The people who know the Eternal City best reveal the places they love – including hidden bars and market stalls, vintage fashion and furniture stores, and a former power station given new life as a gallery filled with classical artefacts
Words: GABRIELLE JAFFE
Photographs: SUSAN WRIGHT
The day job
Elizabeth Minchilli has an enduring love affair with Italian cuisine. She’s lived in Rome on and off since she was 12, and permanently since 1988, after meeting her husband Domenico. Having authored six books as well as the Eat Italy app, she continues to share her encyclopaedic knowledge of Italian cuisine through her blog, and, for the last five years, has also run private food tours. On these day-long culinary ambles through Roman neighbourhoods, she stops at market stalls, delis and artisanal producers, revealing where to sample creamy mozzarella, sausages flavoured with truffles, the city’s best pizza bianca, and other secrets.
“I love what I do because it gives me a chance to show people my city in a way that’s not so obvious,” she says. “Going to a market or behind the scenes at a butcher can tell you as much about Rome as a visit to St Peter’s. What people are eating, how they are eating it and why can give you insights into such diverse topics as history, economics, cultural and social norms, religion and family structure. “Pick up a vegetable in a market,” says Elizabeth, “and, all of sudden, you are surrounded by different people telling you how you should cook it. Listen carefully and you come away with not just a recipe, but an insight into a way of life that you might otherwise have missed.”
The day off
In southern Rome rises Monte Testaccio, a hill that in ancient times was a dumping ground for amphorae: clay vessels used to transport oil and wine. Centuries later, the liquids are still a dining-table fixture in this working-class district, a stronghold of traditional Roman cooking. Built into the mound itself, restaurant Flavio al Velavevodetto has a glass wall to show the stacked terracotta fragments. “It’s special to have a meal in this historic setting, but, primarily, I come for the food,” says Elizabeth. “Flavio, the owner, has taken humble Roman cuisine – simple meats and seasonal vegetables – and elevated it. He’s meticulous about his ingredients.” Her favourite dish is the tender lamb chops, with their crispy breadcrumb crust. It is made inside Flavio’s hellishly hot kitchen, where half a dozen chefs toss pasta and stir enormous pots. In the adjacent dining room, businessmen loosen their belts to tuck into steaming bowls of pasta; the rich, oaky smell of pecorino wafting invitingly.
Nearby is another favourite, the covered Testaccio Market, where sunshine leaks in through skylights. Here, a stall is loaded with still-warm flatbreads the size of a small child, while across the aisle peaches spill from their crates. “This is still very much a neighbourhood market,” Elizabeth says. “You see women in house dresses, filling carts with vegetables, and nonnas with their grandchildren.” Elizabeth says the city’s traditionalism has been part of its appeal. “For years, Rome was charmingly stagnant,” she explains. “But, now, people are trying new things.” She cites the recently-opened stall Mordi & Vai, where butcher Sergio Esposito uses 40 years of experience to select choice cuts for his braised beef paninis. “He’s turning restaurant dishes into affordable sandwiches.”
Some places are worth going to precisely because they’ve stayed the same. Sora Margherita, in the Jewish Ghetto, began as a no-frills workers’ canteen and still serves up traditional dishes, such as meatballs in tomato sauce, without fanfare. A braided red curtain masks the entrance, and the day’s menu is scrawled on brown paper in felt-tip. Still, by noon, customers are elbow-to-elbow, ordering the house special: carciofo alla giudia, deep-fried artichokes that look like golden flowers. “There were lots of places like this in the ’70s but almost all turned into something fancier,” says Elizabeth, who makes reservations here in the morning, in person, so she can watch the pasta being made from scratch, as it has been for years. When the food’s this good, there’s no need to change.