Testaccio: The Historic Heart of Rome

Testaccio market
Testaccio Market. Alexandra Turney photos. By Alexandra Turney

 Art, Food, History and Culture Come Together in Testaccio, Rome’s forgotten neighborhood

By Alexandra Turney

Monte Testaccio
Monte Testaccio

Testaccio is in the center of Rome. And although it’s only two metro stops or a half hour walk from the Colosseum, most tourists are unaware of this neighborhood’s existence, perhaps because it’s just beyond the end of the tourist map.

Venture beyond the Aventine Hill, however, and you’ll discover one of the most authentic parts of Rome.

In Testaccio old ladies walk arm in arm, and children play football in the piazza. The benches are usually taken by an amorous young couple, or an old man smoking a pipe, or, occasionally, a lost tourist, who can’t understand how they’ve walked off the edge of the map and into unknown Rome.

This vibrant neighborhood is becoming increasingly popular with visitors, mainly due to its reputation for delicious, traditional Roman cooking. The centro Storico is more densely packed with famous sights, and Trastevere is prettier, but to experience Rome like the Romans – and eat some of the best pasta you’ve ever had in your life– take the metro to Piramide and visit Testaccio.

Testaccio Giolitti
Testaccio Giolitti

Local life

If you want to get to know Testaccio, people-watching in the piazza is a good introduction. Piazza Testaccio is at the center of neighborhood life; locals relax on a bench in the shade or stop to chat to their neighbors next to the amphora fountain, a symbol of Testaccio’s ancient history.

The famous market used to be located here until it was moved down the road to a more spacious location on Via Aldo Manuzio. The family-run stalls at the Mercato Testaccio sell freshly baked pizza Bianca, wedges of Parmigiano and balls of mozzarella, and a dizzying selection of fresh fruit and vegetables.

The tomatoes, artichokes, and broccoli look so good that it almost seems a shame to eat them. Strit Fud serves up classic Italian street food like arancini (Sicilian rice balls) and fried vegetables, while Mordi & Vai specializes in panini filled with tripe.

A lot of cooking in Testaccio comes from a tradition of povera cucina — recipes that were popular in this formerly working-class neighborhood of Rome. Which means that more adventurous meat-eaters are in for a treat.

Roman cuisine

The abattoir in Testaccio is no longer operational, having been converted into an art gallery, but local tastes and traditions live on in the restaurants and trattorias. As well as the more conventional classics like carbonara or amatriciana (pasta with bacon and pecorino), staple dishes include tripe and coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stew).

Testaccio mural
Testaccio mural

Da Felice (Via Mastro Giorgio 29) is one of the most famous restaurants in Testaccio, and its most popular dish, cacio e pepe, is meat-free. This simple pasta dish of pecorino cheese and black pepper is a Roman classic, and at Da Felice the waiter mixes it up before serving, giving it the perfect, creamy blend of salty cheese and pepper.

You’ll find more classic Roman dishes at Flavio al Velavevodetto (Via di Monte Testaccio 97) a restaurant with a unique location. Look through the window at the back and you’ll see that it’s completely filled by shards of broken pottery. The restaurant backs on to Monte Testaccio, an artificial Roman hill made up of discarded pottery.

For a thin and crispy Roman pizza, try Da Remo (Piazza di Santa Maria Liberatrice 44) or Il Grottino (Via Marmorata 165). All their pizzas are delicious, so you can’t possibly go wrong — unless you ask the waiter to add pineapple, or ask for pepperoni expecting meat.

The choice of tempting food can seem overwhelming, especially for visitors who only have a few days to spare. To sample some of the best local food, including creamy cornetti and handmade gelato, try a Testaccio food tour. A guide will take you to some of the most famous shops and restaurants in the neighborhood, and teach you all about Roman cuisine.

Testaccio: The Historic Heart of Rome 1
Testaccio Keats grave

Foodie souvenirs

If you’re looking for a gift to take home, or a treat for yourself, for when your Roman holiday is just a memory – visit Volpetti (Via Marmorata 47). This delicatessen is the perfect place to pick up a present, such as a bottle of olive oil or a good quality chunk of Parmigiano, and you can indulge in a slice of pizza or some fried snacks while you’re there.

Palombi (Piazza Testaccio 40) has a good range of Italian biscuits and traditional desserts like panettone, but most locals come here in the evening, as this food shop leads a triple life as a food shop, an enoteca, and L’Oasi della Birra — the oasis of beer.

They have an impressive selection of Italian wine and beer from around the world, and they do a very good value aperitivo – only 10 euros for a drink and as much food as you like.

Nightlife

Many of Rome’s most popular clubs are huddled around the base of Monte Testaccio, including Caruso Cafè, (salsa and samba), Akab (electronic and dance), and gay club L’Alibi.

While Monte Testaccio is at the center of Testaccio’s nightlife, there are a few good bars to be found elsewhere. Rec 23 (Piazza dell’Emporio 1-2), “a corner of New York in Testaccio”, is particularly popular with the expat crowd, and also hosts a regular conversation exchange aperitivo. If you want to meet some friendly, English-speaking people over a cocktail, it’s the place to go.

Testaccio Pyramid and Porta San Paolo
Testaccio Pyramid and Porta San Paolo

Art and culture

The old abattoir is now a contemporary art gallery, MACRO (Piazza Orazio Giustiniani 4), which mainly displays the work of Italian artists. The nearby Città dell’Altra Economia (Largo Dino Frisullo) has a bit of everything – an organic food market, a flea market, a bar, an ice-skating rink in the winter and concerts in the summer.

The Eutropia festival last year had an eclectic line-up including Jimmy Cliff, Patti Smith, Einstürzende Neubauten and Shaggy.

The holiest place in Rome

If you approach Testaccio from the metro station, Piramide, you can’t miss the monument that gave the station its name. The Pyramid of Cestius dominates Piazzale Ostiense, along with Porta San Paolo, the gates belonging to the third century Aurelian Walls.

Many visitors mistakenly assume that this shiny white pyramid must be a modern monument, but it’s actually even older than the Colosseum, having been built around 18 BC.

Thanks to a recent restoration funded by a Japanese businessman, the marble now gleams, and visitors can even go inside the pyramid to see the frescoed burial chamber.

Testaccio: The Historic Heart of Rome 2
Testaccio Piazza Testaccio

Behind the pyramid is the Protestant Cemetery, which Oscar Wilde called “the holiest place in Rome”. Two of the most famous Romantic poets, Keats and Shelley, are buried here. Keats died from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five and was buried in the older, more spacious part of the cemetery.

At his request, his tombstone reads “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. Buried next to him is his friend, the painter Joseph Severn, who nursed him through the final months of his illness in Rome.

In addition to the visitors who come to the Protestant Cemetery as part of a poetic pilgrimage, there are also the animal-lovers drawn by the cat sanctuary, and weary tourists just looking for a quiet place to sit.

It’s one of the most beautiful and peaceful places in Rome, and the umbrella pines and cypresses provide plenty of shade in the heat of the afternoon.

To be a traveler, and not just a tourist, you need to explore the more authentic parts of the city and mingle with the locals. While sightseeing in Rome is essential–you wouldn’t want to miss the Colosseum or the Vatican – some of your most enjoyable moments might be spent in laid back neighborhoods like Testaccio.

Relaxing in a family-run trattoria, away from the crowds and the tourist menus, you’ll get a true taste of Rome.

 Alexandra Turney grew up in London and now lives in Rome, where she works for a tour company in Rome called Through Eternity and writes novels. She also has a personal Rome blog, Go Thou to Rome.