Splayed along the eastern bank of the River Tiber, Rome’s Testaccio neighbourhood may not be rich in Caravaggio masterpieces or ochre alleyways, but it will raise you an ancient pyramid, a century-old farmer’s market and heaps of authentic cucina romana (Roman cuisine). Here’s where to find the area’s best restaurants.
Testaccio easily shuffles between past and present. The unexpected Pyramid of Cestius keeps an eternal eye on the Non-Catholic Cemetery, also the final resting place of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio, thick with veggie vendors, cheesemongers and butchers, is over a century old. Up until the 1970s, the district hosted Europe’s largest slaughterhouse, which unequivocally forged the city’s cuisine – abattoir workers brought home discarded cuts of meat (stomach lining, oxtail) that became hearty dinners.
While the former slaughterhouse has been rehabbed as a contemporary art museum, Testaccio still holds fast to its rustic roots, dishing out some of the best Roman meals in the capital. Food writers Alfonso Isinelli and Floriana Barone chime in about what the district’s food scene is like today and – most importantly – where to eat.
Flavio al Velavevodetto
Restaurant, Italian, $$$
One of the marvels of the neighbourhood is Monte Testaccio, an artificial hill comprising shards of scrapped amphoras from ancient times. Many of the district’s bars and restaurants burrow deep into the hill, and Isinelli’s pick, Flavio al Velavevodetto, is one of them. “The restaurant is built such that you can actually see the layers of terracotta, dating back to the Roman Empire,” he says. “Chef Flavio De Maio proposes classic Roman cuisine in a lively atmosphere. Service is casual and friendly. I come here for the divine gricia, but don’t miss its appetisers – fried artichokes when they’re in season, sweetbreads or perfect polpette di bollito (Roman beef croquettes).”
An institution since the 1930s, Felice a Testaccio remains a firm favourite in the district for cucina romana. Floriana Barone comes here for its cacio e pepe – a classic Roman pasta dish of tonnarelli pasta mixed with salty, brash pecorino cheese and black pepper. “Its cacio e pepe is arguably the protagonist of the whole menu,” says Barone. “The slightly porous consistency of the tonnarelli adheres beautifully to the pecorino. The pasta is also dressed and tossed live at your table.” So, what makes this cacio e pepe different from the others in the city? “It uses pecorino romano DOP, excellent parmigiano reggiano and olive oil – the two ingredients aren’t found in the classic recipe but are added to give the dish a superb intensity.”
Perched on the edge of the neighbourhood’s central square, Piazza Testaccio, Piatto Romano features a menu that resembles a checklist of must-eat dishes when in the Eternal City, including cacio e pepe, carbonara, tripe, saltimbocca alla romana, and ricotta and sour cherry tart. The restaurant also observes the unofficial Roman culinary commandment of giovedì gnocchi, which refers to the fact that gnocchi is traditionally available at local trattorias on Thursdays. Fridays, meanwhile, star seafood specials. Begin your lunch or dinner here with appetisers from the antipasti cart, which features seasonal vegetables grilled, marinated or stuffed.
This historic trattoria lies within eyeshot of its indisputable muse, the former slaughterhouse. Traditional recipes spotlighting offal – tripe, pajata (pasta with veal intestines), oxtail – make up the bulk of the menu. “The padellotto alla macellara (‘butcher’s skillet’), abundant in sweetbreads, veal intestines, bull testicles, liver and vinegar-braised kidneys, is a triumph of a dish,” shares Isinelli. Roman cuisine’s greatest hits, such as cacio e pepe, gricia and amatriciana, hustle out of the kitchen, too. “Checchino still has an old-school touch; expect impeccable service and an impressive wine list,” he continues. “Its newly opened cocktail corner brings a little bit of modernity, too.”
While Bucatino serves Roman classics and even pizza, most people come here for the amatriciana. Strands of al dente bucatini pasta huddle in tangy tomato sauce and crispy guanciale (pork cheek). Don one of the restaurant’s bibs (you’ll need it) and dig in. While not as flashy as the amatriciana, the artichokes smashed on the grill until crispy deserve an honourable mention. Bucatino is also one of the rare restaurants in Rome that can accommodate big groups if you’re travelling in a pack.
Trattoria Pennestri serves up seasonal signature dishes in Testaccio | Courtesy of Trattoria Pennestri
Straddling the districts of Testaccio and Ostiense is Trattoria Pennestri, doted on by residents and critics since its opening in 2017; it even made the prestigious Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand list. While the dining room proves fairly classic, dishes are shot through with seasonal ingredients and chef Tommaso Pennestri’s whimsy. Isinelli says, “His food is traditional but grafted with creative hints, like lamb coratella with lemon rind and dried ricotta or whole wheat spaghetti with roasted cherry tomatoes, bread crumbs and marjoram.” The flour-and-water gnocchetti with shrimp and smooth stracciatella cheese has become a signature dish of the restaurant.
For unfussy Roman pizza, queue up at Remo. As they are baked in heaving wood-burning ovens, Remo’s pizzas are uber crispy, defiantly thin-crusted and blackened at the edges. The menu rattles off the classics (margherita, capricciosa, diavola), but feel free to mix and match toppings. Herald the arrival of your pizza with a slew of fritti (fried appetisers), such as cod filets, courgette blossoms spiked with mozzarella and anchovies, or sausage-stuffed green olives, and wash it all down with a Peroni.
By now a street-food staple, Rome’s revered trapizzino – a triangle of pizza crust lovingly stuffed with home-made ingredients – got its start in Testaccio. Choosing what to adorn your trapizzino with can be challenging, warns Barone. “Meatballs and sauce, chicken cacciatore, braised beef cheek, eggplant parmesan and, of course, as a homage to Testaccio’s passion for offal, tongue in salsa verde – you’ll want to try them all.” While the trapizzini take centre stage, the brand’s fritti also dazzle. “Its breading is made with leftover trapizzino shells and absolutely divine – look for the tortellini supplì!” Get yours to go or take a seat at one of its newly added tables.
Eat your fill of chic, deli-inspired delights in the elegant Taverna Volpetti | Courtesy of Taverna Volpetti
More subdued than Testaccio’s boisterous trattorias, Taverna Volpetti is an elegant option for a night out. Superb cured meats, cheeses and marinated vegetables come from Volpetti’s neighbouring deli to the restaurant, ending up on taglieri platters that will have you weak at the knees. While classic Roman pasta dishes are available, the kitchen also serves up more modern options, such as spaghetti with sea urchins; risotto with castelmagno cheese, beets and pears; and linguine with home-made pesto, candied cherry tomatoes and ricotta. Carnivores can try meaty dishes such as a deer rib-eye steak, smoked beef or lamb shank.