniforms burst ceremoniously bearing platters. The soundtrack accompanying this parade is bad '80s rock, for no reason I can figure out. It's a Roman-mood killer.
Romans have their own favorite pastas, simply prepared and often omitting tomato sauce. Spaghetti alla carbonara ($11) is one of the most spectacular, the long noodles lathered with Pecorino Romano, pancetta, and coarsely ground black pepper—the flecks resemble bits of charcoal, hence the name. Traditionally, the final preparation involves adding egg yolks, which lend a deep-yellow color. Unfortunately, Testaccio forgets the yolks, so the finished pasta is more pallid than it should be. Not so with the bucatini all' amatriciana, a magnificent pile of thick spaghetti—pierced up the middle for faster boiling—laced with a hearty tomato sauce whose assertive flavor is driven by guanciale (cured hog jowl). The recipe originated in Amatrice, a town northeast of Rome where popes have historically recruited their cooks.
As for the apps, one of the best is stracchiatella ($6), a tureen-size soup featuring wads of spinach and Cantonese-style egg drops in a bold chicken broth. Well, Marco Polo was in China, wasn't he? Carciofi alla giudia ($11) is the most legendary recipe of Rome's Jewish ghetto. A baby artichoke has been cut in half and crisply fried, so that purple and brown streaks run up its stem and flower. Served with black-olive tapenade, the split thistle makes a gorgeous picture on the plate, but you'll wish there were more than one.
Though pizza is not indigenous to Rome, you can get great pies there in several regional styles. Testaccio's thin-crust pizzas are the establishment's greatest strength, and one that makes a good entrée or shared appetizer. Our favorites were the margherita ($10), topped with tomatoes, mozzarella, and fresh basil; and con i funghi, which features a trio of mushrooms. Indeed, things that fly from the wood-burning oven are so good, you wish the restaurant would make better use of it.
I eagerly anticipated the roast pullet called galletto intero al forno ($16) one evening, and was heartbroken to see the waiter carry it up from the kitchen rather than from that beehive oven I could see merrily flickering across the room. The menu assured me that the bird—which was damp and flavorless—had been in the beehive. Maybe it had, but I still wondered if I could creep over there and sneak it back into the oven, if only for a few minutes, while the pizzaiolo was on the other side of the room, chatting with the waiters.
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